“Flesh” Ash Wednesday 2017

Our Lenten theme for this year is a little different.   Normally the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 6, and the instruction that is given on fasting and praying as we prepare for the discipline of Lent.

This year, we’re going with a theme of Bodily Worship of the Triune God.   The theme comes from Psalm 103 which reads, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.”   Implied in that psalm is the understanding that when we come to worship, we are to engage all of ourselves, our body and soul, into the art and act of worship.

That may seem like a no-brainer, but I assure you, it is harder than it seems.

Who hasn’t come to worship and found themselves miles away in their thoughts?  The hands are folded, the knees are bowed, but the mind is racing elsewhere.

“Did I turn off the oven?”

“What should I do about this or that?”

As the Word is preached the Pastor mentions something that suddenly takes the mind to a completely different place, and while the face looks attentive, and thoughts are miles away.

It’s hard to remain in the worship moment with the whole of one’s self.

Rolf Jacobson, Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary points out that in our usual translation of Psalm 103, we miss two very important nuances.

The first has to do with the translation of the word “bless”, which in this psalm is better translated “bend the knee.”   “Kneel before the Lord, O my Soul.”   That part of the translation has us engaging bodily, dropping in reverence or submission.

But now that brings us to the second translation error, which has to do with the word for “soul” in Hebrew, which is not what we think it is.

This “soul” spoken of here is not some disembodied spirit that somehow resides in the husk of a body waiting to be set free — as the Greeks may have imagined.

No, in Hebrew the word is “Nephish” – literally the throat, esophagus, windpipe into which God “breathed” to cause life.   It is more of a metaphor for “the core of one’s being.”  It is “all of me,” it is everything that makes us what we are.

Therefore a better translation of this psalm, (if less poetic sounding) Professor Jacobson says would be “Let all of me kneel before God’s Holy Name.”    So, throughout the season of Lent we’re going to be taking a look at this matter of what it is to have all that we are kneel before God in worship, and we’re going to be doing that by focusing on the parts of the body that make us up.

The scripture readings tonight call on us to focus on the matter of flesh, it’s frailty, it’s resilience and how much God must love us to want to enter into it on our behalf.

We’re “fleshy” beings, you are I.  We are tied to this creation in fearful and wonderful ways.

The Creation Story from Genesis reminds us of how much we are tied to the things of this world.

It is out of dust of creation, the stuff of stars that we are made, as God’s hands take those elements to form and shape us.

It is God’s own breath that fills our lungs, expands the “core of our being” and gives life.

“Fleshiness” is our great gift.

It is also our great weakness.

“Fleshiness” sets us up to listen to voices other than the voice of God.   Because we are fleshy, we seek connection to other fleshy beings.  Relationship with the flesh sometimes comes into conflict with the relationship prescribed by God.

“Fleshiness sets us up to follow our appetites and desires, to partake of the tree that we know we are commanded not to eat from, but which our fleshiness longs for, just a taste, just a sample, what could it hurt?

“Fleshiness” sets the limits and boundaries of life.   It marks the difficulties we have to endure to earn a living, as “by the sweat of our face we eat our bread.”

“Fleshiness” reminds us of our mortality, how the things of this world return to the dust from whence it was formed.

Paul reminds us that whatever extraordinary powers we may think we possess and claim as our own are really things that belong to the God who breathed life into the core of us.  Like clay jars that hold the precious gift of life, we are prone to brokenness, we are finite in lifespan, and our usefulness is tied directly to our fragile and incomplete carrying of the precious gift at our core.

This is what God comes to inhabit, we are told by John.   God became “flesh” and lived among us, full of grace and truth, as a sign and symbol of how the fleshy can take on the imperishable.

But there is something else at work in this “Word becoming flesh thing.”

In becoming “Fleshy” like us, God now also has access to our “fleshy” parts.

God can come now to the ears, that we may hear the voice of Jesus.

God can come now to the mouth and open the lips, speaking in and through us as God comes out of the “core of our being” to others.

God can come now with hands to touch, to heal, to flip over tables when necessary and to lift up the fallen.

God can come with feet to journey with us, walking the pathways with which flesh must become acquainted.   Sometimes those are hard pathways of struggle and work.  Sometimes those are all too smooth pathways of temptation, the God who become flesh knows those walkways as well.   The God who has feet becomes acquainted with the way of faith and the stumbles failings along the way.

God can come now with knees, to kneel, and that is perhaps the strangest thought, that God would be kneeling with us.   We are so accustomed to being the one who is lowered, or who “takes a knee” to listen, that at first the thought of a kneeling God seems disorienting.  “What are you doing down here with me?”

But here too is the gift of fleshiness.  Here comes God to model with and for us what it means to become the servant, what the bending of the knee does for us how it opens us to find our place in a world created.

We are fleshy, and God has become fleshy with us, precisely so that nothing will be asked of us that God’ own self in frail flesh has not tried.

You are asked not because of how great, or how strong, or how powerful you are to follow the disciplines of Lent.

You are asked precisely because you are so fleshy, and in this way of all flesh, Jesus is now well acquainted.

You won’t be asked to do more than flesh can take on.

All of you, now; is invited to come to worship.

Come as you are able.

Come, for you are able.

Come, with all that you are, to the core of your being, into the presence of God who knows what it is to be fleshy, frail, and imperfect, and bids you kneel with him.

“To Save It” John 3:1-17

“I’m leaving you…”   That’s what the “post-it note” on the counter read.   In a panic, the husband stared at it.   His mind raced, his heart clenched in his chest, and his stomach dropped.

Sure, there had been the normal ups and downs of relationship but nothing that would have prepared him for this.

“I’m leaving you…”  The words burned.

He wanted to call.

He wanted to plead, to question, and try to discover what offense he had done that would lead to this.   He reached for the yellow tag of paper lifting from the countertop on its half-adhesive edge as if by touching it he might somehow confirm or deny the words that seemed to leap from its surface.

And plucking the note he then noticed that the writing continued on the back side.  Fearfully flipping it over from the “I’m leaving you” side he went on to read…“half a piece of pie in the fridge from my lunch… enjoy!”

