Sermon of the Week:
What Goes Around Comes Around
The fourth of a four part sermon series: Do Unto Others–Being Good Neighbors in a Pandemic
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Keywords: Golden Rule. Preach to Yourself. Christian Ethics. Sermon on the Mount. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I was talking with a pastor friend about this sermon today,
about this sermon series looking at some foundational aspects of the ethics of following Jesus
the greatest commandment
the requirement to care about what other people think and feel
the urging to go the extra mile,
and then this, maybe the best known teaching of them all: the golden rule.
And my friend told me a story
about when he was first starting out working in ministry
and he was a student pastor
eager to learn from a mentor he regarded as a gifted preacher
inspiring and relevant and a joy to listen to.
She could certainly help him stretch his talents a bit further, he thought.
She could help him grow into a well-rounded speaker and preacher.
The first week he was there
the time came for his meeting with the mentor,
and he was excited.
They sat down and started to talk a bit about ministry in general
and soon the conversation turned to worship, and to giving a sermon.
She said she wanted to give him a word of encouragement to get him started.
“Preach the word that you would want preached to you” is how she put it.
He thought about that.
Now there’s about as good an application of the golden rule
as a preacher might find, don’t you think?
“Preach the word that you would want preached to you.”
And then, without missing a beat, she finished her thought:
“Short and sweet.”
Maybe good advice for this preacher to heed.
And I will today, honest.
But we should note
that the Golden Rule, the focus of our final sermon in this sermon series,
itself stands at the end of a rather long sermon:
Jesus’ sermon, the one we call The Sermon on the Mount.
Four weeks ago, we looked at the beginning of that sermon
all the way back in Chapter 5,
which opens with the pronouncement of the blessing of God
for the poor in spirit
the peacemaker, the one who thirsts after righteousness
the one persecuted because they seek to be agents of the good in the world.
Between those beatitudes, and this reading
there’s so much good stuff to think about,
a meandering but meaningful collection of teachings
that could, if we’re honest, take us a whole year,
maybe a whole lifetime, to sift through properly.
You might remember some of it if we just name the highlights:
Let your light shine!
Don’t hide it under a bushel,
and a city on a hilltop cannot be hidden.
A lamp on a lampstand gives light to the whole house.
That’s Jesus, asking us to take seriously the impact of our actions in the world
the way light spreads out in all directions,
illuminates our lives,
refuses to let evil hide in the darkness…
Or then there’s this:
you are the salt of the earth! Jesus says.
But if salt loses its flavor, what good is it,
other than to be tossed out and trampled under foot…
Is that Jesus, showing a spectacularly unexpected sensitivity
to the winter weather we get here in the heartland?
No, not so much, but it is Jesus saying that your actions ought to matter,
ought to be like seasoning, bringing out the flavor of life.
There’s the antitheses, which we talked about last week:
six sayings that start with some retelling of the law
you have heard it said….
and then Jesus offering a different take, but I say to you…
Here we have Jesus urging those listening to his sermon
to take seriously the teachings of their tradition
while at the same time showing why it might be better
if you take the time to understand it, and apply it
and not try to explain it away.
The sermon’s not done yet.
Because Jesus then
points out ways we try to look good in the eyes of others
rather than trying to do good, regardless of how it looks.
So Jesus offers warnings, you might recall,
about flaunting your faith, your piety before others…
when you give alms, Jesus says, don’t blow a trumpet to announce it.
Who does that?
Here is my salary, which I’m donating
aren’t I such a good person!
Don’t do that, says Jesus.
Give your gift secretly.
Or here’s another: When you fast, put oil on your forehead
which is Jesus’ way of saying: don’t look ragged and disheveled.
Your fasting is not a competition.
And then there’s this:
when you pray, its really between you and God
so don’t try to make it all about you…
Oh, and then for good measure,
Jesus throws in some special instructions about how to pray
which we’ve come to know as The Lord’s prayer:
when you pray, pray then this way…
Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed be thy name.
