“The Measure You Give” / Luke 6:27-38 / 24 February 2019
“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, for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Let us live in this beautiful, fleeting world, then, not as those who give to others all the same stuff that we expect them to give to us—the wariness, the suspicion, the rivalries, the self-interest. Let us not live as those who give to others all the same broken stuff that the world has handed to them down through the years—the disappointments, the failures, the dishonesty, the tears. No. If our God is One of forgiveness, then let us be about forgiving. If our God is One of generosity, then let us be about giving. If our God withholds judgment, then let us do the same. Let this generosity of spirit become our posture for living, our default position. Then, whenever others gossip, or complain, or criticize, or condemn, let us return to these wise words of Jesus, “The measure you give will be the measure you get.” Let us, in our day, lead lives of grace.
Years ago, a long-time member of this church was drawing near to death’s door. He was a kind old soul, but well advanced in years, full of very strong opinions, and unwilling to give up his car keys. Though he loved this church dearly, and though I often saw him driving up and down Bower Hill Road, (driving halfway between the lanes, doing 25 with his blinker on), he could no longer attend. 9:30 on Sunday mornings just came too early for him to get up and about. I understood. Whenever I went to visit him, he would always speak fondly about the good old days here at this church. If you’ve been hanging around churches for very long, then you know that talk of the good old days is pretty common. Old-timers love to reminisce about the days when a church like ours might have had three services on a weekend, two or three pastors, and the ushers might actually have to help you find a seat when you showed up on Sunday. I couldn’t help but take it a little personally when, each time I visited, this old gentleman reminded me, “You know, that church used to be packed! We had so many Sunday school students that we filled all our own classrooms and had to borrow classrooms at Jefferson School! The choir alone had fifty people, and they sounded like a band of angels. The parking lots were so packed, people had to park on the street, two blocks away. Folks were squeezed into the pews so tight that no one dared to stand up for the hymns, for fear that someone might steal their seat!” Yes, I have to admit that I took it all just a little bit personally, which I should know not to do. Sometimes it felt as if he was saying, “Why can’t you pack ‘em in the way we used to?” But always this kindly old gentlemen would end his fond reminiscing with the same melancholy complaint. He said, “But then our pastor had to go and get involved with all that stuff down south.” By that, he meant the Selma marches and the Civil Rights Movement that we heard about last week. “I tried to tell him not to go to Selma,” the old fellow bemoaned. “If he’d have just minded his own business, we’d still be a big church.”
Now, some logic cannot be argued with. And when someone late in life has been telling himself the same story since five years before I was born, then it’s going to be hard for me to change his mind, no matter what I say. I’d rather have half a churchful of people who support human rights than a whole great churchful of people who do not. So let’s talk about the beautiful thing that happened in this room last Sunday. After the service last week, one of my daughters said to me, “Dad, that was your best sermon ever.” I said, “Sweetheart, that wasn’t my sermon. I just read the report that Rev. Bill Barker delivered from our pulpit when he got back from the Selma marches in 1965.” All she could say was, “Oh, right.”
Were you here to witness the event last week? In honor of Black History Month, we held a joint worship service with First Baptist Church, and it was so…joyful. My favorite moment in the entire service was just as the offertory anthem was ending. Our choir, in their robes, were swinging their shoulders to a peppy old gospel song, “O Happy Day.” Many people out there in the congregation actually stood up and clapped along with the music. Then, as that catchy tune came to an end, the organ swelled in grand crescendo, and everyone stood to their feet to join in the ancient and stately Doxology that we’ve been singing for almost 500 years. I saw some of you folks giggling a little at the contrast. Now, I’m not a shallow feel-good pastor who thinks that drums and guitars are the way to restore the glories of Christendom. The old movie “Sister Act” is funny enough, but it is just a movie, and church is meant for joyful reverence, not just entertainment. Besides, giving electric guitars to Presbyterians does not always equal…joy. History is littered with short-lived emotional faiths that controlled their people by way of emotions, leading far too many “to drink the Kool Aid” of bad religion.
And yet! And yet, was there not a palpable joy in this room a week ago today? And shouldn’t our worship of God be full of joy? And was that joy not due to the fact that we were united in new and exciting ways to brothers and sisters we never would have known if not for some freak flood, some natural disaster that brought us together? My question for many months now has been, Why did it take a catastrophe to bring us into relationship with First Baptist Church of Bridgeville? And perhaps a better question, Where is this new relationship leading us as a congregation?
Before the end of the service last week, our Clerk of Session, Bill Cadwell, rushed down to the church office to run off copies of that 54-year-old report from Selma because he knew that everyone present would want a copy to take home. On Monday, I was contacted by a local talk show asking if I would agree to an interview about Bill Barker, and this church’s history with the Civil Rights Movement, and the budding new relationship between First Baptist Church of Bridgeville and Bower Hill Church. But see! See how the wise words of Jesus play themselves out in the history of a single congregation in Pittsburgh, two millennia after he spoke them: “The measure you give will be the measure you get.” Into a 1960s world of deep divisions and terrible divides, into a day and age when hatreds were very near the surface, and many lived in fear, into a society where some were judged inferior and subjected to injustice and cruelty because of their ethnic heritage, into a world where politicians were assassinated in a way we have not seen in our day—into such an age, several churches in Pittsburgh sent their pastors to represent them at Selma. These churches stood for Jesus’ message of love, and non-judgment, and generosity of spirit. One of them was Bower Hill Church. And now, all these years later, that good measure that was given into the life of our world comes back to bring us joy and new possibility.