It’s so important to read the whole note before jumping to conclusions!

It’s so important to read all the way through John chapter 3 verse 17 in our Gospel for today, because stopping at John 3:16 is like the husband not turning the note over.

People are really good about quoting and pointing out John 3:16.   It pops up on signs at ball games, and in rallies.   You probably know this verse by heart for its words are burned into the memory.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  

But something strange happens in how that verse gets used and interpreted when we stop reading the bible story there.

I think it happens because we assume that we know what is going on in this story of Nicodemus.

Jesus is arguing with this Pharisee who has come to him by night that he must be “born from above.”

Nicodemus is inquisitive.

He recognizes that Jesus is a teacher, and that he is from God, but he has questions, and in the exchange that follows, Jesus engages in the give and take of what would be recognized at the time this was written as “rabbinical teaching.” It is the technique employed by teacher and student to lead one to a different perspective.

Instead of viewing the Nicodemus story for what it is, which is this dialogue in which Jesus is teaching and Nicodemus is learning, we read it as if it were the fine print on an infomercial.

We read it as “Some conditions may apply…”

We read that God so loves the world but then we assume from the teaching that precedes it that this is about conditions and expectations.

“You must be born from above.”  Jesus says, and we are conditioned by one theological interpretation to read that as a condition, one not yet met by Nicodemus.  The condition that you must be baptized.

“No one can enter into the Kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.”  We read that as a condition, and one that is beyond Nicodemus’ grasp at this point, and so we leave Nicodemus in a kind of limbo, waiting for a later date when maybe he will “get it” and comply.

Maybe someday he too will make his way out to the wilderness to be baptized by John.

Maybe, someday, Nicodemus will do what we think Jesus commands here as a condition of entering the Kingdom, and comply with the ritual.

Instead of viewing this as an exchange of learning that leads Nicodemus to a new understanding, something that he has to let “sink in” for a bit.   We assume that it is Jesus laying out conditions that must be met, and so John 3:16 begins to take on the ring of exclusivity.

Believe and you will have eternal life.

Question, like Nicodemus, and you must be left out.

That’s how we often read this, and by extension then we begin to set up our own categories of who is in and who is out.   We qualify and quantify beliefs based upon our own experience, and assume that John 3:16 supports them.

If you believe as I do, well then as John 3:16 says, and you are in.

If you believe differently that I do, well then John 3:16 would seem to indicate that you are out.

Follow Jesus as I understand one is to follow, and you are in with me.

Follow in a way that I don’t understand or agree with, and well…. John 3:16 says….

Exclusivity rears its head if you end with the verse about belief, precisely because “belief” as we use that word tends to be a subjective thing, something open to our own interpretation of what it might be.

But if you push on to John 3:17, the landscape of this bible story changes.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

The removal of the condemnation is like the husband turning over of the note!

Now the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is not about coming to a place of “right belief.”   It is rather about developing a relationship!

This is what Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to do!   He already knows that Jesus is sent by God.  No one can dispute that – given what Jesus does, the signs he performs, —  what Nicodemus can’t quite figure out is how to relate to him!

It is in developing a relationship in which the wind of the spirit can blow where it wills that Nicodemus begins to see.

It is in developing a relationship where questions can be raised, where thoughts can be clarified, and where trust can be established that Nicodemus begins to understand how he, as a teacher of Israel can begin to discern what God is up to now in his midst.

Push on to verse 17, and what is revealed is God’s intention, which is considerably less about what one believes or does, and turns out to be more about what God seems to desire.

No, not just what God “seems” to desire, but that God expressly states, namely, that it is God’s desire to save the world, and that’s why the son has been sent.

Jesus has been sent for this very kind of engagement.

Jesus is sent to open up the dialog where questions can be raised, and where insight can be given, and where through the dialog the Spirit can then begin to move where it will.

This is good news for us, for we could use a lot of “world saving” right now, and preferably some that doesn’t depend so much upon “right belief,” because quite frankly, we don’t know what to believe anymore.

In this world of fake news, the denial of accumulated data and the questioning of factual or scientific evidence, we are uncertain about who or what to believe anymore.

We are at least as disoriented in our daily life now as Nicodemus was when he came to Jesus by night.

So, now is the time to push on to verse 17.

Now is the time to hear, with crystal clarity, that salvation is not dependent upon our belief or unbelief, but rather salvation is something that is put into motion by God’s desire.  It is  God’s activity of sending his Son that brings about salvation, and it is God’s desire that this be directed toward the whole world.

Now is the time to claim that, more than ever, in a world that is fractured, and where trust is hard to come by, that it is God’s intention and desire to save this world.

In a world where political powers and ideologies press us to want to isolate, to separate ourselves, to build walls, to label who is in, and who is out, and who is other to be questioned, distrusted, avoided, rejected and deported – we need to claim and proclaim that what God is up to is opening up dialog and engaging people.

Now is the time to remind the world of verse 17, for Jesus did not come into this world to condemn it, but to save it, and it all begins with establishing relationship, not labeling or dismissing others.

God did not send his Son to hasten the end of world, but rather to unite all things in Christ.

Jesus did not come to speak enigmatically to those who came to him by night in order to confuse them.

No, Jesus came to open up a dialog where even in the midst of deep misunderstanding and questioning the Spirit can blow and new insight can be given.

This is our legacy.

This is the hope to which we are called, and what we are called to proclaim.

John 3:16, yes… absolutely!   God so loved this world that he sent the Son.

But do not end it there!  The Son is sent not to establish right belief, but rather to foster the belief in us all that God does not condemn, but instead desires to save and to begins relationship.

This world.

Those in it.

Those who come by night, and those who follow by day.

All of them, all of it, God desires to save and God does so by establishing a relationship with in which the Word is made flesh and dwells in our midst, and where the Spirit can blow.

It is so important that we read this whole note, this whole story to a world that is always tempted to fall into division.

The world is depending upon it.

God is depending on the dialogue, and upon us to engage it.  Amen.

“Tempting Times” Matthew 4:1-11

We are most certainly living in “Tempting Times.”    What kind of temptations do you see?  Experience?   We could go on and on here to list even more of the temptations that abound for us.

