Author Ann Patchett’s novels begin in her imagination. In an essay about her writing career, she explains her writing process. Each new book begins as an “invisible friend,” making “a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly” At this point, the imagined story “is the greatest novel in the history of literature… and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everybody can see this beauty that I see.”
But then she writes the story down. “I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air… and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page…Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, light, and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend…. Dead. That’s my book.”[i]
Have you ever experienced what Patchett describes? It sounds like the way I feel writing a sermon—actually, the way I sometimes feel in Christian leadership. When God called Keith and me as pastors, fresh from seminary, we had beautiful visions and a sense of God’s calling. We wrote it all down on our Personal Information Forms, and we sensed a match with your well written Church Information Form. Four years later, we are grateful that you have walked patiently with us and taught us what it actually means to be pastors. Together we’ve encountered the gap that comes between ideals of Christian leadership and its on-the-ground necessities! The gap between where we hoped we’d go and where we are, the gap between how we wanted it to be and what is.
In the process of translating God’s Dream into the reality of our lives, the gap is inevitable.
We arrive there not only in our work, but also in relationships, marriage or parenting, or as we age and can no longer do things the way we used to. Our congregation, like many churches, is finding that ministry habits and practices effective even 10 years ago, no longer connect in our rapidly changing world. We are troubled by the gap between our present knowledge and capacities and the “new thing” into which God wants to lead us.
Like Patchett’s butterfly, the gap feels like a dead end. Often we react to it in anxiety, pushing at the empty space using all our abilities and techniques, every bit of human determination we can summon. But it doesn’t work. So now what? The other temptation is to resign ourselves to basic functioning. Who needs new dreams? We just want to keep the doors open and the lights on. But inside us, even if we have stuffed them far below the surface, there are always more butterflies, always more dreams God puts in our hearts. God desires more for us than basic functionality. So the questions echo again across the painful space which reveals our limitations, inadequacy, and lack of control. Who are we now, and how do we live out of God’s vision?
In Matthew 5, Jesus is speaking to people facing that gap. Israel was the nation chosen as God’s People, given a land and a law, intended as a light to the nations. They cherished this identity, though their way was unclear. Israel had long been an occupied nation. Now it was the Romans, but since the Babylonians had carted Israel’s brightest off to exile, Gentiles controlled the land, city and temple. The divine king had not yet appeared with promised restoration. Facing this gap, the people of Israel responded in different ways. Some simply gave up hope and resigned themselves to collaborating with the Romans—the Sadducees. Others took up the sword and fought to overthrow the empire—he Zealots. And some resolved to wait it out. If political independence was not possible for Israel, they could at least preserve tradition, and live in ‘covenantal righteousness’[ii] until Messiah came. So they hunkered down and privately pursued Torah. Many of these folks were Pharisees.
Matthew Chapters 5-7 are called “The Sermon on the Mount,” because Jesus speaks from a mountaintop, like Moses on Mt. Sinai, teaching disciples and crowds about the ways of the kingdom of heaven. We hear in this sermon many ethical principles for Christian life.
But Jesus’ first audience knew the ongoing debate about Israel’s future between the various factions. They would have heard Jesus rejecting the Zealots’ violent approach to change: “Love your enemies.” But they also heard him rejecting the Pharisees’ strategy of self-righteous preservation. “For I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” They would have heard him exhorting “Israel to be Israel,”[iii] to stand up into their identity as salt and light in the world.
Those are hard words, then and now. How do you practice “higher righteousness” than people who worked diligently to keep 613 commandments? Frankly, Jesus’ words seem to widen the gap between my desire to live in God’s ways and my ability to do so.
Some theologians have thought widening the gap was actually the strategy of the Sermon on the Mount. Hearing impossible ethical demands, they suggest we perceive our human limits in attaining holiness, and recognize that only “by grace alone” may we broken sinners become redeemed and holy people.
There’s certainly grace experienced in confessing our limitations. The Beatitudes, which begin Jesus’ sermon, point to the experience of human beings confronting the gap between themselves and their deepest longings. We don’t usually think of such people as “blessed.”
