Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

September 12, 1999

Matthew 9:27-38; Colossians 3:12-17

Some of you may be wondering about my sermon title this morning. No, these are not the call letters of a new radio or television station. They are not the initials of anybody I know. They are letters that stand for something else. Early Christians took the Greek letters that spelled fish to be a cipher or anagram for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior". Today many Christians have buttons or pins or labels or stickers that read "WWJD?" The letters stand for "What would Jesus do?"

The question, What would Jesus do?, has been around for quite some time. It was first popularized by author Charles Sheldon in his novel, IN HIS STEPS. I've mentioned Sheldon's book before. First published over a century ago, it is one of the best-selling books in American history. The story line is about the inhabitants of a town who pledge themselves to live for one year as Jesus would live. Thus, the question they asked themselves whenever faced with a situation calling for action was, quite simply, What would Jesus do? Their town was transformed by their efforts to live in this way.

I was reminded of this currently popular question some weeks ago when reading about the Kalachakra events that took place here in Bloomington in mid-August. I did not attend any of these events, though I would have liked to have been present on one or two occasions. One afternoon Hayden and I did drive out to the Tibetan Cultural Center to browse through the booths set up outside the grounds. Walking through the parking lot I noticed a great majority of cars with license plates from places other than Indiana. Thousands of people came here from all over the country, and all over the world, to receive instruction from the Dalai Lama. Millions of people throughout the world regard the Dalai Lama as a great spiritual leader and teacher. All of us had opportunity for nearly two weeks to read in the HERALD-TIMES some of the things he had to say about how people ought to live.

A couple articles in particular caught my attention. One reported on reactions of local clergy to the Dalai Lama's visit. There was almost universal acceptance of his message of peace and compassion. A local rabbi told the HERALD-TIMES, "I think the Dalai Lama's message of compassion is a universal message consistent with the traditions I follow. I think we can learn from him even as we continue to develop our own religious understanding" [Mira Wasserman]. A local pastor said that his church recognizes the Dalai Lama as a man of peace. "People shouldn't be running into their little holes saying they're the only ones who can bring peace to the world," this pastor was quoted as saying. "For myself as a Christian I always have to ask, what would Jesus do? And I definitely think this is what [Jesus would] do." [Father Charlie Cheesebrough, in HERALD-TIMES, August 22, 1999, pages 1, 14]

Another article that caught my attention raised the question, why are people attracted to the Dalai Lama and his teaching. Why, in particular, are some people who have grown up in a culture pervaded by Christian influences attracted to this Buddhist leader, this man whose teaching and culture belong to another part of the world? The answer suggested was that many people feel the need for a religious ethic or values, or they feel the need to learn the art of living. In short, the Dalai Lama represents an approach to life, or a way of life, that many find missing in our culture. For these people, at least, the search is not for philosophical answers or explanation, the need is not for ultimate theological truths, the desire is not for certainty. What they desire and need is guidance in how to live.

Let me share my own particular "take" on this. Virtually all of us need help when it comes to learning how to live. We need to learn how to live in the face of life's uncertainties. We need to learn how to live in a world where we can claim for ourselves no absolute, final answers or truths. We need to learn how to live in a society that places inordinate demands upon us to achieve, to acquire, to consume, to perform, to succeed--often at the expense of our health, or our integrity, or our peace. We need to learn how to live in a world filled with much suffering and injustice, a world that often proves hostile to goodness, a world that rewards might and power rather than kindness and compassion. We live in a world where the East Timorese people can go to the polls and vote overwhelmingly for democracy and independence, and within a week have their whole society brutally ravaged and destroyed. It makes us wonder whether it pays to be decent and civil and just, whether the right way to do things is "decently and in order", whether honesty is the best policy. Maybe acting in good faith is a foolish ideal. Maybe playing fair is a loser's game.

On the Saturday after he left Bloomington the Dalai Lama spoke in Chicago, where he was quoted as saying, "We are the same physically, spiritually and emotionally. We have the same potential . . . to help other people." He also spoke of the importance of meditation to prepare to face life's problems and noted that much blood had been shed in the name of religion. "The concept of one religion and one truth is bad," he said, adding that love and compassion for humankind is necessary to be happy, complicated philosophy and doctrine are not [HERALD-TIMES, 8-29-99].

