Sober Cannibals and Drunken Christians

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 7:15-29.

Morgan Roberts

COMMENTS ON THE SCRIPTURE LESSON

Our scripture lesson for this morning sounds like the “wind up” of a sermon, the preacher’s closing words to drive home the main points of the message. In fact, that’s what these words are: the closing words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. To help us unlock their meaning, we need to get ourselves properly situated; we need to remember that we are not sitting on the mountain with those who first heard these words from Jesus’ lips. We’re not back there. Instead, whenever we read any of the four gospels, we are sitting in some early congregation for which some pastor has taken an orally transmitted collection of the words and works of Jesus and reduced them to written form. The gospels thus represent “what someone said that Jesus said.” This does not mean that these are not Jesus’ words; however, because Jesus didn’t publish his words in written form, what we have to rely upon is what someone else has reported. Thus, the voice of Jesus is not coming to us “live” from the mountainside; instead, we are listening to the voice of the pastor as he (or she) reads these words of Jesus to us.

This pastor/author is writing about 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. We don’t know his/her name; many years later, this gospel was attributed to Matthew to enhance its status and authority in the early church. For convenience, however, let’s call our author Matthew. Let’s remember also that the gospels were not written to become part of a collection that came to be called the New Testament; that wouldn’t happen until more than two centuries later. What is important is that we are seated in this early congregation for which this gospel was written, and because these words of Jesus have particular relevance for this pastor’s congregation a half century after the time of Jesus, this gospel will tell us not only what was happening in Jesus’ day, but also what may have been happening in Matthew’s church.

So when we hear Jesus warning his disciples to beware of false prophets, what we surmise is that there were also false teachers misleading the members of Matthew’s congregation. And what they are saying represents a denial of what Jesus emphasized in his Sermon on the Mount. So, what might these false prophets be saying that is in conflict with the words of Jesus?

Jesus pronounced beatitudes upon the peacemakers, but the false teachers are blessing the warmongers. Jesus said that we must love our enemies because God has no enemies, that he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain upon the just and the unjust. But these teachers are saying that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that you’d better be well-armed against your enemies. Jesus said that we can’t serve God and wealth and that we should not anxiously heap up treasures on earth. But these teachers are saying, “Forget such idealistic nonsense; God wants you to be prosperous.” (Sound familiar?)

So Matthew reiterates Jesus’ earlier warning, “You will know them by their fruits… A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” We will be known by our lives, not by our words. What will matter is not that we go about mouthing the claim that we “know the Lord,” but that, by the fruits of righteousness produced by our lives, the Lord knows us.




SERMON

The late William Sloane Coffin, former pastor of New York's Riverside Church, was once a guest preacher in my pulpit at the Shadyside Church of Pittsburgh. I can’t remember why, but early in his sermon he made some reference to Herman Melville's Moby Dick and, before doing so, referred to it as “the book that most of us have never finished reading.” Even if you're one of those who never got all the way through the many chapters of Moby Dick, maybe you have recognized that classic as the source of today's sermon title because my reference to it appears very early in the book in the third chapter when Ishmael, the narrator of the story, obtains lodging in the only available room at the Spouter-Inn but later discovers that he will be sharing his bed with the pagan harpooner, Queequeg. When Queequeg finally arrives, Ishmael is frightened out of his wits by his savage appearance. The innkeeper, however, assures him that Queequeg is a truly sober, kind, and gentle soul. With this assurance, Ishmael falls asleep saying to himself, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Outward appearances may not match inward realities. The product inside the box may not match the label on the outside. And with people, what difference does any label, ethnic or religious, make if we don't behave ourselves in a civilized manner? How we behave is always more important than how we label ourselves or others. Then too, deeds are always more important than creeds. Or put differently, what good are our creeds if they aren’t matched by our deeds?

On the night before Tricia emailed me with an invitation to preach today, I had an interesting dinner conversation with a young doctor who teaches at the Lake Erie College of Medicine. When he asked me what I was doing in my retirement, I told him how much I enjoyed tutoring migrant farm worker children at our RCMA Academy at Beth El Mission. And that precipitated his story about one of the most interesting and important persons he was ever honored to meet.

His story was about a man in his native country who devoted his life to the education of children whose parents were migratory. Here in America, our migrant workers follow the crops. In his country, they followed their herds; they were nomads whose children were deprived of a settled education. This man, however, even though his noble birth afforded him a formal education in law and fluency in English, German, and French, never forgot that he himself was born in a tent, the son of a tribal chieftain. And so he went and pitched his “white school tent” among a nomadic people and, from that simple beginning, as others joined him, there began a movement that grew so rapidly during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that, by the end of his life, having established 550 nomad schools, a half million nomads could read, with the most promising students going on the a nomad college that graduated 9,000 trained teachers, many of them women, and other graduates who moved on to careers as physicians (especially obstetricians), lawyers, and engineers.

