Glimpse of Eternity

Preached on February 26, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
The last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

 

A glimpse of eternity.  Do you ever wish God would just give you a little glimpse of eternity; of what God has in store for the world? Or maybe just for you?

Have you ever felt that you’ve had an encounter with God?  What does that even mean and how do we talk about it?  I think that is one of the gifts of a community of faith.  We come here and hear the stories.  We learn to recognize God out in the world and we learn a little about how to talk about it.

There are so many ways to approach the story of the Transfiguration.  One way is to look at it as an eschatological revelation – meaning that it has to do with the end times.  It is a foretaste of what is to come: a glimpse of eternity.  Moses and Elijah, here, are eschatological figures.  In Scripture, they are expected to appear as the end approaches.

At the end of the book of the prophet, Malachi, the very last 2 verses of the Old Testament, it says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”

And along with Moses and Elijah, we see the glory of God in Jesus, the Messiah.  The Transcendence of God is breaking through.  We have Emmanuel, God with us, revealing the glorious Otherness of God.

In the Transfiguration, we have jumped way ahead in the gospel of Matthew from where we were last week, in chapter 5.  This is chapter 17.  The first sixteen chapters have been an unfolding of the revelation of Jesus as Messiah arriving on the stage of history: he’s preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, performing signs – in the world; in history.  In chapter 16, he asks the disciples, “Who do they say that I am?” and then “but who do you say that I am?”  Peter famously proclaims, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Then Jesus goes on to tell the disciples what that will mean; what kind of Messiah he is to be.  He must go to Jerusalem where he will be handed over to the authorities and be killed and then raised on the third day.  When Peter protests, Jesus responds with another famous line, “Get behind me, Satan.”

It is only 6 days later when Jesus takes the three, Peter, James, and John up the mountain where he is transfigured.  Perhaps this is a sign from God, not only that Jesus is the Messiah, but that what he has prophesied is true.  God is vouching for Jesus, so to speak.  We hear the same words that we heard at his baptism at the beginning of his public ministry, “This is my beloved Son.”  Now the voice adds, “Listen to him.”  The Transcendence of God has broken through; a glimpse of eternity.

They go down the mountain together and set out for Jerusalem.  There, they will end up on a different mountain, and Jesus as Messiah will be revealed in a very different way.  Perhaps it is because of the first, that the journey toward the second is possible.  I’m sure that it is because of the first that the second is so profound.

How can (or does) God help you get through the day or the week when you are facing a difficult journey in life – whether it’s challenges in relationships or your family, work, health, politics, protests, just the overwhelming turmoil in the world today.  How do you find God in that world?

Sometimes what helps us through is knowing that Jesus is like us; knows what it’s like to be human; to share the same limitations and risks, the joys and difficulties that we experience.

Sometimes, what we long for most is that Otherness; the beyond-ourselves God who is God of the Universe.  We long to experience the Transcendence of God breaking through.

And sometimes it is enough to find in the stories, a Glimpse of Eternity.

 

Life, Law, and the Least of These

Preached on February 19, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

This is our fourth and final week with the Sermon on the Mount.  And this just may be the most challenging section.  It’s difficult when we take four weeks, looking only at a bit at a time and some of you may have messed a week or two.  But the Sermon on the Mount is a single sermon given to Jesus’ disciples, the twelve, although there may have been others listening, he was speaking to those twelve whom he had chosen.

It’s his first discourse; it’s sort of an introduction or a kick-off to his ministry.  He sets the stage for what is to come in the remainder of Matthew’s gospel which will conclude with the Great Commission.  (Yes, it’s okay to skip to the end and see what happens, where it’s going.)  It’s a discourse about his message and ministry and who he has come for.  It’s also instruction on what it will mean to be his disciple.  And as a whole sermon, it hangs together.
It’s about Life and Law and the Least of these.  Above all, though, it’s about Love and Reconciliation.

Let’s start with a little recap.
Jesus started with the Beatitudes – blessed are those whom the world rejects, or are forgotten, or appear to be anything but blessed, and blessed are those who are already living the kingdom; those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who are persecuted; those who are peacemakers, merciful, pure in heart, or hunger after righteousness.  These are the people he has come to be with.

