Blinded by the Light – Matthew 17:1-9

When I was in my third year German class in high school, I had to read “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka in German. It was not cheerful stuff. To oversimplify, the novella is about a guy who wakes up to find he has been transformed into a human sized cockroach. Kafka himself was no bundle of joy: riddled with anxiety, guilt and obsessive thoughts of being repulsive to others it is not a reach to suggest that “The Metamorphosis” was somewhat autobiographical.

Biblically, the word metamorphosis is translated as “transfigured.” The last Sunday of the season of Epiphany is Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany is a little odd in that it can be as short as 4 Sundays and as long as 9 (including Transfiguration Sunday). The word “epiphany” can mean appearance, unveiling or disclosure and the stories of the season are ways in which Jesus’ identity and purpose are revealed.

Not surprisingly, Epiphany begins and ends with a bright light – the first act of creation in the book of Genesis. It also begins with a voice from heaven declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Throughout the season the stories shed light on who Jesus is. Some get it, others don’t. Some get it one minute and then seem clueless the next.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus experiences a metamorphosis that is nothing like the one in Kafka’s novella. Matthew writes that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, a reference to Moses’ face when he came down from the mountain. Matthew Mark and Luke write that his clothes became “dazzling white.” But it wasn’t just Jesus. Elijah and Moses, representing the Prophets and the Law appeared with him.

On the other hand, just because something is illuminated does not imply that there is full understanding. The “inner three” of Peter James and John get up close and personal with the Divine but they will fall asleep when Jesus needs them in the Garden and Peter’s denial is an abandonment second only to that of Judas.

They know who Jesus is, but they do not yet understand what Jesus will do.

 

Here is a quote from “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” by Marcus Borg:

“The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it — as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word “Jesus”. Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables. Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection — the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being.”

Rejoice and be Glad . . . and Rip Your Eye Out – Matthew 5:21-37

For the last few weeks, the gospel lesson has been what we have come to call The Sermon on the Mount. When I was in seminary we had to preach in front of our peers, the faculty and be recorded on videotape. Then we got reviewed and evaluated complete with the video replay. It was kind of like having an autopsy while you were still alive.

Reading the entire Sermon on the Mount at one time, I have wondered how Jesus would have made out in my preaching class. “You started out on a very positive note with all of that ‘blessed are the poor’ stuff but I am unclear why it is you got so negative with that stuff about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands.” “So I am a little confused: are you saying the law is good or that we are forgiven our violations of the law?” “You have an annoying habit of stroking your beard, it is very distracting.”

The role of the prophet was not to predict the future but to challenge and provoke with a warning of the consequences if things do not change. What Jesus seems to be doing in the Sermon on the Mount is to lull the people into a comfortable place with the beatitudes, and then, as my campus pastor said many years ago, “stick the knife in and twist.”

In the language of Poker, Jesus seems to be saying, “I’ll see you the law, and I will raise you an even higher standard.” Back to my preaching class, I can hear the faculty ask, “Where is the good news in this?”

It’s a good question. Jesus does not debunk the merit of keeping the law, but he points out that the law is all about external things: don’t covet your neighbors goods, don’t lie about them, don’t murder them. What Jesus is suggesting, using the hyperbole of eye plucking and hand chopping, is that living in the kingdom of God is also about internal things: the things that you desire, the values you hold yourself to in order to bring the kingdom to our present reality.

And there just is no way to soften that or making it any easier to swallow. Jesus challenges his followers to more than just keep the law, but to strive for a different kind of kingdom; an upside down kind of kingdom where grace, mercy, justice and peace are the desires of our heart.

 

Here’s the chorus from “What Kind of World Do You Want” by John OndrasiK

What kind of world do you want, think anything

Let’s start at the start, build a masterpiece

Be careful what you wish for, history starts now.

