Monday, February 27, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 17:1-9

When she entered her tent for the evening, or as the Rabbis like to call it, her "tabernacle," she carried in a lot of uncertainty.

It was the festival of tabernacles, and like others in her Jewish community, she had chosen to give up her comfy apartment for a few days to eat and sleep within her tent and seek guidance from the Lord.

That is the way it was with her ancestors thousands of years ago. As the Israelite people wandered in the wilderness, they lived in tents and trusted that the Lord would guide them to the promised land, and give them food in the form of quail or manna from heaven.

So, she too joined with her ancestors during a time of uncertainty in life and chose to live in a tent. Exposed to the elements, she trusted in the Lord to guide her and feed her some spiritual food.

In the tent, she looked around at her belongings. There was a table with a few chairs for her friends. They joined her later that evening to eat and pray. There was a simple cot and pillow for sleeping. In the corner there was a stack of books and the Torah for inspiration.

Then, dumped in the middle of the floor, there were all of those uncertainties in life. Laying there was the stress of being forced to change careers. That was a scary prospect.

Her aging mother struggled with health. The young Jewish woman did not know what to do about that. It was not like she was all that well established in life herself.

Then there was John. She had no idea where that relationship was going to go, or if it should go anywhere.

Added on top of that pile were more general, but still very real, political and global warming concerns.

She had plenty of concerns, but no direction in life. Her old way of life had to change, but she had no idea what her new life would look like.

But, that is the purpose of the tent, the "tabernacle." You enter into the tent during your wilderness wandering, and wait for God to guide you in the right ways. You hand over your concerns and listen for some answers from God.

Tabernacles are for times of uncertainty and transition. They are for times when you are at the crossroads of either living the familiar life, or taking life in a new direction. For her, the Festival of Tabernacles seemed to come at just the right time.

With this festival connection to the past ingrained within the hearts of the Israelite people, it is no wonder that Peter offers to set up tabernacles on that mysterious day of transfiguration up on the mountain.

In a similar way to the young Jewish woman, things are on the cusp of change in Peter’s life. Jesus’ ministry is starting to get them all in trouble with the authorities. He has been told that he has little faith and needs to change. He has been told that his ways are Satanic and that he must take his life in a completely new direction…he must follow Jesus. In other words, he has to let go of his old, well known comfortable ways of life, and venture into a life that is new and unknown.

For Peter, it is a time for tabernacles. It is a time to set up tents for everyone, enter into them for awhile, and wait to see where God is leading.

Little did Peter know, his tabernacle was already constructed that day on the mountain. The Lord provided the clouds as fabric and Moses and Elijah as friends to join the conversation at the table.

Peter did not have to wait for days for God to give him direction through some mysterious way such as inspiration in reading a book, or a brief vision of the future during prayer. Instead, he clearly saw the truth of Jesus’ divine connection as God transfigured Jesus in a dazzling display of white and light. And, he was given instruction directly from God the Father above and from Jesus who touched him and helped him up from the ground.

The instructions provided to Peter are ones that could guide the woman in her own tabernacle experience as she searches for a way toward an uncertain future. The instructions could guide any of us as we stand at the crossroads, wondering if we should stay the course in life, traveling an old and familiar path, or take a drastic right turn and venture down a new and uncertain path.

I am pretty certain that I am not the only one who feels as I am standing at a crossroads. Actually, I know that I am not.

Life has dumped so many of us in situations where the ways of the past are insufficient, but we have no idea what else to do.

Some of us are trying to live life without someone who was important to our daily lives.

Others of us are staring at another one of those major life transitions: graduations; new homes; new careers; a life without a career; being caretakers for parents; learning to be a parent or grandparent in general.

I think it would be fair to say that all of this leaves us saying, “I have no idea where any of this is going!”

Even the Christian Church in general is in this spot as we try to figure out how to minister in a new way in a new day with new people. We know that we need to let go of the past, but it is a scary thing to do when we are uncertain of the way ahead.

So, here are three phrases echoing from that transfiguration mountain to guide us.

“Listen to him.”
“Be raised up.”
“Do not be afraid.”

The first is, “Listen to him.” We do not know what the future holds, but we do know who the author of the future is. Jesus is the author of life, and our new life is no exception. Listen to Jesus.

