Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A New (Personal) Blog

I've mentioned below that my sermons can now be found at the Union Presbyterian Church website, upcendicott.org.

I am also starting a new, more personal blog. "A Swimmer in the Fount." An explanation of the title is here.

It will probably contain all kinds of things... personal, political, churchly, theological (watch out!).

But I start with knitting.

Maybe I'll see you there?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

You may have noticed something....

This blog will no longer be updated with new sermons after Sunday February 22. All meditations and sermons for Union Presbyterian Church will now be found on our website, upcendicott.org, under "Sermons." Videos can be found there, too, usually a few days after worship.

Thank you for reading!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Burdens and Gifts: A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-35

 Scripture can be found here...

Almost all of us have the stories. The best friend who said something cruel. The parent who favored the other child until it broke a heart. The one who lied and lost our trust.  These seem to be the stuff of life: the normal hurts and harms and betrayals that seem to signify the very heart of what it is to be fallibly human. Some, without a doubt, are worse than others. The parents who weren’t merely neglectful, but were abusive, or entirely absent. The sibling who stole from the family. The heart-friend who abruptly, inexplicably, turned away, went silent, and disappeared from our lives.

And, to turn this thing entirely on its head, I suspect we all have the other stories, too, although these are stories we don’t share so often or so openly. Of the times we were the one who disappeared when we should have stayed, or the times when we did not live up to our promises, vows, and compacts. The times when we weren’t there for our children, turned hard-hearted towards a friend or relative. Maybe some of us have even had the experience of asking for forgiveness, and hearing, if not “no,” then a stony silence that told us… the hurt was still too deep, or too fresh, not something they could forgive.

And so, Jesus has a story to tell us, about being the forgiver and being the forgiven. Beginning today, and throughout Lent, we will be reading parables of Jesus—stories, sometimes brief, sometimes just a sentence or two, designed to help us to think and intuit more deeply about a problem or paradox. Parables are not allegories. It’s not always easy to identify who, in a parable, stands for God, for example. Sometimes it is the very last person we expect. Sometimes parables are framed as analogies: they begin, “the kingdom of heaven is like this…” and then we hear a story.

Sometimes parables are hilarious. Sometimes they are horrifying. Today’s is both, though the hilarity, we have to dig for, just a little, because we are not first century Palestinian Jews, and therefore, don’t necessarily catch all the nuance of the tale.

But before the parable, we need the setup. And today’s setup is a long one. It begins with the issue of conflict in the church. What do we do when someone in the church has harmed us? Jesus outlines an incredibly sensible and gentle path towards reconciliation and healing, a path churches still use to this day. At last, Peter raises a critical question. Lord, he asks, if a member of the church sins against me (actually, in the Greek, it’s “my brother,” but we understand it to be a church member by the context), how many times should I forgive him? How about seven?

Seven is a great number. Seven is a symbolic number in scripture, a number of fullness and completion—the six days of creation plus the day of rest. Perfect. Complete. It’s a brilliant suggestion.

No, Jesus says. Try seventy-seven. (That’s what it says in English.) Try seventy times seven. (That’s what it says in the original Greek.) In other words, there is no limit to how often we ought to forgive. None.

This is a hard teaching. I’m not going to sugar coat it. Being hurt—physically, emotionally, spiritually—affects us on so many levels. For one thing, it plays out deep in the reptilian brain where everything is about fighting or running away. For another thing, our conscious minds tell us the story of how it was supposed to be, and that can be hard to let go of. Someone has said, forgiveness is giving up on the idea that we can change the past.[i] Sometimes, we can’t seem to find our way to giving up on that.

And so Jesus tells a parable. There is a king, and there is a slave. And the slave owes the king ten thousand talents.

So, let’s stop right there. A talent was more than fifteen years of wages for a day laborer. This slave owes the king ten thousand talents. So… that’s 150,000 years’ worth of wages for a day laborer. The king orders the slave and his whole family to be sold for cash, but the slave begs him for time to repay. This is the hilarious part. The slave is planning to work so that he can come up with 150,000 years’ wages to pay his debt. The king has absolute discretion. The life of this man is in his hands. He can imprison him, or sell him, or do what he will to get his money back.

He forgives him. He forgives him this debt, which might as well be a gazillion dollars, or a kajillion dollars. A googolplex of dollars.[ii]

And then, the slave does something really unforgiveable: he refuses to forgive someone else’s debt. Another slave owes him 100 denarii—the denarius is one day’s wages for a day laborer. So, this is a debt that could be paid off in less than a year, theoretically. Instead, the forgiven one has his fellow slave thrown into prison.