Mishpat, Chesed or Just Kill Something? – Micah 6:1-8

Contrary to your favorite, millionaire televangelist, prophecy has nothing whatsoever to do with predicting the future. John Dominic Crossan illustrated the point by warning that you shouldn’t pitch your tent in the middle of I-10 because you might get run over by a truck. Now, if you do so, and you get run over by a truck, did he predict the future? Take it a step further, when you got run over by the truck was God punishing you, or was getting run over by a truck the natural consequence of pitching a tent in the middle of I-10.

Prophets are not soothsayers. They are social critics. They tell the truth to people who do not want to hear it, especially when it is ugly truth (and really, isn’t it often ugly)? Prophets provoke and challenge and yes, even warn that there may be serious consequences if there isn’t a change of course.

French born philosopher and historian Rene Girard, who died last fall at his home near Stanford University at the age of 91, was the father of a school of philosophy known as mimetic theory. Simply put, we learn what we want and what we want to do by imitating what we see others do. Pitching a tent in the middle of I-10 looks like a grand idea when we see others doing it.

Girard ties conflict to two or more people wanting what another has. Since rivalry often leads to violence, societies developed ways to channel or even make sacred their rivalries and tendency toward violence. Enter sacrificial religious systems. The conflict between us is placed on an arbitrary victim who is then removed brutally thus easing the tension in the system. The relief is temporary at best and the ritual must be repeated.

Frequently, the sacrificial victims were human children. Ancient Judaism, like most world religions was not immune from what Girard would come to call the “Scapegoat Mechanism,” and the ban on child sacrifice in Leviticus is taken as evidence that it may once have been the practice. Nonetheless, sacrifice is a bloody business.

Writing around seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, Micah was not shy about criticizing the way things were. The people had lost their grounding and the wealthy were exploiting the poor. It was like pitching a tent in the middle of I-10 and there was no way it was going to end well.

Micah also challenged the temple system of sacrifice that allowed the wealthy to make very showy burnt offerings while the poor were more or less excluded from worship. He invited the people to practice instead two things: mishpat and chesed. Neither one of them translates neatly into English but mishpat is more or less justice or right judgment (both translations conjure up our legal system which really diminishes the word). Chesed is more or less loving kindness or steadfast love.

The problem with the English is that is kind of romanticizes Micah 6:8 into the kind of thing you might find needlepointed on a dishtowel. “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” It’s kind of like when my friend would tell his 5 kids, “Fight nice.” Mishpat and Chesed are hard things. Much harder than buying a goat to be sacrificed at the temple, and that is the whole point. Micah railed against an easy spirituality that could be bought off for the right price. Those who walk humbly with God do mishpat and chesed, and they are pretty easy to spot.

 

Here is a quote from Nobel Prize Laureate and 2nd Secretary General of the United Nation Dag Hammarskjold from his book, “Markings.”

“It is not we who seek the Way, but the Way which seeks us. That is why you are faithful to it, even while you stand waiting, so long as you are prepared, and act the moment you are confronted by its demands.”

 

Blue Christmas – Matthew 11:2-11

PastorSteveI was living in Canada in the fall of 1977 when both Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby died in August and October respectively. As December approached that year, someone commented that we could have neither a Blue Christmas nor a White Christmas.

This is a time of year when the culture tells you to be merry. Houses are decorated, office parties and social events abound, television fills itself with Christmas specials both young and old, and I anticipate hearing a young James Stewart shout, “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!”

For many, the manufactured cheer of the season cannot overcome a sense of loss. Perhaps someone is missing this year, perhaps there is an illness clouding the merriment, perhaps a change in economic status is dimming the lights, and the feeling of the blues makes us feel like we have failed Christmas.

Last week, we heard from a confidently defiant John shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord!” This week, we jump ahead a few chapters to find John in prison questioning who Jesus is. Confidence has turned to doubt and hope may be out of reach.

