The Journey Begins in Wilderness

The Journey Begins in Wilderness

Sermon for March 1, 2020 Lent 1A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “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.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

I was recently in the company of people who were using “colorful” language. Noticing that I was there, they felt somewhat apologetic about it — not enough to stop using the language — but enough to feel the need to say something vaguely contrite.   

So I told them of an experience I had many years ago.  I was listening to a famous Christian author and professor who was speaking to youth workers like me, about global poverty.  He told us that according to the World Health Organization, 15,000 children die of hunger every day.  

Then he said, “And most of you don’t give a S*#*! about it.”  And then he said something I will never forget.  He said, “And the fact is that most of you care more that I said S*#! than that all those children will die of hunger today.”  And he was right.  

I was shocked by that realization.  It made me re-examine my whole approach to what was ethically important.  Language, I concluded, is trivial.  Global poverty, the death of children is not.  

Sometimes it helps to step back from the details to get a big picture view of things.   The church has had a habit of trivializing temptation.    

We have made things like language, meat and chocolate important at Lent, instead of things that actually matter in the world.  Let us not do that.  There are big issues going on here that we need to look at.  

We always begin Lent with the story of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.   That is a good place to start our 40 days of preparation for Easter, as long as we keep the big picture in mind and refuse to trivialize what is going on here. 

Desire

First, let us notice the big picture issue that this whole temptation scene is about desire.  As Matthew presents this story, Jesus has been fasting.  He is hungry.  He is physically weak.  He is in the wilderness, which means he is alone, isolated, without any social support. He is experiencing desire on every level.   

Let us remember this story in the context of Jesus’ life, as the gospels present it: Jesus has just been baptized, which was a hugely significant moment for him; a spiritual experience; a mystical moment in which he heard the voice of God calling him God’s own beloved son.  And immediately he goes from what must have been an exhilarating feeling to being isolated and needy.  This seems to be a pattern.

Jesus’ personal life echoes the experience of his people, the Israelites.  In the Biblical story, they crossed the Red Sea, set free, liberated from slavery in Egypt, as God’s chosen people, and immediately found themselves in the hungry, empty wilderness of unmet desire.   

Why are these two stories told this way?  And why are they so much like the creation story in Genesis, in which the first experience of the original man and woman is the Garden of abundance, nevertheless they come to the forbidden tree and experience desire, as if they lacked something? 

We call these texts our “wisdom tradition” for a reason.  Long ago, people of spiritual insight understood that to be human is to be both a beloved child of the divine, and yet permanently hungry.  We live with a sense of being loved and of  longing.  We have an aching desire at the core of our being for a union that escapes us.  We experience it as a lack.  Something is missing.  

There is an incompleteness, even in our best moments of joy.  Intense pleasure can also carry pain.  As one poet put it, “tears can sing, and joy shed tears.” (Bruce Cockburn)

The First Temptation

The essential temptation we all live with is to try to fill up that inner empty space with things that cannot possibly satisfy.  Like cotton candy, when what you need is a decent meal, the sugar tastes good, but no amount will help. So, the first temptation is to try to fill that lack on the cheap.  

This is the first temptation Jesus  faced.  Make some quick bread out of stones.  Self medicate. Keep yourself distracted from feeling your hunger feelings. Keep the TV on.  Go shopping.   Everyone has their own go-to spiritual junk food.  The more we gorge on it the sicker we feel.  

Nothing else substitutes when the hunger is for God.  Union with God is what we long for, not for empty carbs.  So, Jesus says to the tempter,  

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  

The word that Jesus has just heard is that he is God’s beloved Son.  That is the word we all need to keep hearing until we believe it.  

The late Henri J.M. Nouwen, who wrote and taught on the spiritual life said, 

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection….When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions….Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”  

All of those empty carbs seem attractive, until we internalize the word that God says to us: you are beloved, you are my child.  With you I am well pleased.  Don’t give into the temptation to settle for less.

The Second Temptation

The second temptation is to turn to God, but only as a cheap crutch, a rescue from a bind; a bail out.  Throw yourself off the tower and then call for help.  

This temptation is seductive, because it comes close to the real thing — after all, the desire is for God, not for phony substitutes and pain-killers.  

But the God of the sudden rescue is not the real God at all.  God is God, not a dog that responds to the  “fetch” command.  

This way of looking at God actually set us up for the biggest problem that people of faith confront: the problem of pain and suffering. If God is sitting there watching us go through the wilderness — whatever that wilderness may be for us, depression, addiction, grief, failed relationships, financial hardships, family issues, or being the victim of systemic injustice, just to name a few — if God is sitting on “his” hands doing nothing, even when we cry out for a rescue, then why?   

