Saturday, February 25, 2017

"Listen to Him" - February 26, 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

            Sometimes it can be almost as much fun to read a play as to go to see one, especially when the playwright becomes creative with the stage directions.  Maybe the most famous stage direction in English is in The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare: “Exit.  Pursued by a bear.”  My favorite, though, is in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, the play that was the basis for My Fair Lady.  Shaw gives the direction to the main character: “Her face becomes radiant.”  I can just picture a leading lady trying to get that right, staring into a mirror and smiling a dozen different ways until she is radiant, instead of just ordinarily beautiful or joyful.  Some things cannot be acted.  There’s a level of authenticity in a person that eventually finds its way out, and tells who they are in all of their complexities and richness.

            The Transfiguration was one of those moments in Jesus’ life when the disciples who were with him got a glimpse into the depth of his being, and it left them in awe, not quite knowing what to do with that.  Peter and James and John were three of the disciples with whom Jesus seems to have felt closest, or maybe the most at ease.  They were the ones that he would ask later to go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane and stand watch while he prayed.  They were the ones around whom he could be himself the most easily.  This time, though, they saw what being himself could mean.

“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.”  [Matthew 17:1-3]

If, as we say, you know someone by the company they keep, who was this friend of theirs, this teacher of theirs, who one second was the familiar, if respected, rabbi and the next had begun to glow and was talking to the greatest leaders of their people, one of whom had been dead for over a thousand years and the other of whom had been taken to heaven in a fiery chariot?

            When I was in college, I took a course on twentieth-century American and English poetry.  Among the students there was an older man who generally didn’t take part in the discussions but who paid close attention.  We were about four weeks into the course and studying a poem by Dylan Thomas.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.”

After somebody said something about Thomas dying young, this quiet man spoke up and said,
“I went drinking with him a couple of times.”  What?  Who was this?  What was he doing in a roomful of undergraduates like us?

            I can imagine Peter and James and John having exactly that kind of reaction, but stronger; not that it was about to get any less intense.  Peter tried to take hold of the moment by suggesting that they somehow commemorate the moment, building a makeshift shrine.  The experience was about to go totally out of control, though. 

“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. [Matthew 17:4-6]

The voice and the words are familiar from earlier in Matthew’s gospel.

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”  [Matthew 3:16-17]
Only, this time, the voice adds one sentence: “Listen to him!” [Matthew 17:6]

            Going back to that college classroom, we did listen to what our classmate had to say.  Dylan was a notorious alcoholic and drank himself to death.  When we heard firsthand from someone who told us that he watched it happen, that Thomas seemed aware of what he was doing to himself, and that he almost forced the drink down his own throat, it brought alive lines like

“The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.”

So if a moment like that helps me, at least, understand the death of a poet, how much more would a moment like the one on the mountaintop have led Peter and James and John to listen, listen deeply and intently, to the words of life that Jesus spoke and to try to absorb every lesson that he offered to them.

            And how about us?  When we hear Jesus’ words, do we just hear them?  Or do we listen?  Do they carry for us the announcement of freedom that Moses gave to God’s people?  Do they ring with the authority of Elijah and the prophets, calling us

“to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”?  [Micah 6:8]
Jesus said, right after they came down from that mountaintop,

“I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” [Matthew 17:20]
When we face the serious challenges that we face as individuals or as a church, do we take Jesus seriously? 

There are mountains that need some moving, if you haven’t noticed.  I’m going to speak pretty generally here, since I don’t know this community all that well, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that we are all in the midst of a whole vortex of competing loyalties and alternative ways of living right now that are stirring up our everyday lives.  All kinds of problems that have been hiding under the calm surface for years and years are sticking their noses up like sharks waiting for a feast.  The idolatry that puts country before God, the greed that cannot take a Sabbath break or give one to the worker, a lack of respect or even minimal concern for the sick or the elderly, the willful disregard of truth and actual encouragement of false witness, bragging about adultery and laughing at covetousness – everything that those ten commandments Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai forbids – those are being held up as normal and tolerable.  That needs to change. 

That is not a political statement, by the way.  It’s religion.  If you want the Ten Commandments in courthouses, be prepared to abide by them.  And the conflicts that we’re seeing now outside those courthouses and capitols?  They are nothing compared to the clash between Elijah on one side and on the other side King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal.  (Go back to I Kings and read about it.) 

There is a vision of greatness that comes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that is like no other.  It is the vision of God’s own self living among us, humble and yet majestic, sinless and yet forgiving, strong and yet gentle, determined and yet peaceful.  It is Jesus, at once human and divine, who shows us the way that sinners like us who should fall back in fear at even the thought of facing the Lord instead hear him say,

“Get up and do not be afraid.” [Matthew 17:7]

Hold onto that whenever any other voice should try to speak.  Hear instead the words of the letter to the Hebrews:

“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. …But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. …Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” [Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a, 28.]


