The Golden Rule
A Father’s Day sermon based upon Matthew 7:7-12 (page 840 in the pew Bible) In my experience, “Father’s Day” in mid-June is not as commercialized and sentimentalized as “Mother’s Day” is in May. Maybe it’s because the spring flowers are gone by now, and folks are thinking “summer”! Let’s go fishing… School’s out, it’s vacation time! Maybe our memories of Dad just aren’t as sweet & sentimental as they are of Mom. Perhaps he was away, earning a living, most days.
In any case, we owe both parents a debt for birthing us into the world. Those X & Y chromosomes -- and double-helix ribbons of DNA that conspire to make us who we are -- came from two donors. We honored our Mothers on May 14, and today we say “Thank you” to our Fathers… whether still with us in this life, or departed long ago.
In preparation for today’s Father’s Day service, and because this past week was Graduation all across the country, I was thinking about the kinds of “sage advice” my Dad used to give me and my four siblings. Things like: “Put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and you’ll sleep fine at night.” Or, “Don’t worry if you lose money, because it’s only money. You can always earn that back again. But don’t lose your integrity, your good name; because if your word doesn’t count, you don’t count! A damaged reputation is hard to recover from.” My Dad had a lot of good advice like that, and I appreciate it. But there’s someone with an even bigger name recognition that I’d like to quote on this Father’s Day: Bill Gates, founder & CEO of Microsoft Corporation (said to be the world’s richest individual). He gave a commencement speech at a High School recently, listing eleven things that those young people -- bright as they were -- probably did not (& would not) have learned in school.
Now, before I relate a few of his comments, I need to admit that I got that speech from a forwarded email, so it may or may not be true. (You know, there’s a lot of “fake news” out there, from anonymous sources.) Bill Gates, apparently, was concerned that the values-neutral, self-esteem-focused school environment would not give those high school kids experience of the real world of competitive business, economics, and politics. He felt that they were being set up for failure in the “real world” unless they realized some of these things: Rule 1: Life is not fair – get used to it! Don’t take it personally. No one is a “winner” all the time. Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. We expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. Skipping to… Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss! ... Rule 6: If you mess up, it isn’t your parent’s fault. Don’t whine about
your mistakes, learn from them. … Trying to fix the blame doesn’t fix the problem.
Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but
life has not. Some schools have abolished “failing” grades, and they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life!
Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off,
life has not. Some schools have abolished “failing” grades, and they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life! and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.
(Again, I got that speech from the Internet, so it may not be true.)
But, whether you love Bill Gates or hate him, those words sound like a sermon appropriate for Father’s Day. It sounds a bit like the kinds of advice my Dad gave me as a teenager.
Getting to the Bible text that Marilyn Kettler read for us, it struck me that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s Gospel) was a “Father’s Day” sort of sermon. He offers a few comforting words at the start – we call them the “Beatitudes”, nine ways that Jesus tells people that they are “blessed”… You, who are poor in spirit; You, who mourn; the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and so on… He gathers his listeners in -- like a group hug -- verbally blessing the very ones who feel the most left out.
Then Jesus challenges his hearers to serve as the “light of the world” and to be “the salt of the earth.” And then (like my Dad used to do from time to time) Jesus lays down the Law (“You have heard it said to men of old… but I say thus…!”). Jesus honed the traditional Jewish ethic to a sharper point, going beneath the letter of the Law to the Spirit which motivates a person. And then Jesus taught the crowd how to pray. He outlined the 66 words of “the Lord’s Prayer” as a model -- a pattern to follow… which we do to this day!
Then, in the middle of his sermon, Jesus begins to meddle!
He has harsh words about the behavior of the religious and civic leaders, calling them “hypocrites” -- questioning their standards of justice! And he offers his listeners an alternative way of relating to one another, in what Jesus calls “The Kingdom” of “your heavenly Father.” There, in God’s Kingdom, we need not be anxious. There we shall not judge, nor be judged. It is in this glorious context that we heard Jesus say: “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and it will be opened unto you. For everyone who asks [in the Kingdom of my Father], receives. And those who seek, find. And to the one who knocks, all shall be opened.” In other words, God’s Kingdom is not just something in the hereafter, but it is at hand… heaven is as much now as it is to come. We just have to seek it, pursue it, ask for it, and knock on the door. God is ready and willing, eager in fact, to open it!
These people who gathered around Jesus there on that Mount in Galilee, came to hear his sermon -- much like you have done here this morning. The words he said were intended for those who were his closest followers -- ones who had made a commitment to him – or were at least considering making a commitment to Jesus’ movement.
When he told them not to worry about tomorrow, and to strive first for the Kingdom of God, Jesus was speaking to that handful of men and women in the crowd who would become his lifelong followers. His disciples. Later, to be sent out as his apostles.
I think this message applies to us today, if we are hoping to live as Jesus’ followers in Alpena. We have to trust that Jesus is “on” to something – something significant and life-giving, worth spreading among our community of family & friends. And it’s not about believing doctrines or teachings about Jesus. It’s about being in a relationship with Jesus in which we trust his word & do our best to follow his way. It is trying to be as faithful to God, our Father, as Jesus was to God.