But God is not a being like that at all.  God is the Ground of all being.  God is like light — not a thing to see, but the means by which we see everything.  So God’s presence is real, but not like Superman.  

Rather, God is present by the Spirit always and everywhere, luring us to the next right thing, to goodness, even after evil, to love, even after suffering.   So the answer Jesus gave is perfect: 

“do not put the Lord your God to the test.

The Third Temptation

The third temptation is the cynic’s temptation.  Having found no help in the rescue God, the cynic concludes that God is, after all, not on offer.  Having not found the version of God he was looking for, he concludes that there is no God at all.  So the temptation is to assuage that aching inner desire by pure materialism.  All the kingdoms of the world are available if you sell your soul and go after them.  

But, as they say, “all that glitters is not gold.”  And there is never enough glitter to satisfy.   A whole book of the bible is devoted to this insight.  Ecclesiastes is the testimony of a person who had it all, and found none of it helpful.  

There is no spiritual union possible when the call of the Spirit has been muffled under piles of possessions.  

Temptation and Desire

Temptation is not trivial, it is existentially real.   What do we desire?  Every Sunday I ask you to set your intention for the service.  I ask, Why did you come?  What do you need from this service?  My hope is that at the root of your desire is a quest for a connection with the real God, and nothing less.  

And my belief is that a real connection with the real God can be transformative.   Jesus walked out of that desert into a life of ministry, a life of meeting human needs, a life of compassion in the face of suffering and oppression.  He gave his life to that purpose, because he had learned to overcome the temptations of desire.  

He listened to the word of God calling him his beloved child and walked away from cheap substitutes.  Let us follow Jesus.  The journey begins in wilderness.

Being People of the Vision

Being People of the Vision

Sermon for Feb. 23, 2020 Transfiguration Sunday A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

When I graduated from seminary I served as a pastor to youth and young adults for several years. The pastor I served under saw himself as a mentor and teacher to me, and I learned a lot about ministry from him. One day as we were talking about church things he asked me, “Can you keep a secret?” I said “Yes.” And so he said, “So can I” — and said no more. That was clever. Anticlimactic, but clever. 

Anti-climactic Stories

Why do people tell anti-climactic stories? Usually, stories build-up to the end; the couple finally kiss, the murder is solved, the hero defeats the monster — that is how we expect it to go. But the gospels have a couple of really odd, anticlimactic stories. For example, in Mark’s gospel, after Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds are shouting “Hosanna” he goes to the temple, and does nothing but turn around and go to where he was staying because, Mark writes, it was “already late.”  

Here we have another example. Matthew, following Mark, records this amazing story: Jesus is transformed before the eyes of his inner circle, both clothing and face dazzlingly bright, Moses and Elijah appear, God’s voice is heard from a cloud that is overshadowing them, and all this builds up to the moment when it is all over and Jesus says to them,

“Tell no one about the vision” for now.  

So why would anyone tell such an anti-climactic story, and why should we still read it today? What is here for us? Let us look at it and see.

Understanding How the Bible Works

One of my goals, as we work through texts from the bible each Sunday, is not only to help us get the message the text has for us but also, over time, to help us see how the Bible actually works. We are surrounded by lots of churches that teach things about the nature of the bible that I do not believe match the facts. I want you all to see the facts.

So, one of the obvious facts about the stories of Jesus in the Bible is that there are four, not one, and they differ from each other, sometimes trivially, sometimes substantially. Noticing those differences help us to understand what each unique author was trying to say about Jesus and his significance.

For example, it is quite clear that Matthew wanted us to see Jesus as the new Moses. We see it right here in this story. Matthew took Mark’s version of this story and made some edits so that Jesus’ life mirrors or echos Moses. He has Jesus deliver this sermon on the mount, just as Moses got the ten commandments from the mountain. He has Jesus take his three inner circle of leadership up the mountain with him, just as Moses had done.

There is a cloud in both stories, and the voice of God from the cloud. Mark tells us that Jesus’ clothing became bright white, but Matthew adds the detail that “his face shone like the sun,” to echo the experience of Moses, according to the story, which says, 

“As he [Moses] came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining” (Ex. 34:29-30).

Even the opening words of the story, “Six days later” echo the story of Moses, receiving the commandments after six days on the mountain.  

The Main Point

But let us not get lost in the details and miss the main message. Why make Jesus parallel to Moses? Because Moses was the giver of Torah, the Law. Those 613 commandments were what organized all of life for Israel. The Law of Moses instructed the people about how to worship, how to organize their land, how to care for the poor, what to eat and not eat, and even what they could or could not touch without incurring impurity. But for Matthew, now that Jesus has come, there is a new voice to listen to that fulfills the Law of Moses: it is the voice of Jesus. That is exactly what the vice of God says from the cloud:

This is my Son, the Beloved; with him, I am well pleased; listen to him!”  