But I suspect that just listing out temptations is not what you came here for today.

If you wanted to get a list of temptations available to you, you could “google it” and likely things would pop up on your screen that you had no idea even existed until you saw it.

No, if you came here today for any reason it was likely to try to figure out what to do about the temptations that are all too prevalent in your daily life.

As we enter the season of Lent, we turn to the scriptures, and particularly to Jesus’ temptation thinking, or perhaps hoping that we can learn a thing or two from Jesus about how to deal with temptation and to silence the devil.

Well, if that’s what you were hoping for, I will sadly have to disappoint you.

The temptation of Jesus doesn’t really help us if you are looking for tools for dealing with temptation.

Just take a look here at the tools that Jesus employs in dealing with the tempter.

Jesus is hungry, and the temptation is to turn stones into bread.   “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’  This is what Jesus says to deal with the Tempter.

            Which is all very good for Jesus to say… but he’s still hungry.

This first temptation, we know it well once we start to turn it over in our minds.   This is the temptation to take care of our own needs…. First.  The great temptation in turning stones into bread is of thinking only of yourself and of your own needs.

“If you are the Son of God….”   Embedded in Satan’s temptation right away is an appeal to and an assumption of privilege because of who you are.

It’s not that Satan questions that Jesus is the Son of God.

No, rather it is a temptation rooted in what you deserve as a matter of being who you are – namely God’s Son.

You deserve a little special treatment.

You deserve to have your needs met before you worry about anyone else.

“You deserve a break to today”… as McDonald’s will so eloquently put it some 20 centuries later.

We know this temptation well, we live it over and over again, like the grumbling of an empty stomach.

A thousand different challenges present themselves in the society around us, and as opportunities to make a difference with a gift are presented, the rumbling in the gut of our own hunger pushes back against the need of others, and our own assumptions of privilege creep in.

Give money to the government in taxes?  Hey, that is MY money!

Give money to the church?  Hey, I worked hard for that, I’ll give if what they are doing fits my interests, benefits what I think should be done?

Give money to that beggar on the street corner?  How will I know he won’t go buy a bottle?   He may have a nicer house than I have!  Who knows how much he rakes in tax free from that racket…

Oh, we are well acquainted with the first temptation, the “me first” and then I’ll see to others temptation.

Jesus recognizes it, and rejects it by quoting scripture.

But we are not Jesus.   We, more often than not, will succumb to this temptation.  Sometimes we will be pricked by that and find ourselves ashamed of it, recognizing how we have also assumed a measure of privilege mentality, but more often we will simply write this temptation off as the way things are.

“If you don’t look out for yourself, who is going to look out for you?”

So, if you think by becoming more acquainted with the bible will help give you a tool to defeat temptation, think again.   We will more often just look for the right bible verse to quote, that fits our own self-interest, and call that good.

Jesus can quote scripture to push back against temptation, but not so for us.  Why?  Because as it turns out, the devil can quote scripture too.

 “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ “

We recognize this temptation too, but it comes at us in just a little different way.

For Jesus, the temptation was one of personal safety.   “Go ahead, throw yourself down, God won’t let anything bad happen to you.”  — it is again an appeal to privilege, special status.

Which is fine for Jesus, as Son of God.   But what about us?   What can we look to for protection and personal safety?

Ah, here is how the Tempter gets at us, and it is again and appeal to the matter of privilege.

This temptation is the builder of walls and the procurer of missiles.  It is the promise of larger aircraft carriers, and the increase in defense spending even when as a Nation we spend more on defense than the next 7 world leading powers combined.

It is an appeal to the privilege of being “safe” and “untouchable” and not having to worry about what the rest of the world worries about.

The temptation to desire personal safety, and some guarantee of that, is powerful indeed!

Consider what such pursuit of personal safety has done to us.

It has made us take our shoes off and bow down to worship metal detectors since 9/11.

It has driven us to take for granted surveillance in every sector of our lives as just the price that must be paid to be assured that we are “safe.”

This temptation for personal safety has made us seek suspicion in every stranger, and has made us voluntarily sign away our privacy.

It has made it impossible to travel without the proper identification papers.

The desire for personal safety sets neighborhood against neighborhood, it produces gated communities and secure buildings and “members only” access.

It proliferates “ADT” signs in front yards instead of front porches upon which to meet one’s neighbor and watch out for one another.

The desire for personal safety sees a potential enemy in everyone who is “different” in any way, and it ironically ends up producing the very paranoia of the outsider that such “safety” is supposed to allay.

Jesus recognized that quotation of scripture by Satan was a perversion of God’s promise. He quoted scripture back to clarify scripture, invoking what we call a “canon within the canon.”  Snippets of scripture that seem to justify your narrow position, are not the final word.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  He says.

Do not take things out of the context of God’s overarching theme in scripture, and don’t try to force God into doing something that is not the intent of the relationship that has been revealed.

Maybe we’ll learn something from that third temptation, a tool to use?

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

Nope.

This is the one that we are in fact most often tripped up by.  This is the temptation to power, and it is the great seducer of all, for it is always the case that we think power is something that we will be able to handle.

“Well, if someone made me President/leader/supervisor/senator/congressman/

–insert whatever person of authority –, I know I could do better….”

There is always some allure in pinning your hopes on a strong leader who can address the ills of the world, is there not?

We look longingly back to the leaders of old, and proclaim “if only we had a leader like…”

For Israel, it was “if only we had a King like David, a Prophet like Elijah, leader like Moses….”

For us it might be hearkening back to Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Reagan.   We idolize the past as the golden age, recognized the times were hard but see those single great leaders as somehow uniquely gifted to see the nation through the difficult time.

Truth be told though, they were all flawed, and they all fell into the abuse of power in one way or another.

We remember the good.  We forget the opposition they faced, or the failings they fell into.

Even and especially Jesus recognizes the danger in this, and so he rejects it out of hand.  “Away with you, Satan.”

It will not by amassing personal power that the world will be saved or the Kingdom of God brought it.

No, if you want to lean about how to deal with temptation, you don’t look at what Jesus does in the wilderness.

