Monday, February 28, 2011

"Where No One Has Been"

Matthew 6: 24-34
Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

Our text from Matthew this morning will be a familiar one when you hear it.  Imagine Jesus in the upper Galilee where sunflowers bend over to reveal their dark brown centers and golden petals.  They are silhouetted against a brilliant turquoise, sort of a ‘virgin Mary’ blue sky.  There are hundreds of wildflowers in bloom also, as is the case in that part of the Middle East.   Imagine he and his disciples and hundreds of other people sitting on a grassy mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee; a calm not stormy sea, with a fishing boat or two out in the middle. 

And he begins to talk.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt 5:3)  Jesus has begun his sermon up there on the mountain side.  He continues his discourse interpreting and reinterpreting Judaic law.  He makes it plain and simple for folk.  “You are the salt of the earth”, (Matt 5:13), “You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:14), “Give to everyone who begs from you”, (Matt 5:42), “Love your enemies”, (Matt 5:44), “Pray like this…Our Father in Heaven”, (Matt 6:9).  That’s an awful lot of responsibility that he’s heaped on people.  He lets them know in no uncertain terms what it will be like, what it will take to be Christ-followers.

Then he says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth or mammon as the King James Version says”, (Matt 6:24).  You can just imagine how that might have landed on these poor, peasant people, right?  But then again if you are rich you worry about your investments, and if you are poor you worry about where your next dime will come from so anyone can get caught up in the struggle choosing between God and wealth.  Anyone can become a slave to the almighty shekel!  Then Jesus says, “THEREFORE” and you know you are in for something when he says, ‘therefore’.

Here now the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, the 6th chapter….

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

I dabble in botanical watercolor.  What I love about it is that you have to really ‘get intimate’ with your floral
specimen.  If I were water coloring a lily I would have to ‘consider’, to look closely at the flower and all of
its parts.  How do the sepals, those pre blossom leaves and the petals relate?  How long are the stamens in
relation to the carpel?  Where is my light source and how does it interplay with the glorious color of the lily? 

Then, after the plant parts are identified and drawn I examine the color.  A petal is just never, red, or orange or magenta.  Oh no!  There are varying shades of pink all in one petal and sometimes you find a spring green running through one of its veins.  And don’t be surprised if you find a reddish brown or rust color tipping the edges of the leaves or sliding down the stem.  Lilies and all flowers are nothing short of a grand and glorious miracle of God.  When God created, God done good here! 

But you have to be a very quick painter if you want to use your specimen while it’s fresh.  And quick painting just doesn’t happen with watercolor.  You layer wash upon wash of color letting it dray in between and each day the flower wilts just a little.  The flower head droops and the light is not hitting it at the same angle.  So a botanical watercolorist must photograph her flower so she can see exactly what she saw the very first day otherwise the painting will be compromised.  Flowers wilt, petals drop, and eventually it dies altogether.

But that day on the mountain Jesus looked around.  He saw and perhaps picked a wildflower or a lily that was growing.  He admires the vast beauty of the lily, and the way in which God created and cares so deeply for a lily that will live only for a few days.  He tells the people around him not to worry.  Do not fret.  Don’t sweat!  Chillax.  Take a chill pill and relax.

If God can make sure that those little sparrows are fed, and that which grows so naturally in the field is as beautifully clothed as the lilies, or sunflowers, then don’t you think that your God in heaven knows what you need to live your life? 

Of course God knows what we need.  God created us, remember? 

But God also knows that there is plenty that we worry about, even to the point of excess. And rightly so!  For who among us today can honestly say that there isn’t a worry on our mind?  Or that there isn’t something that is taking up way to much residence in your heart, or that there isn’t some serious concern that keeps you awake at night or anxiety that wakes you up in the morning?   We all, especially in today’s economy and world disasters have been given much to worry about.

Jesus does not turn a blind eye to his followers concerns and worries.  He embraces them, that’s what we see in his life and in his work and his ministry.    He works with hungry people, the street people and people who are in dire need of healing.  He has compassion for the well-to-do who have much to lose.  He knows all too well the human condition and the capacity for excessive worry. 