Of course, the king finds out. And, it turns out, the king can forgive a debt of a googolplex of dollars. But he cannot—or will not—forgive a lack of forgiveness. Well, isn’t that ironic? The king sentences the slave to be tortured.

The parable uses forgiveness of financial debts, which is a relatively simple matter in one sense. The king evidently had the wealth or the magnanimity or both to forgive the ridiculously enormous debt of the slave; but that same slave could not or would not forgive a far more modest, even meager debt.

It’s not so simple when we remove numbers and money from the equation and start talking about the heart.  As for me and my family, I come from a long line of Olympic-level grudge-holders. For a time, one of my relatives could have proudly told you her statistics in this area. She never forgot a wrong, and she never forgave one either. Until, she held a grudge against her own sister for a good dozen years. And then, when that sister’s husband became ill, the grudge was dropped, and all was forgiven. And the further truth is, that grudge had cost my relative. It was a little like being sentenced to jail to be tortured, except she kept the key to her cell on a chain around her own neck. It was time she never got back.

To err is human, to forgive is divine, we are told. So, it might not always be possible to forgive under our own steam. But what feels impossible to us might be possible if we were to enlist God’s help in the matter.

Elsewhere, Jesus tells us that we should pray for our enemies. One tiny step towards forgiveness might be this: to start praying for the person who has injured you. Notice, I didn’t say, “whom you want to forgive,” because sometimes, we don’t want to forgive, and so it’s hard to get started on any action that might lead us down that path. So, rather than thinking about forgiveness, we might think about praying for our enemies, and start there. It's a small thing. But it gives God something to work with.

Many of you know the story of the late Christian Dutch underground member Corrie ten Boom. She told a story of traveling in Germany after the war, bringing a message of forgiveness. The war had cost her family dearly. Though they’d hidden and saved countless refugees, Jews and Christians alike, they could not save some of their own. Corrie had watched her beloved sister, Betsie, die in Ravensbruck concentration camp. She writes,

“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear… And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!...

“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand…

“‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there…’

“‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’

“And I stood there…and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do…

“I knew [forgiveness] not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”[iii]

Forgiveness is not an emotion, and even the most faithful and courageous among us can find it a burden. And though she describes it as “an act of the will,” it was still, clearly, something that could not be conjured up by her will alone. Forgiveness was something she needed to receive as a gift from God. She couldn’t come up with it on her own. She had to ask for it.

Ten Boom suggests that those who were unable forgive the war crimes against them were unable to heal from their injuries. I’ve heard that phenomenon described in many ways, but this may be the best: To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then discover that the prisoner was you.[iv]

Forgiveness is not easy, it is not automatic. With God, it is possible. It starts with asking God to help us to forgive. If we can’t do that, it starts with asking God to help us to want to forgive. If we can’t do that, it starts with asking God for help, to set this prisoner free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Ann Lamott.
[ii] The number “1” followed by a “googol” of zeroes; 10(10100).
[iii] Excerpted from “I’m Still Learning to Forgive” by Corrie ten Boom, from Guideposts Magazine. Copyright © 1972 by Guideposts Associates, Inc., Carmel, New York 10512.
[iv] Lewis Smedes.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

On Holding On and Letting Go: A Sermon for Transfiguration and Baptism Sunday

Scripture can be found here...

A First-Person monologue, from the point of view of Simon Peter.

Little one, I don’t know who he is. And that’s the truth. Sometimes.

Sometimes I think he is the greatest wonder worker that ever lived. Sometimes I think he is the harshest master I’ve ever had. Sometimes I think he is God himself. And sometimes I think… well, he called me “Satan.” So, I wonder.

Look, I’ve only ever done one thing in my life. I’m a fisherman. I know how to prepare the nets, and repair them. I know how to cast them and haul them in. I know how to bargain with men in whose faces I can read their plan to steal from me, and walk away with enough for my family.

But the first day I saw Jesus’ face… the first time I looked into his eyes, when he looked at my brother and me, sitting there in our boat, and said, “Follow me, and I’ll teach you to haul in a catch of souls.” And he didn’t mean the fish! Well, I knew, little one, that here was a man who was speaking the deepest truth of his heart. I could see it in his face. And my brother and I dropped everything—we dropped our nets, and stepped out of our boats, and never looked back.

Then I thought of him as “teacher.” And he still is, little one! Everything I count as the truest I have ever known I have learned from him. But then… he started his wonder-working, and I was shaken to my core. I’m not a story-teller. I’m not one for dreams that tell you what to do, or when you’ll die. I mostly think those are the result of fish gone bad. But almost immediately after I started following him, my wife’s mother became ill- sick unto death, with a terrible fever. We chased away the children, and called the mourners, and readied ourselves to bury her. But Jesus came in, and looked at her with those… terrible, compassionate eyes of his. And he touched her hand. And the fever left her. Not in a day or a week—in a moment. Her color calmed, and her eyes cleared and opened, and she looked into that face, and smiled, and rose from her bed to follow Jesus too.