Saturday, February 18, 2017

“Perfection” - February 19, 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

            The last verse of this morning’s gospel lesson is one that gives a lot of people pause:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48]

Well it should, too, as I don’t know anybody without shortcomings.  The kind of perfection that Jesus asks of us, though, isn’t that kind of perfection.  It’s more a matter of being the person that God wants us to be at the point we find ourselves, accepting that there are limitations simply because (news flash!) we aren’t God.  From there the Lord can and will make more of us.  To be perfect doesn’t mean that you are done, but that you are on the way.

            I may have used this example before, because it’s one of my favorites, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself.  One time, many years ago, a little girl was asked to introduce herself and she said, “My name is Martha Bowers Taft.  My great-grandfather was President of the United States.  My grandfather was a United States Senator.  My daddy is ambassador to Ireland.  And I am a Brownie.”  For a child her age, that is really and truly a great accomplishment.  I have no doubt that she was as good a Brownie as there ever was, and that she ended up with a whole sash covered in badges.

            God doesn’t ask us to go beyond our capacity, but he does look for us to expand our capacity.  No girl stays a Brownie forever, you know.  A girl that has been a Brownie, however, will understand the whole Girl Scout thing better when she reaches that age, though, and (here’s a plug for all kinds of Scouting – and all kinds of intentional ministry with children and youth) a girl who has been through Scouts and maybe even Explorers will have a better understanding of who she is as an adult.

            God pushes us to find more within us than we know is there.  Think of what it takes to do those things that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount.

“I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” [Matthew 5:39-42]

That takes courage.  That takes a kind of stubbornness.  That takes the kind of refusal to hate that is far from automatic, but requires a conscious act of will.  When the Civil Rights Movement sent people to sit at lunch counters across the South, knowing that they would not be served, they did not send people out at random or without first informing them what kind of abuse they would likely face while they sat there and offering specific training on how to withstand it with dignity.  When the atmosphere turns ugly it is natural to change with it.  People had to be taught to rise above it, as Jesus said to do, and as he himself did when he was hauled away and mocked and tortured.  Again, that has to be learned.

            Learning the rules like, “Don’t meet force with force,” or, “When they go low, go high,” is only part of it.  Moving on means paying attention to the deeper questions of “How?” and “Why?”

            How do you move toward greater perfection?  It takes love and it takes prayer.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

The love may not be there but the prayer always can be, and one of those prayers can be, “Lord, teach me to love this …okay, this child of yours.”  Now, wouldn’t that change your outlook?  It might lead down a whole different path.  It might be narrower and rockier, because if you learn to care about a difficult person then God may send you another one who also needs love, but Jesus said that narrow and rocky is what the road to heaven is like. 

Love is the “why” part of it.  Love is what keeps a soul growing into the image of God, which is the goal.  God’s love is given to the person who needs it, and that’s everybody. 

“He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” [Matthew 5:45]

I mentioned the Civil Rights sit-ins, so of course I cannot neglect Dr. King’s insight when he said,

“When we look beneath the surface, beneath the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is.  We see him in a new light.  We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God’s image is etched ineffably in his being.  Then we love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.”[1]

God’s love isn’t earned because somebody is good.  It is given freely to the most or least loveable, and when received in faith sets to work making us good, however long the project takes.  God’s love itself is there all the way along, start to finish.

I was struck by something I read the other day, which was a reflection by someone I only sort of half-know, who shared what in old-fashioned language might be called her witness.  It was about where she went off course and how she got back on track.  She wrote,

“Today is a milestone because I have been sober for 9 years and drug free for nearly 20 years. My life is more wonderful than I ever could have imagined, and it all began with a small amount of willingness when I decided to give up alcohol. For today, I am humble and grateful to those people who stood by me through my struggles. I lost a lot of people I extremely care for due to my choices. I fell a million times, and yet kept pushing forward. I am truly grateful for so many people and things in my life. I am so grateful for the ability to say, ‘I am sorry,’ waking up to sunshine on a Sunday morning and my recent choice to go back to school to pursue my degree in Web Design. [My son,] who suffered the most from my drinking, has turned into an awesome young man and our relationship still continues to grow stronger. Today, I smile from my heart and I’m so happy to finally be the real me. Thank you to GOD, my friends, family, co-workers and so many more people for their prayers, support and understanding through this journey in my life. Thank you all for being part of my life. I am humble for this journey.”

That was her story, and everyone has their own.  People come up against all sorts of enemies, both external and internal, and there are all sorts of struggles to be faced.  Addiction, pride, resentment, fear, loneliness, greed, apathy – this and so much else we meet in other people and in ourselves, and each roadblock has to be passed somehow, and with God’s help we get through or go around.

