Friday, February 28, 2014

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.  That’s also a tall order but 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? 

A couple of weeks ago we 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?  

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.  


Monday, February 17, 2014

Open Up and Let the Light Shine

Matthew 5: 13-20
My camera, a Canon Rebel T5, and I are now BFF’s – Best Friends Forever.  Many of you know that I have just returned from a ten day trip to Costa Rica with a group of kindred spirits who like to capture natural science images on digital film and paper through watercolor or pencil.  I thank you for the time off to refresh my soul’s deepest desire to travel and see this amazing world and to renew my spirit through my art and photography.  But this is not a sermon about my trip.  It is a sermon about light, God’s light in particular and our role as apertures’ of that light.

Getting back to my camera and how we became BFF’s.  I was warned that shooting photography in the rainforest could be a real challenge because of the specific lighting issues that present themselves.  Well the rainforest did not disappoint on so many levels.  It was difficult because shooting poison dart and red eyed tree frogs, snakes and leaf cutter ants along with the flora of the forest takes camera settings that let lots of light in because the trees, vines and abundant growth darken the floor of the forest. 

But when you hear Howler monkeys coming in the distance, and you look up to get ready to shoot, or you see an amazing bird with teal colored feathers perched high up on a branch you have to quickly change the settings to let much less light in because the strong and bright sun is piercing its way through the leaves of the highest trees. 

For those of you who know cameras, you know that it’s all about the speed of the film, the speed of the shutter and the size of the aperture.   Kind of like the Trinity, each has its own function yet are dependent upon one another to produce a cohesive divine unit.  So when all three camera settings are aligned properly you get a National Geographic quality photo, or at least a good one that will be a nice remembrance of your trip.  Capturing an image is all about how much light you let in or don’t let in.  You are not the light source, merely the vehicle by which the light source is controlled.  That’s exactly what Jesus was talking about that day on the mountainside in Galilee.

Today’s scripture reading is from the Sermon on the Mount and falls directly after the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew.  It may seem a bit disjointed because what does salt and light have to do with the law and the prophets?  We have to remember that Jesus audience was quite different than Matthew’s audience.  Jesus was preaching to Israel and Israel had been called by God to be a light to the nations. (Isaiah 49: 6)

Jesus’ sermon was quite a divergent view in an already heated political and religious debate over the fate of Israel whose land by now had been occupied by the Roman Empire.  The land was no longer in the hands of the Jews but in the hands of the ‘goyim’, the non-Jews.  So there were divisions among the Jews on how to address the questions that would come up as a result of the occupation and their identity.  What does God want us to do?  Who does God want us to be?  What are we supposed to do? 

Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount as encouragement for the people to be Israel, just to be themselves and to be who God had called them to be through their covenantal relationship; to be open to the ways in which God was calling them. 

The Pharisees understood Torah in one-way and Jesus understood it in another.  The Pharisees were working with an outdated political and cultural model and were striving to maintain the status quo. Jesus was saying that God is doing a new thing, and he is the fulfillment of the ‘new thing’.  For us, Gentiles, we have now been included through the covenant made in Jesus, we have been incorporated into God’s covenant of love, hope, and redemption.

And so now we are to be the vessels by which the light of God can shine through.  We are the harbingers of God’s light we are the ‘light on the hill’.  The question for us is, how can we open our apertures large enough so that others can see this abundant light?  This is such an important question for us as a church today. 

We know people are seeking to have a spiritual connection with God and with others.  We know people search for a place where they can be accepted and loved for who they are.  We know there are people in need.  And we know that we can offer all of that and more, so why aren’t people knocking down our doors?

These are questions that need deep, soul searching exploration to realize the answers. It might just mean that we will need to change our ways but not the way of Jesus Christ and our commitment to him and his teachings.    

God IS doing a new thing right now with the church.  How do we even begin to envision what it is that God is doing?  How do we embrace change, which can be scary and unnerving?  How can we open wide our apertures rather than make them small only letting just a small amount of light out?  How can we be the Church and be relevant in the world around us?  Perhaps in this second year of my tenure together we can dig deep and come up with some answers.  We are just not about surviving and maintaining the status quo.  We are about fluidity and change because that is what God is about. 

Let the light of God fully come to you.  Let it warm you and guide you and then allow others to see it because it is essential to telling the story.  Open up and let God’s miraculous, tender and healing love be seen by others.

In the words of Maryanne Williamson, quoted by Nelson Mandela in his 1994 Inaugural speech, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us.  And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” 

And that’s what we are about.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Blessings You Can Live With

Matthew 5: 1-12
Blessings Everywhere
It seems like lately I’ve been inundated with blessings, or at least the word blessing!  I have found myself ending my hospital visits with most folks with, “Blessings to you for healing”, and I’ve even bid adieu by replacing ‘Good bye’, with ‘God bless’.  

More often than not lately it seems, us clergy folk seem to sign most emails with, ‘Blessings’ sort of like ‘Warmest Regards’ or ‘Cordially Yours’.

