Friday, March 28, 2014

“Spiritual Gifts: Service” - March 30, 2014

Acts 9:36-41                                                  

            Last week a friend of mine posted some advice on Facebook that came from a Singer Sewing Manual from 1949.  Ladies!  Take heed!

“Prepare yourself mentally for sewing.  Think about what you are going to do… Never approach sewing with a sigh or lackadaisically.  Good results are difficult when indifference predominates.

Never try to sew with a sink full of dirty dishes or beds unmade.  When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do these first so your mind is free to enjoy your sewing.  When you sew, make yourself as attractive as possible.  Put on a clean dress.  Keep a little bag full of French chalk near your sewing machine to dust your fingers at intervals.  Have your hair in order, powder and lipstick put on.  If you are constantly fearful that a visitor will drop in or your husband will come home, and you will not look neatly put together, you will not enjoy your sewing.”

We’ve changed a lot, even since the days when I was in school and the boys were required to take a six-week course on how to scramble eggs and put a button onto a shirt.  They called it “Bachelor Survival”.  I have no ideas what they were teaching the girls in the metal shop, but one of my classmates now has her own arc welder.

            All that aside, living in an age of easily-obtained, mass-produced clothing, we don’t give a lot of thought to what production of clothing meant a century ago, let alone before the invention of the sewing machine.  In A Christmas Carol, almost every time Dickens shows us Bob Cratchit’s wife, she (and sometimes her four daughters with her) is sewing.  At one point we learn that her eyes are tired and she is beginning to lose her sight from looking at small stitches and working by dim light.

            In the Bible, the book of Acts tells us how much one woman’s sewing meant to the community. 

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”  [Acts 9:36-39]

As we think about spiritual gifts, it is important to remember that sometimes the grace of God is wrapped up in the provision of basic needs and expressed in acts of helping others that way.  That really does make a difference.  Let me share a couple of pieces of needlework with you.  They are both clerical stoles, these pieces of cloth that I wear around my neck. 

The first has personal meaning for me.  It was a gift from a woman who went to my home church and who was also one of our high school librarians.  She gave it to me as an ordination gift.  It has a series of panels on it that she cross-stitched and sewed onto the cloth.  Hours and hours of work must have gone into it.  It is the product of more than skill with the needle, though, because when I see it or wear it I feel connected to and in some ways responsible to the people who first told me about Jesus, whose birth and death and resurrection are symbolized here.

The second has meaning for others.  It’s a stole that comes from Guatemala and was produced by the Ruth and Naomi Project.  I brought this back from a mission trip, but they also market through Ten Thousand Villages and this summary is from their web site.

“The weaving cooperative Ruth and Naomi is located in Chontola, near Chichicastenango.  The project emerged out of the terror and desperation of Guatemala’s civil war.  With the help of a local Methodist pastor and his wife, some widows banded together to support their families through sales of the community’s traditional woven crafts.  Of the initial group of 18 women, all had lost husbands, fathers, or both to the government’s ‘scorched earth’ policy of the 1980s.  The name was chosen because it spoke of two widows from the Bible who were without resources, but who worked and survived.

Scholarships make it possible for teens to complete high school in Chichicastenango while living in the project compound.  Some have gone on to complete university degrees.  The project has also started a health and nutrition center.”

Don’t belittle “women’s work”.  Don’t think that the meetings the United Methodist Women hold are all about hoagie sales and fruit salad.  Some of the most intense conversations and learning that goes on in the church happens there.

            Here’s another piece of handiwork.  It’s a prayer shawl from the rack that sits in the narthex.  The women who crochet or knit these understand that their efforts are an act of outreach to the sick, to let them know they are wrapped in the prayers of God’s people.  They are a ministry of welcome to a newly-baptized baby, signifying the promises we all make to surround the child with a community of love and grace as she or he grows.

            Don’t miss out on the profound value that there is in the making of lunches for people doing house repairs through Good Works, or the spirituality that goes into swinging the hammers and turning the screwdrivers.  Don’t ignore the giving of self that is part of changing the lightbulbs, refinishing cabinets, digging the garden plots, or making decorations for the holidays.  Don’t overlook the gift embedded in the act of washing the coffeepots, opening doors, setting up chairs, or keeping the web site current.

