Byron C. Bangert

February 8, 1998

Hosea 11:1-9; Ephesians 4:17-20, 25-5:2

About five years ago, when I was leading one of our commissioning classes of young people preparing for possible church membership, I asked them to join in me a little exercise. Suppose for some reason you found yourselves living in a place where it was illegal to be a Christian, I said to them. Would there be enough evidence to convict you?

What would the evidence be? Going to church? But there are people who go to church who are not believers. Participating in other church activities? The same goes for these. People have a need to belong, to do things together. That hardly makes them Christian. What about prayer? Suppose you were to be caught praying, wouldn't that be proof that you are Christian? Well, it might be evidence that you are a religious or spiritual person, but that would hardly mean you are a Christian. People of many different religions pray. How about church membership? After all, you cannot become a church member without making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. That ought to be proof enough! But then there is the question, did you really mean it? And even if you did back when, that does not mean that you still do now. What about good deeds of justice and love? These are the sorts of actions Christians believe in, and sometimes actually do--but there are also others who do these things!

As you can see, this was a way of thinking about what it means to be a Christian. There are no easy and obvious answers. If there were, I suppose most of us preachers would be out of a job. There are lots of things that seem to me to be characteristic of most Christians, but few that unmistakably set Christians apart. Also, I confess that it has always been easier for me to point to things that are not Christian than to state clearly things that are. I often do not know what to do as a Christian, but I usually know a good many things not to do.

Yet, surely, for Christians there is a definable way of being in the world. A century ago a Congregational pastor named Charles Sheldon thought he had the formula for identifying that way. He wrote a very popular book, titled IN HIS STEPS. For 60 years it was the largest selling book in the United States after the Bible. Sheldon's book told the story of the inhabitants of a town who pledged to live for one year according to the formula, What would Jesus do? In every situation, that was the question to be asked. And in every situation, the answer to that question would tell us how we are to live.

What would Jesus do? Not a bad formula for the Christian life! But there are many circumstances we face that Jesus never faced. And most of Jesus' life remains quite unknown to us. We may be able to discover a core of Jesus' teaching, and we may be able to discern a distinctive pattern to his life--indeed, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar are currently working on just such tasks--and these may help us to grasp what it truly means to be God's people. These may help us to see what a faithful and loving life looks like. But we will not find in Jesus a model that displays for us everything we need to know about how we are to live.

It seems that there is a Christian way, and yet it seems that many--even most--of the particulars of that way are never clearly spelled out for us. What we have in Jesus is a basic pattern, an illuminating and inspiring example, but not an entire blueprint for our own existence in the world and before God. Jesus and the New Testament provide us many of the distinguishing features of the Christian way, but most of the details we need to work out for ourselves.

There is a place in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says to his disciples, who are being sent out to proclaim the good news of God's reign to their fellow Jews, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" [10:16]. "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." The disciples must realize that they will meet with resistance as well as acceptance. They must keep their wits about them, and they must give no cause for offense. Martin Luther King, Jr., once took this instruction as his text for a sermon he titled, "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart" [STRENGTH TO LOVE]. This is a very helpful way of thinking about two distinguishing, yet contrasting, features of the Christian way. First, toughmindedness, but then a tender heart.

Neither Jesus nor any biblical writer ever explicitly speaks of toughmindedness. But the idea is expressed in many ways. The warning Jesus gives his disciples is a warning not to be naive. It is a warning not to be overly optimistic. It is a caution that there are those, even among the disciples' own people, who will be hostile to what they have to offer. In Jesus' view, and in the biblical view as a whole, the world is not regarded as the enemy. We would not want to say that the world is necessarily a hostile place. But clearly, there are forces that are evil. The world is marked by ignorance, prejudice, and sin. There are real perils to be faced by anyone who seeks to be a disciple of Jesus, anyone who seeks to live as if God's kingdom were come and God's will must be done. You must proceed with your eyes and ears open, and keep your wits about you.

In other words, the Christian way brooks no illusions about the world. Christianity possesses a certain hard-headed realism about the way things are. Sometimes this has gotten blown out of proportion. Recall the doctrine of utter depravity. Here is a doctrine that seems to suggest, as the familiar prayer of confession put it, that "there is no health in us." Human beings are mere detestable worms. Well, that is hardly the case, and Christians ought not to hold humankind in such contempt. If it is wrong to suppose that being nice to everybody will make this earth a heaven, it is equally wrong to suppose that we are utterly corrupt and worthless. Toughmindedness is a capacity to see the world, so far as possible, as it is. It is a world in which there are real tensions and conflicts, a world in which the interests of some are opposed to the interests of others, and there may be no way to make everybody happy. It is a world in which there are not only the natural disasters of flood and earthquake and drought, but also those tragedies of war and famine and disease for which human beings clearly bear significant responsibility. It is a world in which pride and lust and power and greed are real forces with which to contend.

It is not just that Christians are to recognize the fact of evil in this world, however. We need also to be perceptive and critical and mature in our thinking about the world. As Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, "be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults" [I Corinthians 14:20]. In other words the Christian way asks of us more than mere acceptance of the fact that the world is the way the world is. It is not enough to believe that there are problems in the world! We are to face them, think about them, wrestle with them, struggle to try to understand and, where possible, to overcome them.

There is a tendency among well-intentioned people, including most church people, to assume the best of others. That is an admirable tendency, but it can sometimes get us into trouble. Every failure known to humankind can be found somewhere in the Church. The Christian community may in some ways be a haven from the world, but it is more aptly a proving ground where we can all try to practice what we preach and learn together how to deal with our own infirmities, so that we might better deal with the infirmities of the world.