And that day, the people in the neighborhood told one another what had happened, and they told others at the market, and soon my house was surrounded by people with fevers, and demons, and leprosy, and paralysis… crowds of people… and every one, every one of them, little one, he touched. And they too were healed.

He scared people. I’ll tell you that. They didn’t know what to make of him. For the life of me, I didn't know either, but before too long, as the crowds grew that came to see him, and hear him, and learn from him, and be healed by him… I began to understand. And then one day he turned to us, his followers, and said, “Who do people say that I am?” He asked us, so calm, like he didn’t much care about the answer. But I can read a man’s face. And I tell you, there was something… was it worry? Was it hope? Something. He wanted to know. He needed to know. And I listened as the others spoke. “Elijah,” one of them said, “Him, or Jeremiah,” someone else offered. He nodded his head at each suggestion, encouraging us. Then Andrew, my brother, said, real quietly, “Some say, John, the Baptist.” And Oh-little one! His face flushed red, I thought he was angry, but then I saw the tears in his eyes. And I knew there had to be some fear. There had to be. Didn’t there? But then he turned to me, and I became bold. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” I said. I almost shouted it. I believed it! Who else could he be?

He looked at me then, most gently, and he said, “Blessed are you, Simon Peter, son of John! You have been listening to my Father in heaven.”

And I thought: He’s the one. He IS the Messiah. He is! And my heart, little one, it about swelled as if to break.

And then, he started—I don’t know—it sounded like nonsense to me. He began saying that it was time to go to Jerusalem, and that when he got there, all the religious leaders would decide it was time for him to suffer, and die—but then, he would be raised up on the last day. And I shouted—then I really shouted, little one—NO! “God forbid it Lord!” And then he turned his wrath on me—there is no other way to say it. He was in a fury. And he said, “Get behind me Satan! You are not listening to my Father in heaven at all!”

It was hard to hear what he had to say after that. He was talking about how we were all going to die. That, we all had to carry the cross. I remember this that he said: “Those who want to hold on their life will lose it, and those who let go of their life for my sake will find it.”

Well. And here I was. Hadn’t I already lost my life for his sake, little one? Let go, walked away from my nets, and my livelihood, and my family, to follow him? To follow and learn from the man with the most trustworthy face I’d ever seen?

Sometimes I think I know just who he is, and then… I just don’t know. I don’t know.

It was a week later, I think. Jesus took three of us, myself, and John, and James, and we broke off from the others, and we climbed a mountain. Higher and higher we climbed. I don’t much care for mountains, myself. Tricky weather in the mountains. I can read the clouds above the Sea of Galilee like I can read a man’s face, but the clouds on a mountain… they can play tricks on you, and that is no joke. So I was uneasy, climbing and climbing, but he must have had his reasons.

And then we came to a more level place, high up, and what should happen. A light… no, a glow. The sun? Maybe it came from behind a cloud? I don’t know little one. But his face, all of a sudden, it became—unrecognizable. It glowed, it flashed. It was the sun, it was brighter than the sun, his clothes too. His robe, which was brown, and his cloak which was another shade of brown—they were white, too white to look upon. It was painful to look upon him, that’s it. His face… it was like… can I say it? It was like looking upon the very face of God.

And then, he wasn’t alone. But there were two men speaking with him, just suddenly they were there. And… how did I know? They were Moses and Elijah. These great men, I’d heard of them all my life. Moses stood there with two great tablets in his arms—I hardly knew how he held them. And Elijah, well, he always dressed strangely, so they say. A cloak made of camel-skin, and a leather belt around his waist, and so that is who the second one was. And there they were—Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah, talking, like… well, like three fishermen standing by the lake. Like they knew one another, from, oh, long ago, and were wondering, how are the fish running today?

“Master!” I called out. I called out! I don’t know what gave me the boldness to do it. “It is good to be here. I will set up three booths, for you, and… Moses, and Elijah.” I heard my own voice, and I thought, I sound mad. No one would ever believe me. I don’t even believe me! And while I was wondering at this, suddenly, a great cloud—not a dark one, but one of those odd mountain clouds you can’t read—bright, and unsettling—it came over us, just sort of fell on all six of us, and John and James and I were on the ground, face down, praying for our lives. Well, we thought our time had come. What with all his talk of dying, little one. We thought we might go up in a chariot with Elijah. But then the voice: a voice like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was like thunder, but it was like whispering, too, and water rushing, and a wave crashing. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

And we looked up, and… it was just Jesus, little one. And his cloak was brown again, and it was his own dear face again, and he was touching us each on the shoulder. And he smiled a little, and said, “Don’t be afraid. Let’s go.” And… we had to let go of that mountaintop, and go down again to the town, because… wasn’t there a boy, possessed, having seizures, and wasn’t his father heartbroken and terrified? And didn’t they need Jesus? Didn’t they need… us? Wasn’t that our life, down there, with the people? And so we went down.