The whole point is that we, the community of people who are Jesus followers, should listen to him. That is what we try to do here when we come together: listen to the Jesus-stories over and over until what he says sinks into our consciousness and becomes deeply embedded in our hearts. From there, Jesus then affects everything for us, just as the Law of Moses had done for Israelites. Jesus’ teaching affects how we think of God as our Heavenly parent who loves us so unconditionally.

Jesus’ teaching affects how we treat each other — remember that Jesus taught with words and by his actions — so we see his open-hearted embrace of everyone and his exclusion of no one. We see Jesus taking time for the poor, the sick, the people who others felt free to treat as non-persons, women, slaves, children and this schools us in how to live. So

Jesus’ teaching affects all of life for us: from what we spend our money on, and what we find entertaining, to how we vote and what kind of country we want to have.  

Listening to Jesus in this intentional and practical way is what we are called to do.  So of course, the voice has to come from the cloud, just like at Mt. Sinai, and give us that mandate. And that is why Peter got it so wrong that day. His idea was that the point of the vision — which is what Matthew calls it — is to put up shrines. Shrines are for veneration. That is what most of the gods of the ancient world wanted from humans: worship, adoration, honorific sacrifices.

But Jesus did not ask for veneration. Jesus never told us to worship him any more than the Buddha did. He did not even care to have the story of this vision reported on, lest other people get the idea that veneration was the main point.  The main point for Jesus is paying attention to what he said and taught and then putting it into practice.  

Coming down the mountain

So now we come to the point at which it makes total sense that this story is anti-climactic; in fact, we can see why being anti-climactic is essential to the meaning. The climax to a story of seeing Jesus dazzling would have been precisely to build a shrine-complex as Peter suggested. But that was not Jesus’ agenda. Jesus’ agenda was to go back down the mountain to where the people he spent time with were — back down in Galilee among poor, hurting, oppressed and hopeless people. His agenda down there was to meet their needs. He brought healing to them, perhaps by his inclusive acceptance of them just as they were.  

That agenda is beautifully symbolized in this story by Jesus’ response to Peter, James and John’s meltdown. When they hit the ground in fear and trembling, Jesus went to them and said,

“Get up and do not be afraid.” 

Don’t grovel. Don’t abase yourself. Don’t do that “woe is me” routine. Rather, “get up” there is work to be done. Don’t be afraid — of anything: of God, of the Romans, of criticism, of your history of past failures, or of your lack hope that you can make a difference.  

They did get up; they went down the mountain with Jesus, and they changed the world, one person at a time. That is what listening to Jesus produces: people who are not laying on the ground or even sleep-walking through life, but who are awake to it all.

Listening to Jesus, until his words, his way of being, his worldview has become internalized awakens us to God’s goal for the world, which is its repair, its healing (Tikkun Olam, if you were here before). Listening to Jesus awakens us to his spirituality, his mystical relationship with God, and his passion for justice and reconciliation.  

So, when we come together, as we are doing now, our focus is on giving gratitude to God for this amazing vision. We are grateful that we have these gospel stories. The one we read today is a vision-story: we are people of the vision. And our vision is Jesus’ vision of a healed, reconciled world.

Our vision includes us as collaborators with God, as we respond to the lure of the Spirit towards the next right thing that only we can do. Our vision is not motivated by fear, or resentment, or vengeance, but love for God and the world God made, and all of the people in it.  We keep listening to Jesus, and follow him down the mountain, into the River Valley.

Jesus’ Yes and No

Jesus’ Yes and No

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 for Feb. 16, 2020 Epiphany 6A.

Audio can be found hhttps://soundcloud.com/stevendkurtz/february-16-2020-jesus-saysere for several weeks

 Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said:] “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.”

They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.” I don’t know if it always does, but I know it can. And familiarity can breed less strong emotions too, like simple apathy. 

Every famous person probably has family or close associates who see them all the time, and are simply not at all star-struck by them like the rest of us are.  

I think that can happen with us and Jesus. We talk about him all the time. We sing about him, we make our kids put on bathrobes at Christmas time to be in cute plays about him as a baby in a manger. Does that have an effect on us with respect to Jesus? 

In the film Talladega Nights, there is a scene at the dinner table in which someone offers prayers to the “Lord baby Jesus.” His wife challenges him, saying, “Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” But he says, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”  

Familiarity breeds — what do we call that? — benign dismissal; or at least total disrespect. Are we too familiar with Jesus to hear him? I wonder.  