You instead look at what he does after this encounter with all of those temptations to care for himself first, to give in to privilege, and become an authoritarian leader.

What Jesus does is gather disciples.

What Jesus does is begin to teach that if you would deal with the temptations of this world, you must focus on your relationships.

Relationship with him.

Relationship with God.

Relationship with one another in community.

Jesus us teaches us that God will deal with temptation by entrusting the dispersal of power.

Twelve will be appointed, all of whom individually will fail utterly and mightily, and each will have their own temptations against which they will have to struggle, but they will preach, proclaim the Kingdom, and found communities.

Oh, the tempter will find, or poke or prod, until he finds the weak spot in every individual, no matter how resolute or strong.

But in that distribution of power and shared responsibility for the Kingdom, there is mutual accountability that the devil can’t subvert.   The ability to trust and lean upon one anothers allows the Kingdom to break in, imperfectly, but little by little.

If Jesus could not handle the prospect of power and rejected it out of hand for something else, why do we keep going back to it?

 “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’   Jesus says.

How do you beat temptation?

You don’t.

That is the take away from the Temptation Story.   You and I, we won’t do that on our own.

We’re not Jesus, after all.

And this temptation thing, this is not a “once and done” kind of event for Jesus or for us.  Notice how often the temptations come back in the story… in the hunger of crowds, in the questions of authority, in the attempts to tie Jesus to political messianic hopes and dreams, a “King like David.”

This is what the temptation story tells us.

This is how life is.  It is a succession of these three things – care for the self, privilege thinking, and the temptation to take control on our own — coming back to us over and over again, and we are not Jesus!  We will not be able to take this tempter on – not on our own!

So instead, Jesus gives us each other.

The tool that Jesus gives to us to deal with temptation is community, which he establishes and keeps, calling it together again and again with the Spirit and the Bread and Wine. .

How do you deal with temptation?

Not on your own.

We do this together, by attending to one another as Jesus has shown us so to do.

“A Glimpse” Matthew 17:1-9

The season of Epiphany in the church is book-marked by two stories, each and every year. It begins with the story of the Baptism of Jesus.  In that story, God’s booming voice proclaims, (depending upon the Gospel either for either Jesus alone, or for all to hear) “This is my Son…”

The Season of Epiphany always ends with this story, of Jesus Transfigured on the Mountain, and the second iteration of God’s proclamation, “This is my Son…”

In between the Baptism and the Transfiguration, the ministry of Jesus begins and the stories we hear bring into sharper focus what can be expected of him, and what will be required of the one whom God claims as his own.

The Transfiguration event is quite often a head scratcher for most folks.   We’re not quite sure what to do with it.

We are as puzzled as anyone over what Moses and Elijah are meant to represent, what they may have discussed with Jesus, or what symbolic action this meeting might be meant to convey.

We join with Peter, James and John in fumbling and stumbling over what to make of it all, and just what to say or do in the moment.

Shall we “live in this moment?”

Do we build a shrine or a shelter to commemorate it?   Or a shelter to remain upon the mountain for a time and avoid what Jesus has predicted will lie ahead in choosing to go to Jerusalem, and go the way of the Cross?

It can be a quite a conundrum for us.   What do we make of this strange vision?

Perhaps, Vision is precisely the word and experience we are to take from this story; that it is a vision.  It is a moment between baptism and what will lie ahead in which we get only a glimpse of something.

If that is the case, then I would submit that the Transfiguration is not so foreign to us after all.

You know this moment.

You have had this kind of moment.

If this is a vision granted, it is not so much something for us to “figure out” or explain as it is simply a “moment to remember.”  It is a moment that will be looked back upon that provided something — a measure of hope, insight, or clarity for what was to come.

We all experience transfigurations, don’t we?

You have had a moment like this, or you will.

Transfigurations, this story tells us, are comprised of three distinct parts.

You see something that you have never seen until this moment.

You recognize something of the past in this moment that you realize will have implications for the future..

You feel a moment of fear that a word eventually addresses or dispels.

So, when is it that you have had a “Transfiguration” event happen to you?

If you are a parent or a grandparent I’ll bet it’s there tucked inside your memory, a Transfiguration of your child.

Probably several.

Maybe it was the moment when for the first time, on their own, they toddled into the bathroom and used the toilet without being prompted, coaxed, bribed or scolded.

It was a moment when you saw them as something they had never been before, and something that you longed for them to be, independent!

You recognized something of the past fading away.  The day of no more diapers becomes a real possibility!

But, in that same realization you feel also a moment of fear.

They are growing up!

“I did it!”  “I do it myself!”  Is the word that comes to address the moment.  It pulls us back to reality, and dispels a bit of the anxiety.

I think there is a transfiguration moment when a parent sees his daughter or son come down the stairs dressed up for a special event.

You see that she is not your little girl anymore.   He is not just a little boy.

You recognize in her poise, or in his pose, in their appearance a bit of her mother perhaps, or you see your own father mirrored in the way he stands, or someone else from the family memory.   At any rate their appearance is quite unlike anything you have ever seen in your child before.

There she is, transfigured before you.  She is a young woman.

There he is, tall and dapper, and you recognize that he is no longer the child of playing with legos or in the backyard but a young man.

You feel the weight and joy of that.   And then they say something that snaps you back to the moment, something so like the little child again.  A word dispels your momentary fear of them slipping away from you.

Transfiguration moments abound, they appear in the donning of the cap and gown of graduation, in the tossing of the car keys when the teenager gets their license, in the first time your child reaches for the check at the restaurant when you are out to eat.

Oh, we know this moment of Transfiguration.  It signals a change to come, and change can be delightful, and fearful, and hard all at once, because it marks also a sense of loss.

Why is it the disciples want to build booths when they see the change in Jesus?  Is it not for the same reason we fight over the check at the restaurant?

Grow up, but not quite so fast.

Can’t we stay as we are… just a little longer?

It is good that we are here, and good to see this moment, and can it last just a little longer?

But no, down the mountain we must go.  There are tasks to be accomplished, work to be done.

We cannot hold the Transfiguration moment.  It is a vision, a moment.