He understands that worry to the extreme can render you completely helpless.  He also knows that when worry is your life then you are relying and living out of fear more than trust in God.  For the opposite of worry is trust.

I understand that your congregation is at a crossroads.  For some it might be a relief, and for some it might be bittersweet, and for others it might be sad or scary.  I don’t know details, nor do I want to.  But as past interim pastor I’ve learned that there is anxiety and worry, concern and even fear about this interim period and what the future will bring for a congregation. 

When you begin to see anxiety seep into the crevices of the sanctuary, remember the final verse of today’s scripture.  So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  There is plenty to deal with today without bringing into play the anxieties of tomorrow.  If we let our anxieties about tomorrow invade our moments of today we will be missing out on so much goodness and grace.

I once heard it said, ‘Tomorrow is a place where no one has been’.  How true is that?  Not me, not you, nor anyone around us, not the psychic, or the soothsayer or ‘Great Aunt Ella’ who has premonitions, nor economic indicators or weather forecasters have yet stepped foot into tomorrow.  Tomorrow is a place where no one has been. And that’s a real good thing.  Because then we begin anew to write a different page in the diary of life.   Each day is a new beginning not rooted in fear, but based upon resurrection. 

Living into the resurrection made so abundantly clear through Jesus Christ enables us to figure out today first before going to this place where no one has been.  Resurrection brings hope for tomorrow because God cares.  God cares deeply.  God cares about the migratory birds that fly over Israel and the flowers that dot the hillside.  God will guide you and calm your fears and set before you a path to traverse.  But that’s tomorrow.  Let’s enjoy this day.

Rev. Suzanne Wagner

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Have You Loved Today?"

Matthew 5: 38-48

Here we are still up on top of that mountain in the region of the Galilee with Jesus, his disciples and several others. Perhaps they gaze out over the shimmering Sea of Galilee and watch a magnificent sunrise looking east over what is today the Golan Heights, and the borders of Syria and Jordan.  It’s a small area really that is rich with history of love and war, of battle and peace, and of changing borders...then, as it is today.

And it is here that Jesus gives the first of five discourses in the Gospel of Matthew.  This discourse is affectionately known as the Sermon on the Mount.

The last few weeks of the lectionary have been devoted to the Sermon on the Mount and all of its  insights and new ways of interpreting the law that it holds during a time of political occupation and oppression by the Romans in first century Palestine.  Jesus begins with some blessings for right living, the beatitudes, and then talks about salt and light as a calling of folks into mission.  

Jesus tells his disciples that he has come to fulfill the law, which is Torah, not to abolish it.  He then gets into the heart of what we call Christian ethics.  How we should live our lives as ones whose hearts follow Jesus.  It’s about the demands placed upon us and the types of decisions we make for our existence with others as Christ followers.

Jesus knows that, all too well, that the vicissitudes of life can present you with some pretty challenging situations that you will have to negotiate your way around, or out of.  He wants to make sure that we know how to live into our God given identity while stuck in the muckity muck of life.

Here now the good news for today from the Gospel of Matthew, the 5th chapter.   

‘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 evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone 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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

Some good news eh?  Don’t resist someone who does evil.  If you get slapped on one check offer up the other to be slapped.  If someone wants your new LL Bean jacket, just give it to them and while you’re at it hand over your new North Face coat as well.  These sayings, which sound like invectives, are not so much really that as they are ways of retributive justice that seeks to place some balance in rectifying a situation where an injustice has occurred.  And that’s good.  We need that.

These sayings have also been understood by great people such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as a call to non-violent resistance because they are that too.  Resist someone although do not resort to using violent methods of resistance.  That’s what Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama.   And that was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement in the US.  

Stand your ground, stand up for what you believe, don’t cave in and in doing so you will have faced those evildoers with courage and fearlessness not violence.  That, Jesus says, is the ethical way to handle a situation and in this way you are living into your God given identity.  But this passage takes it one step further.