We get very focused on that stable in Bethlehem; the angels and the shepherds sing together. When the baby grows into a man under the thumb of Roman domination, doubt and despair replace the triumphant songs. Jesus is not a victorious conqueror. Instead, Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” who does not wipe away sadness but instead accompanies us through it.

Hope can be defiant, but it can also be elusive. We’re dong something different this year. On Wednesday, December 21 we are having a “Blue Christmas.” No, it has nothing to do with Elvis. December 21st is the longest night of the year, and we will gather to seek healing through the sharing of grief, loss and disappointment. It will be a time to step away from the hurry of the season, to gather quietly, to sing together, to light candles and together to find some solace and hope. The service will begin at 7:00. Our friend, Pastor Steve Holm will be our preacher. I hope you can join us.

 

Here is the poem, I Will Light Candles this Christmas by educator Howard Thurman who served as dean of the chapel at both Howard University and Boston University:

I will light Candles this Christmas;

Candles of joy despite all sadness,

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,

Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all the year long.

 

Espera con Esperanza – Isaiah 2:1-5

PastorSteveThere isn’t much in Bean Blossom, Indiana. There hasn’t even been a post office there since 1911. The town might have gone away completely except for a Bluegrass music festival that takes place there. There isn’t much in Bean Blossom, and yet the little Episcopal Church there was desecrated last week. Vandals spray-painted the exterior of the church with homophobic and racist slogans. In Bean Blossom.
Bean Blossom was not alone. For reasons I cannot fathom, some have felt empowered to commit hate crimes recently, directed against several groups. The name of our congregation means hope in Spanish. The root is the same as the verb “to wait.” That describes the season of Advent. It is not just a countdown to Christmas, Advent is also waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God. It is a waiting that is seasoned with hope.
When I read of the church desecration in, of all places, Bean Blossom, I realized that we are still waiting. I remembered the speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. following the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March of 1965. 25,000 people were gathered, and Dr. King spoke defiantly about both hope and waiting, justice and perseverance. He encouraged the people, even in the face of violence and the threat of violence to continue the struggle.
“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
On the Plains of Nineveh between the Kurdish North and Arab South of Iraq, Christians have coexisted since the beginning of Christianity. That is, until recently. Since the beginning of the war in 2003, 75% of the Christians have fled persecution by ISIS and after 2000 years, the future of Christianity in the region is in doubt. Father Emanuel Youkhana recently returned to his church for the first time in two years. Inside and out, the building was in ruins. “We may be helpless,” he said, “but we are never hopeless.” Waiting with hope.
Isaiah’s life was in similar ruins. In exile, he too waited with hope: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
How long? Not long!

Here is the poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickenson:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Of Cabbages and Kings – Luke 23:33-43

PastorSteve“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—

Of cabbages—and kings—“

 

The poem, recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Lewis Carroll’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, has been the subject of great speculation ranging from religious allegory to those who thin Carroll never intended anything but a nonsensical ditty. I have tended to think it was about the clash between the aristocracy and the working class but no one knows what Carroll intended.

It has been a time of tumult since the election. Some feel empowered, others are dismayed, and there has been an increase in violence and hate-crimes. And so we come to the end of the church year with “Christ the King.” Much of Luke’s gospel takes place on the journey to Jerusalem and as Jesus and his follower entered the city, he began to speak in ominous tones, even to predicting the destruction of the temple (something that took place several years before the gospel was written).

This week we come to the climax of the story, and while the culture has already moved to the Christmas season, the church year ends with Jesus on a cross. Not exactly where we expect to find a king is it? We have become somewhat detached from the concept of a king, so much so that this last Sunday of the church year is also called “Reign of Christ” although I am not sure that makes it any clearer.

In Jesus’ time, Kings were first of all conquerors. The used military might to capture, subdue, control and maintain. First century Jerusalem certainly knew about kings. Ramses, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander Caesar. These were the kings known to Jesus and his ancestors. They were first of all conquerors and then often builders of monuments to their greatness.