Well, if so, let us just try to hear him as if for the first time today. What he says should first shock us, then make us curious, and finally utterly amaze us. What was Jesus doing in this part of his famous “Sermon on the Mount?” And how does it affect us today? Let’s look at it together. 

Six times, of which we read the first four, Jesus says something like, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” In every case, the thing that people have heard it was said was not just rumor or hearsay, Jesus is quoting scripture. So, we should hear each one as Jesus saying, “I know that the bible says this…but I say that.”  

Now, we should just stop right there and take a breath. “The bible says this, but I say something different.” That should shock us. Even more shocking is that most of the time, the part of the bible Jesus is quoting is the ten commandments; the very heart and soul of the Law of Moses. Remember, according to the story, told both in Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses got them directly from God. 

So what does that mean when Jesus starts with the ten commandments and then says, “but I say to you…?” Each time, Jesus invites us to pause and think. What’s going on in that law? Why is it there? What does God really want from us? Whatever it is, in the first place, it is not simply slavish obedience to a law, just because it’s a law. In each case, Jesus challenges us to ask questions and reflect ethically. So, after being shocked that Jesus calls us to reflect beyond the level of law-keeping, let us be curious and look at what he calls us to. 

Anger and Relationships 

The first case is about anger and relationships.

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;” 

So Jesus is not approving of murder, but he is elaborating the commandment. There are words that destroy relationships and people. That’s a form of murder. It kills the ability of people to work together; it kills the spirit of cooperation in groups, it makes relationships toxic. We all know families, churches, clubs, bands, and all kinds of human associations that are ruined by reckless, hurtful words.  

Why is this significant?  This is not just Dear Abby’s moralistic manners-advice. This is serious because Jesus had an agenda. He was about creating communities of people who could disrupt the whole social structure, as it was accepted and practiced, and replace it with justice, equity, and inclusion. 

These Jesus-communities were supposed to model a radically alternative way of being. Men and women, slaves and free people, people of every ethnicity, from Jews to Greeks were to break bread as equals, share their resources to meet each other’s needs and work for liberation from oppression. But none of that could happen if they allowed their community to become poisoned by bitterness and resentment. 

Reckless words like “you fool” could kill it. So, you have heard that murder is wrong: well I say to you, don’t murder your community. 

It is more important to reconcile with each other than to go to the temple offering gifts to God. 

The other side of this coin is another core teaching of Jesus: the demand to forgive when we have been wronged. No one should call you names. But if they do, don’t let that kill your relationship. Forgive them. Then, get on with your mission to the world. 

Adultery and Lust

The second example is also from the ten commandments. It is about adultery.

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.” 

Jesus used exaggeration for effect — but what is the effect of this exaggeration? Lust is all about objectification. It is all about seeing another person as a means, and not as an end. It is about instrumentalizing another human being as a vehicle for one’s own pleasure. 

This teaching should have launched an ancient #metoo movement. For Jesus, humans, men, and women are all beloved children of God. It is, or it should be inconceivable to treat them as anything less than that. 

Hell?  No

Now, something else needs to be said here. You have heard me say that I don’t believe in hell. Well, doesn’t Jesus threaten people with hell here, saying,

it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell?

No, he didn’t. Jesus did not say “hell”, he said “Gehenna.” If you need to verify that, take out the pew bible, and look at the footnote in the NRSV for Matt. 5:29. It says that the word is not hell, but Gehenna. 

But translations have their own way of being conservative, and new translators are hesitant to break with old traditions, even where they were wrong. Jesus didn’t say you were in danger of being thrown into hell, but into Gehenna.  

So what is Gehenna? It was the name of the valley just over the Southwest wall of Jerusalem. Lots of horrible things had happened in that valley over the centuries. In Jesus’ day, it was a smoldering trash dump. 

So Jesus is saying, don’t waste your life like garbage: treat everyone as ends, not means. Treat them, as philosopher Martin Buber taught us, as “thou” not as “it.” 

Let love be genuine, let attraction be beautiful and pure; there is no room in this community for treating people as lust-objects instead of as full humans, beloved by their Creator.  

Divorce

Next, Jesus tackles divorce.

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.

Historical context is everything here. In Jesus’ day, divorce was easy for men, and only for men. All they needed to do was to write a certificate of divorce for just about any reason, and the marriage was over. 

Where did that leave the women — and we may assume her children? They had two options: return to her father’s house, if she still had a father and if he had a house and if he would or could take her back in. Otherwise, all that was left to her was to take to the streets in the world’s oldest occupation. The options for her were terrible. 

This is more about the huge injustice and evil done to another person than staying married. There were reasons to break a marriage; Jesus names unchastity, which most take to mean unfaithfulness. 

