Saturday, February 25, 2017

Where there is Love

Matthew 5: 38-48
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 such a small area of the world 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 and what we have been focusing on for the last couple of weeks is from the discourse affectionately known as the Sermon on the Mount. 

In that time we see how Jesus has shown his followers new insights and new ways of interpreting the law and living during a time of political occupation and oppression by the Romans in first century Palestine. 

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, how to make ethical and sound decisions that lift up rather than tear down.

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!  Pursue them.  If you get slapped on one check offer up the other to be slapped.  When you offer the other cheek it is nearly impossible for the slapper to slap you.  Active resistance.  If someone wants your new LL Bean jacket, just give it to them and while you’re at it hand over your new leather 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.  It’s simple checks and balances.  It’s active resistance against the ones who wish to oppress.  Where there is love, there is active resistance.

Us protestants….we protest (protest is the root word of protestant) its what we do, it’s in our blood and written in our DNA.  We stand up to those who oppress others and who try to stamp out all of God’s beloved children.  These sayings of Jesus have also been understood by great people such as Gandhi (not even a Christian but closely aligned with the teachings of Jesus) and Martin Luther King Jr. They understand Christ’s teachings as a call to non-violent resistance.  Resist someone although do not resort to using violent methods of resistance.   Where there is love, there is active resistance.  Love is so much deeper than a Hallmark card.

This past summer I had the honor of visiting the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis, TN.  It is a moving museum that chronicles the struggle of African Americans gaining their civil rights and it is there at the former Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination.  One of the interactive displays was a walk through an old city bus from the 1950’s.  In the bus is a life size cast model of Rosa Parks sitting in the middle of the bus which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.  Rosa said, ‘The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.’  She was tired of being oppressed, she and King and many others prayed for their enemies and then worked towards justice in non violent ways.  Where there is love there are non-violent methods to achieve your goals.

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, like last week, this passage takes it one step further, Jesus sets the bar just a little higher.

The big one.  Love your enemies.  You know those ones who just tried so very hard to oppress you to slap you on the cheek?  Pray for them, those who persecute you.  I know what you’re thinking.  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?  You wanted 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 yeah – that’s what he’s saying to the poverty stricken people in the Galilee that day and to Rosa who was kept down by white supremacists, and to us. Love them and pray for them.  For where there is the active kind of love that Jesus talks about there will be wholeness and justice.

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.  To be perfect  doesn’t mean that we have no flaws. That’s laughable, we all do. What perfect does mean is that we are whole.  Whole in our intent, and whole with our defects and warts. When we are aligned with God through Jesus Christ we experience shalom or wholeness.  So we should strive to be like God in all ways.  Whole and pure in our intent while simply being who we are in God’s image.

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?  Does the rain not pelt on those whom you whole-heartedly disagree with just as it rains upon you?  Yes it does. 

There may be people that you don’t count as ‘enemies’ per se, that language is strong and militaristic.  But there may be people who annoy the heck out of you.  They’re included in this too.  So take a moment.  Think about it or rather think about someone that makes the hairs on your spine rise up who annoys you to no end.  (pause)  Are they not beloved too?  Are they not beloved in God’s eyes and deserving of God’s love?  They are.  And now bless them for they are beloved.

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 those 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)  That’s the simply, easy and cowardly way out.

I may have mentioned this movie before, “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. 

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 into eternal glory. 

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?  

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.  


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Reconciliation and Relationship

Matthew 5: 21-37
For almost 15 years now I have been able to successfully dodge this piece of scripture that we will hear in a minute.  I could have actually dodged it today by simply not using it but I’ve committed to following the lectionary; sticking with it even when I would rather do otherwise.  It’s kind of like starting a book that you find completely dull and oh so very tedious but you stick with it, you give it the old college try. 