And yet, this is the very ting that makes the Christian story so incredible. Jesus enters the city encouraging the people to not put their faith in the institutions (the temple and the empire) or the people who stand behind them and profit from them (the Scribes, Pharisees and military masters). Even after those very institutions and people put an end to him, he reigns as king. His kingdom is not about conquest and monuments; it is about service, sacrifice and compassion.

 

Here is the last verse of the poem, A Better Resurrection by 19th century English poet, Christina Rosetti:

My life is like a broken bowl,

A broken bowl that cannot hold

One drop of water for my soul

Or cordial in the searching cold;

Cast in the fire the perished thing;

Melt and remould it, till it be

A royal cup for Him, my King:

O Jesus, drink of me.

 

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PastorSteveWhen I was in graduate school we had a special program for juvenile offenders. They were kids that had been arrested on generally minor offences, usually related to some kind of drug use and instead of time in Juvenile Hall the judge ordered them to attend our program with their parents. Individual and family counseling was provided for each family and then there were two groups, one for the kids and one for the parents.

One kid had been arrested for under-age drinking and his father was also arrested because he was the one providing the alcohol for his son and friends. The father was not happy about having to give up time to come to the program and didn’t really think he belonged in the program at all. He was confronted by a couple of the other parents one night in group and angrily shot back at them, “at least my kid isn’t using drugs.” It was one of those “oh no you didn’t” moments.

Luke tells us that some of the folks traveling with Jesus were starting to feel pretty proud and self important, so he told them a story about two men who went to the temple to pray. They were not together physically, and they were miles apart socially. One was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in that time, and the other was a tax collector, reviled for being a collaborator with the occupying Romans and probably also for cheating.

Jesus contrasts the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” to the long recitation of the Pharisee who is addition to enumerating all of his righteous deeds, says, “God, thank you that I am not like other people.”

There are usually two edges to the sword of self-justification. The first is to point out your own accomplishments (the Pharisee points out that he fasts properly and gives 10% of his income away). The second, and far more popular it seems these days, is to point out how terrible someone else in in comparison.

The parent group made it clear to the man that first of all, alcohol is still a drug even though it is legal and that second, his family was in just a great a need of some adjustment as all the rest in the group. It was splendid.

There are two edges to Jesus’ parable however. Seeing the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, we might be tempted to think, “thank God I’m not like a Pharisee.” Our comparison becomes just as toxic as the Pharisee’s, just as denial rich as the man in the parent group. Perhaps the best bet is to be like the tax collector: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

It is believed to have come from a monastic community in Northern Egypt called the Desert Fathers in the 5th century. Although very simple, it is said silently over and over. Here is what is known as “The Jesus Prayer.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Coin Didn’t Do Anything – Luke 15:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17

PastorSteveThis weekend is the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the attempted attack on Washington was thwarted by civilian passengers and ended in a Pennsylvania field. September 11th became one of those days that most of us will remember exactly where we were and what we were doing. It has also shaped the fifteen years since.

The two questions that keep coming to me are: how do followers of Jesus respond to violence and what was it that we lost that day? After a series of exchanges with the religious establishment, Jesus noted that the Pharisees were grumbling about the way he ignored the dining etiquette of the time – namely that he tended to share meals with “tax collectors and sinners.”

He asked them two questions about loss. Who among you having lost a sheep wouldn’t leave your other 99 and search for the lost? Who among you who, like a poor woman who lost one of ten coins would not light the lamp and sweep the house until it was found?

I have a weird theory about the sheep. I think the illustration flopped. I think Jesus realized that his audience was very practical and conventional thinkers who would conclude that losing one percent of the flock was an acceptable loss. So he went to plan B. A poor woman with only ten coins. Now the loss was greater and since coins don’t move around on their own and have no predators, there would be no reason to stop everything and search for the coin.

The point that might be missed however, is that neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin did anything, they just got found. All of the verbs apply to the shepherd and the woman. They search and the sheep and the coin are found, and then there is joy.