Little one, sometimes I just don’t know who he is. And that’s the truth.

Sometimes I think he is the greatest wonder worker that ever lived. Sometimes I think he is the harshest master I’ve ever had. Sometimes I think he is God himself. I have so many questions to ask him, and I long to keep that face before me. I don’t know all the answers. I want to keep asking him questions. I want to follow him, little one, because I think I understand… I let go of my life, and I found my life. All in following him. And that’s the truth.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

On Worry and Wildflowers: A Sermon on Matthew 6:24-35

Joan Fontaine in "Rebecca," 1940.

Scripture can be found here....

If you’re looking for a really wonderful old movie, a great grande dame of a film in black and white from the glamour days of Hollywood, it’s hard to find a better one than the early Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, “Rebecca.” It’s a love story, between the fabulously wealthy (and somehow vaguely tragedy-shadowed) Maxim de Winter, played by a dashing Laurence Olivier, and the woman who will become the second Mrs. DeWinter, played by Joan Fontaine. They meet cute in Monaco, of all places, where Joan is the much-mistreated companion of a stuffy, pretentious social climber. Maxim sweeps our girl off her feet, and they marry quickly, returning home to a brooding castle called Manderley on the coast of Cornwall. The castle comes complete with the scariest housekeeper this side of a horror story, one Mrs. Danvers, who appears suddenly and often to scare the daylights out of the young bride. 

It’s a love story, but more than that, it’s a mystery, and a kind of a thriller. The poor bride. She knows something is wrong, but she doesn’t know what it is. Shaky organ music gives us a sense that there must be a ghost. Maxim won’t tell her what’s wrong, even though he’s prone to dark moods and long absences. The new Mrs. DeWinter’s desperation comes out, finally, as she begs her husband to reassure her that everything’s all right. “We're happy, aren’t we? Terribly happy? And our marriage is a success, isn’t it? A great success?” Her husband pats her on the back absentmindedly, and says, “If you say so, then we’ll leave it at that.”

The new Mrs. DeWinter is worried. She’s worried half out of her mind, and no wonder. She doesn’t even know exactly what it is that she’s worried about… Her worry lurks in the shadows, its face hidden, just beyond her sight. And if you want to know the true source of her worries, well, you’ll just have to rent the movie or read the novel by Daphne DuMaurier.

My worries seem so…domesticated, by comparison. Boring, really. I’m worried about things like not getting the newsletter article done on time, or getting backed up on my laundry. I’m worried about driving in the snow, and that the salt all over the streets is going to rust my car. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. Nothing anyone would make a movie about, certainly not a movie starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

OK. That’s not all I’m worried about. I’m worried about my children, in the same ways all parents of young adults worry about their children, plus all the worries that come along being the parents of young people who want to make a life in the arts. And I’m worried about the future, in some general and some specific ways. And sometime my sleep gets abruptly terminated at a time I still consider to be the middle of the night, and these worries swirl around in my head until it’s pretty clear: night’s over. Might as well get up. That’s what worry will do for you.

We’re circling back this week, to chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel, right smack in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And we’re landing on one of the better-known parts of that sermon, the part about worry. Or, rather, the part telling us not to worry.

Jesus begins by speaking of money. If you’re wondering what is the topic Jesus talks the most about, look no further. It’s not war. It’s not sex. It’s not family life or values. Jesus’ most frequent topic is money. And verse 24 tells us why: Jesus regards the love of money as something that has the power to enslave us, to take the place of God in our lives. Don’t let this happen to you, he says. Don’t get the idea you can serve two masters. You can only give your heart to one. And by all means, don’t choose the wrong one. It’s either God or wealth; it can never be both.

Therefore, Jesus says, don’t worry. And the worries he lists are very basic ones: sustenance—food and drink. The lack of clothing. These are not the worries of the elite, or even the middle classes. These are the worries of the poor. At first glance, it almost seems that Jesus is being callous—in effect, downplaying the seriousness of poverty and want, even ignoring them. The letter of James has a scathing retort to that kind of callousness: If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’ [James 2:15b-16] That’s not Jesus, anyway. That’s not what he’s saying.

