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I’ve long marveled at the timeless relevance of the Sermon on the Mount.  The passing of nearly 2,000 years has not diminished in the slightest the power, potency, or truth of Jesus’ message.  On the contrary, these words are infused with a divinely uncanny ability to speak directly into our hearts and lives, no matter what stage or circumstances of life we find ourselves in or where we are on our walk of faith in Christ.  For that reason, we can never read or hear this sermon exactly the same way twice, because we always encounter it (and it encounters us) at a different place on our journey.  It never fails to speak to the needs of the moment, whether that is comfort, encouragement, conviction, or correction.  This message of Jesus, brief though it is, will seek us out and find us wherever we are.  It will expose our deepest longings and hurts, bringing comfort and assurance.  It will sometimes ambush us with convicting rebuke in an area of life in which we may have been negligent, blinded, or in denial.  It was the latter of these that I experienced several months ago.

Last December, I enjoyed a sabbatical week in the form of a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Cistercian monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, about 45 minutes south of Louisville.  This was my fifth consecutive year to “unplug” there for the purpose of reading, prayer, meditation, and rest within a context of silence.  It’s impossible for me to quantify or adequately express the spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits that I gain from these sabbatical weeks away from regular responsibilities and the distractions of media and electronics.

My flight back home was on Friday afternoon.  I was among the last to board, and my seat was nearly at the back of the plane.  I found an overhead storage space for my backpack, and then apologetically informed the woman sitting on the aisle that I had the window seat.  As she stood up and stepped out to let me in, she said, “Thank you for being a normal sized person,” which sort of stunned me.  All I could think of to say in response was, “You’re welcome!”

It was a great flight.  I read an entire issue of TIME magazine that I had purchased in the airport terminal.  My “next door neighbor” slept through most of the two-hour flight.  She woke up as we started the descent into DFW, and we chatted long enough for me to learn that she was a special education administrator in the Louisville-Jefferson County School System.  We talked about Coleman and the road races we’ve run together, special education, and the Abbey of Gethsemani.  We exchanged parting pleasantries as we deplaned.  “Nice talking with you!”  “Safe travels!”  I should have known that the “odds of air travel” demanded that the flight from Dallas to Tulsa would not be that good.

What does this have to do with the Sermon on the Mount?  We’re almost there.

On the Dallas-to-Tulsa flight, I was the guy sitting on the aisle with nearly everyone on board, and the window seat next to me was still unoccupied.   It looked like it was going to be a full flight, but could I possibly be fortunate enough not to have a traveling companion?  No!  The last person (the absolute last one) to enter the plane was a tall, long-legged, broad-shouldered young man with ear buds in both ears.  He stopped beside me, tossed his big leather coat and sizeable man purse into the empty seat, and grunted, “I’ve got the window, but I’m going to the bathroom first.”

It was really close to flight time.  We had started to taxi out, and he still hadn’t returned to his seat.  Finally, he reappeared.  I unbuckled my seat belt and stepped out so that he could get in.  Standing next to him, I realized that he was even taller and broader than I first thought.  Since he was in his seat before I was back in mine, he quickly claimed his territory, positioning his long legs out at 45-degree angles from center, which put his right knee significantly beyond the internationally recognized border that exists between airline seats.

Peaceful, calming sabbatical or not, I was in no mood to surrender without a fight.  Even with my leg positioned straight out, my left knee pressed firmly against his illegally invasive right knee.  I kept my knee in firm contact with his, hoping that the awkwardness and discomfort would serve as a hint.  It didn’t.  Neither of us was going to blink.

The young man unplugged his earbuds from his cell phone to make a quick call just before we took off.  Then, back in his ears they went as he watched what I gathered from the corner of my eye were music videos.  The volume from his earbuds was so loud that I could hear it over the engine noise.  He would periodically minimize the video so that he could tap out messages on his phone.  I could only hope that his phone was in airplane mode and that he was using the plane’s Wi-Fi, but I wasn’t about to ask him.  He sneezed.  I turned and said, “Bless you!”  He never uttered a word.  This was going to be long 40-minute flight.  My week’s worth of peace and tranquility were disappearing fast.

My solution, with my knee still pressed against his, was that I would focus my mind on the Sermon on the Mount.  I had committed it to memory over 25 years ago, and I periodically rehearse and recite it (silently or aloud) in order to keep it current and fresh in my mind.  It takes about 15 minutes to recite.  Perhaps I could review it in my mind twice before we touched down in Tulsa.  It would be spiritually beneficial to me and would help pass the agonizing minutes ahead.

The following are a few excerpts of how Jesus’ words located me with pinpoint accuracy on the plane that night.

I closed my eyes and thought…

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.  He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying…

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

Oh, yeah!  That!  Gentleness.  Okay.  But, certainly, demanding the legroom that I had bought and paid for could not be considered a failure to be gentle.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteous…

That’s what I’m trying to do here, Lord!

Blessed are the merciful…

Ouch!  That one hit much closer to home.  I relaxed my leg a little.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Wow!  I remembered what I have preached and taught over the years about what it means to be a peacemaker; not just a peace-preferrer or a peace-wisher, but a peacemaker; a peace initiator; someone who works for peace; sacrifices for the sake of peace; yields and forfeits for the sake of peace.

I straightened my leg, placing my foot under the seat in front of me, so that my knee was positioned below his and wouldn’t contact it.  It was plenty comfortable; not a problem at all; not really all that much to give up.

You are the salt of the earth…

You are the light of the world; a city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house (or on the plane).  Let your light shine before others in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

His elbow nearly clocked me in the face as he pulled his laptop out of his man purse.  I flinched, but he didn’t make contact.  He typed frantically for a while, then slammed the laptop shut.  We had another near miss when he put it back in his bag.  Still… no harm, no foul!

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, “Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.  Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him to asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven.”

Did I mention that this young man was Middle Eastern, with a heavy, close cut beard?  Oh, yeah!  He was.  I’m ashamed to admit where I had let my thoughts run.  The long stay in the bathroom; the quick phone call before takeoff; the text messages; the laptop.  I had played out the entire scenario.  I had Criminal Mind-ed this guy.  I caught myself (or God did) in shame and embarrassment over allowing myself to fall prey to fear, suspicion, stereotyping, prejudice, profiling, and a whole lot of other things that my better self would like to believe have no place in my mind and don’t exist in my heart.  Apparently, however, they do!

Do not judge, so that you will not be judged.  For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

I handed him his drink (apple juice, I think) from the flight attendant.  He said nothing.  Given the short flight and the fact that we were at the back of the plane, it wasn’t long at all before they were collecting the trash.  I tilted my empty cup over toward his and said, “I’ll take your cup for you.”  He put his empty cup inside mine and said, “Thank you.”  A small response, yes, but an adequately kind one.

So, the rest of the story is that, later that night, this guy confessed his faith in Jesus and was baptized, right?

No.  That’s not the moral of the story.

The moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter how or even if other people respond, or whether they ever acknowledge or appreciate our actions.  That’s their call, their choice, and their responsibility.  My responsibility as a disciple of Jesus is to listen to the words of my Teacher, write them on my heart, and live them out in my life in daily circumstances as I seek to walk in His steps.

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell and floods came and the winds blew and slammed against that house, and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell – and great was its fall.


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August 2017