Of course, this man and his movement encountered all kinds of opposition and difficulties; particularly because the education of so many women threatened the status quo of those for whom an uneducated populace, raised by illiterate mothers, was a source of profit and power. So threatening was the success of his educational work that, finally, his enemies paid him the supreme compliment: they accused him of being a CIA operative! When he died in May of 2010, the gratitude of those who had received a better life was so overflowing that, at his funeral, 24,000 mourners were in attendance.




Such stories somehow don’t make our front pages, maybe because all of this took place in Iran, and his name was Mohammad Bahmanbeigi, and he was a Muslim. Rather surprisingly, however, this man devoted his life to something beautifully Christ-like. In the prologue of John’s gospel, it says that the Word became flesh and “pitched his tent among us.” And this man did exactly that, he stepped down from a higher, nobler place and “pitched his tent” among a people deeply in need of the light of literacy.

On the morning after I heard this story, I received Tricia’s email with her gracious invitation to preach. Before responding, I looked up the lectionary text for today, the words of which literally jumped off the page with Jesus’ reminder that “You will know them by their fruits…a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”

How is it that, every so often, people who make no claim at being Christian end up doing something more Christ-like than what is being done by the Christians? Back in the 1950s, when Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was going about, like Jesus, “doing good,” I had two friends who were serving as missionaries in Iran. Within certain limitations, that was still possible under the rule of the Shah, before the 1979 revolution. They had gone there from our fundamentalist church to save souls, to rescue from eternal damnation the millions who had not accepted Christ as Savior. My friends were good people, doing at great personal sacrifice what they believed God had called them to do. But at this same time, this good Muslim was acting like a follower of Jesus, reaching out to poor people who were lost in the midst of life. I somehow cannot believe that, upon his death, his soul was cast into an eternal hell.

From where does such Christ-like goodness arise? I wonder if the answer is right there in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount in its most radically difficult commandment: to love our enemies. Do you realize what that commandment is saying? It is telling us that the God and Father of whom Jesus spoke is a God who looks upon no one as an enemy. Surely, a God who commands us to love our enemies would not disobey his own commandment. The God whom Jesus taught us to call our heavenly Father must be a God who will never allow anyone be his enemy. When Jesus uttered this radically difficult commandment, he was literally tearing pages out of Hebrew scripture, telling us to disregard any story that suggests in any way that God is an enemy of his own dear children, that God is an unfriendly God.

And that is why Jesus reminded us that God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain upon the just and the unjust. If that is true, then something brighter than sunlight must be shining over all the earth. The dazzling light of God’s Spirit must be making God’s truth known wherever any heart is open to receive it. How else can we explain the extraordinary goodness that crops up every so often in so-called “pagan” lands? How else can we account for those instances when people who do not wear the Christian label are, somehow, living like genuine followers of Jesus? Evidently, God’s Spirit is not a prisoner of the church. As one of our hymns proclaims,

His spirit floweth free, High surging where it will:
In prophet’s word He spoke of old – He speaketh still.

Before the reading of the lesson, I said that, as we read the words of the Sermon on the Mount, we need to position ourselves in the early congregation to which it was addressed. But now, let’s move from there and go back to the mountainside where it was first delivered. We’re listening to Jesus now, and when we do that, we remember that, when he uttered these words, he was just Jesus, not Jesus Christ. Christ was not his family name; his parents were not Joseph and Mary Christ. He would later be hailed as the Christ, but that was later. On the mountain, he’s just Jesus and he was not, after all, a Christian. On the mount, there are no Christians, just Jews, poor folks who have answered the call to follow Jesus. His words were (and still are) for any and all who would follow him and his way of just and loving life.
His call to bear good fruit cannot be limited to some small segment of humanity that has isolated itself from the rest of humankind within the protective insulation of neat doctrines by which God is reduced to a manageable proposition. Wherever people leave their nets and follow Jesus’ way of life, they are our sisters and brothers, fellow citizens of God’s kingdom on earth, whatever their tribe or tongue.

My ministry in the Shadyside Church of Pittsburgh included a radio program which, allegedly, was the oldest religious broadcast in the history of radio. One of my most interesting discoveries was that one of my regular listeners was a Jewish rabbi. I became aware of this when, for some reason, he sent me a sermon he had delivered on Rosh Hashanah. It contained a wonderful story, and so I phoned to tell him how much I enjoyed his sermon and to ask permission to use his story in one of my sermons, giving him proper credit for the story. “No problem,” he replied. “I use lots of your material.” “How can you possibly do that?” I asked, “So much of my material seems specifically Christian.” “It’s easy,” he said, “I just take it and make it Jewish.”

