University Congregational Church
May 1, 2016
When George Washington was 16 years old (and possibly younger), he transcribed “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior”. You can find it on the internet at history.org. It’s a list of 110 proper ways to behavior in society. Washington wrote it out by hand in 1744. Its fascinating reading… and I want to share just a few of the rules (in 200+ year old language) for our consideration today:
#1 Every action done in company, ought to be done with some sign of respect to those who are present.
#4 In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.
#6 Sleep not when others speak; sit not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace; walk not on when others stop.
#12 Bedew no man’s face with your spittle, by approaching too near him when you speak.
#38 In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.
#40 Always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
#47 If you deliver anything witty and pleasant, abstain from laughing at yourself.
#50 Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
#89 Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.
#92 Take no salt or cut bread with your knife greasy.
#100 Cleanse not your teeth with the table cloth, napkin, fork, or knife, but if others do it, let it be done with a pick tooth.
#110 Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
A number of years predating Washington, Jesus also gave a list of ways we ought to treat one another if we call ourselves Christian.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (NRSV)
This text is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain… in contrast to Jesus’ better known Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Plain, we have an ideal ethic that appears virtually impossible to put into practice. If this is the way of discipleship, we are tempted to cry out, as others later in Luke did when faced with a similar impossibility, “Then who can be saved?”
But Jesus is not so idealistic or naïve, and neither is Luke. Indeed, how Jesus responded to that later cry is a clue to understanding our text: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God”. Behind Jesus’ words is the vision and the conviction that God will bring a reign of peace. In God’s reign, there will be no violence and former enemies will be joined in love and reconciliation. In God’s reign, words of cursing and condemnation will be overcome by blessing and forgiveness. To live as a disciple – and that is the key – is to live today as one who already belongs to this new order of peace.
Imagine yourself at a skating rink. Music is playing over the loudspeakers, and the skaters are doing the usual thing – gliding around in time to the music, staying in sync with the other skaters as they trace again and again a large oval on the floor. Now imagine another skater, one who is different. The others go round and round, but this skater skates freely, first this way, then that. He makes figure eights and curly-cues, lifting his hand up over his head, and then stretching them gracefully out to the side. He glides forward, then backward, more dancing that merely skating. He is not responding to the crowd or the expected route, not even to the taped music blaring over the speakers, but to another song, another pattern, another source of direction. He is the one skater who captivates the eyes of those watching.
Just so, Jesus says, disciples listen to different music, respond to another source of direction, and trace a different patter on the world’s ice. And isn’t this what most of us tell our children, too? “If your friend jumps off the side of a cliff, that doesn’t mean you have to jump also!” Right. It’s okay for our children to buck the status quo but look how quickly adults buy into society’s way of doing things.
Remember the wonderful book, “Tuesdays with Morrie”? In it, Mitch Albom tells the story of the college professor, Morrie, who is at a basketball game. The team is doing well, and the student section begins with a chant, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” Morrie is sitting nearby. He is puzzled by the cheer. At one point, in the midst of “We’re number one!” he rises and yells, “What’s wrong with number two?” The students look at him. They stop chanting. He sits down smiling and triumphant.
The members of the Christian community Luke speaks to caught a glimpse of this new reality every time they went to church. There around the Lord’s Table were old enemies, now made friends. Roman soldiers and those they had oppressed pass the bread and the cup. Jews and Gentiles, hated adversaries, now clasped hands and said, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Anybody who grew up in a roiling turbulence of Palestine who have said that this kind of community was flat impossible! But “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” and the proof was there every Sunday.
They got up from that table and went into the world, living out here and there, now and then, the way of life they had experienced in worship. When they did, the world thought it was strange, but you couldn’t keep your eyes off of them. They were children of the future – God’s future – skating the figure eights of the kingdom amid the bland ovals of a world in pain, confident that one day all the world would lift up their heads and raise their arms and begin to dance across the floor to the rhythm of the kingdom’s song.
We – you and I – are called to skate around the rink of life to a different tune and with a different rhythm. We are called out of our preferred patterns and into God’s pattern….
No longer do we simply invite the families who look and act like ours to dinner. Now, we invite singles, old people, sick people, messy children, and people we aren’t crazy about to the dinner table.
No longer do we sit alone in church. We saddle up next to that obnoxious person or the lousy singer, or the visitor. We can’t wait to see how God brings something new out of this.
No longer do we criticize the person who causes us frustration. Instead, we listen caringly and learn new things from them. We open our eyes to how God must see them.
No longer do we hustle around to try to get our favorite project approved or our plans heard. Instead, we open our minds to the ideas of others and compromise, even though we are convinced in our own thoughts that we are the only ones who make sense.
No longer do we worry about money – we don’t have time for that. Instead, we are focused on mission and ministry and can’t wait to serve at the Hygiene Pantry, in the church office, or out picking up trash.
Compassion becomes our greatest calling. Loving neighbor is second nature. Treating all with understanding and empathy is the norm. No longer are we ambivalent or pre-occupied with our own lives. Now we live for what we can do for others.
Can you see it? Do you feel it? God is doing the impossible with us!
Thomas G. Long, “An Impossible Possibility”. Pulpit Resources, February, 2001.