But, visions can be remembered, recalled, and employed again.   They can be brought back to mind, and will be, to make sense of the future as it unfolds.

The vision of that little girl becoming a woman will be recalled in future events.  In the walk down the aisle at her wedding, in the cradling of her own first child, eventually in role reversal, where the child becomes the parent, extended caregiving back to the mother or father who once cradled her.

The vision of the little boy becoming a man will be recalled in future events, as he takes on his own life, finds his own way, and eventually in the role reversal as the things his father helped show him how to do are now returned.  “Here dad, let me….”

Oh, we are well acquainted with such moments of transfiguration, when we see, recognize, feel and a word dispels our fear.

But now, we need to pull this back to the story at hand, what the Transfiguration means for faith, because while we now know that we know this experience, we still don’t know exactly what it means for us.

Maybe what it means is this.

Change is possible, and we need not fear its approach, for it comes regardless of our wishes or attempts to hold it back, and God is in the change as it unfolds.

Maybe the reason Jesus gives the disciples this vision is so that they can recall it after the horrific events of trial, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  That seems to be the direction given.  “Tell no one until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Maybe even after 3 years of following in Jesus’ footsteps, even after the resurrection, the life of bringing in the Kingdom becomes a bit of a blur, something hard to sustain.

Did Jesus really do that?  Say that?

Were we just imagining the healings?

Was the feeding a miracle, or really just a slight of hand where he got everyone to share the lunch they had tucked away?

When the days get long, and the work gets hard, and you begin to wonder if all this living as a follower of Jesus is worthwhile, as you wait for Jesus’ promised return, what is it that will sustain you?

Is it not those moments of transfiguration?  Those times when you saw, recognized, felt and heard a little glimpse of what could be?

Maybe we aren’t supposed to figure out what the Transfiguration means exactly, but rather recall it as a vision bestowed.

Peter, James and John believed this was significant.  They spoke of it after the resurrection.  It got recorded.

“We got to see a glimpse….”

And maybe, that’s all we will ever get to see at any given time, just a glimpse.

Martin Luther would often speak of how the “true church” was always hidden.  How could the Church of Rome with all its corruptions, abuses, and shortcomings be considered a church at all?    Where was Jesus in this mess of competing interests, sale of forgiveness, and building of grand structures while the poor suffered?

Well, Christ was indeed there, but Christ was not found in the grand decrees of Popes or the architecture.

No, the “true church” is revealed only in glimpses.

The true church is revealed where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacrament is rightly administered.

It is an event, not a place.

It is a moment, not an institution.

Church happens when Christ reveals in that moment what the individual is to do, to say, or to be to be Christ to the neighbor.

It is the act of Hospitality, the care for the other, the word that must be spoken.

It is the doing of what you are gifted and able to do in this world for the sake of the neighbor.

For Luther, the matter of church was a kind of “cat and mouse” game with Satan, lest the work of the Kingdom be too exposed and Satan get his hands on it.   And we know the truth of that.  More often than not in doing the “business” of the church we lose sight of in whose name we are doing what we want to do.

Maybe all we get are “glimpses” of how God is at work, how the Kingdom comes of its own accord through and sometimes in spite of our own actions.

Between Baptism and the Mountaintop, that’s where we live our lives as well.   So maybe all we are meant to hope for is such a glimpse of God at work in our action now and again.  A moment that makes us smile and say, “I see something I’ve never seen before.”

And when the vision is dim?   Well then we still have a reminder from God in a booming voice.

“This is my son… listen to him.”

“Be What You Are Called” Matthew 5:13-20

This parable of Jesus has never made a whole lot of sense to me.

Salt is elemental, one of the most stable compounds known to chemistry.   How could it ever lose its “saltiness?”

I have read various commentaries and illustrations that try to understand what Jesus might be referring to here.

There is an Illustration of how salt is found in impure deposits in the middle east, so that what at first looks like salt doesn’t carry flavor anymore, the actual salt having been leached out.   It may look like a salt deposit, but the salt is gone.

Or the illustration of how salt was sometimes used as a fire retardant and base in the act of baking bread, a layer of salt being placed over the coals that you then place the bread upon.   The salt used in this manner seasoned the loaf but would become unusable because of the ash, and so it was thrown out and trampled underfoot.

None of those are ultimately very satisfying explanations however, because they both tend to get around the central question.

How can something “lose” what it essentially is?

That salt deposit that looks like salt but doesn’t contain any?   Guess what, the salt that was once there is still around, it’s just collected in a new place.

That salt that you threw out to be trampled?  Guess what, the first rain that comes along that is also going to be dissolved, and it will collect, and recrystallize, and voila!   Salt again, or still, just in a new place!

How could salt ever lose its essential nature, what it is?

The light part of the parable is perhaps a little easier to understand, or least we think so at first.  We can imagine putting a basket or pot over a candle, thereby obscuring the light.

We know the light is still there, you just can’t see it.

We know what that is like to hide a light source under something.  It’s probably been a game you’ve played with a child, put the flashlight under the covers and then pop it out to reveal it again.

You don’t put a candle under a bushel not just because it’s pointless, it can’t do what it is intended to do, you also don’t put it under there because doing so denies its very nature, it can’t do what it is meant to do and be!

So, part of me just doesn’t get this parable.

You can’t “unsalt, salt.”

You can’t “unlight, light.”

You are going to “be” what you are!

No, the question appears to be whether or not you will be recognized as what you are.

And this, dear friends is where it gets a little tricky, because after using the illustration of salt and light, what we are to “be” Jesus goes on to talk to us about doing things.

He talks about letting our light shine before others.

He talks about having righteousness, actions that exceed even the righteousness, the actions of the Pharisees.

In other words, he moves from the realm of being into the realm of doing, and that is always a tricky transition.

Don’t believe me?   Let me give you an example that I think can resonate with.

Many a proud parent have hungered to watch their little one “become.”    It is what you hope and dream for from the beginning.  The child is born, and you look into their soft, innocent face and you begin to wonder just what it is that they will grow up to be, — what they will become, what they will do.