Now that probably doesn’t sound bad, and it’s not.  Who doesn’t want to be blessed?  I’m not a curmudgeon, I don’t think, it just beginning to seem too casual to me.  It’s sort of like when someone you don’t know gets on the elevator with you and asks, ‘How ya doing?’  Inquiring about my welfare?  A stranger?  I’m torn between telling that person how I really am, not that they want to hear how I’m doing, or just saying, ‘Good, and you?’, not really caring if I get an answer. 

With the frequency that I hear the word blessing or blessings it makes me wonder the efficacy of it and just what it is that we are saying.  That’s the cynical voice screaming inside my head.   Then there is the hopeful and trustful voice inside of my head that knows and believes in the power of God’s amazing grace and how God has the ability to bless us beyond any of our juiciest imaginations and that is a promise.  You see a blessing is a gift that we can’t manufacture. It happens and we recognize it.

 Today’s Context for Blessing
Today we are talking about blessing within the context of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.  The Sermon on the Mount is at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry in the Galilee region after he left Nazareth. 

Let’s hear now this account from the Gospel of Matthew:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
         for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is
         the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jesus makes his home now in Capernaum.  It’s here he calls his first disciples and he begins to gather followers, lots of them.

He does this by teaching in the local synagogues throughout the region.  He cures diseases and heals people with every sickness making concrete the advent of the kingdom.  His proclamation is effective and his fame spreads throughout Syria to the North, from the Decapolis, which is a collection of ten cities east of Jerusalem, Judea in the south and from way beyond the Jordan.  By now it was a rather large crowd of people who was following him.

When Jesus saw the crowds following him he high-tails it up the mountain!  His disciples follow and that is where he begins the first of five great discourses recorded in Matthew where Jesus reinterprets the law and offers a new way of thinking.  It was one ‘knock your socks off’ sermons because it contains the Beatitudes which are beloved to most Christians, some great stories about salt and light and this is also when he teaches the disciples how to pray saying, ‘Our Father who are in heaven, hallowed be they name.’ 

Two poignant points in one sermon, the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.  Both have been crocheted on canvas, carved into wooden platters, hung upon people’s walls and have been put to tune.  And why?  Because both address our deepest concerns about the life that we live in the here and now, and the life that we will have in the kingdom of God.

The Beatitudes are not rules for a good life, and they are not ethical demands put upon us, they are promises of God’s purpose in the world.  They are challenges for a life worth living.  Beatitude means blessed, or happy, or fortunate, and so they are not calls to action, but promises given in a specific context from a first century perspective.

It was a world of conflict and oppression and Jesus turns things upside down from the prevailing culture; he’s got an opposing point of view on how things should be.  People who normally would not have seen themselves as blessed are promised a place in God’s realm because in fact from God’s perspective, they are blessed.  The fishermen.  The farmers.  The marginalized people of the Roman Empire.  The ‘little’ people.  All blessed!  And so are we.

The Beatitudes are challenges to worthy living because in today’s world the poor, peaceful, merciful and meek get nowhere in a culture that is so firmly grounded in competition and self-indulgence.  The Beatitudes are a vision for us of faithful living today towards God’s realm. 

What would it mean for you to engage in more faithful living in this crazy world? How can you stay God-focused throughout your week?

Our answers are in the Beatitudes:
            Possess a humbleness of spirit – God’s in charge, not us!
            Desire for right living – God’s path is the path that will get you there!
            Thirst for justice – Where there is justice there is peace!
            Recognize a need for forgiveness – God forgives us and then we can forgive others!

These are blessings that I want and indeed have, as you do too.  They are blessings from a God who loves us dearly. They are gifts and all we need to do is recognize them, open our hearts to them, live into them each day and then you’ll be able to really ‘count your blessings.’

Peace Pilgrim's Beatitudes
A woman named Mildred Norman, calling herself Peace Pilgrim, set out from 1953-1981 on a personal pilgrimage for peace.  She walked over 25, 000 miles.  She vowed to ‘remain a walker until humanity has learned the way of peace.’  She walked until her death in fact. She penned a set of beatitudes in her effort for peace, I want to read some of them to you, she expanded ‘blessed are the peacemakers for us to contemplate today:

Blessed are they who give without expecting even thanks in return, for they shall be  
          abundantly rewarded.
Blessed are they who translate every good thing they know into action, for ever
          higher truths shall be revealed unto them.
Blessed are they who do God's will without asking to see results, for great shall be
          their recompense.
Blessed are they who love and trust their fellow beings, for they shall reach the good
          in people and receive a loving response.
Blessed are they who see the change we call death as a liberation from the
          limitations of this earth-life, for they shall rejoice with their loved ones who
          make the glorious transition.
Blessed are they, who after dedicating their lives and thereby receiving a blessing,
           have the courage and faith to surmount the difficulties of the path ahead, for
           they shall receive a second blessing.

These beatitudes are thoughtful and loving blessings. These are Peace Pilgrim’s Beatitudes, what would yours be? All good things come from God.  The challenge for us is to see theses gifts and name them as a blessing.  In doing so your life will be blessed.