How so? It was in the DNA of our session to open our building to First Baptist, for half a century ago, someone had already made the conversation to be about welcome and generosity. It was in the historic narrative of our church that we stand with those who suffer. It was in “the old creed-of-who-we-are” that faith is not just about the next world, but this one! Now, a church must not be self-congratulatory, for then we end up resting on our laurels and becoming self-satisfied. And we cannot be stuck in the past, or worship heroes who have passed from our company. But someone long ago decided to give a good measure in the face of all the stingy, unjust measures of that age, and that good measure was big enough that it keeps on giving. Oh, people of God! Let us conduct ourselves with such grace.
We’re still reading through the Sermon on the Plain, which is St. Luke’s lesser-loved alternative to Matthew’s famous Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s gospel is preoccupied with the outcasts of the world. That’s why he has Jesus’ birth announced first to the lowly shepherds and not the great kings. It’s why women and gentiles play major parts in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ life. Luke casts a spotlight on Jesus’ love for the ones nobody else loves, the defenseless, the penniless, and even those who brought their sorrows on themselves. And although Matthew gives us a more poetic rendition of the Beatitudes, Luke is a more gifted writer. His Greek is elegant, refined. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount has the crowds sitting on a mountainside and Jesus preaching downhill at them. The seating arrangement in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain makes a little more sense. In Luke, Jesus stands on a level plain, while the crowds gather on the surrounding hillsides to listen. Matthew prefers the elevated pulpit. Luke likes stadium-style seating. But for all their wonderful differences in style and emphasis, the Sermon on the Plain and the Sermon on the Mount have the exact same message: “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, for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Just a word of caution here. Jesus is talking about human relationships. He’s not talking about some cosmic ledger where a tally of your actions is kept. He’s not saying that paybacks are a bear and what comes around goes around. Jesus is not saying that the law of punishments and rewards will magically dole out good fortune for kind people and evil fortune for unkind people—not exactly. We know very well that even good people suffer in this world. He’s simply saying that if you do not condemn others, then others will be less likely to condemn you. If you do not judge other people, then they will probably withhold judgment for you. If you give, then others will want to give to you. If you forgive, then when you stand in need of forgiveness, people will be more likely to offer it. When it comes to your relationship with your neighbors, or your friends, or your spouse, or your children, “The measure you give is the measure you get.” Generosity will beget generosity; and kindness will beget kindness; and calm will beget calm; just as neglect will beget neglect; and harshness, harshness; and violence, violence. That’s the way of the world. It’s almost too simple to bother stating. It’s Jesus 101: treat others the way you want to be treated—with generosity of spirit, withholding judgment, withholding condemnation. Why is it, then, that in this 21st century America, the very word “Christian” has come to mean “hater,” condemner, judger? Ironically, the US states with the highest percentage of churchgoing Christians are also the most likely to impose the death penalty, and to try children as adults, and to give out life sentences to nonviolent offenders. These so-called Christianized places have the highest rate of hate crimes against racial minorities, and gays and lesbians, Muslims and Jews. How did so many Christians miss both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon in the Plain, where Jesus lays out his vision of the better world that comes ONLY from treating people—all people—with the dignity and respect that we wish for ourselves and those we love?
A Facebook meme shows a picture of a teenage boy saying, “Old people always poke me at weddings and tell me, ‘You’re next’. So I started doing the same thing to them at funerals.” Paybacks, karma! Sometimes when my kids are working on my nerves, I threaten to show up at their school wearing my collar. I think the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have dealt for so long in a God of retribution and vengeance that it’s soaked into the backdrop of our thinking. We assume that karma is God’s way, that judgment is God’s way, and so it should be ours. But if we claim to be Christians, then let us only see God through the person of Christ. Let us see all the biblical words about judgment and condemnation only through the lens of him who says, “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” Jesus, and none other, is the one rule by which to measure our lives. In other words, treat people not the way they treat you, but the way a good God treats you—with grace.
Ours again is an age of old hatreds rekindled, with new hate groups cropping up like Starbucks and Dollar Generals. Ours again is an age of divisions and fears. Ours is a day when many seek their own benefit at the expense of others. I daresay the world is what it is today because too many church people have been fearfully dealing out to others only what they expect others to give to them: suspicion, hostility, competition, greed. O people of God! There are other ways to live and be! Let us live life at full measure, shaken together, running over, lives of gratuitous generosity! If ever the world needed Christians to behave like Christ, it is today. Surely it’s true that, when it comes to people and things, we get what we give—even a car will only serve us well if we treat it well. But when it comes to God, we get so much more than we ever give—all of it freely given and undeserved. The beauty of a new day. Sanity of mind and peace of heart. Experiences to give us perspective and hope. Friends and family with whom to share the journey. Fresh possibilities, new opportunities, the joys of discovery, forgiveness, growth. Exciting new relationships. Much of what we have is ours because some generous soul before us gave a good measure into the life of the world—and we have received the benefit. You have been forgiven, so forgive! You have received, so give! You are not condemned, so do not condemn! Let us work to heal the wounds of our world not by giving what we’ve received from it, or expect to receive from it, but by giving what we’ve received from God, and from the generous souls who’ve made us what we are. Let us, in our age, lead lives of grace. Amen.