The Revised Common Lectionary has some great passages for reflections, many of which we learned and loved as kids.  But sometimes the lectionary has us look at passages that are unpleasant or hard to understand and this is a hidden beauty.  It’s a hidden beauty because sometimes it leads you places where you’d rather not go, you know those creepy corridors that put you on edge?  But you keep with it because you just don’t know what you’ll find in those frightening places.  Often you find grace.

Another reason to not to skip this passage is that the lectionary readings are followed by other Christians around the world, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists so we are all reflecting on the same passage on any given Sunday.  That gives me some comfort to know that other preachers and congregants will wrestle today seeking understanding.  I had a text frenzy on Friday night with two of my closet and dearest colleagues in ministry, one in West Falmouth and the other in Vermont reflecting on this passage and sharing our thoughts and unique interpretations.  They each will get up on Sunday morning and faithfully preach the Gospel as God and their hearts have moved them.  We nurture one another in seeking God’s path and God’s truth.

Year A of the three year lectionary is devoted to the Gospel of Matthew so that is where we will find ourselves for most of this liturgical year.  Matthew writes for the early church and the issues that plagued it.

So, after that long and apologetic beginning, are your seatbelts fastened?  Here we go!  Hear the word of the Lord from the Gospel of Matthew.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

So there, I said it.  These words are not easy to hear nor are the easy to read aloud to you this morning.  Surprisingly, we find this passage in the beloved Sermon on the Mount right after the scripture read last week about salt, light and Jesus saying he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it.  You see the Sermon on the Mount has some beautiful parts to it like the Beatitudes and lilies of the field but really the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preaches is a counter cultural message to the pervading culture of first century Palestine.

Jesus reinterprets the law; he addresses some of the more contentious issues of his day and with quite the hyperbole.  I mean how are we to live without our appendages?[i]  In essence he is saying, no, I’m not contradicting Torah, but I AM challenging the interpretations of law.  I’m going beyond the law and making it relevant to peoples lives today. He sets the bar higher than what was expected and acceptable in his day. 

What were contentious issues in his day were murder and anger, adultery, divorce and the taking of oaths.   These issues were dividing the early community of Jesus’ followers.  Now we could do a full contextual study on each of the four issues Jesus dares to bring up.  But that would be a bit dry and tedious for most.  Let’s just say that in each of the four scenarios Jesus calls for a new way of viewing and being in relationship. There were many more strict ramifications for breaking any of these laws than there are today.  Behind these prohibitions lies restoration.  Jesus looks at broken relationships within the realm of God and the awesome possibilities for healing.

When briefly looked at, in the words of Steve Godfrey from Church in the World, “Our real problem is not ultimately murder, but the anger that lies at its core.  Our real problem he says is not ultimately adultery but the lust in our hearts.  Our real problem he says is not when to allow divorce, but the brokenness of relationships.” 

Or in the words of another scholar: ‘Underneath the prohibition of murder is respect for another.  Underneath adultery is how we organize our biological selves.  Underneath divorce lies human hard-heartedness. Underneath swearing Jesus expects full commitment to every utterance, ‘say what you mean and mean what you say.’[ii]

Jesus challenges us to see our preconceived notions of the law in a much different way, a way that recognizes and celebrates the value of each man and each woman and each child.  He envisions ways of healthy, living, vibrant relationships that are not broken or shattered.   And that takes some work.

Heaven knows there’s plenty brokenness in this world, especially now.  Broken trust, broken confidence, broken hearts, broken systems.  Our first tendency when something is broken is to toss it out.  My computer crashed, time to get a new one.  This old set of broken and mismatched dishes are unsightly, give them to Goodwill and get new ones.  Right?  So we just want to get rid of the unsightly, the shattered or cracked. Why keep brokenness around when we can get a new computer or and new set of dishes?  That’s the easy way out.  Where is the growth?  Where is the healing?  But Jesus sets the bar higher.

I am reminded of crafters on Pinterest who make beautiful jewelry out of broken glass and pottery shards.  Nothing is wasted, nothing is beyond the eye and heart of an artist who creates beauty out of bedlam. Restoration can happen if you are open to the newness that Christ brings.