Be careful about amassing things,
here on earth, thinking that they’re going to save you
but store up treasures in heavenly things, says Jesus.
No one can serve two masters, God and wealth.
Don’t worry so much,
about what you will eat, and what you will drink, and what you will wear…
today’s trouble is enough for Today,
Seek ye first the realm of God.
Ask, and God will provide what you need
Seek, and you’ll find answers,
Knock, and the door will be opened.
Because God doesn’t give stone to someone who asks for bread.
Who does that?
God knows your needs,
and is intent on making sure that those real needs
are met in God’s world.
Those are just the highlights, the broad strokes
key topics you find in Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
That’s a lot, in this sermon from Jesus.
And it isn’t easy teaching, either.
Jesus is getting at some personal issues.
It’s like he knows how we want the safe route
that we want fame, and recognition, and we love our stuff and our gadgets and our wealth
and that those things
might keep us from going all in on this realm of God he is proclaiming.
Don’t let it ever be said that Jesus played it safe
or that preaching that seeks to preach like Jesus did
ought to encourage us to just focus on the next life
pie in the sky, my oh my…
because, as you can see, every one of these points in Jesus’ sermon on the mount
is about ethics, about how we treat one another
about what we do about the world we live in.
It is helpful to recount some of this
because when we turn to the golden rule
we might be tempted to just see it as a general principle, maybe even a secular idea,
something that is found in other religious traditions and in great philosophical works alike,
such as Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative:
act only according to that maxim which you can, at the same time,
will that it become a universal law…
Or, to put it another way: what goes around comes around.
And its true, you find versions of the Golden Rule
in the greatest religious traditions
and in all sorts of different cultures
Confucian and Buddhist and Hindu and Zoroastrian,
East and West, North and South.
In an age where we find ourselves
struggling to name something, anything,
that ties humanity together under a common banner,
something that unites us,
rather than something that isolates us and separates us and divides us,
the Golden Rule is a pretty darn good candidate.
Just look up the Wikipedia page on it,
and you’ll be amazed at the breadth of different cultures, from many different eras,
It is that urge us to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated.
In itself, the Golden Rule
treat others as you would want them to treat you
speaks to how important the idea of creating a level playing field is,
how enjoying an illicit advantage,
a leg up that others don’t get,
is both so enticing for us,
and yet so damaging for life together in community.
It wouldn’t be so ubiquitous a rule
if it wasn’t so tempting to break it
or to explain it away so we don’t have to apply it.
And there’s a whole different sermon that we could launch into here
about why it is we seem so intent on trying to get those unfair advantages…
either because we’re convinced deep down inside that
there’s not enough to go around
and so we need to get enough
for me and mine,
even if that means you and yours go without…
or because we think we’re better, or we work harder, so we deserve more,
where others aren’t better, and so they don’t…
OR because we are blind to the advantages just handed to us,
we just don’t know they’re there,
and maybe we grow so comfortable with them
that we get rattled when someone holds up a mirror and shows them to us.
That sermon would surely name and explore white supremacy and systemic racism,
something we’re paying a lot more attention to these days
as particular evils of our time,
not just police violence but lasting issues of access and opportunity and microaggressions,
this enduring 400-year-legacy of this great country we call home
that we seem to keep working to repair, and not quite making the progress we need to make.
Do unto others as you would have done to you…
that doesn’t leave any space for injustice, or systemic racism,
not if you truly put yourselves in the shoes of another.
That might just be the sermon I would preach to myself, today.
I want to also highlight something that is important for us
as we wrap up this sermon series on why this is Christian ethics
and not simply a maxim that helps make you a good person, generally speaking.
Good people of every faith and culture get this,
because there’s something foundational about the golden rule.
It doesn’t require a deeper context.
God doesn’t have to be part of the conversation,
because all you have to do is imagine yourself on the receiving end of your actions
and that’s enough to open your heart to a consideration of the other person.