The little lump of flesh that we baptize is a unique individual upon whom we pronounce this blessing from Matthew.   “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

“Be, little one,” we say with our blessing.  “Be like salt and light, you are elemental in your nature, and you will “be” what you will be.

You will “become” what your Father in heaven desires for you to be, endowed with those unique gifts, talents, thoughts and abilities that God has given to you.

And this is where the difficulty begins, for the journey of “being” and “becoming” is a  movement to action, and that is fraught with danger.

The “become” portion unfolds as the little one begins to assert who and what God has made them to be, and it doesn’t always jibe with the wishes and hopes and dreams of the parent.

As I said, we delight in that “being” and becoming” at first.   The lump of flesh moves from laying, to rolling, to crawling to walking and then on to running and eventually borrowing the car keys and moving out on their own.

Oh how we delight in each new phase, but with each new phase we are terrified as well.

“Oh look, she’s rolling over!”

Which, of course, is all good and fine until she rolls over and off of the changing table, landing abruptly with a smack on the floor, and a scream of surprise and pain, or maybe being caught just in the nick of time.

Then the parent exclaims, “Why didn’t you lay still?!?”

Well, it was of course not in the child’s nature to lay still.  That is NOT what they are meant to be and do!   You were proud of that initiative at first, before you realized it had potentially negative consequences.

“Oh look, he’s crawling!”   And so begins the adventure for the inquisitive young one who proceeds to crawl over to the electrical outlet and tries to slobber on the receptacle.

“What are you doing?”  The parent exclaims, sweeping the child up in his or her arms.  “No! No! No!  OUCHIE!”  the parent instructs.

But the child is just “being” who they were intended to be.  It is their nature to explore with tongue and mouth.  That’s who they are, that’s what they are to do at that age, if they are to “become” who they are meant to be.

And that pretty much sets the tone for all of this Salt and Light stuff as we grow and develop and the years go by, doesn’t it?

Once we understand or perceive who we are to be, what we are to become, then the world of action beings, and we begin to explore what that will means for us, and all of the consequences involved in being and becoming begin to unfold for us.

“Be a little more independent” we say to the teenager, and then when they do exert their being, and do act on what they are becoming, — when they stay out too late, or act in an independent fashion that the parent does not agree with, the admonition comes.

“Don’t be like that!   Where did you learn that?”

But they are just “being!”   How can they “be” other than what they have become?

Herein lies the problem with this Salt and Light thing.   It quite often sets you up to get in at least some amount of trouble, and some element of conflict as you push the boundaries to discover who you are and what you are meant to do in this world.

To be and to become involves action in this world, and what you consider to be the right action may not necessarily fit into the desires of those around you.

We are still in the Beatitudes here in Matthew, and this is only the beginning of how Jesus is going to press the boundaries, how he is going to encourage his followers to press them as well.

The Pharisees were righteous.  They tried hard to keep the commandments, and their teaching on the 613 laws that surround the ten commandments were all designed to help the community know and understand just what was required of them.

So the Pharisees taught how one properly keeps the Sabbath.   Work is to cease at sundown on Friday, and is not to resume until sundown on Saturday.  Keep the Sabbath by avoiding doing these things.   Do not engage in trade.  Do not heal.  If you are have to walk, go no more than this distance.  Do no activity that might be construed as “work.”   Keep the law, and you will satisfy all righteousness.  God will be happy, and the law fulfilled.

What more could God possibly want?

But then Jesus comes along and while he says that the law will not be abolished, but rather fulfilled, he also says that playing by the rules will not ultimately be enough.

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees….

“Let your light so shine….”

Press, and test, and push the boundaries of love, and of action, and of righteousness to see just how far your light can shine.

This is what will get Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees, and we’ll watch this unfold in the next few weeks in Matthew in rapid pace succession as Jesus rolls out the soon to be familiar phrase.  “You have heard it said of old, but I say to you….”

Love your enemy and pray for your persecutor.

If someone asks you to go one mile with them, go with them two.

If they ask for your shirt, give them your cloak as well.

Give to everyone who begs from you.

On Jesus will goes in relentless fashion pushing the boundaries, like a toddler on steroids seeing just how far he can take this “be and become” thing.

And we are invited to join, but more than that, we are pressed in it.

How can we be anything other than what God has made to us to be?

How can salt lose its saltiness?   It can’t, but choices can be made about where it is found now.   Something can look like salt, appear like salt, but what make it distinctive has been leached away.

Who puts a light under a basket?   No one, unless of course it is to obscure things.  Light is hidden only if there are things we simply do not want to look at, do not want to see.   Like going into the kitchen and seeing the sink piled high with dishes, you have a choice here, you can launch into action and start washing, or you can flick the light off and pretend you didn’t see it.   Make it someone else’s problem.  Hope it goes away.

Sometimes we put baskets over our light, because to see would be moved to action and to be moved to action would be to invite conflict.   It is simply just easier to not be, not to do.  But making that choice leaches away little by little at the essence of who we are, until perhaps we are no longer of any value.    We have all the appearance and none of the distinctiveness.

This is the unnerving invitation of God in Christ Jesus to us in being Salt and Light.  The call to be and to become always also carries with it the call to action because of who we are as God’s people in this world.

The prospect of being and becoming a follower of Jesus excites us.

It terrifies as well, and more often terrifies others, for who knows what God will end up calling us to do in this world once we sense who we are and what we are called to be?  What dangers we might embark upon in God’s name as we begin to seek to be who we are called, children of God who live to give glory to the Father in heaven?

“Failure” Micah 6:1-8; Matt 5:1-12

 

Beloved in the Lord, I must confess to you my sin this day.

I have failed.

I have failed in 32 years of preaching to convey the essence of the Gospel.

I have failed to equip the saints.

I have failed to fully comprehend what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

I have been too often turned aside and led astray, addressing the “adiaphora,” (a fancy theological term for the “things that really don’t matter”) of church.

The leaky roof occupied my thoughts.

The right wording in the constitution became my obsession, or the space for the food pantry, or the mailing for the Stewardship program, the color of the new carpet, or making sure the right liturgical color was on the altar for the right season of the church year.

These are the things that I must have called important.