Later, Paul felt the freedom to broaden the marriage-breaking causes to include those marriages in which one has become a Christian and the other hasn’t. He allows them, if they need to, to go their separate ways. In Paul’s Hellenistic world, women could be business people, like Lydia, for example, so the ethics of ending a marriage were different. But clearly, the goal is to stay together in a mutually affirming relationship if at all possible.  

Oaths 

The final example is about swearing oaths. This one is the most distant from our culture. We don’t swear to the truth by heaven or earth or Jerusalem. But the point is so clear: be a community of honesty. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” Say what you mean, mean what you say, so that you will be considered reliable and trustworthy. A community of deception and subterfuge cannot be a community of healing and reconciliation. Use simple speech.  

Relationships 

I hope you can see that this is all about relationships. When we relate to God as our loving Creator, we know that we are all valuable. We all have dignity as persons. So how could we not treat each other as equally valuable? How could we treat each other with anything less than respect and honor? 

This community has the capacity to make into full persons those who the Roman empire treated as non-persons, but only on the condition that we keep living up to and into our vision of a reconciled humanity. 

That was Jesus’ vision. It went way beyond keeping laws. In fact, it fulfills the intent of those laws. You will remember that Jesus said he came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. This is how the law is fulfilled: by looking beyond the words of the laws to the motivations. And the motivations are always about relationships. 

So, we are committed to following Jesus. We are committed to his long-term agenda. We are committed to being a community of people who control our mouths so that our speech to each other is life-giving, not murderous. 

And we are a community committed to practicing forgiveness when we are on the receiving end of harsh comments. We believe too strongly in our goal of being a healing, reconciling community to let speech subvert us. 

We are are a community that treats each other with respect and dignity, as persons, not as objects or means to an end. We are a community of bonded relationships that are not easily broken. And we are a community of honesty and reliability. In these ways, we are a community of healing and restoration in a world that desperately needs both. 

Jesus Being Ridiculous (Thank God!)

Jesus Being Ridiculous (Thank God!)

Sermon for Feb. 9, 2020, Epiphany 5A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 5:13-20

[Jesus said:] “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 hidden. 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 fulfil. 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.”

Sometimes when I’m reflecting on Jesus and what he was all about, I get this overwhelming feeling that this man was amazing, for all kinds of reasons! One reason was what he saw in the people that followed him. 

I don’t know what you picture when you think of Jesus, standing, or sitting — which was the pose of teachers back then — outside, surrounded by the curious people who came to hear him. But think of what he saw. 

Try to picture looking through his eyes. Most of those people were what some call the “unwashed masses.” Not to fault them; they were peasants. Most were quite poor. 

They lived subsistence lives, day to day — which is why they prayed for “daily bread.” They had hard lives; they aged fast. They all probably had a mouth full of bad teeth, or missing teeth. They were uneducated — again, not their fault — literacy was a luxury peasants neither had need of nor could have afforded.  

But they were not dumb. They could think. They may not have been able to read, but they heard the scriptures, Torah, read to them by rabbis. They knew well the stories of the Hebrew Bible. I’m sure they had absorbed the hopes and dreams that those stories ignited. 

I don’t know how many of them thought things were hopeless, but I imagine most probably did. We know that there were revolutionary movements, but most people were just trying to survive.

So Jesus looks out on these powerless, hurting people and says something that must have sounded completely ridiculous. 

You are the salt of the earth; …You are the light of the world.” 

Now, how is that even remotely reasonable? Who among them would have believed it?  

And, no matter what I say this morning to you all, I wonder if anyone of us will walk out the door thinking, “I am the salt of the earth; I am the light of the world.” I seems, not just arrogant, but preposterous. 

Well, that’s kind of my job, but you are going to have to work with me, okay? Try to keep an open mind and let’s think about this together.

I believe that if Jesus could look at the rag-tag people who came out to listen to him and tell them that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world, then he could certainly say the same to us — in fact, that’s the point of Matthew writing it down for us; that we would hear the teaching directed to us too. 

But I am guessing that we do not believe it any more than they did. How could it possibly be true?

Let’s start with the basics: why salt? why light? Salt makes things palatable that wouldn’t be otherwise. Light is required for seeing. It’s illuminating. That’s all we need to know.

So, the question then is how in the world was that little bunch of peasants around Jesus, and how are we, in any way in a position to make life palatable for people and to bring illumination to the world?

The Content

There are two things I believe we should think about: content and strategy. Both are crucial. First, the content of Jesus’ teaching. If people could get on board with the content of Jesus’ message, it had the power to transform their lives. If they could grasp that they were actually beloved by God — in spite of everything — if they could actually believe that God was for them, and not against them, it could change everything. 