We’ve got to ask for it. Seek it. Knock, and let God open to us the door of understanding… the door of personal relationship. We are to trust God (for our well-being) like a child trusts a parent.
“What man among you,” Jesus asked the crowd on that hillside, “if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? (!) Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? (!) If you then, who aren’t perfect, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”
Fallible as we are, most of us know how to treat children well, especially our own. Regardless of the kind of parenting we received, we know to care about others, to share, to look out for one another.
Probably the most well-known collection of insight from childhood is Robert Fulghum’s 1986 essay (which became the title of his book): “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” …
He offers sixteen simple sentences that he learned “in the sand-pile at Sunday School.” Such as: “Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” “Share everything.” “Don’t take things that aren’t yours.” Sixteen rules to live by that include everything from “The Golden Rule” (that we heard from Jesus in this morning’s text), to basic sanitation! Fulghum writes:
“Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about three o’clock in the afternoon, and then lay down with our blankies for a nap! Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess. And it is still true [he writes], no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.” (“All I Really Need…” by Robert Fulghum, 1986, Ballantine Books, pages 4-6)
Last Sunday, when we recognized Katie Mack as a graduate in the Class of 2017, we considered how each and every one of us is a “role model” for people… who are watching what we do and hearing what we say: our children, teenagers, even neighbors and friends. Along those lines, on this Father’s Day, it seems appropriate that we keep in mind the advice Dr. Dorothy Law Nolte gave us some 45 years ago: Children Learn What They Live (© 1972/1975 by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.)
“If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If children live with hostility, they learn to fight. If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence. If children live with tolerance, they learn to be patient. If children live with praise, they learn to appreciate. If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves. If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness. If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and others. If children live with friendliness,
they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.”
Well, the world is not always a nice place, and (as Bill Gates says) we have to get used to that. But we can do what we can to improve the moral tone. Jesus summed it up in one memorable sentence, that we have come to call “The Golden Rule”:
“Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them! For this is the Law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, if the situation was reversed. That will fulfill God’s law of love and the biblical ethic of the prophets. You can’t go morally wrong if you are consistently and pro-actively doing for others what you wish they would do for you, if the shoe were on the other foot.
That Golden Rule was not unique to Jesus, of course. He got the idea from a Law in Judaism that said: “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” In practical terms, then, one shows love to the other by seeing things from their perspective and doing what you would like done if it were you in their place. It takes a bit of imagination and empathy to do what Jesus proposes, but it’s not difficult to grasp. To do it, though, is hard!
Other world religions echo Jesus’ Golden Rule. In Baha’i, they say: “Choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.” And in Buddhism, the saying is: “Make thine own self the measure of the other, and so abstain from causing hurt to them.” The Hindus say: “Do not do to others what ye do not wish done to yourself; and wish for others, too, what ye desire, and long for, for yourself.” Similar moral sentiment across all religious lines.
The only distinction I would make about Jesus’ Golden Rule is that it is pro-active. In other words, it is not enough to simply refrain from doing harm to the other person. That would be morally correct, of course, inasmuch as the “moral dimension” is about how something you do has an effect on another person… or group of people… either to their benefit or to their damage. If your decision helps others along, it is moral; if it adds to their burden, or causes them hurt, it is immoral.
The first step of moral behavior is, as every medical student learned in Latin: “Primum Non-Nocere” – “First, Do No Harm!” That fundamental precept of medical ethics reminds the practitioner to do no harm. Secondarily, we hope they can do some actual good!
Rather than limit ones moral thinking to simply NOT doing to the other person what you would NOT like done to yourself -- Don’t hit them, don’t spit at them, don’t call them names; don’t envy what they have and steal it for yourself. Don’t lie. Don’t kill, and all the rest of the prohibitions religion and society lay on us to limit the evil we might do. Jesus would have us initiate doing good to them!
“Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them!”
Can you imagine a good thing happening? Do you have a wish that you’d like fulfilled? Jesus says: whatever that wish is – that you would like people to do for you – get up, and get out, and get going… Do it to them! Whatever you are waiting for and wishing for, hoping it will happen for you, start behaving that way toward others… and see what happens!
Oh, I know it’s hard to hold on to high ideals in a corrupt and compromising world. It’s hard to be a Jesus-followers when the role models around us are blatantly immoral and often unfaithful. It’s hard to be a believer when our civic leaders “shade the truth” and put a “spin” on every story, and seem hell-bent on following their own self-serving agendas. But Jesus believes in us -- believes that we can actually do what he is preaching about in his Sermon on the Mount.
A new world is possible -- a new kind of relationship between people. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God”/your heavenly Father. (Matt. 6:32-33) As we function as Christians, as Jesus’ disciples, we will become less self-centered, and more engaged as a community. And while it is very likely that our own Fathers (like my Dad) may have encouraged us in that direction, Jesus is very clear that in God’s Family, we can do it! “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them!” Let us do so in Jesus’ name, for God’s sake. Amen!
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