And because that’s not what he’s saying, he starts talking about birds. Birds and wildflowers. Look at the birds, Jesus says. There they are, just… being birds. They are not punching in and punching out. They are not working hard for the money. They are not planting crops or harvesting them to get their fill of worms and seed. They are just going about the business of being birds, and look at that. They are fed. They are fine. God watches over them.

Will worry make your life one hour longer? Will worry make your life one minute longer?

The same is true for the flowers. When he says, “Consider the lilies of the field…” —Jesus is talking about wildflowers. Things like Queen Anne’s lace and bergamot, buttercups and bluebells. They’re not working for a living either… no flower ever labors over a spindle or a loom. They’re just being flowers. They’re just being. And Solomon, the king whose most famous attribute is his wealth, couldn’t hold a candle to them. Not even in his finest outfit. Not even on his best day.

Will worry make your life one hour longer? Will worry make your life one minute longer?

Again. There’s something here that feels almost like a disconnect. How can Jesus simply say, “So don’t worry about it!” when confronted with a crowd of people who are at real risk for chronic hunger and worse? Because, make no mistake, that’s who he’s talking to. Those he will call, “the least of these, who are members of my family” [Matt. 25:40]. What is going on here?

When in doubt, look closely at the language. There is something interesting going on in the original text. Without getting too heavily into Greek verb tenses, I want to tell you that they are part of Jesus’ argument.

“Therefore do not worry,” Jesus says, “saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ [Matt. 6:31]. Except that the verbs are subjunctives, they are conditional, so Jesus is really saying: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What might we be eating?’ or ‘What might we be drinking?’ or ‘What might we be wearing?” The verb tenses are telling a story of anxiety, of half-heartedness: the worry and fear have reached such a point that they have even colonized the language people are using.

Don’t be half-hearted, Jesus is saying. Be like the birds. A bird is a bird. It doesn’t occur to the bird to worry about where its next meal is coming from. It’s too busy just being a bird, with all its heart and intentions. It doesn’t occur to a wildflower to worry about its appearance. A wildflower is simply reveling in its wild and flowery state. Wholeheartedly.

Be like that, Jesus says. Be wholly yourself, who you are… And who you are, is this: you are beloved children of a loving God. Put that first. Then everything else will call into place.

What Jesus says, specifically, is “strive first for the kingdom of God.” But we need to interrupt this program to clear something up. Until this point in the gospel, Jesus has been talking about the “kingdom of heaven,” and I think we need to get clear what these various words are all about. When we Christians hear the word “heaven,” our default setting is to think of something very specific: We think of a place where God and the angels are, and our deceased loved ones, and we think of it as the place we will go—God willing—after we die. There is one very big problem with this. This is not what Jesus is talking about at all. He is not talking about an afterlife, the pearly gates, the great beyond where we will meet up with the Spirit in the sky. He is talking about the life of faith we live right here, right now, the life that is fully informed by him, and the ways in which he shows us the love of God.

Jesus starts talking about the kingdom of heaven in chapter 4. “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” he says, and what we see is:

·      Jesus gathering together a group of people who will listen to him and try to be like him.

·      Jesus teaching and preaching and telling people the good news about God—how God loves them; about God’s great reversals—the hungry being filled, the mourning being comforted, the meek inheriting the earth.

·      Jesus touching people to cure them of every kind of disease and sickness.

When Jesus says, ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he is not talking about what to expect when we die. He is talking about how we need to live. Jesus invites us to live in a community whose focus is healing and caring for those who are struggling with things like hunger and poverty.  When Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” he’s not talking about an individualistic notion “me and Jesus” salvation. He is talking about whole-hearted devotion to God’s project of people caring for one another.

The big turning point in “Rebecca” is the moment when the second Mrs. DeWinter stops seeing herself as a timid and pathetic person constantly in need of her husband’s validation. A great revelation helps her to recognize that she is a powerful woman, a source of strength and consolation. She blossoms, because instead of being focused on what she lacks, she is now wholeheartedly focused on what she has to give. 

As Jesus looks out at the crowds gathered on the hillside, listening to his sermon, he sees, yes, hurting people, needy people, even hungry people. But he also sees strong people, people who have endured, people who have made do and made it through and who have it in them, not only to survive, but also to thrive. He sees beloved children of God, who have the ability to share that love with one another.

God sees us. God knows what we need. God asks that we train our hearts and minds on who we are and Whose we are. God urges us that we get our priorities clear, understanding ourselves to be God’s beloved children. God assures us that we have been equipped to share God’s love, not in some distant future, but today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Light of the World: A Sermon on Matthew 5:1-20

The Mount of the Beatitudes, Galilee

Scripture can be found here....