Take your uncertainties to the gospels, and read what Jesus does and hear what Jesus says. Read about love of neighbor and love of enemy. How does that set forth a pathway for your new life? Read about Jesus’ care for the poor and forgiveness of the sinner. How does that answer some of your questions?

God’s voice booms from the heavens and instructs, “Listen to him.” I think that is a hint to us as we sit in our tabernacles of uncertainty.

“Be raised up.” Know that you are not alone in all of this uncertainty. It can seem lonely, I know. Uncertainty can seem overwhelming. I know that too. It can seem as if you are on the ground and you have no way to get up.

But, we are not a people of death. We are not a people who continue to lay down in pits of death. No, we are a people who have been raised to new life in Jesus Christ. And, Jesus reaches out to us saying, “Be raised up.”

You, my friends, have been raised from the ground. You may not know where you are walking, but at least you know with whom you are walking. Jesus raises us up and walks with us to ways of new life.

Last, but definitely not least of all the instructions: “Do not be afraid.”

The future is always clouded, and it would be easier to stick with what we know. It is easy to stick with what seems certain. It is easy because there is no fear in what is known. However, if the old ways are not life-giving, then it is a new way that must be undertaken.

Therefore, “Do not be afraid.” Remember, Jesus is walking with you. Though you do not know where Jesus is leading, never forget that it is, in fact, Jesus who is doing the leading. Jesus only leads to places of eternal life and love. “Do not be afraid.”

“Listen to him.”
“Be raised up.”
“Do not be afraid.”

I know, these are not words that give you the future in a clear sort of vision. But, they are words that promise Jesus to you.

“Listen to him.”
“Be raised up.”
“Do not be afraid.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 5:21-37

I have some good news, and I have some bad news. Just like the old joke:

Doctor: I have some good news and I have some bad news.
Patient: What's the good news?
Doctor: The good news is that the tests you took showed that you have 24 hours to live.
Patient: That's the good news? What's the bad news?
Doctor: Yeah that: I forgot to call you yesterday!

OK, so here it goes. Let us start with the bad news first. Have you have ever stared at your bosses back, or perhaps your teacher’s back, and muttered, “Idiot!”?

Have you have ever called any of your siblings a “dork”?

Have you ever spoken the words, “Did you hear what Jimmy said yesterday…what a complete moron!”?

If you have done any of the above, or something similar, you deserve the same fires of hell reserved for murderers.

This is just the start of this reflection, and I think that most of us are in the bad news camp already.

How about this? Have you ever looked at a woman and thought, “Wow, the good Lord was in a good mood when He created her!”?

Have you stared at a picture of Ryan Gosling just a little too long…longer than your husband would be comfortable with?

If you are young at heart, did you ever swoon over a poster of Elvis when you were young?

Well, there is a hellish flame that has your name written all over it, along with all the other adulterers in the land.

Have you discarded a spouse through divorce and remarried another person?

Perhaps, worse yet, have you ever swore that you would have the work done by Friday, “I swear, I will have it done,” and you did not?

Well then, you deserve to go down the tubes to the hot furnaces as well. None of us are safe.

One of my pivotal faith moments happened in fifth grade during vacation bible school. We had taken a class trip across the parking lot of the church, over into the cemetery, in order to learn about heaven and the promise of eternal life.

Somehow, the class developed into a conversation about who deserves to go to heaven and who does not. Hitler came to mind as a “not.” Good old Hitler, you can always trust him to win an argument…Hitler and murderers. Yes, even in fifth grade, we resorted to the Hitler argument.

“I cannot see how Hitler or other murderers can possibly deserve to go to heaven,” I announced definitively.

And, with that trump card I had won the debate. The Hitler card always wins the debate…so I thought.

My teacher responded quietly, “I happen to know that you got in trouble for calling your brother names yesterday. I heard it while standing behind you in the grocery store.”

“And…is there a point here?”

“Jesus says clearly, that talking badly about your brother is as bad as murder. So, I’m wondering, should you be allowed to go to heaven?”

I do not know if the teacher saw my face or not, but this realization shook me to the core. At age eleven I realized that my mind, at least some of the time, might be no better than Hitler’s. I too could act out of anger and hatred.

