February 24, 2019

Good Measure, Pressed Down, Shaken Together, Running Over

Passage: Luke 6:27–38

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down,
shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. —Luke 6:27


When we want to think about the most famous sermon in history, we usually consult the Gospel of Matthew, where that sermon is called The Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew Jesus’ sermon has size and heft and punch. He preached it from a mountaintop. Some of us have been to the Church of the Beatitudes. That’s an impressive place. It’s perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew, Jesus’ sermon sprawls across 111 verses of the Bible.

Jesus’ sermon is a more modest enterprise in the Gospel of Luke. He’s not on a mountain when he preaches it; in Luke it’s called The Sermon on the Plain. Jesus seems to want to get down on the level of his congregation. If Jesus’ sermon in Matthew is 111 verses long, in Luke it’s 29 verses. A more modest enterprise. But Luke is maybe just a little more efficient than Matthew. He gets the same points across in less than one-third the words.

But I have some questions for Jesus. “Love your enemies,” he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

I have some questions for Jesus. Trevor Wehner was a senior honor roll student at Northern Illinois University on the first day of his internship in the human resources department at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora. He’s dead. Do we need to love Gary Martin?

In Pennsylvania, a Roman Catholic priest raped a teenager. She got pregnant. He arranged for an abortion. The priest’s bishop wrote a letter: "This is a very difficult time in your life,” he wrote, “and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief." That letter was not for the girl but for the priest. Do we have to love the bishops who shuffled child abusers from parish to parish to parish?

A 20-year-old student at the University of Alabama Birmingham flees to Syria, joins the Islamic State, becomes a prominent and useful propagandist for ISIS to the English-speaking world, and calls Muslims to rent big trucks to crush Americans. Should we welcome her home?

When a man punches his wife, should she turn the other cheek? This is just not good advice for her.

Frederick Nietzsche was a brilliant nineteenth-century German philosopher who is probably the most prominent enemy of Christianity in history. Contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are his intellectual grandchildren. The reason he hated Christianity so much is exactly texts like this from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  He thought Jesus was weak and misled the human race into helplessness and victimhood. Christianity, he said, was a religion for slaves, spiders, and mosquitos.

Dr. Nietzsche believed in the Ubermensch, the Super Man. He is the inspiration behind the Man from Krypton. Also Sprach Zarathustra. Jesus is the antithesis of the Superman.

It’s easy to sympathize with Dr. Nietzsche. Jesus’ advice in the Sermon on the Plain is not a universal moral code. There are exceptions, but you can see why Jesus asks his followers never to respond in kind to the mean and the small-minded.

Jesus’ words are the inspiration for Martin Luther King’s ethic of nonviolence. Violence can never defeat violence, he said; only peace can defeat violence. Evil can never erase evil, he said; only goodness can erase evil. Hatred can never conquer hatred, he said; only love can conquer hatred. Or to quote another wise intellect: “Players gonna play, play, play, play; haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate; fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, but I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake; Shake it off.” Good advice.

“Show to others the same mercy you receive from God,” says Jesus.  Because “the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven....Mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, and an attribute God Godself.”[1] Without it, life together would be impossible.

I played a little word association game with myself. Mercy: kindness, forbearance, grace. The word ‘space’ leapt to my mind. A merciful person gives you space to be yourself, room to err, permission to fall and to get back up, freedom to fail and to try again.  With mercy, there is always a second chance.

After he killed eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, Robert Bowers was taken by ambulance to the Allegheny General Hospital to be treated for the injuries he received in a gunfight with the police. He entered the emergency room screaming, “I want to kill all the Jews.”  Hospital President Jeffrey Cohen is a member of Tree of Life. He lives so close to the synagogue that he heard the gunshots.

The emergency room doctor and a nurse were also Jewish. The nurse is the son of a rabbi. “I want to kill all the Jews,” said Mr. Bowers. President Cohen was so proud of his staff. “We’re here to take care of sick people,” he said. We’re not here to judge you. We’re not here to ask ‘Do you have insurance?’ We’re here to take care of people who need our help.”

After the emergency room treated Mr. Bowers and got him into a hospital room. Dr. Cohen stopped by Mr. Bowers’ room to make sure he was not in pain. [2]

Mercy leads to life. “Give,” says Jesus, “and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over. That’s such a beautiful and creative image, isn’t it? Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over. You know where that image comes from, right? It comes from the first-century marketplace, or any century’s marketplace, I guess. When a generous merchant fills your basket with any granular substance—grain, rice, beans, dry coffee, meal—he presses it down and shakes it so that all the nooks and crannies between the grains are filled and your vessel is at capacity. It is overflowing.

We do this every day without thinking about it. We press down, shake it together. When we show to each other the same mercy God shows to us, our life together is a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over. It is lavish life, copious life, bountiful life. Without mercy our life together is a pinched and narrow austerity.

I’ve probably mentioned John Ortberg before. A long time ago John was one of the pastors at the Willow Creek Church in South Barrington and today he is the Senior Minister at a huge Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. Ten years ago, his daughter graduated from Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical college near Los Angeles, so of course Dr. Ortberg and his wife attended the commencement.

At a special ceremony before the graduation, University President Jon Wallace pulled three seniors into the center of the room and told the assembled guests that these three graduating seniors had decided to serve poor people in rough neighborhoods, and Dr. Wallace told the three students, “Someone you do not know has heard about what you’re doing. He wants you to be able to serve without impediment,” and then the president looked one young woman in the eye and said, “Your school debt of $105,000 has been forgiven.” It took a few moments for this news to sink in and then the student shook her head and began to weep.

The President turned to the second student, “Your debt of $70,000 has been forgiven,” and the third student, “You have been forgiven your debt of $130,000.” Dr. Ortberg says, “All three students were trembling. Their lives had been changed in the twinkling of an eye by the extravagance of someone they had never met....An unpayable debt. An unseen giver. An unforgettable gift.”[3]

But that’s our experience too, right? Every one of us. An unpayable debt. An unseen giver. An unforgettable gift. Calvary’s cross.  The unmerited grace of Jesus. The mercy of the Lord. Show to each other the same mercy God showed to you.

[1]William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, sc. 1.

[2]Eli Rosenberg, “I’m Dr. Cohen’: The Powerful Humanity of the Jewish Hospital Staff That Treated Robert Bowers,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2019.

[3]Slightly adapted from John Ortberg, “The Freedom of the Debtors,” The Christian Century, December 15, 2009, p. 21.