This morning’s New York Times Sunday Review has a column by Nicholas Kristof. He writes about human rights, women’s rights, health, and global affairs. Today’s column sports a picture of two teenagers, both wearing their cross country jerseys. He writes,

[Dateline: YAMHILL, Ore.] — THE funeral for my high school buddy Kevin Green is Saturday, near this town where we both grew up.

The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs….

Kristof tells Kevin’s story. He grew up on a small farm, where his family lived with, “if not the American dream, at least solid upward mobility.” The farm was not the main source of their income: Kevin’s dad had a good union job; it paid him well above the minimum wage. An ethic of hard work was the family standard. Kristof describes Kevin as “sunny, cheerful, and astonishingly helpful: Any hint that something needed fixing, and he was there with a wrench. But then,” he writes, “the dream began to disintegrate.”

The local glove manufacturer closed up shop, and so did the feed store. Blue-collar jobs vanished. For a while, Kevin worked nonunion in construction for low pay. Then that company went under. He worked as shift manager making trailer homes.

Then, about 15 years ago, Kevin hurt his back and was laid off. A cycle of disability and debt spiraled out of control, and the state took his driver’s license because he was behind on child-support payments. That, his younger brother said, is what “knocked him to the dirt.”

Kristof closes the piece: “So, Kevin Green, R.I.P. You were a good man — hardworking and always on the lookout for someone to help — yet you were overturned by riptides of inequality. Those who would judge you don’t have a clue. They could use a dose of your own empathy.”[i]

As we come to our passage in Matthew’s gospel, which we call, “The Sermon on the Mount,” it might be good to be reminded of something. If we’re crowded in with all the others on the side of the mountain, listening to Jesus preach, it’s good to know who’s in the crowd with us. At the end of chapter 4 Matthew writes,

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.     
~ Matthew 4:23-25

Kevin Green is standing in the crowd, too, as Jesus opens his mouth and says,

“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.”
~Matt. 5:3-6

I remember fairly vividly the first time I ever heard these words. I was in the fourth grade, in my Catholic elementary school. My first response was confusion. I certainly didn’t relate to anything that was being said. I knew I couldn't claim to be poor, in spirit or otherwise. I certainly wasn’t meek. I had lost my Aunt when I was four, but really, it was my mother who mourned, not me. Pure in heart? I didn’t think so. Peacemaker? Spend an hour observing my brother and me at play. So, no to peacemaking. I couldn’t relate to these words. It was that simple.

Thank God that my teacher, a remarkable and talented woman who, like Kevin, died far too young, was persistent. These words, she persuaded me, were at the heart of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Yet, when you read these “blessings,” they almost give offense. Blessed are the poor, or poor in spirit? Blessed are those who are grieving? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for fairness? No, thank you, got any other blessings today?

Some years back I was going through a tough time, and I talked with a friend whom I not only liked, but also admired. She had been through the same kind of difficulty. She said, “Well, all I can tell you is, it made me a more compassionate person.” And I thought, “Well, I would like to learn that lesson in some other way, thank you very much!”

But, oh my, she was on to something there. Jesus looks out at the crowd, and he sees the Kevins, all those who have been knocked to the dirt by life. The least and the lost, the poor and pathetic and possessed, the sick and the heartsick. And he says, “Well, all I can tell you is, there will be a blessing in this for you, even if you can’t see it right now.”

Around the same time my friend gave me her words of wisdom, I was attending West Presbyterian Church in Binghamton, and the troubles I was going through affected the whole family. One day after church, I learned that the pastor had asked if we were all right. He had said to my then husband, “You both look so incredibly sad.” I tell you, when I heard what he had said, my eyes filled with tears. I was so grateful. It is a powerful thing to be seen, really seen, and to have your suffering spoken aloud, to have it named. It is the beginning, I would say, of healing.

Jesus looks out at the people crowded on the mountainside, and he says, not only, “I see you,” but also, “God sees you. And God will bring a blessing to you.” And I wonder whether part of that blessing is what my wise friend said. I wonder whether part of the blessing of undergoing a period of suffering is the way in which it cracks our hearts open, and allows us to know that others are in pain, too. I suspect my friend was right.

“God sees you, and will bless you in this and through this,” Jesus says. And then, in a curious turn of the tables, he tells all these crushed and crying people that, in fact, there are ways they can bring a blessing to the world around them.

“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.”
~ Matt. 5:7-10

In God’s paradoxical way, it is the bruised and broken who can, in fact, become powerful—not in the under-my-thumb, I’ll-have-my-revenge, action-movie definition of powerful. Not “powerful” in its most common understanding. Powerful in spirit. Powerful of heart.

To show mercy, to forgive, is powerful. To be single-hearted—to pursue the calling of your heart—is powerful. To make peace (O, my eight-year-old self, listen up!) is powerful. To stand firm even when the people who seem to have all the power rain their wrath down upon you, is powerful beyond expression, almost beyond our comprehension.