The poor, the powerless, those who mourn, and the hungry are painfully aware how little control they really have over their own livelihoods or destinies, people who can now do nothing more than wait at the edge with open hands. How is there blessing in that place? The Message’s rendering of the first Beatitude gives a hint: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
Of course, Jesus also blesses the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. They are also people of longing, but it seems to me, in their lives, the gap is being bridged. At the edge, holding out their empty hands, they have found themselves empowered to take the risks of forgiveness, sincerity, reconciliation, and proclaiming God’s truth.“Rejoice and be glad!” Jesus tells them, because no matter how they might suffer, they are blessed to experience their true identity and purpose. Their light shines.
So while it’s good to recognize our limitations, our story doesn’t end there. When we find ourselves in vulnerability and risk at the gaping wound of our brokenness and limitations, when we find ourselves saying, “Forgive me, I can do no more,” and praying, “O God, do a new thing in me,” we are not stuck at the edge of an impossible chasm. God provides a bridge. We do not have to do hunker down in exile with frozen dreams until the Messiah comes. The Messiah is already here. He shows up in the center of our longing and vulnerability, arms stretched across the gap from heaven to earth, welcoming us in our poverty, comforting us, giving us mercy, and opening our eyes to see the new thing God is already doing, right here and right now.
Depending on God, trusting in Christ, we step into the gap and seek to live in his ways, and we find abundant grace, filling up underneath our feet to carry us across. Jesus not only calls us to higher righteousness, but he is also the fulfillment of it, and he makes life in the kingdom of heaven a daily possibility for each and all of us.
Early in Pam Powell’s call as the first white minister of the all-black Messiah Presbyterian Church in Lubbock, Texas, she went to a meeting at the local school, and she heard a troubling story. In the class of a second-grade teacher a 7-year-old boy was a lookout for a drug dealer. Though his family was poor, he now wore expensive athletic shoes. The teacher worried that other kids, impressed and wanting their own shoes, were being lured into the drug and gang culture of their poverty-stricken community.
Messiah Church had 21 adult members and 8 children. They could barely pay their bills. But they listened intently to the idea Pastor Powell brought to Session. Could the church help the school, buying a pair of shoes for three kids in each elementary class who were making good choices? That would add up to 100 pairs of shoes each year, costing up to $10,000. It sounded audacious. The church had no reserves, their pastor was paid by the presbytery, and they relied on donations of other churches to keep their lights on.
But an elder suggested they pray about it. After the prayer, the Session voted to proceed. The elementary school was thrilled, but they asked, “Where will you get the money?” Messiah Church answered, “It will be an act of God.”
And so it was! Little by little, money began to trickle in; the local shoe store gave a discount. At the end-of-semester assembly, the pastor announced the shoe program: “Everyone here knows that you can make a lot of money doing the wrong thing. But these shoes are for kids who are choosing to do the right thing. In the end, more good will come to you for making right choices. We are here to show you this is true.” Kids received certificates from the Messiah Church elders, and the next day, the principle said her office was bursting with children showing off their new shoes.
One mother wrote, “I have 11 children. You cannot imagine what a blessing it is to have new shoes for two of them. God bless you, Messiah Church.” As word of this ministry spread, money poured in from around the country. It was a blessing to many children. But Pastor Powell was clear that Messiah Church was even more blessed. [iv]
My friends, we are the People of God, called, in all of our desperate longings and limitations, to live out our identity as salt and light. We stand at the edge of the gap, aware that of ourselves we can do nothing; but God reaches out in Christ and bridges that gap, filling up the way beneath our feet.We are blessed to be a blessing.
How is God now calling us to take steps toward the new, unexpected thing the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst? Let us pray to see God’s vision and to step out in blessed dependence, trusting our whole lives to our all-merciful, all-powerful God. Amen.
[ii] Edwin Chr. Van Driel, “Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 5:13-20” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 335-337.
[iii] quoted in Van Driel, 337.
[iv] From “Meeting Messiah,” by Pam Powell, published in The Gospel in Black and White, edited by Dennis L. Okholm, Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997, 151-165.