            “All service ranks the same with God,” wrote Robert Browning, and he was right.  The gift of serving, when done with an eye to God, is honored by the Lord himself, as the restoration of Dorcas to the community of believers in Joppa demonstrated.  May he raise up a whole crew of such people among us, and among his people wherever they are, from Jerusalem to Johnstown, Galilee to Guatemala, Joppa to Westmont, Kuala Lumpur to Collegeville, Philippi to Phoenixville, to the end of the age.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

“Spiritual Gifts: Discernment” - March 23, 2014

Acts 16:1-5

It’s March now, but it will soon be May and then June: the two months when all across the land commencement speakers will stand up in high school auditoriums and gyms or move to center field in a football stadium, clear their throats, welcome various people, and then declaim, 

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, …”

and so forth.  Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Taken” is a favorite because it talks about choosing a path in life, which people graduating from high school or college are in the midst of doing. That involves the exercise of discernment, a spiritual gift which is the ability to choose, not between good and bad or right and wrong, but among a variety of possibilities which may all be good but will have different outcomes. 

When faced with multiple good options, people’s first reaction can often be a refusal to choose at all.  How often on Thanksgiving do you hear that question, “Pumpkin pie or apple?” There is going to be someone at the table who will say, “How about just a small piece of each?”  Or why is there such a thing as Neapolitan ice cream, with a stripe of vanilla and a stripe of chocolate and a stripe of strawberry? 

That doesn’t always work, though.  There are some decisions where saying, “Yes,” to one option means saying, “No,” to another.  You cannot be in two places at once.  You cannot pay for both a trip to Paris and a new car.  You do not have the energy both to do your daily work and to train for a marathon.  You have to go with one option and stick with it.  You could, if you wanted, just go with your gut or just flip a coin.  Then there would always be that nagging question at the back of your mind about whether you should have gone the other way after all.  Should you have flipped the coin again and gone with two out of three?  I’m talking about more serious questions than pie or ice cream, here.  I’m talking about when you make decisions that will have a lasting effect in the long run.

            Discernment is a matter of understanding your priorities, and putting what is most important first.  Work is a good thing, but the Ten Commandments say to

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” [Exodus 20:8-10]

Worship is a good thing, but even there, Jesus himself said that

“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.” [Matthew 5:23-24]

Teenagers and parents, students and teachers especially tend to face situations where they have to pick among good options.  Sports or drama or youth group: those are all good.  Going to college or learning a trade: those are both good.  Each choice, however, may lead to another choice beyond that, and one beyond that, and then another, and soon the paths have diverged. 

“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

So be aware of those early steps.

We want kids to be well-rounded, and sports teach important lessons about working as a team, about developing self-discipline, and staying in good health.  Those are long term gains.  Perhaps the real lesson of sports, however, should be always to do your best but when you find someone who is stronger or faster or more agile than you, you may need to lose with grace.  To keep things in perspective, according to the NCAA[1] out of 538,676 boys who play basketball in high school, 46 will be drafted by the NBA.  Of 433,120 girls who play basketball in high school, 32 will become professionals.  Figures for other sports are about the same.  The highest rate is in baseball, with O.5% of high school players eventually going pro (although that includes the minor leagues, not just the majors).  Given those numbers, shouldn’t more emphasis be placed on simply enjoying the game?  Let’s not limit things to sports, either.  In 2007, around 100,000 people tried out for American Idol.  That means, as one writer put it at the time, “You have a better chance of being the next ‘American Idol’ than you do of getting hit by lightning.  But not that much better.”[2]

            I recently saw a copy of an open letter that was written to parents by the Youth Pastor of a large church in Alabama.  When I read it my first thought was, “Whoa!  This guy is burning out!  Be careful!”  Re-reading it, however, I thought he hit the nail on the head.  Part of what he said was,

“We have never seen a generation of teenagers who are more stressed, full of anxiety, depressed, suicidal, over-committed, over-medicated, over-worked and over extra-curriculared, and it is killing them, sometimes literally. We know you want the best for them, the best grades, the best college, the best teams, performances, standardized scores, friend groups etc. We all want the best for them. But they are not the best at everything and they will never be the best at everything. I was not, you were not and they will not stand atop the podium in every area they compete. As I watch the Olympics I have thought a lot about what it takes to get to the Olympics, let alone what it takes to get to the top of that podium. It takes incredible amounts of raw talent, dedication, work, and single-mindedness about that discipline. Unfortunately we see many parents pushing these standards and unrealistic expectations of every area of their kids’ lives. They cannot do it all, they cannot handle the stress and are being crushed under the weight of the expectation. Now, please hear me, it is not just your expectation, it is the expectation of their coaches, teachers, administrators, colleges and the expectations of each other. Expectations are good, they cause us to rise above where we, alone, would usually strive. But they must be realistic expectations based on each student.