If they could believe that they were not being punished by God, that their poverty and their condition of oppression under Rome was not some inescapable curse, but that God cared for them even more than God cares for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, that every hair of their heads was numbered, then they could go through life, facing difficulties, knowing that God was with them.  

If they could embrace, at a gut level, their own forgiveness, and become people who paid forgiveness forward, it could transform all of their relationships, from their families to their work associates, to their experience of the Roman soldiers watching them. 

If they could do enough work on their egos to actually pray and mean, “may God’s will (i.e. not mine) be done on earth as it is in heaven” they could become spiritually mature people of equanimity and they could bring to an end the games of competing and comparing that make so much of the world toxic.

And if they could internalize Jesus’ message of openness and inclusion, they could be agents of reconciliation and healing to people who had been marginalized, discriminated against and ignored. 

I have quoted before the professor who summed it up by saying that the early Christian movement had the capacity to make the people who were treated as non-persons in the Roman Empire into persons: women, slaves, the poor, the sick, children, and every kind of minority. It was amazing.

If they could become awake, as Jesus was awake, to the structures and systems that were perpetuating unjust economic practices, they might just be willing to join movements of resistance, like the one Jesus led to the temple that day, even at great personal risk.  

You see where this is going. Even a group of illiterate peasants, if they were to embrace Jesus’ vision, could live the kinds of lives that would, in fact, make life palatable for people and bring illumination to the world. That’s the content.

The Strategy

Now let us look at the strategy, because this is another thing I find amazing about Jesus. Jesus did not set up shop in one location and ask the people to come to him. He went to them. He went to their villages, their homes, and their synagogues. He met their sick people, he ate with their families, he shared their life. It was all about relationships. There were no hierarchies. He treated everyone equally. 

Then, as the ministry got going, he sent out 12 to do the same, taking only the barest of necessities, being dependent on, not superior to the people they shared the vision of the kingdom with. Later he sent out 72 to do the same thing. 

This was a non-violent, grassroots people-movement, spreading organically from peasant to peasant. It needed no money, no organization, no bylaws, no buildings, had no debts and paid no salaries. Jesus’ strategy was hyper-relational. And anyone could be involved, from carpenters and fishermen to stay-at-home moms.  

So, as counter-intuitive as it seems, the fact is that yes, even poor Palestinian peasants could be the kind of people whose lives could make the world palatable, as salt does for crackers, and it could bring illumination of a whole new way of living and looking at life, God, people, power, economics, justice, and everything else.  

And if all that can be said for a toothbrush and soap-challenged peasant, how could that not be true for us? Are you the salt of the earth? Are you the light of the world? You could be. You have the capacity to be.

Coaching, not Cajoling

But this is not to lay a burden of expectations on you. Jesus is not commanding people to be salt and light. He is not cajoling them. Rather, he is encouraging them as a coach would. I think there may even have been some winking-humor in his encouragement, when he said, 

“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 underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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.”  

Then he sums it all up saying, 

“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.”

Let your light shine. Shine out compassion, shine out mercy, shine out forgiveness, shine out humility. The world is desperate for people who can shine like that! And all the more so in a deeply divided world, filled with so much bitterness, anger, and arrogance.  

But, How?

Now, there is something going on here that needs to be discussed. The goal of being salt and light for the world are beautiful end states to want to get to. But how? How can you shine, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed by the tasteless darkness of the world? 

The fact is that Jesus was great about telling where to end up, but he did not say much about how. It would be great if we could simply decide to be loving, kind, forgiving and compassionate, but it doesn’t work that way. We need practices that help us get there. 

Jesus himself had a set of practices that the gospels describe him doing, even though they don’t describe him talking much about them. For example, we know he regularly gathered with his community at the synagogue for worship and instruction. When you gather with a group of likeminded people, just as we are doing right now, and together you orient yourselves toward your goal, it helps you to achieve it. 

Meditation

So that is an important reason we gather together. It is a practice, or some people call it a spiritual technology, for getting to the goal of being the kind of people we want to be: salt and light for the world.

Another important practice for Jesus was wordless prayer, or meditation. Some call it contemplation. He would go out and spend long periods of time alone in prayer, the gospels tell us. There is no other practice that is so effective at helping us get control of our egos than meditation. 

People who practice meditation become much less ego-focused. So they’re able to forgive more. They’re able to be fully present more. They’re more likely to laugh at themselves than to get offended. And they are more in touch with the world’s pain, and more likely to try to be involved in practical ministries that address that pain and help alleviate suffering. 

So meditation is a crucial practice, a crucial spiritual technology, it helps us get to the end state of being salt and light for the world.