Toughminded people know that there is a price to pay for almost anything that is worthwhile. You cannot raise a child well without devoting your attention and giving your love. You cannot gain a solid education without extensive reading and research and study. You cannot learn to play an instrument well without practice and practice and more practice. You cannot build a church or any other sustaining human community without significant commitments of talent and time and material resources. And you cannot become an accomplished practitioner of the Christian way without learning how to engage in the struggle to be yourself transformed and to become a transforming presence for others.

The necessary complement to toughmindedness is tenderheartedness. If at first it does not seem that these two go together, consider the alternatives: Toughminded and hard-hearted? That sounds pretty brutal, like Darth Vader, Dr. No, or an early Clint Eastwood character. Soft-headed and tenderhearted? That sounds pretty ineffectual, like "Laugh-in's" Goldie Hawn. Soft-headed and hard-hearted? That's stupid and mean together, like one of the predators in "Jurassic Park". What we really need is toughminded and tenderhearted together.

There is an interesting juxtaposition in our New Testament text between the way that precedes and the way that follows life with God in Christ. The former life is referred to as the way "the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart" [Eph. 4:17-18]. We should hardly suppose from this that all Gentiles were evil or disgusting people. We should suppose, however, that the author of Ephesians saw--very clearly--that the Christian way required a significant break from the patterns that prevailed in the world at large. The Christian way is not to be conformed to the ways of the world. If others are alienated from the life of God it is because of both "ignorance" and "hardness of heart."

The word "ignorance" is primarily a New Testament word. To be without knowledge of God, however, is a desperate human condition throughout both Old and New Testaments. Time and again throughout the biblical writings God reveals, informs, instructs, makes known. God's people are lost without knowledge of God and of God's ways and purposes in the earth. There is always this invitation and challenge to seek, to know, to cherish wisdom, to get understanding. Against the foolishness of those who worship idols made with human hands, prophets like Isaiah contrast true faith in the one God made known in the creation and in the redemption of Israel [cf. Isaiah 44]. The soft-headedness of idol worship is one form of the ignorance that marks the human condition apart from God.

Even more obvious, however, is hard-heartedness. Here is a term that captures, perhaps better than any other, the refusal of God's ways. Throughout both Testaments, those who defy God and those who seek to go their own way are convicted for their hardness of heart. This is surely one term, if not the primary term, by which the scriptures characterize the turn against God. The hardened heart is not receptive or responsive toward God. It is closed, shut off, impervious to the Divine word and will. Those whose hearts are hardened have eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear. They have minds, but do not understand. They touch, but do not feel. They know, but do not care.

On occasion the Old Testament psalmists and prophets even take God to task for what seems to be God's hardness of heart. "How long will you hide your face from me?" cries one of the psalmists [13:1]. How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever," cries another [79:5]. "O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?" demands the prophet Habakkuk [1:2]. Perhaps the most poignant of all these expressions is found in this morning's text from Hosea. Here the prophet recites God's compassionate dealings with the people of Israel, but then notes the judgment that has been inflicted upon them for their unfaithfulness. The question in the prophet's mind must be whether God will ever be compassionate again: "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?" Surely God must be asking these questions. And surely God must be answering: "My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath" [11:8-9].

The most terrible thing that could happen to God's people would be the hardening of God's heart. All of Hosea's hopes for the people of Israel rest upon this assertion of God's compassion, of God's warm and tender heart. So it is revealed to us what it means for us to be part of the life of God. It is not just to be toughminded--perceptive, truthful, clear-thinking, knowing, discerning, judging--but also tenderhearted. The God of Israel is not a naive or foolish God, but One who knows only too well, with only too much pain, just how unfaithful the people have been. This God has seen their injustice, their idolatry, their swearing, lying, murdering, stealing, and adultery [4:2], their hypocrisy and their trust in their own power [10:13], but divine judgment is not the end of this story. At the heart of this story, and at its end, is a God of compassion.

So it does not surprise us that the author of Ephesians, writing to first-century Christians, should say to them: "So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. . . Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore, be imitators of God . . ." [4:25, 31-5:1].

If we understand the Christian way to be a way distinguished by toughmindedness and tenderheartedness, it is because we understand God to be toughminded and tenderhearted. Many of us, perhaps most of us, know well the toughminded side of God. This is the God of the commandments, the God who demands our obedience, the God who stands over us in judgment, the God who convicts us of our sin. This is clearly not a complete or adequate understanding of God. Indeed, it does not bring us to the heart of God. Our understanding is meager, our faith weak and poor, until we come to know the tender and compassionate heart of God.

And of course our way of living is meager and weak and poor until we learn to embody such compassion toward others in our world. Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner has spoken of the "hatching of the heart" as a way of expressing the opening to God that we need [GODRIC (New York: Atheneum, 1980]. There are many hard edges in life. We encounter many daily in the world. We can find them in the church as well. There are many people who will not be receptive to any word that challenges their hard-won position and place in the world. There are many who do not wish to be relieved of their ignorance, disabused of their prejudice, divested of their anger or pride. It does not take much to turn us hard, to close us off and shut us down, in our encounters with the hardness of others. Then, more than ever, we need a "hatching of the heart," a new and right spirit within us, an opening toward the God of compassion who, alone, can open us up in compassion to one another.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg writes, "The absence or presence of compassion is the central test for discerning whether something is 'of God'" [THE GOD WE NEVER KNEW, 129]. Compassion alone is hardly sufficient for us to discern the truth, to do the right, or to determine what is faithful and just. But without compassion we have no power to transform anything that we know into something more lovely or good. A tough mind without a tender heart has the power only to burden us, to bear down upon us, to harden us in our judgments toward others and to deaden our spirits within. Only the grace that hatches our hearts, opening them to the Divine compassion, can bear us up and transform us and make us fit to dwell in communion with one another in the commonwealth of God. AMEN.