Then who deserves to have a new creation? Who deserves to live with God forever? This question lingered in my mind for days.

This is where the good news comes in. I promised at the start that there was some bad news and some good news. What I have for you is the good news of Jesus Christ. Though no one deserves to live with God forever, and no one deserves to be made new because we are all sinners, through Christ’s death on the cross and by his resurrection we have gained what we do not deserve: a new life and an adoption into a holy family. We have gained eternal life with God.

And, to underscore that fact, Jesus prefaces this entire discussion by telling us that those who break the law will be least in the kingdom, and those who keep the law will be great in the kingdom.

If you read closely you hear a subtle truth: that whether you keep God’s law or break it you are still a part of God’s kingdom. So, you may deserve the fires below, but you need not fear, God holds you close and will not let you slip.

If we are safe, then what about the rules of which Jesus spoke? Do we simply throw them away? Of course not! That is absurd. Not one letter of the law passes away.

Actually, the rules that Jesus lays out are not about you or your salvation. They are about your neighbor. They are about loving your brothers and sisters. They are about keeping God’s family healthy. They are a set of “house rules” that help to keep peace and joy in the family.

These are the house rules hanging in our home in fine needlepoint:

Always be honest
Count your blessings
Bear each other’s burdens
Forgive and forget
Be kind and tender hearted
Comfort one another
Keep your promises
Be supportive of one another
Be true to each other
Look after each other
Treat each other like you treat your friends
Love one another deeply from the heart
And, of course we added a few of our own that were not in this country d├ęcor version:

Don’t lie
Don’t hit
Don’t steal
Don’t lie (I know we already listed this, but we really do not like lying.)
Do your chores (No one likes stepping on Shopkins late at night.)

Our children are not sent to the death squad if they break these rules. And, house rules are not about any family member feeling like he or she needs to become great person.

Jesus’ laws are not about you or your greatness. They are about those around you. If you follow these rules, those around you will be loved and will not be hurt by you. God does not want any of God’s children to hurt one another. Jesus’ “house rules” are about good relationships. God desires a family at peace with one another.

Jesus cares so much about fixing our relationships with one another that Jesus would prefer that we go and fix our broken relationships with people than come to church. That is what Matthew 5:23-24 says, “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.”

In other words, skip church and go make things right with your neighbor first. Church is important, but mending broken relationship is much more important. I cannot understate how essential our relationships are to God. Making things right with your “former” friend is just as important as not murdering them.

If that is the case, then let us do something about it right here and right now. I am going to close this reflection with a word of prayer, but I am going to ask you to do two things during this prayer.

First, I will ask you to bring to mind a relationship for which you are extremely thankful…someone who builds you up when you are down and brings the best out of you.

Second, I will ask you to bring to mind a relationship that has suffered damage and needs to be repaired.

This prayer and what you do with it in the coming days are extremely important to God. Do not take this lightly, Jesus does not.

Gracious God, we are so thankful for the relationships that you give us. We are thankful for those special people who make us healthy and whole. We now take a moment of silence to share with you why a particular person is so special to us. (Silence) We give you thanks for these precious brothers and sisters.

Now, we lift to you a relationship that is broken. In this moment of silence, give us a clear vision of how you intend to restore this person to us. (Silence)

Gracious God, give us a firm foundation in your love that never casts us away, and guide us in the ways that uplift others with love, just you lift us up through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 5:13-20

There is one thing you are not. You are not the religious encyclopedia of the world. Right? You do not just memorize the words of Jesus and sit comfortably closed on the shelf for the rest of your life. No!

“You are the salt of the earth.” You take Jesus’ words that offer blessings to the poor in spirit and seek justice for the meek and sprinkle them on a bland world that does not care. The world may not care, but you do. And, you do something about it!

There is one thing you are not. You are not the dust bunny of the world. You do not collect Jesus’ words of love for your neighbor and allow them to become a hairy ball, hidden away in dark corners behind shoes and totes of summer clothes.

You say to me, “Pastor, how is it that you know so much about dust bunnies?” And, I say to you, “I don’t really have a vacuum that can reach…Forget it; you are getting me distracted.” As I was saying, you are not the dust bunny of the world that hides in the dark! No!