I met in meetings to discuss these matters, and I planned how to execute them best, and argued for and about these things.

All the while, somehow I neglected to proclaim what we would most need in these days.

Evidently, I failed to mention or appropriate into my own understanding that Jesus calls us all to lay down our life, even for the stranger, and not to protect our life at the expense of others.

Evidently, I forgot to take to heart the words of Micah, who told us what is most important and what God truly requires of us.

I neglected to push you, and myself, to understand what it is to do justice in this world.

I must have missed opportunities to develop a quality of mercy that would allow us all to love our neighbor, and not to fear them.

I guess I was too busy trying to find a sense of pride in the building, or a program, or in an accomplishment to learn how, or to help you learn how to walk humbly in the way God leads.

So, forgive me.

Confession is good for the soul, so they say.

So, today I am confessing that the Beatitudes bug the heck out of me, and I don’t believe a single one of them.

I certainly don’t believe in them enough to emulate them, or to put myself in the position of being who God pronounces “Blessed” upon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”  yeah fat chance, who in here believes that?   Who in here is willing to change places with anyone who is depressed, or down on their luck, or who struggles in actual poverty, or detained in an airport just so they can find God’s blessing?

We’re just thankful we’re not like them, or in their place.

So it is really with all the Beatitudes, one by one, as you go down the list.

No one chooses to mourn, or to hunger, or to thirst.    It’s great to know that if you ever find yourself in those places, that God will be there and will blesses you where you are, but I don’t sense God calling me to experience any of those things just for the sake of finding blessing.

And you know which beatitude we really don’t choose, and don’t want anything to do with?

It’s this one about “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

We particularly don’t like this one, because you see, of all the ones we might be inclined to find ourselves in sometime, this is the one we have to choose.

Few choose to be poor, they end up there.

Fewer still choose to mourn, or walk the path of meekness, or to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

You end up having things happening to you that bereave you, make you powerless, or make you hungry for some justice, and when you find yourself there, you hope someone comes along to lift you out of it, and you long for God to pronounce blessing, but you don’t choose to go there.

No, the only place you have an option for “choosing” in the beatitudes is whether or not you will do something for the sake of God and God’s call upon your life.

This is where the rubber meets the road.

We don’t like conflict.

We don’t like putting ourselves in the place where we’ll be subject to scrutiny, subjected to an opposing viewpoint, or called out because of our convictions or beliefs.

We know we hate being put in this position from something as trivial as a well-intended casual Facebook post!  When you put your thoughts, your convictions out there, there is always someone ready to argue back at you and point out how they beg to differ with your “opinion.”

So, as I confess to you my sin, I guess it’s a pretty natural one.  If I could make it look like I was following God without having to do the really hard stuff, well that was the best thing to do, the comfortable thing to do.

And, for a long time, I could do that and get by.

But not anymore.

There are brothers and sisters in our midst who are rightly scared of what is coming in the days ahead from this administration.

Will my marriage be revoked?

Will my friends or co-workers be deported?

Will families be separated, and rights revoked, and citizenship be questioned?

Will the work of my lifetime in the sciences be suppressed, dismissed or ignored because it does not fit with the “new alternative facts” desired?

These are the fears voiced in our midst, and in the midst of this nation.

Honestly, I don’t care who you voted for.  I don’t care if your guy won, or if you think Satan himself now sits in the White House.

This is what I care about.

How are you going to treat one another in the midst of all of this?

I ask that because our track record has not always been great here on that front, mine included.

Are we going to love one another enough to deeply listen to one another’s fears, and not dismiss them or belittle them, or feel compelled to argue or name call?

Are we going to set aside our differences to speak on behalf and defend the one who is afraid, and to calm their fears, and if necessary, work tirelessly to assure and reassure?

Will we, in other words, be a blessing to others, or be blessed by God because we are willing to take a stand somewhere, with someone.  Even if it’s not the stand that I would personally agree with, but know that because we love and care for each other, and that it is a stand that YOU have to take, I will stand with you because you are my brother, my sister in Christ?

Will we be willing to be reviled, and persecuted, and have all manner of evil spoken against us – rightly or falsely — because we are willing to do something on account of what the Gospel calls us to say, or to do, or to be?

We get to choose that, you see.

Will we?

Will I?

Forgive me.

I have failed to do so in the past.

I will likely fail to do so again.

But confession is good for the soul, and today I confess my failure of you, and with you, in the fervent belief that the power of forgiveness empowers us to start again, and this time to choose to do what we must do as a matter of conscience on God’s account, and in God’s name.

“Repositioning” Matthew 4:12-23

I’ve always read the Matthew passage about the call of the disciples focusing on the last part here, how Peter, Andrew, James and John dropped everything and followed Jesus as he met them by the Sea of Galilee.   I’ve focused on, and usually marveled at their faith, or trust which allowed them to follow Jesus when he happened by.

But I’m looking at this story with a little different set of eyes this time.  I’m paying attention to the kind of “positioning” that Jesus engages in long before the call is extended to “come and follow me.”    I’ll tell you what made me think about this.

When I started doing a little research about getting “bang for your buck” out of travel for a potential Sabbatical I ran across these things called “repositioning cruises.

You see, nobody really wants to sail, no matter how nice the ship is, up a Norwegian Fjord or the Alaska coastline in the middle of winter when it’s cold and the days are short so you can’t see anything, and seasonal storms rolling through make the ride rough.

But, when it’s cold and dark and stormy up north, that is a really good time to be tooling around in the Caribbean or cruising Australia/New Zealand.

You could just park your ship and wait for the weather to change, or you could you move the ship to where it was needed at the time.

Repositioning Cruises are longer, and so they are also a good time to roll over your staff.   You get a few extra “days at sea” as you move that ship from one place to the other to train your sailors, servers, have your entertainers learn new shows, etc.   You don’t want to just move an empty ship, so you offer a discount price to any passengers who want a longer sea experience and who don’t mind watching the shift of a few events.   To the person who has never been on a cruise before, you may not even notice the transitions, although they are happening all around you.

Repositioning acknowledges that the ship can’t keep doing what it has been in the same place, and it can’t just park itself waiting for good weather to come back.