Your kids are probably not going to Harvard, and that is ok.

Your kids are probably not going to play a professional sport, and that is ok.

But your kids can be amazing, productive, courageous and wonderful human beings, who love, have passions and dreams; should we really want more than that?”[3]

Discernment means considering not just what is good, but also what might be better.  What will lead to a better outcome in the long term, not just in the moment?  How do we make our children and youth better people so that they can make the world a better place?  Acting with discernment, choosing the better over the good, may mean postponing the immediate rewards or saying, “No,” to some things.

When Paul chose Timothy to work with him in spreading the gospel, he acted with discernment.

“…there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.”

Paul was looking toward the future.  He could have decided to work only with people whose experience had been tried and tested, people like Barnabas and Luke and Priscilla and Aquila, who had helped him share the gospel already, instead of taking a chance on a youngster like Timothy.  He might have relied on the help of Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who had already shown themselves to be faithful.  All of those people were capable.  But he saw good in Timothy and the added fact that he would be around longer than the rest of them.  He chose to work to develop the long term good rather than simply take the short term benefit. 

Paul made an investment.  As it turned out, it was a wise one.  He took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

[2] Scott D. Pierce in Utah Deseret News, July 27, 2008.
[3] Letter to parents by Stephen Ingram, Canterbury United Methodist Church, Mountain Brook, Alabama, February 19, 2014.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Spiritual Gifts: Hospitality" - March 16, 2014

Matthew 25:31-40

There’s more to hospitality than handing someone a donut and a mug of hot chocolate, although that’s certainly a good start.  It’s not really hospitality in the fullest sense unless you share something of yourself along with it.  It may not take a lot of time; a bride and groom, for instance, try to get around to everybody at their wedding and that means that in some cases it’s just going to be a quick, “Uncle Mortimer!  I’m so glad you’re here!” and they truly mean that, (and Uncle Mortimer knows whether or not they do), even that quick recognition can be enough.  What matters really, after all, is that recognition.  It’s that human one-to-one connection. 

In Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment, the people whom he commends are the ones who give another person the help that they need, but in a way that pays attention to them as a person, not just as the object of charity.  Many of the good works that the Lord praises can be done in either a personal or impersonal way.  Feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and providing clothes to the naked can all be done from a distance.  In fact, that’s generally how we do that.  There are people who act on our behalf or as our representatives to do things that we sometimes cannot do or cannot do well, and God bless them!  It just isn’t possible to cook a meal at the shelter every night, at least not for most of us.  On the other hand, however, when Jesus declares how on that day he will say to the righteous,

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, … I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…” [Matthew 25:35-36]

those are not jobs that can be delegated to anyone else.  Those are acts of real caring that force people actually to get to know one another.

To welcome a stranger isn’t only a matter of saying, “Hello.”  It isn’t just asking a list of get-to-know-you questions.  “What’s your name?  Where are you from?  Have you been here long?”  It’s not a matter of making small-talk and being able to come up with conversation-starters like, “Did you know that there’s a web site called, ‘The Most Horrible English Words’?  I was trying to figure out how to say, ‘Hepaticocholecystostenterostomy,’ and there it was!”  Try that out.  Either you’ll instantly bond with someone or they’ll avoid you forever. No, to welcome a stranger is to make someone feel at home, like they belong – even better, letting them know they already do belong. 

Again, it’s a gift that some people have.  When I spent a year doing chaplaincy in Lancaster, I had to figure out which church I wanted to attend.  There was one where I had cousins and I went there first.  I got there before them, and nobody really took notice.  That was fine with me that day, to tell the truth.  The week that had just finished had been way too full and I just wanted a chance to pray quietly.  When my cousins got there, I was glad to see them, and they introduced me to some folks afterward, the same people who had not even nodded before (which would have been enough) – and this is hard to describe – but they spoke to me not as a visitor, a person in my own right, but as an extension of my cousins whom they knew already.  The welcome just wasn’t quite there.  The next week I visited another church where I knew no one, and people were not overly in-your-face with warmth but when they said, “Good morning,” they looked me in the eye and it felt like they meant it.  I went back the next week and the usher who handed me the bulletin pointed to where I had been the previous Sunday and said, “We held your seat for you.”  That was genuine and made me feel less of a stranger, even though he never asked me my name or offered his.