St. Paul confesses are dark past. He has actively persecuted the followers of Jesus, he has been a proponent of violence against those who think differently. All of that has changed, not because he reached the conclusion that he had to change his ways. Like the coin and the sheep, he did nothing other than receive the mercy of God.

Conventional wisdom just does not apply here – something different happened. The woman searched for the coin, the shepherd left 99 sheep to find the lost one, and a religious zealot with the capacity for violence changed completely. In this post 9/11 world, how shall we followers of Jesus respond to violence?

 

This seems like a good place for the prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Living Binary in a Non-binary World – Luke 14:1, 7-14

PastorSteveWhen I was in fifth grade I was placed in a class that was doing some experimental learning. Among other things, I particularly remember that we studied set theory and binary number systems. Little did we know at the time, that binary numbering was setting the stage for the computer age. Binary numbering took what is ridiculously simple – having only zero and one – to process enormous amounts of data.

Binary systems are actually very old, and they function on the same principle as computers. For example, if there are only two categories of people – lets say good and bad – I can extrapolate that to pretty much sort the entire population of the world. Likewise for us and them, clean and unclean, right and wrong, correct and incorrect, smart and stupid and even male and female.

The problem, of course is that we are not computers and the world we live in is not binary. Light itself is never just on or off. The dawn comes, followed by noonday then, especially in Arizona, terrific sunsets. And even after that, the nighttime sky puts on a different kind of celestial show.

The binary system of Jesus’ time was shame and honor. Status was important; being labeled honorable meant everything while being shamed was humiliating and destructive. So when Jesus made a point of including those, who by the binary system were to be excluded, it caused a major scandal. It went against the grain of how human worth was counted; it invited chaos into a system that was orderly and clear (at least to those who were on the honored side of the system).

Jesus tells us to take the place of least honor at the banquet. Only two things can happen to you then. Either you stay there, or you get invited to a place of greater honor. Neither possibility is humiliating. In the end, he took the most shamed place in the culture, the executioner’s cross, and the symbol of imperial domination. He did not stay there.

Here is a part of our second lesson from last week, Hebrews 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Sons (and Daughters) of Thunder.

PastorSteve I have a new grandson. He appears to be on what we around here affectionately call “Esperanza Time” because he arrived two weeks late. In a place that boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, he, and his big brother were both born on days with thunderstorms. We think we might call them “Sons of Thunder.”

It is the nickname that Jesus gave to James and John, the sons of Zebedee in the gospel of Mark. No explanation is given for the name, although some point to a different story in Luke in which the brothers ask Jesus if he wants them to call fire from heaven to destroy an inhospitable village. It seems like a bit of a reach, maybe they were born on stormy days too. I’s like to think the nickname indicated that James and John were men of action.

This week, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate to young women of action. Heidi Gerrish has completed a year in Uruguay with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. Julie Gerrish will be commissioned to begin her year with YAGM in Senegal.

Young Adults in Global Mission is for those 21-29 desiring an experience in international service while at the same time engaging in personal reflection and discernment about their own sense of identity and place in God’s work in the world.

If the word, missionary conjures up images of bible thumping do-gooders traveling the globe to, either gently or by force convert the heathen to Christianity, think again. The failed model of mission that tended to be an arm of European colonialism, YAGM’s model of mission is accompaniment. It is being with global partners, experiencing life as they experience it, engaging in mutual hospitality while assisting with such things as education, public health, human rights and advocacy for women and children. The program gives young adults the opportunity to examine issues such as economic and racial injustice through the lens of faith.

Daughters of Thunder? If you know the Gerrish’s, probably not (although I understand Heidi can be hellacious on the Roller Derby Rink) but forces of nature? Absolutely! Join us Sunday at 8:30 or 10:30.

 

Here is a quote from Alsatian physician, theologian, organist and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer:

Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me.

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