Because, of course, Jesus is talking to us, but like lots of preachers, he is also talking about himself. I read somewhere this week, “The beatitudes are Jesus’ self-portrait, the most personal description we have of him in the gospels. They are the timeless image of Christ… Would we today recognize him if we saw him?”[ii]

Jesus is talking to himself, but of course, he is talking to the people before him, humanity in all its beauty and brokenness. And he goes yet another step further. “You,” he tells them, “are the salt of the earth… and you,” he says, “are the light of the world.”

Just imagine. There you are. Knocked to the dirt by the loss of your job, or the spouse who left, taking the kids. There you are, groping around for some way to cope with the grim diagnosis or the loss of mobility. There you are, still swooning in your grief. And Jesus tells you, “God sees you. And here are the ways in which you are blessed. And here are the ways in which you are powerful. In fact, you are the light of the world.”

You, just as you are, can shine the powerful light of Christ as you reach out in forgiveness. You, just as you are, are the light of the world when your heart shines with purity of purpose.  You, just as you are, are a beacon of God’s hope when you choose peaceful and nonviolent ways of being in the world. You are the light of the world, when you allow your heart to be cracked open, when you allow yourself to feel empathy, to comprehend the pain of, to give one example, the Kevin Greens of this world, and vow to use whatever power you have to make a difference in their lives.

Jesus is talking to us, but, of course, he is also talking about himself. Jesus is the light of the world, a light no darkness can extinguish. And we are an essential part of his light-the-world project. Would we recognize him if we saw him today? Here is his self-portrait. Look for him where forgiveness, and peace, and empathy are healing hearts and changing minds. And don’t forget to shine. Shine for all you’re worth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Where’s the Empathy?” in the New York Times, Sunday January 25, 2015, p. SR13. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-wheres-the-empathy.html?_r=0. See also, re: “Reagan, Obama, and inequality,” from the New York Times, Thursday January 22, 2015, p. A27. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/22/opinion/nicholas-kristof-reagan-obama-and-inequality.html.
[ii] Edward Farrell, Surprised by the Spirit (Dimension Books, 1973), as quoted in Disciplines for the Inner Life by Bob Benson and Michael W. Benson (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The First Temptation of Christ: Sermon on Matthew 4:1-17

Scripture can be found here...

The wings of the Spirit-dove are still beating the air, and the words of the Almighty still hang there, when the action of our passage begins: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there really is such a creature as a devil.

Actually, let’s go back to basics. Biblical Devils 101.

First: There are no “devils” in the Hebrew Scriptures. None.

Second: There is, however, a character called “Ha-Satan,” or “The Satan.”

Third: “Satan” is a Hebrew word, meaning “tempter.”

Fourth: And the Tempter in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually a part of God’s heavenly court. He functions to prod the Almighty, to test the divine worldview. As an example, see Satan pushing God to question the righteousness of his servant Job.

Fifth: Once we get to the New Testament, something changes, radically. Instead of the Satan being one skeptical lawyer on God’s team, he abruptly appears to be on the other team, the anti-God team. And…

Sixth: In the New Testament, the devil’s job is no longer to help God to see things clearly. Now his job is mess up the vision of people—to tempt, seduce, and ensnare them to join his team. This is the traditional understanding of the devil that appears today, in our reading from the gospel of Matthew.

And now, Jesus is face to face with one who is called “devil” or the “tempter” or “Satan.” The function of the devil in this particular passage seems to be to test Jesus’ sense of self. This follows that extraordinary peeling back of the heavens to reveal God’s sense of Jesus at the end of the preceding chapter. “My Son. Beloved. Well-pleased.”

And Satan jumps right in: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (v. 3). The devil seems to be tempting Jesus to use his identity or power as the Son of God to exempt himself from the human experience of hunger. But Jesus refuses, quoting Deuteronomy (8:3): “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). Jesus’ connection with God, his identity as “beloved child,” is a precious gift. Jesus refuses to use this connection as a convenience, as a “get-out-of-hunger-free” card. Jesus lives with his physical hunger while reminding himself of his spiritual hunger for God. Jesus deals with his hunger in a very human way.

The devil’s second temptation incorporates another quote from scripture, as if to say to Jesus, “I see what you did there. Two can play at that game.”  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

The devil seems to have come up with a strategy of matching Jesus, quote for scripture quote. Here he’s quoting Psalm 91. However, Jesus seems to have a particular view as to how we should quote scripture. I think it goes something like this: to quote scripture with the goal of causing harm is a violation and a perversion. Jesus quotes scripture to tell the truth. “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (v. 7).  If Jesus was not inclined to use his connection with God to fill up on miracle bread, he is even less inclined to use it to try to bend the laws of nature, turning falling into flying. Jesus is committed to his humanity.