Again, that business of caring for the sick that Jesus mentioned is a very personal thing.  You get to know somebody when they are not well, when they are incapable of being anybody but themselves.  They get to know the caregiver under those circumstances, too.  You don’t hold a basin for someone who’s sick to her stomach without showing that your care is real.  That same year I was talking about, I was in a hospital room with a patient who had a family member sitting there who told me he didn’t want to leave her side, but was incredibly scared of even watching the nurse insert a line to draw blood.  The next thing you know, there was the nurse, holding an IV needle.  The man insisted on staying, and turned his head, but no sooner had the nurse started to push the point into the vein than I saw his face go pale and he started to lean forward and pass out.  It was a foolish way to make his point, but it was clear he cared so much about the patient that he risked one of his big fears.  That’s hospitality.  It’s a weird way to show it, but it was the real deal.

The same is true of visiting someone in prison.  You don’t do that easily.  It isn’t just the bureaucratic part of getting onto the visitors’ list or the procedural part of leaving your personal belongings in a locker and going through a metal detector or sometimes being patted down.  It’s what happens after that.  When you visit someone in prison, you are locked in there with the prisoners.  To reach a visiting room, gates and doors will close behind you and it isn’t a good thing to think about that too much but it isn’t a good idea to forget it, either.  You cannot visit someone in prison without, on some level, your mere presence telling them that you take them seriously as a human being. That’s in our day and in our country.  In Jesus’ place and time it was much more of a message, because the prisons were basically cellars with bars on them.  Maybe there would be light, but probably not, and you might need to bribe someone to get in and bribe someone else to get out again safely.  You only went if you saw it as very, very important.

Hospitality takes guts.  You don’t know whom you may meet when you meet the stranger.  You don’t know what you might catch when you care for the sick.  You enter a whole world that nobody should be a part of when you visit a prisoner.  Moreover, if you do take on the parts that sound safer, the feeding and housing and clothing parts, and do so in a personal way, you may be exposed to a lot of human pain and tragedy that tests your faith in people and perhaps even in God.

Having said all of that, I remind you that being hospitable is a spiritual gift, and if you have it in even a small degree, and strengthen it (like any other gift) by exercising it – maybe taking a small step or two first – it grows.  Having said all of that, I remind you, too, that it is a gift not only to the person on the receiving end but also to the one who reaches out.

Kathleen Norris is a writer who shares her own story about that.  “Not long ago,” she writes,

“I had been running errands downtown, feeling stressed out.  My husband was suffering one of his periodic depressions, which in turn had depressed me.  And a number of petty difficulties and duties were distracting me from my writing, which had not been going well to begin with.  I heard a voice call my name, turned, and to my great surprise saw an acquaintance, a freelance writer who had once collaborated with me on an article.  I had not seen him for over a year, but he felt like an old friend… This in itself surprised me; a few hours before I would not have thought that I would be glad to see anyone.”
She invited him back to the house, where he sat down to dinner with her husband and her, then they all spent the evening talking.  He shared his struggles over the previous year, during which his wife had died, and after he left Norris and her husband (despite their own troubles) realized how fortunate they were to have one another.  She says,

“I was relieved to discover that hospitality was still possible for us, as debilitated as we had lately seemed to be.  I read somewhere, in an article on monastic spirituality, that only people who are basically at home, and at home in themselves, can offer hospitality.  We had both been so inward lately as to lose sight of that.  But hospitality has a way of breaking through the defenses of insularity.  Our friend had told us, as he said goodnight, that he felt refreshed for his long drive through Montana the next day.  We were refreshed as well, the grace of hospitality having given all three of us much more than we had any reason to expect.” [1]
It makes me think of the verse from the letter to the Hebrews [13:2] that says,

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Jesus, of course, as he so often does, takes it a step further and says that it may not be merely an angel.

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40]

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998), 266-267.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Spiritual Gifts: Wisdom" - March 9, 2014

Proverbs 8

            Back in October, we encouraged everyone to take a “Spiritual Gifts Inventory”, and if you didn’t do it then, or if you want a retake, there are copies out in the narthex.  I don’t want to let go of the topic, though, because if there is a gift among us – and there are many – it is there for a reason.  I may not know what that is, but perhaps you might.  If I can bring some light to that by reflection on scripture that refers to them, though, I want to do that.  So, throughout these weeks of Lent, we’ll at least touch on some of the gifts that I think may have shown up on paper, and which I hope will show up in people’s lives.