Relationships might be broken right now but its no reason to toss them out. Our country and congress might be broken right now but it’s no time to give up on it.  Remembering that each human being on this planet is a beloved child of God we seek beauty and restoration in brokenness.

What Jesus is saying in these teachings is that there can be beauty and blessing in brokenness when you are attuned to the realm of God, which resides within our hearts.  Remember that Christ’s body was broken for us and in that brokenness we are healed. 

There is blessing in brokenness because we know that God draws near to those who are broken, whose lives seem beyond repair, God is right there creating anew.  When people and systems are broken new life can be released, remember ‘We are the clay, you are the potter, we are the work of your hands.’[iii]  God fashions us for goodness.  Brokenness can bring a new and greater capacity to and for love.

And of course, brokenness can bring about fruitfulness.  Remember the little boy with only five loaves of bread.  Once broken those loaves of bread brought abundance and fed 5,000 people that day on the side of the mount.  Life given.  Life restored.    

That Jesus!  Always reinterpreting law so that the broken can become whole, so that our lives and our relationships may experience reconciliation and restoration in ways that goes way beyond our human capacity for understanding. 

Thanks be to God!

[i] Either Feasting on the Word, Weekly Seeds, or Steve Godfry.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Edwin Chr. Van Driel.
[ii] Isaiah 64:8

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, Sweet Jesus, help us to bring back the sweetness into this world that has been carved with cruelty and destruction. Help us to mend the wounds we have inflicted on others and ourselves. Call us with compassion to see others as Your children, as our kindred, and that all have the possibility of repentance, redemption, forgiveness and healing, for nothing is impossible for you Lord Jesus, help us to mend the broken hearted even as we are broken ourselves.  We are hurt, we are angry, and we are tired. Help us to find Your goodness in others and in the world, and help us to make the world sweet again as you so created it.

We pray for the indigent, the homeless, those who are starving and the oppressed; set free from those bonds which keep them from living fully and we pray for those also who hold them down.  Let justice in this world prevail so that the work of all people who lived and died in the name of freedom and equality may be carried on.  Oh Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for those people, known and unknown who are sick in body, mind or spirit, for those live with mental illness, with cancer, with the uncertainty of knowing ‘just what’s wrong’, for the addicted and recovering, and for those who lives will not be long upon this earth.  Grant your healing and restoration upon them, give them peace and strength for their journey’s ahead.  Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for our country and our leaders, for all who are in a position of authority over others; grant to them integrity, morality and ethical decision making, clear sight and vision for a future filled with hope and freedom for all.  Lord, hear our prayer.

We lift up the women and men who serve in the armed forces so that we can remain free.   Kristin, Michael _________________________________________________________________    Give to them strength and stamina for what we have called them to do, keep them from harm’s way.  Send peace to this world O Lord because we could really use it.  O Lord, hear our prayer.

For our children and for the world’s children we give you thanks.  May they grow into their fullest potential imbued with your spirit with a thirst for justice and peace.

Lord, hear our prayers and grant to us healing in the process.

[iii] Isaiah 64:8

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Light that Shines

Matthew 5: 13-20
When it came to this week’s lectionary reading, out of the two metaphors that Jesus uses, salt and light, I was drawn to light and I was reminded of Claude Monet’s work as an impressionist.  I know, connect the dots.  The Impressionists were a group of painters towards the end of the 19th century who went ‘rogue’ if you will from the classical style of painting.  Monet’s work and that of the other impressionists like Cezanne, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir among other painters painted suggestions of object using tonal values to delineate form.  Very simply they paint light and dark.

You can see it in Monet’s paintings, Waterlilies, his Gardens, they all rely on light to convey their message.  It is said that “the impressionist does not analyze form but only receives the light reflected from that form onto the retina of his eye and seeks to reproduce the effect of that light rather than the form of the object reflecting it.”[i]  Light is of utmost importance to the Impressionist’s eye.