It does seem that human beings are all very much the same. It does seem that some of the worst things that human beings do to one another are done in the name of religion, or some consuming ideology. It does seem that human happiness requires love and compassion. But many Westerners, including many Christians, would disagree that complicated philosophy and doctrine are matters we can do without. Among the local pastors quoted in that HERALD-TIMES article about the Dalai Lama's visit were three who took issue with the basis for his teachings. One said that the only path to peace was through the Christian faith and belief in Jesus Christ. Another said "I don't think he can help us with peace. He's not connected to God." [op. cit.]

Now there are certainly important differences between Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. Some of those differences are profound. Some people in our community even regarded the Dalai Lama's visit as a threat to Christian faith. Perhaps that is why he publicly declared, "It is safer, better, that you in the United States should preserve your own tradition rather than change to another religion" [op. cit.]. That is the wisdom of someone who recognizes differences, but is more concerned about commonalities. Differences in ideas and beliefs and traditions should not prevent us from seeking those things that we all need in common. Disagreements should not prevent us from those practices of peace and compassion so needed for our happiness, indeed, for our mutual survival.

There is abundant evidence in our society that people today are hungry not simply for some kind of spiritual connection, but also for moral or ethical guidance. It does not seem to me that they are asking for rules and laws, however, as much as for models or practices. They are not wanting to be told precisely what to do, but they are wanting help in learning how to live. They--and we--are searching for guidance in the art of living. That is one reason why the Dalai Lama appeals to so many. It also explains the renewed interest in the question, What would Jesus do? Perhaps it also helps to account for the spate of movies that are being produced these days with religious or spiritual themes, of which "The Sixth Sense" is a currently popular example. In any event, what we have here is the attempt to give some definition and form and substance to the matter of how we are to live.

How are we to live in a world that, on the one hand, overwhelms us with its opportunities and demands, yet, on the other hand, gives us so few, if any certainties or common core commitments or communities of consensus to guide our actions? We are set upon the sea of post-modernity, with burdensome pressures, conflicting expectations, hazardous passages, and uncertain destinations surrounding us and bearing down upon us. What is there to sustain us, to instill us with confidence and purpose and direction, to chart our path through life's abundant but also perilous waters?

In this morning's text from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a healer of every disease and sickness, a teacher in the synagogues, and a proclaimer of the good news of God's reign. Then Matthew says, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" [9:36]. What would Jesus do? Well, one of the things that Jesus did was he had compassion. He had compassion for the crowds, for those who were harassed, for those who seemed without direction, without protection, needing guidance and sustenance and care. And out of that compassion he healed the sick, he taught in the synagogues and on the hillsides and in the villages and wherever he went, and he proclaimed good news about God.

I imagine that when some people ask the question, What would Jesus do?, they are hoping for a very particular and precise answer to a specific situation. And I imagine that such an answer cannot often be given. But for those who are looking for moral guidance, for those who are looking for a way of life, there is a lot that can be said. His was a way of compassion. His was a way of caring for those in need. His was a way of drawing people into the family of God.

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg says that Jesus was, above all, a "spirit person," by which he means that Jesus possessed an experiential awareness of the reality of God [MEETING JESUS AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, 30]. Jesus was in touch with God. Jesus was aware to a remarkable degree of a dimension of reality beyond the realm of the senses. He experienced himself and all of life as belonging also to this realm of the Spirit. To understand this is not necessarily to know what Jesus would do in this or that situation, but it is to know that for Jesus all of life was infused with the Spirit of God.

The art of living is the art of existing and acting in greater realization or awareness that our lives are in God. When we think about what Jesus did, and how he lived, the perception that he was a "spirit person" is of enormous importance. What Jesus did was not simply an exercise in good judgment, or an act of obedience to divine command, or a practical application of ethical rules. Jesus' actions cannot be understood simply in terms of rational behavior, or moral behavior, or ethical conduct. His actions seem to have been saturated with an awareness of the presence and power of God. They were a response to the reality of God in his life and in the midst of the life of the people.

What would Jesus do? Jesus would pray. Jesus would join in the worship life of his people. Jesus would travel the countryside, he would converse and dine with all manner of people. Jesus would reflect upon the world about him--seedtime and harvest, rain and sun, birds and flowers, the dynamics of family life, the conduct of business affairs, the disparities of social existence. One hears about all of these things and more in his parables and teachings. Borg characterizes Jesus also as a teacher of wisdom. From common experience Jesus drew uncommon insights. He discerned what lay at the heart of many things that others regarded only in conventional or superficial ways. He knew that a person's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. He knew that people are invariably better able to see what they regard as their own interests than they are to appreciate the interests of other. He knew that pride and envy and riches and power get in the way of seeing things rightly and doing things justly.