“You are the light of the world.” A city built on a hill cannot help but shine light into the dark valleys below. Neighbors who find themselves in the darkness are going to be touched by your light, because light does not hide, it shines.

God created you to be someone who shines God’s love onto others.

No one decides to light up the room and then hides the candle under a basket. That is just absurd.

In the same way, God does not light you up with grace and a desire for justice just to stuff you away under a bed where you cannot shine. That is ridiculous!

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

If it is true that we are salt and light, why does Jesus even need to take time to remind us?

Ever thought of asking that?

Is it because, for some inexplicable reason, when Jesus came to earth he discovered, to his surprise, that the salt had ceased to provide taste and the light was inexplicably hiding under baskets? In other words, he saw his people being ordinary, and he created them to be extraordinary!

Why? Why does it happen? Why do the extraordinary become ordinary?

Maybe, it is because we do not actually believe that we are salt and light. Maybe, we really believe…deep down in our core…that we are the Mrs. Dash of the world. We say we are like salt, but really we act like dried out, barely tasting herbs.

Do not look at me like that; you know that Mrs. Dash just does not cut it.

You do not turn to the Food Network and see the chefs there using generous amounts of freshly crushed, kosher Mrs. Dash. The finest chefs of New York do not lean over to you and tell you that the secret to the life of their dishes is the Mrs. Dash.

Jesus wants you to be more. Jesus needs you to be the salt!

Now, the Pharisees know the law of God in and out. They know what is right and what is wrong. They know what the Lord requires. And, that is all well and good. They know that all the law and the prophets boil down to these two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

There is nothing wrong with God’s law here. Not one letter of it needs to be struck. But, there is a problem that does remain: though we know in our heads that we are the salt and the light of God’s love, we act with our hands and feet like the unused Scrabble game of the world.

Our letters do not form into words and our words do not form into actions because they are high up on a shelf in the basement somewhere.

You are more than that! You are salt and light.

You are more than a Pharisee or Scribe who knows that God’s kingdom is about love and justice, but may not do anything about it. You are to be love and justice!

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the famous martyred theologian of World War II, was incensed when he saw that many Christians of the German nation seemed to be happy to be lights hidden under bushel baskets in the face of horrible acts against the Jewish people on the part of the German government.

It is not enough to know what is right and wrong. It is not enough to know that God and neighbor are to be loved.

In the face of Christian inaction he said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

In other words, salt that has lost its taste gets thrown away because it is good for nothing. Salt is to be salty, and light is intended to be put up high where it can reach the darkest places.

“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” is not simply a nice needlepoint project to be hung on the wall of your home. Love is an action. Love changes lives.

Theologian Karoline Lewis in her commentary for February 5th, 2017 brings the message home when she states, “It is knowledge without action that perpetuates existence of racism in our world. It is knowledge without action that contributes to our silence about sexism. It is knowledge without action that continues to oppress the poor, to ostracize the marginalized, to overlook the hungry.”

You, my friends, are not the lost crumbs under the table of the whole world. You are not nuggets of food that could taste good, but get stuck under people’s feet instead. You are not that.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

You were bought with a price. The price of God’s own Son was not too much to pay for your life.

If that is true, you are free to act as if your life was saved for a purpose, because it was.

You are the salt of the earth who make God’s love and mercy for all people real through your acts of love.

You are the light of the world that shines truth into dark places.

You will not be hidden under a basket when the face of evil desires to do wrong to the neighbor. You will shine into the dark and dissipate the evil that resides there because that is who you were created to be.

In the waters of baptism, your old self that acted as the dusty encyclopedia of the world, or the hidden dust bunny of the world, or the Mrs. Dash of the world, or the unused Scrabble game of the world, or the lost table crumbs of the world, is put to death.

Out of the waters, Jesus raises you to a new life of salt and light. Yes, it is true that Jesus is the light of the world, but because you have been raised with him, and you now reside in his body, you also are the light of the world!

So hear me one last time as I call out: Be the salt of justice for your neighbor. Be the light of love for those around. Be who you were created to be. Your Godly actions make real the kingdom of heaven in your neighbors' lives.