Light illuminates.  Light shines.  Light keeps us from getting lost in vagueness and void.  It gives definition to that which is formless.  The Impressionists knew that and that’s how they saw the world.  Jesus also uses light as a way of discipleship, he knows that light will illuminate the world with his teachings and love.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Today’s scripture reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount and falls directly after the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. He’s got a large captive audience and really wants them to understand the nature of discipleship.

What we have to remember is that Jesus’ audience was quite different than Matthew’s audience and certainly different than our setting today.  The Gospel of Matthew is not an eye witness account, he was writing for a congregation that was in a time of theological and social tension following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.  He was writing years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.    There was conflict within the Jewish community on what the future of Judaism would be.  And also Matthew believed that they were living right before the apocalypse which adds another layer of urgency to his message.  So it was a dark time for them. 

Jesus was preaching to Israel and Israel had been called by God to be a light to the nations as it says in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”(Isaiah 49: 6) Jesus knew his Hebrew Bible scripture and kept true to the call of God upon Israel.  Don’t forget he was the fulfillment of God’s law and love.

So Jesus’ sermon had quite a divergent view from the other religious leaders 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 them on how to address the questions of faith and observance that would come up as a result of the occupation and of course there were questions about their identity.  Who are we?  What does God want us to do?  Who does God want us to be?  What are we supposed to do now? 

The Pharisees understood Torah in one-way and Jesus understood it in another.  That’s why there is always tension between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew.  The Pharisees were working with an outdated political and cultural model and were striving to maintain the status quo. Jesus saw the law in a different way, he was saying that God is doing a new thing, and that he, Jesus is the fulfillment of the ‘new thing’. 

Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount as encouragement for the people to be Israel, just to be themselves, to be true to whom God had called them to be through their covenantal relationship; and to be open to the new ways in which God was calling them.  You know God continues to call us into the future for where there are needs in this world that is where God calls us as disciples.  And as the world changes so does the nature of our discipleship call changes.

So Jesus uses two metaphors to engage the people in discipleship, salt and light.  Both of these elements enhance things around them.  Salt brings out distinctive flavors in food, it elicits good taste, for who doesn’t like a little salt on their potato chips or on a cob of corn?  But salt does no such thing if it has lost its taste, food will be bland.  So we are to be salt, enhancing life for others around us, making life just a bit more palatable for everyone.  We are called to bring out the best in the world – that’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about, following his ways, lifting up and brining out the best in all people.

Same thing with light.  As disciples of Jesus and his gospel of compassion, shining the light is our role as a gathered community.  We are to be the vessels by which the light of God can shine through.  We are the light that Monet endeavored to paint that gives form to something that is unrecognizable, that brings life to something that has ceased living. 

We are the harbingers of God’s light, we are the ‘light on the hill’.  We are the pin dot of light in a darkened room.  We are the ones that shine light into the deepest darkest places whether those places like it or not, or want it.  Our light is to expose injustice, discrimination, hatred and violence that lurk in dark crevices.  And that’s exactly what the Gospel is about, and how we are supposed to spread it around. And after the exposures comes love.

If we were to hang out with Jesus long enough we find that is exactly what he does, that is exactly who he is preaching to on the side of that mountain.  The poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned.  He shines light on the woman caught in adultery only to expose the hypocrisy of those in authority around him.  He shines a light on the rich urging them to invite the poor to their banquets.  His light shines bold and strong beckoning us to do the same as his disciples.


The question for us is, will we be that light that shines so that others may live freely without hurt or pain or suffering?   Or will we cower with fear enough to extinguish that light so that no one will be freed?

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.”

Shining our light, illuminating the darkness and giving it form. 

And that’s what we are about, all in the name of Jesus Christ.


[i] Canaday, John.  The Nature of Impressionism in Mainstreams of Modern Art, 1959. p. 182.