Repositioning recognizes that it takes time to learn the skill sets necessary for proficiency, and so you have to be patient as both a passenger and a crew as it retools itself for this new situation.

Repositioning means you move your assets to where they can do the most good, and prepare along the way for the ultimate task.

Now with that in mind, look at the Gospel for today again.

The story starts out with an acknowledgement that John is no longer on the scene.    Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Jesus, it appears, is repositioning himself.  John the Baptist is no longer on the scene.   The situation is changed.   “Baptism for Repentance” was a way to introduce that God was about to be up to something, but what God is about to do takes a different skillset, and a different way of navigating.

Jesus repositions himself from his hometown of Nazareth, to Capernaum, and the historic tribal territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Why there?  Well partly it appears to be to line up with a prophecy from Isaiah.

Zebulun and Naphtali, of all the tribal areas of Judah, were the most trodden upon of the 12 Tribes of Israel, and the most long suffering throughout history.

This area has seen a lot of “dark days.”

The Assyrians had conquered those lands in the days after Solomon the Wise.

The Babylonians had swept through on three separate occasions, conquering, occupying, and pillaging along the way.

Zebulun and Naphtali had been occupied territories under the Persian Empire.  While Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, Persian retained control of the trade routes along the Sea of Galilee.

The Greeks had taken these lands during the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the Ptolemy and Selucid generals had been regents and occupying forces after Alexander’s  death, right up until King Herod the Great traded influence with Rome to re-acquire them.

Now in the time of Jesus and under Roman occupation.  Herod Antipas is building up the area around Capernaum into a center of trade, which you might think would be a good thing, but here is the second reason why Jesus is positioning himself here.

Herod is likely building up the economy by exporting dried fish and Garum, (a fermented fish sauce which was a Roman staple) from the Sea of Galilee to the wider Roman Empire.

Herod Antipas is pocketing the profit, even as fish stocks in the lake are being depleted, prices are being inflated locally, and the staple food source for the people of this old land of “Zebulun and Naphtali is being “shipped out.”  So, hunger is on the rise.

Yes, this area has seen a lot of “dark days.”    Isaiah’s promise of light shining would be a particularly welcome word to them.

Jesus, the Light of the world, coming into this place would be a welcome thing as well.

Jesus, “the bread of life” will be a welcome presence of God in the midst of hunger, physical and spiritual.

So, “Repositioning.”   Where does Jesus go after John’s arrest?   He goes where it is darkest and hungriest.

He goes where he is most needed, and where he can do the most good.

This is Jesus, repositioning himself, and repositioning the message as well, for while John preached Baptism for Repentance, looking forward to Messiah.   Jesus now positions the message anew.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”

So, I just want you to notice with me this time all that takes place before the Disciples are called, all this “repositioning” work that God is doing to make it possible to for them to follow.

There is a timing element to the positioning of Jesus.   John’s message is at an end, The moment for Jesus’ message has arrived, and when the time arrives, he arrives.

There is a location element involved.  It is not so much Jesus “withdrawing” as if this were a retreat of some kind.   No, Jesus withdraws from what used to be home (Nazareth) and takes up residence in a new “home.”      “Withdrawing” from Nazareth means for Jesus that he is advancing to where he is needed!

Before there is any call to follow, before there is any leaving of the boats, or the father or family, before there is any promise of fishing for people, — there is God repositioning assets for a particular time, at a particular moment, and in a particular location.

Just let that sink in for a moment.

So don’t rush to the “call to follow” part of this story. Consider for a bit what was positioned that made it possible for those disciples to respond to Jesus.

Don’t beat yourself up because you are not like Peter, Andrew, James or John, ready (it appears) to drop everything at the drop of a hat, because likelihood is they weren’t quite like that either.

Those fishermen had a long history of living in the land of “Zebulun and Naphtali” a land acquainted with darkness, and with watching darkness gather once again.

It’s not such a hard thing you see, to drop your nets if there aren’t any fish to be caught!

Jesus comes along and yes, this looks like a risky proposition, following him, but sure beats doing what clearly isn’t working anymore, or doing what the political powers that be demand of you with no rewards.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were being prepared for this particular moment when Jesus positioned himself at the right time, and the right place, for them to be open to finding a new way of life and a new source of hope.

Maybe your time is just now coming.

Maybe the forces at play in this world have all been leading up to this moment where at the invitation to follow Jesus with your own conviction, you are now ready.

Similarly, if you have been following Jesus, don’t puff up and get all cocky because you’ve decided to follow Jesus, as if that were some accomplishment on your part.

“Isn’t Jesus lucky to have us….”

No, before jumping to the call, consider the positioning.  Where had God positioned himself in your life to make that following possible?

More importantly, where is God repositioning himself?

As White middle class Christians we got pretty used to sailing the same waters since the 1950’s.    We built fine, historic buildings, crafted programs to meet the needs of a growing suburb with families just like us moving in.  We acquired properties as we built our ships, literally called our “Naves”, to hold what we believed would be our ever expanding group of passengers just like us.

But the climate changed.

We might even go so far as to say that a bunch of people have even “jumped ship,” no longer willing to ride along as we ply the same waters, doing the same things that worked when the societal climate was so very different.

Is it time we “repositioned?”

We saw significant events this past week, a new President sworn in and an affirmation in the inaugural address of how he sees the country and what he understands his task to be.

We also saw a tidal wave of response to that vision cast, and that direction set.

People are repositioning themselves, are they not?

Some see light in all of this, some see darkness, or gathering clouds.

And without going too deeply into any of that or evaluating where you might be inclined to stand on anything, what is perfectly clear is that we are living in a time when things are being repositioned, and it is statement of faith to say that God is indeed in the midst of all of that.

So, this may be your time, when the call to follow Jesus is suddenly so absolutely clear and you are ready now, to drop the old and follow the new.

Or, this may be for you a time when it is becoming painfully clear that God is moving and you need to pay attention to where God is positioning God’s self, because the boat has indeed sailed and you need to be ready and open to the changes being made as it retools itself.

In either case, welcome to the world of re-positioning, and to the God who appears to be well accustomed to doing such things.