Really?

So at this point, I’m wondering what you’re thinking. I’m wondering if you’re thinking that you were capable of being exactly what the world needs? Maybe you’re thinking it seems ridiculous. If you do, then thank God that God believes in you, maybe more than you believe in yourself. 

If you have trouble believing it, They let me encourage you to engage some spiritual technologies, some practices that can be transformative. Practiced them consistently for a while and then see what happens. Make a bet, make a wager that there might be something to it after all.

Well, all this sounds theoretical, so I want to leave you with one concrete specific example, of how little people with transformed lives can make a huge impact, can be salt and light. This was recently written about by Richard Rohr, who was reporting on a book by Stephen Schwartz about the enormous social changes the little community of Quakers has made. Rohr says, 

the Quakers. Their actions—grounded in contemplation—(or, meditation) have had a profound impact, helping to abolish slavery, promote gender equity, and reform prisons and other institutions.” Schwartz writes:  

“How could this small group of people create movements that ultimately involve millions, tens of millions? This is a tiny group whose being-ness is so powerful that enough people personally change their choices so that the desired change becomes society’s new norm. (The Quakers illustrate) how individual choice linked in consensus becomes the strategy… that creates change.”

That specific concrete example gives me hope. I hope it gives you hope. You are beloved by God and you are here for a purpose. Let us live into that purpose and watch what’s going to happen in our corner of our world!

The Wager We Make

The Wager We Make

Sermon for Feb. 2, 2020, Epiphany 4A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Note: The prophet imagines a day in court, calling the charges against the unfaithful nation a “controversy”, calling witnesses, and citing evidence.  He concludes with a question about what God really wants, and then answers it.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 5:1-12

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.”

You know, we might be wrong.  In fact, chances are good that we are mistaken.  There is no way to disprove the existence of God, but neither is there a way to prove it.  And as for Jesus, frankly, his vision of life goes against the wisdom of sober minded, common sense realism.  But here we are, believers in God and people who are trying to follow Jesus.  

The point I want us to think about today is that there is no way to know in advance which way of looking at it is correct.  Maybe we will know after this life — but certainly not before the end.    

So we must make a wager.  We must bet on one side or the other.  There are consequences that follow either way. 

My hope is that we will see that making the wager we have made, that there is a God, and that Jesus’ vision of what God wants for us, for the world, is a bet that, although it carries risk as all bets do, nevertheless it leads to the best outcome.  

And at worse, if we are wrong, perhaps all we will have done is paid the universe a compliment it did not deserve.  Having bet that there is such a thing as love, that we are all connected, that justice is more than simply socially constructed  convenience,  that each life, every life, has dignity and value, if we turn out to have been mistaken, all we will have done is believed the world was better than it turned  out to be.  

But in the mean time, we will have made it better than it would have been otherwise.  But I’m getting ahead of the story.  

Jesus’ Vision 

Matthew chapter five begins what we now call “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Matthew has collected many of the teachings of Jesus and put them together into this format.  One of his literary strategies is to present Jesus as the new Moses, so he arranges the teachings of Jesus into five of these long sequences, one for each of the five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, attributed to Moses.   In this one, Jesus is on a mountain, just as Moses received the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai, as the story goes.  

We begin with the section we call the “beatitudes.”  Jesus pronounces a solemn blessing on the eight (or nine, depending on how you count the last sentence) ways of being in the world that are right and good.  

Each of these ways of being is counter-intuitive.  They are not the perspective of common sense realism.  In fact they are nearly mirror opposite common sense.  Being poor is not a blessed state, nearly everyone in the world would agree.  The meek certainly do not inherit the earth; they are not found among the one percenters.  No one enjoys being persecuted.   

I have just been reading the book Circe, about the Greek goddess Circe.  Those of you who have read the Odyssey may recall that on his way home from the Trojan war, Odysseus visits the island to which the other gods had banished Circe.  

In this telling of the story, Circe’s son travels to Ithaca to meet the father he has never known, and accidentally kills Odysseus with a magically poisoned spear.  After the accident, Circe’s son returns home.  Odysseus’s first son, Telemachus and his mother Penelope also travel to Circe’s island.  

Circe assumes they are there for revenge.  In fact, she asserts that it is the honor-bound duty of a son to avenge his murdered father.  That is the way the world works — the way it must work.   Even the gods understand and respect the justice of vengeance.  In that world there is no such thing as “blessed are the merciful.

So how did Jesus arrive at all of these opposite conclusions?  And, we may ask, are they believable?  Perhaps we should first ask, where did he get them?

Jesus got many of his ideas from his tradition, the Hebrew Bible, especially from the prophets.  Jesus was clearly a critical thinker.  