Next, he switches to Blessed are you (who would be his disciples) when you are persecuted and so forth.  Jesus calls the disciples into community.  God makes disciples to be salt of the earth and light for the world.  You are what the world needs, Jesus says.  We hear an invitation to participate in Jesus’ mission and to be Christ in the world.

Then Jesus begins to talk about the Law, Torah.  He has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it; to complete it.  He continues, using a series of antitheses, he reinterprets the law for their context, showing how the Law must always serve Life.  And today, we hear him continue with the antitheses.

Do not resist an evil-doer, he says.  I don’t know about you, but especially in these times, that doesn’t set well.  I struggle with it.  Didn’t we just hear in the reading from Leviticus, Reprove your neighbor or you incur guilt on yourself?
Not an eye for an eye, but turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to those who beg or borrow.  Not vengeance, but reconciliation.  Ok, I can go there.  So maybe it’s recognizing that pushing back against someone who does evil doesn’t change them, they just dig in their heels so to speak, and the evil continues.  How do we resist evil, then?  That’s a question worth pondering.  It is too big a question to address in a sermon or even a class, but one worth considering – probably all your life.

To quote Dr. Martin Luther King,
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[i]

Love your enemies; pray for your tormentors.  Be perfect. Really?  Be perfect like God is perfect?  Well, maybe perfect is an imperfect translation. The word is telos which has to do with completion, a determined end or goal, an intended purpose.  So maybe it’s more like “Be whole, be the person God created you to be.”  One commentary suggests it is more like persistence. “Persist because your heavenly Father persists.”

Persist toward the goal set out in the Beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon.  Persist in God’s vision of the kingdom, the fullness of blessings for all people.  Persist in seeking reconciliation, in serving life; persist in loving.  Persist in seeking the kingdom of heaven.

So you see, it really does hang together.  The Sermon on the Mount is about Life and Law and the Least of these; Above all it’s about Love and Reconciliation and the kingdom of heaven.

We are part of something much bigger than ourselves.  We are but a moment in a very long story.

I’d like to close with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do however virtuous can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.[ii]

May we persist in seeking to love, in seeking the kingdom of heaven.  And may we be saved by hope, faith, and love.

[i] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth101472.html

[ii] https://www.brainyquote.com/search_results.html?q=nothing+we+do+however+virtuous

Clouds of Contagion

Preached on February 12, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Have you seen that commercial – it must be for a cold medicine or something?  It asks the question, what if you could see your cough?  And then it shows people coughing with dark clouds spreading out from their mouths, filling the space around them.  That image seems to really fit what we’re talking about today.  What we do, what we say, even what we think and feel extends beyond ourselves and affects others – for good or ill.  So, keep that image in mind.

We’re still in chapter 5 of Matthew.  Today it’s paired with a passage from Deuteronomy in which Moses is offering last words of wisdom before the people cross the Jordan into the Promised Land – without Moses.

In chapter 5, Matthew lays out a foretaste of what is to come.  He’s making his basic claims about Jesus as the Messiah and about what discipleship means.

Jesus is a Messiah who has come to be with “the least of these.”  We heard that in the Beatitudes a couple weeks ago.  He is a Messiah who blesses and teaches.
He is squarely within the culture, practice, and tradition of Judaism.
He takes the law seriously, and is a teacher and interpreter of the Law, Torah.
Today, we see him continuing the tradition of and claiming the authority to interpret the Law in light of the current context.  And I want to note that throughout Scripture, we find the law reinterpreted for changing contexts.

Here’s what we’ve heard about discipleship.
In Matthew, Jesus sets high expectations.
It is being called into a community; we don’t do discipleship alone.  Disciples are invited to participate with Christ to manifest the kingdom of heaven, where the well-being of all of Creation is God’s desire.
It is being with “the least” because that’s where we find Christ.  It means making Christ present in the world.  It means being salt and light; God has gifted disciples to the world, making in them what the world needs.  It may even mean persecution for righteousness’ sake.
And it means taking the Law seriously.