            It’s an overused expression, but we are all on a journey.  We are moving on from where we are to where God wants us.  If we are moving in God’s direction, we are moving the right way, and even if we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us. 

Simply to walk with God, come what may, that itself is perfection.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies” in Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 36.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

“Going to Extremes” - February 12, 2017

Matthew 5:21-37

            On Day 1 of fourth grade we were informed of the way things would be for that year.  First we had to learn to spell our teacher’s name correctly; it might sound like “McMann” but was spelled “M-c-M-a-h-o-n”.  That would be on our first spelling test, which would be in three days and would also include the words in the first chapter of the spelling book.  We needed also to know that there were two words that would not be used in her classroom because they were imprecise.  One was “nice” and the other was “lousy”.

            You can imagine what the discussion sounded like at recess.  Nevertheless, we left that classroom months later with a better vocabulary than when we entered.  (Not that it was all that lousy to begin with.)  Maybe Mrs. McMahon was too strict, maybe that was her way of establishing authority at the start of the year.  One thing that I can see in retrospect is that she set high expectations and that, without that, she would not have gotten as much effort from her students.

            Jesus teaches us that God does something similar.  God’s expectations of us are not simply that we would do the bare-bones minimum to look like we are living in decent ways, keeping the rules and staying out of trouble, but that we would understand, adhere, and reach for the underlying and foundational love that brought the world into being and that sustains it, moment by moment.  He wants us to put our heart into it, the way he does.  Without that, we are just playacting.

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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.” [Matthew 5:21-22]

That sets the bar rather high, wouldn’t you say?  None of this is easy.  Some kinds of growth are natural.  Some kinds only take place with encouragement from the outside.  Some kinds require even more than that.

How does it work?  How does someone learn, for example, about the waste of energy that comes with anger?  I speak here of myself.  If anybody wants explicit, documented proof of my capacity to get angry, offer an insult or two, and to fail to fully reconcile my differences with somebody, the records of my calls to Verizon, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission two months ago are all out there someplace.  I’d like to think that it all ended with the ultimate repair of a manhole cover.  But when I even think back to the frustrations of being on hold and being transferred not just to the wrong office but to the wrong division of the corporation, my blood starts to boil again.  It was Jesus’ own brother, James, who said,

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” [James 1:19-20]

Breathe.  Breathe.

All the things that Jesus talked about in this whole passage emphasize that what is going on inside us in all kinds of situations matters to God, even when we do control our words and actions.  You know that when somebody sneaks up in the left lane and cuts you off and then tailgates for a few seconds before cutting over again, there may be words that come to mind.  The other driver cannot hear you.  And you also know that leaning on the horn isn’t going to teach somebody like that anything.  The person who can learn from that is the one who asks, “I don’t ever do that, do I?”  That’s you.  (Or me.)

            What kind of person do you try to be?  Set aside the external deeds.  Who do you try to be on the inside?  Just as it takes someone like a schoolteacher to force the development of your vocabulary, it takes the Holy Spirit to force the development and growth of your best impulses.  (Let’s use a vocabulary word for that.  Let’s call it “sanctification”.  It means “becoming holy”, and is a process that could conceivably hit you like a lightning bolt but for most people comes along with time and effort, like learning spelling words.) 

            Thomas Merton wrote,

“It is true that Christian sanctity is the sanctity of Christ in us: but this does not mean that the Holy Spirit will do his work in us while we remain completely passive and inert.  There is no spiritual life without persistent struggle and interior conflict.  …We are not ‘converted’ only once in our life but many times, and this endless series of large and small ‘conversions,’ inner revolutions, leads finally to our transformation in Christ.”[1]
In other words, God’s expectations are there not to set us up to fail, but to let us know what we are really and truly aiming for when we set out to follow Jesus’ way.

            It all goes back to what God has in mind for us.  If it were simply that he wanted us to do the right thing all the time and never get anything wrong, that would have been no problem.  We could have been made like machines to be turned on and set loose.  But what God wants is not simply for us to do what is right, but to want what is right.  God looks not only for obedience but also for respect, and not only for respect but also for love.

            When that is in place, everything else falls into line.  Of course we fail.  But if believe in God’s forgiveness and we allow the Holy Spirit to use our failures, we come out better on the other side.  Give God a chance to do what he says he wants to do.

“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. 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.” [Matthew 5:23-24]

Ann LaMott tells a story about becoming angry over some church stuff.

“I nursed my resentments and disgrace like young plants, watering them, trimming back the dead leaves, making sure they got enough sunlight.