Thus, as Borg also notes, Jesus was a social prophet. He was a critic of society, particularly hard on the elites. He preached and taught an alternative social vision, in which traditional social barriers were broken down and no one was excluded simply because of who they were. He called for repentance instead of condemnation, forgiveness instead of punishment, inclusion instead of separation. One of the preachers at General Assembly in June used his opportunity to preach a message that was clearly directed against a change in our denomination's policy on the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. He gave his Thursday morning congregation a slogan and asked them to repeat it over and over with him. "Don't lower the bar" he shouted. "Don't lower the bar." Well, I wasn't there, but I wish someone had had the gumption to shout back, "Jesus threw away the bar!" What would Jesus do? He would say, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden." He would call for a different bar, the bar of compassion, the bar of generosity, the bar of welcome.

Some Christians have the very mistaken idea that the call to a compassionate, loving, accepting Christianity is a call to an easy life--lower standards, cheap grace, and the like. Not so at all. It is a lot easier not to deal with folks who are different, folks you don't like or don't understand, folks with different values or perceptions, folks you don't think are living right. It's a lot harder to show them compassion. When it comes to a compassionate Christianity, every one of us still has a long way to go.

The Christian life is not simply compassion, of course. We are called to act in many ways that require us to assess facts and circumstances, consider obligations, weigh values and possible outcomes, make judgments, and try to discern what is the good and right thing to do. But whenever we judge or decide or act without compassion, it is hard to believe that we are being faithful to what Jesus would do. The Dalai Lama is very close to the mark in urging a life of compassion. The ministry of Jesus was surely a ministry of compassion. For Christians, the compassion of Jesus is one very crucial aspect of our model for living.

Somewhere along the way, most accomplished artists must find, or create, a model for their art. The art of living, for Christians, is the art of being informed and inspired by the model we have been given in Jesus. True art is not simply copying or imitation, however. The art of living is not a science that can be learned from a book or a set of rules. But neither is it a simple practice that requires no critical thinking or reflection. It is an art that requires some of the rigorous thinking of science and some of the familiar discipline of practice.

What would Jesus do? thus is not a question to be answered in any simple literal way. It is a question that engages us in two very important tasks. The first task is to try to discern and understand what Jesus did. What manner of man was he? How did he live? How did he relate to others, to the world around him, to God? This is a task in which today's biblical scholarship has much to contribute. We already have the Christian witness to Jesus in the Gospel accounts, and scholarship can hardly discover anything that is not already there. But scholarship may help us greatly to refine and clarify our understanding so that we may grasp more confidently the central and most authentic features of that witness. In short, part of the art of Christian living is to know more about the Jesus who is the founder of our faith, and that requires us to know the witness of the scriptures, in particular the witness of the Gospels, to this stranger from Galilee.

But there is a second and more difficult task. It is not enough to know, as best we can know, that Jesus was compassionate healer and preacher of good news, a "spirit person" who was also a teacher of wisdom and a social prophet with a vision of God's reign coming and being in our midst. The art of living then requires of us to imagine from the model of his life the new creation that is to define our lives. And having imagined this new creation that we are called to be, the art of living requires that we put paint on canvas, chisel to stone, sound to notes, speech to script, movement to image and idea. That is to say, we must find ways to embody in our daily living what we are being led to see. We must open ourselves to the creative leading and empowering of the Spirit.

For Christians who find in Jesus God's gift of life, the art of living is the art of becoming receptive to a greater awareness of the divine Spirit at work in our lives and our world. It is the art of learning to be more compassionate toward all. It is the art of embodying the wisdom of what is true and lies at the heart of our existence. It is the art of acting upon the vision of a world transformed by God's gracious and loving power.

Many people in our society these days seem to be seeking guidance in the art of living. They are not all asking for pat answers to their questions about what to think or how to act. They don't all seem to expect some formula that can be applied to every situation. They are searching for guidance. They are looking for a model, or a practice, that will open them up to a higher or deeper or greater reality, to powers beyond their own. They need inspiration, confidence, vision, and hope for a way of life that promises a more authentic existence or a better world. If their search has not brought them to this or some other Christian sanctuary, perhaps it is because they have not heard of the Jesus of compassion. Or perhaps they have heard, but they have not found this Jesus to be the model for our lives. AMEN.