Good morning, Christ Church!
One of my side gigs over the last month has been assisting the first and third graders at Highland School in Warrenton, Virginia. Janie is the Head Librarian there and asked if I would do some online reading with these students. I was happy to volunteer. Suffice it to say that it has been a blast. The children have been attentive, polite, and have made some incredible observations about these classic stories.
Thus far, “Dragon Was Terrible” has been my personal favorite. Let me assure you that Dragon was about as terrible as one can be. He stomped on flowerbeds. He scribbled in books. He stole candy from baby unicorns. He spat on birthday cakes. He even TP’d (i.e., covered in toilet paper) the castle, which in this present moment of hoarding that precious commodity seems particularly horrendous. No doubt about it, Dragon was terrible.
The villagers made several attempts to reform Dragon, but none was successful. Finally, a young man came up with a brilliant plan. He wrote a book that was all about a good, kind, and compassionate dragon and went about the village reading it aloud. Of course, Dragon heard the young man reading, and pretended not to be interested, but he was. He hid in the bushes and in the trees listening to the story and by the end, well you guessed it, Dragon was no longer terrible.
Having had some time to reflect on this story, I have come to believe that this is very close to what Jesus had in mind in his use of parables and other teaching methods in the Gospel accounts. He was using all kinds of imagery familiar to the crowds in order to draw them in imaginative ways into truly understanding God’s kingdom and God’s hope for each one of us in that story. I think that this is particularly true of Matthew chapters 5-7, often called “The Sermon on the Mount.” Here we find the great ethical discourse that every person seeking to follow Jesus must pray about, grapple with, and, like Dragon, hope to be transformed by. Indeed, if there is any passage in the Gospels that we might really want to focus on in these strange and difficult times, these are the chapters I would recommend.
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
Faithfully in Christ,
Friday, May 22, 2020 RCL Daily Office Readings, Year 2
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)
Today’s passage from Matthew is difficult, particularly verse 22. Here, Jesus seems to be saying that there are some who think that they are his disciples who really are not. This is certainly reinforced in the verse immediately preceding: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”(21) Even if we participate in prophesying, exorcisms, and other deeds closely associated with his teaching is no guarantee that Jesus will know us when the time comes.
As an Episcopalian, I find this upsetting and (dare I say it) even offensive. We, after all, believe that following Jesus is all about amazing grace and not about guilt. We’re not into “hellfire and damnation.” Sure, we’re not perfect (storing up treasure here on earth, not really loving our enemies, calling our neighbor a fool, overlooking the logs in our own eyes, etc.). But, when all is said and done, we like to think that all these imperfections will be forgiven and we will be warmly welcomed into God’s kingdom. (Actually, I continue to believe this even as I write!)
But I think that Jesus’ point here is that amazing grace does not excuse or cancel out our personal responsibility at all. Acting occasionally in a Christian manner is not the same thing as doing “the will of my Father in heaven.” And let’s be honest. There is a human tendency to take amazing grace for granted and turn our response to God into a casual affair.
As I have shared before, I consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be one of the great Christian theologians of recent memory. Living in Nazi Germany, he was horrified as so many in the Church seemed so willing to sell their souls to the Third Reich while continuing to claim allegiance to Jesus Christ. Here is the basis for his distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” as described in his book, “Discipleship.” The two are definitely not the same, and we are in grave danger when we try to substitute the former for the latter.
Verse 24 holds the key. It is not enough to merely hear “these words of mine,” says Jesus. We must hear them and then act on them, moment to moment, day by day, year in and year out. If you are looking for the firm foundation on which to build your life in these highly uncertain times, and I think that we all are, here is Jesus’ answer: Hear his words, and then act only on them, and you will always be firmly grounded. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will be able to knock us down, because in acting on them, God’s kingdom has already come.