But isn’t there a deep truth in what he was saying? A true word is a true no matter who utters it. A just action is a just action regardless of who performs it. Does God look down from heaven to see if people are wearing the right label? Back in 1961, during my first pastorate in Newburgh, NY, when a politically aspiring City Manager was harassing the unemployed poor and elderly folk whose only sin was that their life savings had run out and they were dependent upon welfare, few clergymen raised their voices in defense of the dignity of the poor. I couldn't find one other Protestant pastor who would speak out against the manufactured statistics and blatant lies of the City Manager. But Rabbi Kahan joined me. Did it matter to God that his “badge of faith” was the Star of David and not the Cross of Calvary? If he spoke with prophetic courage on behalf of God’s poor, what difference did his label make? Melville might have written of him, “Better a courageous Jew than a cowering Christian!” Whatever may be the complex questions about relationships between Jews and Christians, as well as between Christians and persons of other faiths, there is one truth that cannot be denied: a religious faith that does not result in a righteous life has no value. And so Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

So what kind of a church does this call us to be? When I was out in California visiting my three children and grandchildren, I was reading the local newspaper of the Ojai valley where my daughter Holly lives, surrounded by those majestic mountains amidst which the old movie classic, Lost Horizons, was filmed. I came upon the most interesting church ad. I’m guessing that it’s a non-denominational church, one of those stereotypical, whacko California free-style churches in which my blazer and necktie would identify me as a stuffy stranger from some “frozen chosen” denominational church back East. However, I liked their ad. Here are some excerpts:

Hey You! Don’t worry, this isn’t an advertisement about why you should come to our church because we have the “truth,” the “right” doctrine, the “best” programs and all around most “spiritual” people. If anything, you should know we are just like you, and that means fairly screwed up. We are a community filled with people who have checkered pasts, current addictions, skeletons in the closet, consistent struggles with guilt, shame, fear, anger, and urges we’d like to keep to ourselves. Maybe you don’t have any of these struggles…Then again, maybe you struggle with pride, conceit, think too much of yourself and too little of others. We’re doing our best to be honest with our inadequacies, to encourage and help each other limp along, as well as celebrate. Really, we’re simply trying our best to follow Jesus, not Christianity. The institution of Christianity has done much good in the world, but it’s also done horrible damage. Jesus has done only good. We strive to be his healing hands in a broken world. Come stumble along with us as we try to be better human beings, trying to make the world a better place, reaching out a helping hand just as Jesus reached out to us.

It sounded good, almost too good to be true. Maybe it was just a “come on,” I wondered. Upon arriving home, I checked their website and, yes, I was disappointed. The profile of their pastor contained a lot of “jocks for Jesus” stuff about his athletic career, and their statement of faith was a tired, outdated catalog of doctrinal shibboleths – certainly not written by the person who wrote the ad. However, it made me wish that, somehow, somewhere, there might be a church like the one described in the ad, a gathering of ordinary folks who welcome any and all whose intention is simply to follow the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, a church whose holy Table is open to all, whether cannibals or Christians, who hunger and thirst after righteousness.


SOME QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION OR DISCUSSION

1. A sermon like this can be deceivingly simple. Christians and/or churches that set out to “get back to basics” often find that the basics are not that simple. A church whose bulletin board advertises it as a “Bible-believing church, whose only creed is Christ,” will, sooner or later, discover that its members cannot reach agreement upon exactly what the Bible teaches or exactly who Jesus is. The “true” Presbyterians who left the Presbyterian Church to form a new, scripturally faithful denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, were soon beset by a controversy that resulted in still another denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church. The Amish, who strive to live a plain life, have found that they cannot agree about “how plain is plain.” Different Amish communities disagree over what constitutes a plain buggy or a plain kind of buckle. If, as the sermon, temptingly suggests, we were to try becoming a church whose central goal was to follow Jesus’ way of life as it is described in the Sermon on the Mount, what difficulties might we encounter? As you reread the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 – 7:29), where might we find ourselves in the greatest disagreement?

2. Creeds often focus upon what we believe, leaving us to figure out the details of how we will live. Try writing a personal creed for your own life that describes how you intend to live your life as a follower of Jesus. As you do this, try to incorporate some of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount into your statement. Also, try being specific, making your personal creed one that confronts some of the actual difficulties that a person (or family) encounters in seeking to follow Jesus in our modern, digital age.

3. What creeds of the church, ancient or modern, have been most helpful to you in your personal discipleship? Is there a creed with which you have problems?

4. The sermon makes the rather jarring statement that, when Jesus said that we should love our enemies, he was, literally, “tearing pages out of Hebrew scripture,” indicating that some stories in the Bible deny God’s love as the heavenly Father of all his children. If this seems to be an overstatement, try reading 1 Samuel 15:1-3. Then wrestle with this question: Do you think that God ever uttered such a destructive commandment to Samuel? Or are we to understand it, according to one rabbinical scholar, as “what Samuel heard, but not what God s