The devil tries a third time, offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” in return for his bowing down to him in worship. Jesus’ response is decisive: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (v. 10).

The tempter does indeed give up and go away…only to be replaced by angels, ministering to Jesus. I think it is fascinating that the angels appear just now. Jesus has not performed any miracles. Jesus has not shown the fearsome power of God by calming a storm at sea. The angels appear after Jesus has essentially given up all claim to divine power and authority. Jesus has been described so far in this gospel as “Messiah,” “God-with-us,” and “Son of God.” And yet Jesus’ power seems (ironically? paradoxically?) to rest in his absolutely, and tenaciously, clinging to his humanity.

The test completed, Jesus begins his ministry. Upon hearing that John the Baptist has been arrested, Jesus “withdraws” to Capernaum, in Galilee, safely out of the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the equally bloody son of Herod the Great. This means that Jesus is intentionally avoiding conflict with potentially hostile authorities. He does this on several other occasions in this gospel. He is not looking for a confrontation—not yet, anyway. This also means that Jesus’ ministry begins in Gentile territory. And so Jesus begins his ministry much as be began his life: on the run from a king named Herod, and unexpectedly welcome in Gentile territory. By the last verse of our passage, Jesus has picked up John’s mantle, preaching in the same key: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (v. 17).

So… let’s assume this creature is for real. This tempter, this Satan. We could ask, what, exactly, has the tempter accomplished? How devil-like does he feel to you?

A friend in ministry wrote this week,

Because of years of traditions we tend to see the "devil" as someone who is trying to lead Jesus astray, as the demonic face of evil trying to stop the good from triumphing.  I suspect such an image would be foreign to Matthew as he wrote this story down.  It appears that this is more a story of being tested than being tempted.  Not being led astray but refining from a variety of options who he will be, how will he live out the calling of Messiah.

Who will Jesus be?  Will he feed the hungry?  Will he overturn the laws of nature? Will he come in power to rule?

OR will he be something totally different?

Jesus is in the wilderness, forty days and forty nights, just as Moses was in the wilderness with God’s people for forty years. But there is something completely new going on here. Jesus is not just a throwback, he is not Moses reincarnated. Is it possible that Jesus is doing something that has been called a “vision quest”? I read this week that a traditional vision quest consists of a person spending an extended period of time, at least one to four days and nights, in nature or the wilderness. During that time, the person enters a deep communion with whatever they understand to be God—they might call it spiritual energy, or the forces of nature. And it is hoped that this intense experience will result in a spiritual aha—dare I call it an “epiphany”?—in which the person receives a profound insight into themselves and the world, a dream or a vision, telling them about their identity, their purpose, and their destiny.[ii]

What if the role of the tempter was not to turn Jesus away from God, or from his true mission or ministry, but to actually help him to refine, and clarify, and discern exactly what his true mission or ministry was?  What if the time in the wilderness was Jesus’ vision quest?

It seems to me that Jesus’ fundamental realization in his wilderness sojourn is this: the Son of God, the Messiah, is not someone who will accomplish his work by separating himself from humanity. The deepest truth of Jesus’ mission and ministry flow from embracing his humanity. And Jesus does just that: in the face of each test, he does the human thing, wholeheartedly. And then the tempter’s work is done. Jesus’ path is clear.

For those of us watching with interest, this is good news. Very good news. If we are called to follow Jesus, it’s to follow him by fully embracing our own humanity.

We are human beings—formed from the earth, and made in God’s image, at once grounded and exalted.

We are human beings—created for community, for belonging, for relationship.

We are human beings—called “beloved,” and tested by all that life throws at us, to be sure. But God is our open book for that test—God is with us in all of it.

In the end, God doesn’t ask us to be anything other than we are. Which is, after all, what God created us to be.

So, about that devil… that tempter. Is it possible that the Hebrew Scriptures had it right? That the role of temptation is to help us to gain clearer vision? That in being drawn to certain things or situations or people we learn who we are, and who we are not; what we treasure above all, and what we are willing to let go of? Is it possible that what we perceive as the “tests” of this life can, if we allow them, help us to understand what our true path is? And if Jesus gives us any clue, our path has to do with being fully human—grounded and glorious, individuals in connection and communion with one another, and beloved children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rev. Gordon Waldie, “Looking Forward to January 18—Jesus Tested in the Wilderness,” Ministerial Mutterings Blog. http://ministerialmutterings.blogspot.com/2015/01/looking-forward-to-january-18-2015.html.
[ii] “Vision quest,” Wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_quest.