            The Bible tells how the gift of wisdom was given to at least one of God’s people.  Solomon inherited David’s kingdom upon his father’s death, after having acted as regent with King David’s authority in David’s old age.  He came to the throne following years during which there had been civil war and rebellion that began within the king’s own family and among his children.  Among the first things that he did was put one of his brothers to death [I Kings 2].  It was a brutal age.  Difficult decisions had to be made.  One night, during a time when he had gone on a pilgrimage to pray, he had a dream where God offered him anything.  Solomon answered,

“‘O Lord, my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’” [I Kings 3:7-9]
In the dream, God answers him with congratulations that he didn’t ask for riches or power over his enemies or long life and promises that he will make him wise, and that all sorts of good things will flow from that.  When he wakes up the next morning, he returns to Jerusalem and goes to the Temple to give thanks to God.  Pretty soon the difficult decisions of the kingdom are being put before him and he somehow seems to find the right solutions.  So to this day we speak of the wisdom of Solomon.

            The gift of wisdom is the gift of being able to see the right thing to do in difficult circumstances.  It begins with a desire to do what is right, as Solomon said, to discern between good and evil”.  As the book of Proverbs [9:10] puts it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  A sign that someone has been given wisdom is that they never leave the Lord out of their considerations.  I remember many years ago, sitting with a family in a hospital waiting room when some very difficult choices were put before them.  They each had something to say, and there were differences among them, but the man who would have to make the final decision was deeply shaken and was just sort of quietly crying.  Then after listening to all his children, he looked over and asked me, “What does the Bible say about this?”  I knew he wasn’t asking for a direct rule – the writers of the Bible did not have access to our technology with both the opportunities and the possible unintended consequences that it brings.  He was asking about how to honor God’s will for another human being.  He didn’t have the answer to the doctor’s question: “Should we do ‘A’ or should we do ‘B’?”  He did have the wisdom to ask, “Where do we find the answer?” and to know where to begin.  The family prayed together and then reached a consensus, and then gave directions.  That is wisdom.

            Another sign of wisdom is that someone pays attention to the way that God has ordered the world, both in the ways of nature and in the ways of people.  A wise person pays attention to how things are, for a kind of wisdom is built into nature by God himself.  Again, the book of Proverbs pictures wisdom as a sort of angelic being that watched the world unfold and was an intimate part of creation:

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”
[Proverbs 8:22-31]

            Notice the word “rejoicing” occurs here.  Wisdom does not mean being serious all the time.  Wisdom, in fact, brings perspective and perspective brings humor.  Think of the funniest people, and they will often be the wisest, because they are able to point out what is foolish and help us laugh about it.  Think about Mark Twain and some of what he said:

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”
“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
Wisdom is able to put us in our place, and I mean that in a good way.  It helps us to see ourselves and our human nature in a realistic light, one that is not puffed up and egotistical, but humble and open to ongoing learning.

            The gift of wisdom is a gift that points us toward personal growth, and the health of the community.  The Letter of James asks,

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” [James 3:13-18]
So, here is the challenge for someone who may have the gift of wisdom: how can you, with faith, humility, and gentleness, guide people to consider how to live peaceably together? 

Here’s a story about how that can happen.

“Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’” [John 8:2-11]

Wisdom shows itself when everyone comes out of a difficult situation a better, generally wiser, more mature, even holier person.  Appeal to the best in everyone.  Expect good of them.  Call on them to listen honestly to God’s voice and to their own lives. 

“And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”  [James 3:18]

Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Transfiguration" - March 2, 2014

Matthew 17:1-9

I recently heard someone refer to having a case of “sphenopalatineganglioneuralgia”.  It sounded horrible.  I found myself wondering if I needed to wash my hands or find a surgical mask.  Did the Department of Public Health know about this?  Would there be a study by the Centers for Disease Control?  How long would the quarantine last?  Then I looked it up.  The explanation broke everything down into its parts:

“spheno-” refers to the sphenoid bone, which is at the front of your skull;
“-palatine” has to do with your palate, the roof of your mouth;
“-ganglio” points to the ganglion, a nerve cell; and
“-neuralgia” is nerve pain.