What do I mean by that?  I don’t mean pointing to book, chapter, and verse and scrupulously and literally doing what it says – or worse, demanding that someone else does.  Rather, it is to be willing to spend time with it, think about it, question it.

Now first, in the Episcopal Church, we understand the Bible to be written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit.  We make no claim that it is dictated by God and written down word for word by men.  We recognize that they interpret what is revealed by God through the lens of their own experience, culture, and context.  And because of that I think sometimes they just flat-out got it wrong.  Sometimes we misread God’s revelation – and so did they.

All through Scripture and history, the law is interpreted and reinterpreted in light of the whole of Scripture and changing contexts.  God continues to reveal God’s self.  That’s why we call it the Living Word of God.

When the Hebrew crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, the law they received at Sinai was reinterpreted for the next context.  That’s what we hear Jesus doing in today’s gospel – reinterpreting the law for a new context with a series of antitheses: “You have heard it said, …  but I say to you …”  And I’ll get into that in more detail in a minute.  First, I want to draw your attention to the reading from Deuteronomy.

This is Moses final discourse.  He’s reminding them of all they have learned in the desert and what they need to know for their new life, settled in a homeland.  A few verses earlier, this is what he says:

“For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.   No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

He goes on with what we heard, setting before them a choice: life and prosperity, death and adversity.  Choose Life, he says.  Choose life.

The law is not some arbitrary set of rules to trip us up.  God delights in prospering you; in your well-being.  The Law serves Life.
So, when we look at how to interpret law, that’s a pretty good lens to use.  How might this have served life in that context?  How does a particular interpretation serve life now?  And not just my own life and well-being, but the life and well-being of my neighbor?

And it’s not “too hard,” Moses says.  It is very near you, in your heart and in your mouth.  God really doesn’t say, “Be perfect or be damned.”  But God does say, “Choose life.  Here’s how.”

How does Jesus say it?  Well if today’s reading doesn’t make you sit up and pay attention, I don’t know what will.  Jesus’ teaching shows the far reach of the law.  How does this interpretation of the law serve Life in his context?

Let’s start with the most startlingly graphic part – gouging out eyes and cutting of hands is awfully extreme.  But you know what?  It’s not your eye or your hand that causes sin, is it?  Remember when Jesus said that it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles but what comes out of it?

Remember that image of the cough cloud?  It is not our eyes or hands that cause us to sin but our thoughts and intentions, the content of our hearts and minds:
fear, hatred, jealousy, greed, vengeance.  That’s what causes us to sin.  That’s what we need to root out, gouge out, cut off.

Easier said than done, in part because we don’t even want to see those things in ourselves.  But we need to look for them, find them, examine them – and then heal them.  They are not something foreign that can be cut away; they’re wounds that must be healed.

Then there’s Jesus’ teaching about divorce.  Remember, at that time (and to be honest, until very recently) women were property.  A husband could divorce is wife, abdicate all responsibility for her for very little reason.  And then she was pretty much sunk.  A certificate of divorce only meant that another man was free to marry her – if he was willing to take on that responsibility.  But if not, well, she had few resources available to her.  Jesus is saying, you have a responsibility to support and care for your wife; you can’t just throw her away.  So, in that context, his interpretation of the law served life; it offered dignity and protection to women.

Now, what about now, when that very same teaching is used to tell women that they have to stay in a destructive or abusive relationship?  Does that serve anyone’s life or well-being?  What do you think Jesus would say to people today?  I wonder how he would interpret the law today to protect women and children?

These antitheses show the far reach of the law.  It is not good enough to simply not kill your neighbor, you shouldn’t be angry with them, or insult them, or call them names.  And if you do have a falling out, do your best to be reconciled.  Our lives and well-being are that closely tied to theirs.

It’s not enough that you don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife; don’t treat women like objects.  They’re people.  And in our own context we can extend that to many areas of our life: from co-workers to employees, to the person who waits on you at a shop or restaurant, to the people who harvest our food and make our clothes.  They do not exist simply to serve your life.  Each one of them is a person, a human being with a whole life.  The far reach of the law that Jesus teaches us is that we are responsible not only for our own life, but we are accountable to and responsible for the life and well-being of our neighbor as well.