The big one.  Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  I know what you’re thinking.  I’ve been down that road.  Love my enemies?  Not only should I resist my enemies but love them too?  You’ve got to be kidding, Jesus.  You want me to love someone or something that is heck-bent set on destroying me?  He wants Rosa Parks to pray for those who may have spat on her and called her denigrating names?  That’s a pretty tall order Jesus!  

But as St. Thomas Aquinas says, "Loving only friends to the exclusion of enemies goes unrewarded by God." And I would add it goes against everything that God wants us to be and how God wants us to live for in the last verse of this reading Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father [sic] is perfect.” (v. 48) God’s image and ours should be as one.  We should strive to be like God in all ways.  But really that’s almost impossible because God doesn’t discriminate, God loves and God loves all people including our enemies equally.  Does the sun not shine on you and also your neighbor who has loud parties, or who encroaches upon your property line? 

We just celebrated Valentine’s Day, Cupid’s arrow is still circling overhead and Valentine’s candy is 1/2 price at CVS.   It’s a good time to examine love while love is still in the air.  Sure as shootin’ love is not some chocolate covered cherry in a red foil, heart shaped box!  So let’s have a look at what it means to love and to love our enemies.  

Love, as most of us probably think of it, is an emotion that warms our innards.  You fall in love with a spouse or partner and nothing else in the world matters, you long for his or hers presence.  You bring a baby home from the hospital and you are awestruck at his tiny little hands, her itty-bitty toes and you are ‘in love’.  You bring a new puppy home and no matter how many times he ‘goes’ on the carpet, you are willing to clean it up because you have fallen in love hook, line, and sinker for that little furry, four legged stinker.

With an emotional love you will do almost anything for a person be it a lover or a friend because waves of fondness, devotion, delight, respect and passion exude within your heart.  Can you say that about someone who has hurt you though?  Someone who has betrayed you or tricked you or who has gone out of their way to make life truly difficult for you?  Probably not.  

Love is so much more than a feeling.  If you think of love as an action and not a feeling then you can begin to understand it better and parse it out according to the covenant that Jesus sets forth; that is God is a God for all people and we are to follow in God’s ways.  And, that we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves and yes, to even love our enemies.

In his book, Strength to Love, Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  This is what Jesus is trying to say to us, this is what Jesus means when he says, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (v. 46)

You may remember the movie, “Dead Man Walking”.  It’s the story of Sr. Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelet who committed a heinous crime of torture and murder.  He is caught and incarcerated which is where Sr. Prejean meets him.  She develops a relationship with him through a prison ministry.  She listens and works with him to understand his grave mistakes and crimes.  She believes in God’s redemptive powers for all people, even those whom everyone views as an enemy.  She worked very hard to have him understand that. 

When the day of Poncelet’s execution came she spoke with him as he was walking to his death.  She said, “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing to you. I’ll be the face of love for you.”  From there she put her hand on his shoulder and walked with him to the execution room all the while reading scripture to him.  Scripture that gave hope that God will be with him to the end, and can and will redeem him.  

This, my friends, is loving your enemy in an active way.  Her actions spoke loudly of God’s forgiving love. Rather than choose to hate this man like everyone else did, she chose to love with her time and her actions, and her firm commitment to a redeeming God.

We may never be called upon to love an enemy such as this.  But we will have people and situations that will work very hard to wear us down, to beat us up, and to bring us to the edge of despair.  They will be our enemies and they will be a potent factor in our lives.  Will you choose the love them?  How will you choose to love them?  

Sometimes loving also means to not do something.  Sister Prejean displayed an active love but loving an enemy can also mean not doing something.  I have a bumper sticker (not on my bumper) that reads, “When Jesus says love your enemies, I think he means don’t kill them.”  Our first instinct might be to ‘deck someone’ out but refraining from hateful, harmful behavior can be just as loving a gesture.  And in some cases restraint and refrain from harmful retaliation will be the best that we can offer up.  And that is loving too.
Fortunately, thankfully we are not alone in loving.  The grace in all of this is that God is with us helping us to love our enemies.  God has a vested interest in me, in you and in our enemies.  We are all of God’s own.  Forgiven.  Redeemed.  Love your friends.  Love your enemies.  Love God first and all things will be possible through God who made us.  

Rev. Suzanne Wagner