A light went on. “Sphenopalatineganglioneuralgia” is a nerve pain in the front of your forehead connected to something in your mouth.  In other words, it’s an “ice cream headache”.  It’s a “brain freeze”.  That’s a minor example of how something confusing or puzzling or mysterious sometimes all comes together and in one moment, with a flash, it all makes sense. 

The disciples who were on the mountain with Jesus, as Matthew tells about it, had a moment like that.  The revelation that Jesus is God’s Son drew together the whole religious history of their people, parts of which even seemed to be at odds with one another at times. 

There was a tradition, on the one hand, of respect for the Law.  It’s the kind of religious outlook that takes very, very seriously the details of worship.  It’s the kind of outlook that says to be sure the colors of the hangings and the altar cloths are the right ones for the season.  It the kind of outlook that calls us to give God the best of our creative powers, to pay attention to the music and to wrap all aspects of our daily life in prayer.  All of that is good, but it can threaten to turn inward and move the focus from God to ourselves and what we are doing. 

The other strand looks back to the Prophets and their drive for social holiness.  It embodies the sense that, by feeding the hungry and providing shelter and generally performing acts of kindness, we are serving God.  At its best it goes even further to encourage a confrontation with the impulses within society that lead to poverty and exclusion and injustice.  But it can threaten to turn our eyes away from the part that we ourselves bear in the injustice of the world or to become judgmental of others, as if we were God.

There are times that the two aspects get split apart, which is a false division but a common one.  Call them the religious right and the religious left in our day, or the traditionalists and the progressives, or the evangelicals and the liberals.  There were those then, as there are those now, who wanted to grab Jesus for their own camp and hear him say what they wanted to hear. 

When the disciples were allowed to see him in his glory, though, they saw him as the Lord of all.  In him, separate elements of the human experience of God that sometimes seem at odds are drawn together.

 “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” [Matthew 17:2-3]
It is Jesus who holds Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, together.  Jesus pulls all of these impulses together in a way that shines with true holiness. 

He could and did point to the goodness of the Law:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:17-20]
But he never forgot the love that undergirds it.  He knew that there were times when hungry people would pick grain on the Sabbath.  He knew that there would be people who had sinned who needed forgiveness, not condemnation.

            On the other hand, he knew the limits that the prophetic side had to learn, and could observe it all firsthand.  He understood that there were people like the three he took up the mountain – James and John who were hotheads and ambitious, (“Sons of Thunder” he called them) who needed to learn humility; and Peter, who was loyal and steady to a point but in the end could be overcome by fear, enough to deny that he even knew him.  These were his closest friends.  They would be with him in his most prophetic moments, like when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple itself, citing the words of Isaiah [56:7]:

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” 
But, sadly, they would not be right there when he, who had spoken about loving our enemies, actually did it, crying out from the cross where he suffered,

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” [Luke 23:34]
But they were there at that moment when heaven itself opened up and the great figures of faith were there, treating him with honor and respect.  It was a moment when he was given a validation by someone even greater than Moses or Elijah, as

“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!” [Matthew 17:5]
Matthew doesn’t give a name to that voice, but surely it was the same heard by John the Baptist at Jesus’ baptism,

“You are my Son, the Beloved, with You I am well pleased.” [Mark 1:11]
It was the voice of God, again proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the one to whom the traditions of the Law and the Prophets both pointed, the one who would bring them together.

            Jesus’ transfiguration was a moment where those three, who are people like us, saw in one brilliant glimpse of God’s glory, that Jesus holds all of human life in the light of God’s love.  Jesus is able to bring all of our impulses under God’s guidance and control.  Jesus is able to provide us with the balance that makes us truly human, and to bring us into line with God’s will for the world.  Julia Ward Howe wrote,

“In the beauty of the lilies,
Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom
That transfigures you and me.
As he died to make us holy,
Let us die to make men free.
Our God is marching on.”

She was right.  Jesus had within him that which transfigured him on that mountaintop but which also transfigures us here and now.  Personal holiness and the search for a righteous society don’t need to, and shouldn’t, stand apart.  The awareness of God’s holiness and our sinfulness go hand-in-hand with a sense of God’s mercy for us and for others.  To see the glory of God shining out from Jesus is also to see it reflected from the people he gathers around him, and the people to whom he was sent.

            So keep your eyes open, but keep your sunglasses handy, because thanks to him it can get very, very bright.