At times like these, I believe, Jesus rolls up his sleeves, smiles roguishly and thinks, ‘This is good.’  He lets me get nice and crazy, until I can’t take my own thinking and solutions for one more moment.  The next morning, I got on my knees and prayed, ‘Please, please help me.  Please let me feel You while I adjust to not getting what I was hoping for.’  And then I remembered Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. …

I called the person with whom I was angriest, and I apologized for harboring resentment against her.  She said, ‘I’m so glad you called.  That was very brave of you.’”[2]

            Remember that it is Jesus, who was tempted and tried just like we are, who both asks so much of us and offers so much help.  Take him up on the offer and just see what happens.

“Dear Jesus, in whose life I see
All that I would, but fail to be,
Let thy clear light forever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.

Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days are always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O thou whose deeds and dreams were one!”

[1] Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1964), 116-117.
[2] Ann LaMott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005) 74-75.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

“Burning Bushels” - February 5, 2017

Matthew 5:13-16

            You know how on those daredevil shows they always give that warning: “We remind our viewers that you are watching trained professionals.  Do not attempt this at home.”?  I confess that there are certain parts of the Bible that give me the same feeling.  One of those, and no disrespect is intended, is when Jesus says,

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand…”

Jesus is stating the obvious to make his point.  It does, however, make me picture what might happen.  So here we go.  Do not attempt this at home.

[At this point, those who are reading this instead of seeing/hearing will need to use their imagination.  It won’t take that much.  An oil lamp will be placed on a table in the center of the chancel.  For safety, it will be on top of a terra cotta plate – the sort that goes beneath a flower pot.]

            If you go to the Farmers’ Market anymore for a bushel of potatoes, they empty the basket into a bag and give you that, so I’m afraid I need to use a substitute item that behaves the same way.  [At this point, a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket is produced.]  Watch and learn.  [Placed over the lamp, the bucket catches fire.  Hence the terra cotta plate and nearby pitcher of water.]

            Well.  There you are.  That’s what happens when you put a lamp under a bushel basket.  No wonder nobody does that.  Even if you, for some inexplicable reason, wanted to cover the lamp and throw the room into darkness, the result would be an even brighter flame that you had to begin with.

            “You are the light of the world,” said Jesus.  So what happens if somebody tries to cover up the good that God, in whose image you are created, has put into you?  It cannot be done.  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”  It seems so obvious, and it truly is.

            Yet there are those who set out to try to cover over the lights that God has spread throughout the world, thinking that they can be smothered before the flame bursts out.  There are those who see something good and blessed and get the idea that they have the power to undo what God has done, to uncreate, as it were.

            So they start little whispering campaigns, putting thoughts and doubts into God’s people.  They try to make people hide the light and cover over their best impulses.  Sometimes it takes the form of the personal put-downs that stay with someone and stunt their ability to grow into the people they already are in God’s eyes.

“You’re not smart enough ever to amount to anything.”
“Who would want to spend their time with you?”
“You’re a loser.”

Sometimes it disguises itself to try to appear like practical wisdom, wrapping itself in fear.

“Don’t you dare offer your help to that stranger.  He may be out to get you.”
“They speak a different language so that you cannot tell what they are plotting.”
“Don’t share anything unless you’re sure to get more in return.  You may not have enough for yourself.”
“You have no obligation to such people.  You’ll only encourage them.”
 “You have to look out for yourself.  Remember, only yourself first.  Yourself first always.”

However it focuses its efforts, the goal is the same: to extinguish the light within, to cover it over.

            Hear the good news.  It cannot be done.  What God has called good cannot be hidden for long and can never be destroyed.  Cover it over, and it will flame up brighter and wilder than ever, giving light to the whole house.

            That is because God’s gifts – all God’s gifts, whether given to an individual or placed for awhile in the hands of a community or even, perhaps, a nation – those gifts are not given to exalt a person or even to make a nation great.  They are given so that the giver – God, and God alone – will be glorified.  Even as great a genius as Johann Sebastian Bach would write at the top of his compositions the letters “SDG”, for “Solo Dei Gloria,” meaning “Glory only to God.”  Self-aggrandizement has no place and in the long run makes someone look foolish and pompous and ignorant.  Don’t take what is good and by withholding the due humility toward God turn it into something it is not.  That ruins everything.

“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.”

How could that be the will of God?

            No, hold onto what is good.  Nurture it.  Protect it, as you would care for a rare plant that has to be pruned and tended, to be watered when the weather is too dry and kept safe when storms arise. Hold onto the gifts of the Spirit, the gentleness and the thirst for justice, the understanding that God has sent Jesus for all people, that all alike need his grace and all alike can receive it.  Hold onto the idea that you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.  Hold onto the promise that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  Hold onto the song about peace on earth and goodwill.  Hold onto the vision that the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever.  Hold onto all that and more, and live in the light that God has shone into the world, a light that the darkness has never been able to overcome.  Hold onto it, not as your own property, but as a sacred trust put into your hands for a time, that it might be shared with all the world.

“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 those who have ears to hear, hear.