But we cannot lose sight here
that Jesus, when HE talks about it
definitively places other-regard, concern about them
at the heart of what it means to live within God’s good community.
I mean, it would have been well known to Jesus
just as it is to us, that other traditions have a version of the golden rule.
The rule was known to be found among the Egyptians, and later the Greeks.
But even so, Jesus applies it here, after this long sermon
to help explain who the God of Abraham is, who our God is,
and what good behavior looks like in the realm of God
and tells us: look, do to others what you would have them do to you,
for this is the law and the prophets.
In other words, like everything else in our lives,
Jesus asks us to look deeper, and to see God moving behind the scenes.
Because God is at the heart of our relationships
it’s not JUST about what you want, or about what the other person wants
but about what GOD is helping you to see
as something better for both of you.
it’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard,
but with God’s help,
it might just be possible:
So ask away,
Knock on the door,
Seek after the good. And God will be with you to help as you work on it.
As I reflected this week about what the Golden Rule might say to us
at this particular moment
I’m struck not just by the imperative it gives us to work for equality and justice for those left out
but also by a consistent imperative to stay connected to Jesus, and his teaching.
The world debates public health measures because of the coronavirus?
Ok, what does it mean to enter that conversation with a commitment
to treat others as I would want them to treat me…
so I care about those with underlying health conditions,
because if I had those conditions,
I would want OTHERS to act in ways that tried to keep ME safe
and because Jesus was a healer,
and says that the health of others is important for me to care about…
The nation struggles with a polarized electorate and people refusing to engage one another?
Ok, what does it mean to see that person who sees things SO differently than I do
as someone worthy of not just being dismissed,
because, in the end, I find her dismissal of me and the things I value offensive,
and she would think the same of my dismissal of her,
and besides, Jesus told me that even the Samaritan was my neighbor,
so surely she is too.
As Christians, in other words, we apply the golden rule in a particular way,
namely, through the life and the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
the one who challenged our prejudices, who ate with tax collectors and sinners
who challenged them, and us, to live more holy lives,
and who then asked us all to work together so that God’s realm might come alive here on earth.
This is how it becomes Christian ethics,
because it becomes a tool we use to understand how to follow Christ more faithfully,
as one way we can love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
So, in the spirit of that advice given to my pastor friend
about how to preach: preach the sermon you would preach to yourself…
I must say: hey Chad: may I not only recognize the universal gift of the golden rule
among many different people and cultures,
but may I also see the particular way that I can use it to dig down
into the particular choices that Jesus is leading me to adopt in my life
and to have it nurture a deep commitment within me
to fair treatment, just systems,
mutual regard and the common Good.
May it help me lift up the ways in which others might need a hand up, and may I seek to provide it.
The law and the prophets guided the Hebrew people to the same thing,
and if it is good enough for them, and good enough for Jesus,
it ought to be good enough for me.
And in the same spirit, let me ask you,
what sermon would you preach to yourself, today,
as you think about the life of Jesus.
How would you proclaim his love, lift up his life, share his compassion, wrestle with his challenge?
It’s ok. It can be a short and sweet sermon.
It doesn’t have to be as long as Jesus’ sermon on the mount,
or this sermon of mine today,
so long as it convicts you about the importance of
pursuing the love and care of our God
as we see it in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Christian ethics: a way to live our life with and for others.
To follow Christ in this way is not always easy,
but it is always rewarding, and, in the end, it is always joyful
and it is what makes God’s realm possible
for the good of all humankind.
So may we treat others as we would have them treat us,
and, more than that, may we see the choice to live that way
is indeed a way to follow Jesus Christ out into the world
and to love the world that God so loves.
May that sort of life strengthen our neighborhoods, our relationships,
and help bring reconciliation and justice to our land.
May it be so. Amen.
Image: The Good Samaritan, by He Qi.