He did not blindly accept everything in the Hebrew Bible, as we will see so clearly today.  But his passion for justice, especially his perspective that justice and mercy far outweigh religious obligation come directly from the prophets.  Let us look at one example.  

Micah’s Courtroom Drama

We read a snippet of the prophet Micah.  It began with a courtroom drama.  Scholars call it a “covenant lawsuit.”  God had made a covenant with Israel to be their God and protect them, as long as they obeyed his law.  Micah says they repeatedly broke his law with all their injustice and oppression of the poor, so God was upset.  

It is a courtroom drama; God calls witnesses; the mountains themselves have been around to see it all, so he calls them.  So have “enduring foundations of the earth” so they are called as well.  

Then, instead of listing more charges, God jumps from his prosecuting attorney role to the role of a victim giving testimony.  God asks Israel,

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”

Then he starts listing all the things he has done that they should have been grateful for, all the times God had protected and delivered them.  It is evidence of how unfair their unfaithfulness to God has been.  

So, God says, he has had enough.  The covenant has been broken.  No more protection is coming.  He will soon say, what is coming are enemy nations, and they will destroy you.  Judgement is coming. 

The question that is on everyone’s mind is, “Well, what can we do now?  How can we make this right with God?  What does God want from us?”  Micah gives them their lines to say to God:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?”

The answer, as  every good Israelite would know, comes from their bibles.  God has said that when you have sinned, you come to God with sacrifices.  You bring burnt offerings, rams.  You pour out libations of oil and pray for forgiveness.  

But this is exactly where the prophets had their own distinct perspective.  Fulfilling religious obligation does not hold a candle to acts of justice and mercy.   Even exaggerated amounts of religion – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, even human sacrifice, to take the exaggeration to the point of absurdity, are not what God wants.  What does God want then? Micah says to the humans on trial:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do justice. That’s pretty clear.  Love “kindness”.  Kindness is a pathetically weak way of translating a word that means, as Walter Brueggeman has said, “to reorder life into a community of enduring relations of fidelity.”  

He goes on to explain, the final phrase: “Walk humbly with God: to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God” (Brueggeman et al, Texts for Preaching Year A).

Jesus’ Ideas

Where did Jesus get his ideas?  Partly from the prophets.  Certainly the part about justice, community relations of fidelity, and abandoning self-sufficiency, from prophets like Micah.  

But Jesus also departed from Micah.  How?   By removing the threat of judgment.  Jesus did not say, “…or God will let the Romans will destroy you.”  He simply said, this is the blessed way to live.  

It was if he were saying, you only have two options.  You can wager that God is there and will be with you, as God is there for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, or not.  And if God is there for you, as the perfect parent, the “Father in heaven” for example, or there for you as the shepherd who goes out looking for the lost sheep until he finds it, and then rejoices, you can live a blessed life.

The Two Alternative Wagers

If not, then get on with your vengeance.  See what kind of world that makes.  If you wager that we are alone in the universe on our pretty blue planet out in the middle of immense emptiness, randomly evolved to be conscious, even self-conscious, but to no point other than to return to dust, then get on with any strategy for inheriting the earth you can come up with, because there is no point to it anyway.  

If you wager that the only things to hunger and thirst for are comfort and security, without regard to the damage that may come to the planet or to others, then go ahead, but you had better hope that you are not in the way of anybody bigger and stronger than you who has the same plan.  You can wager for that common sense realism, and live in the world that it produces.

Or, you can make the other wager.  You can bet your life on an alternative to violence and self-seeking.  You can risk that despite appearances, goodness is its own reward.  You can live as if the poor in spirit who know that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” are really onto something true;  that poverty of the soul is the worst kind of poverty imaginable, and is even fatal if untreated.  

You can make the wager that there is such a thing as being “pure in heart,” and that it is true that only the pure in heart ever glimpse God in the world.  The conniving, the deceitful, the disdainful see God nowhere.  

But the pure in heart, who expect the good, who attend to the moment, who notice beauty, who express gratitude, who are willing to forgive, see God all the time. They see God in people, they see God in every example of love and compassion, they see God even in themselves, knowing that they are the objects of God’s love.  

We may be mistaken.  We cannot prove that this way of living works.  We may be paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve.  

But if so, all we will have lost is the investment we made in the good.  If only for now, we will have increased the amount of love in the world.  

If only for now, we will have released some people from the bondage of injustice and oppression.  

If only for now we would have helped our climate sustain life for another generation.  

If only for now we would have walked the earth seeing God everywhere and in everyone.  

That is the wager we make; that there is a blessed way to live, and it is the way Jesus taught us.