It brings to mind words of a poem I read by Marilyn Maciel

if words could be seen
as they floated out
of our mouths
would we feel no
shame
as they passed beyond
our lips?
if we were to string
our words
on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud
as our thoughts
flapped in the
breeze?[i]

Now think about that cloud.  I kind of think of it as a cloud of contagion.  When we spew hatred and bigotry, jealousy, anger, greed, vengeance, disdain it spreads and destroys life.  But it is also true that when we exude a cloud of love and caring, mercy and justice, kindness and compassion, that too is contagious.  It serves life.

The fact is, we each have a cloud and we each have a choice. We don’t live in an isolation chamber.  Our cloud spreads and touches the lives of our neighbors.  Which will you choose?

[i] “clothesline,” poem by Marilyn Maciel. Published in Patti Digh, “Life Is a Verb: 37 Days To Wake Up, Be Mindful, And Live Intentionally.” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 42.

Being Salt; Being Light

Preached on February 5, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

This week we are continuing our journey through chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  You may remember that last week, we started out with the Beatitudes:  blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn; blessed are the meek and those hunger after righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

And that was paired with the passage from Micah – What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

You may also remember that I suggested that Jesus was teaching the twelve what it meant to be disciples.  That these are the people he came to be with, people whom the world may have judged had been abandoned by God.

Disciples are invited to come along with Jesus, to participate with God in bringing about the kingdom of heaven where God’s deepest desire is the well-being of all humanity, of all creation.

This week, we hear Jesus continuing to teach the twelve and any who would want to be his disciples just what that means.  Matthew’s gospel sets very high expectations for discipleship.  It’s not something you can do in your spare time!

First, I’d like to point out that Jesus sets discipleship squarely within Judaism.  “I have not come to abolish the law,” he says.  “Not one stroke of a letter, even, will pass away from the Law until heaven and earth pass away.”  He goes on to say that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

That sounds pretty extreme.  What might he mean by that?  As usual, let’s have some context.  Israel has been under occupation of one power or another pretty much since they returned from exile in Babylon. Matthew is writing after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  Now there are a number of ways to respond to this situation.

The Pharisees know that they will never be able to stand up to the Roman Empire to regain political power in their own land.  But they can try to preserve their religious and cultural identity.  They do so by withdrawing from the world and devoting themselves to study of the Torah and the prophets and scrupulously following the Law and religious practice.

It is interesting to look at our passage from Isaiah alongside the gospel.  In Isaiah, God is chastising the people of Israel for performing religious rituals for ritual’s sake without them having any effect on their lives and how they interact with their families, their neighbors, or their employees.

Religious practice is intended to be transformative.  “This is the fast I seek,” God tells them, “Loose the bonds of injustice, free the oppressed, share what you have with those who are in need.  Then your light will shine like the dawn.”

So perhaps the righteousness that Jesus is referring to is more than perfectly performing rituals or scrupulously following the letter of the law.  It could be that he means that we should pay attention to relationships and how our choices affect our neighbor, our family, our colleagues.  When we advance our own interests at the cost of the well-being of someone else, we’re not in the kingdom, no matter how well we follow the law.

Now with that in mind, let’s think about the beginning of this portion of Matthew.  Jesus is teaching the twelve what discipleship means.  This teaching actually starts with the last bit from last week.  Jesus switches from the third person of the “Blessed are those who…” to the second person.

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.

He continues, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.”  They already are; it’s not that they have to strive to become salt and light.  They are salt and light through the grace of God.

I wonder what that means, though?  Let’s see, salt and light are basic necessities of life.  So, Jesus is saying, the world needs you.  Go and be the salt, be the light that God has created in you; don’t hide from the world – even though the world may revile you and persecute you.

The work of the church, the work of discipleship is to make Christ present in the world.  It’s about allowing what we do here, Sunday mornings, and in your own personal devotions, to transform you, to transform your lives.  What does being salt and light mean in your life, in your relationships; because each of us has unique gifts from God.

Now, let’s go out and be the salt and light the world needs and so, transform the world.