Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Get Up and Don't be Afraid!"

Matthew 17:1-9

I always feel inadequate when it comes time to preach on the Transfiguration every year. I expect that's because the experience of Peter, James and John on that mountaintop with Jesus is so far afield from anything I have ever known.  Looking back, it seems that most of what I have offered were just shadowy approximations of what those first witnesses saw and felt and heard.

And yet, if there is one thing harder than trying to preach on this, it would be trying to offer a meaningful children's sermon on this familiar yet elusive story.  As I recall, one time, many years ago, I borrowed the idea of carrying in a suitcase full of white clothing.  We talked about what it would be to be 'transfigured' and we opened the suitcase and all the children draped themselves in that white clothing.  It was cumbersome in the extreme.  And no, I really didn't have the sense that it got the point across, even though Matthew's version here tells us that in that moment Jesus' clothing became dazzling white.'  For the 'dazzling white' didn't necessarily come from the outside --- as in something Jesus put on --- but was something which emanated from within him.  The 'brightness' of that moment on the mountain was simply a reflection of the holiness, the divinity of Jesus which simply transfigured him in a way that others could see it.  Those children and I?  We were still just 'us' --- only now our clothing was white!

No, it has to come from inside, it seems to me. 

I got a small sense of the meaning of this a couple of weeks ago when I was standing in line to check out some groceries.  A very tired looking young mom stood in front of me.  Two elementary age girls were dancing around the cart and sitting in the cart above them was a little boy who was no more than four years old.  He was holding up a soon to be purchased pair of shoes which were clearly just his size.  And he was announcing to everyone within earshot that with those shoes he would be able to run faster than ever.  We all smiled to hear his hopeful confidence even while we knew those $3.99 shoes probably wouldn't make that much of a difference. And yet, it is so that we have seen that same way of thinking play out in the recent Olympic Games. You may recall that our speed skaters were insistent that their lack of success was the result of their new uniforms.  (While it is so that when fractions of seconds count, the aerodynamics of one's suit may affect the final outcome, it turns out that at least in this case, the outfit was not to blame!)  In either case, what we can be certain of, though, is that if one is not already a runner, one's shoes will not be likely to make one run faster.  If one cannot already skate like the wind, the suit one wears is not going to make that much of a difference.  In a similar way, in the case of the story before us now the dazzling white clothing is simply a reflection of what already is in Jesus, now blindingly evident to others. 

And nothing you and I can do will likely even begin to approximate that in this life now.

Which is probably why Peter and James and John find themselves face first on the ground trembling in fear.  For when I say I have experienced nothing like what they saw and heard and felt on that mountaintop, we can be pretty certain that before that moment they would have said the same. 

And yet, Jesus does not leave them there face down on that mountaintop.  Indeed, as I understand it, when Jesus tells them to 'get up' he is using the same words he also used in raising the dead.  No, Jesus does not leave them there 'dead' in their terror and their confusion.  For while they may find themselves in the midst of something unlike anything they have ever seen before.  They may be so afraid that they are as paralyzed as though they were in fact, dead. And yet, Jesus does not leave them there.  He tells them to get up and to leave their fear behind.

Fear of what I wonder.  Fear of the unknown?  Fear of the incomprehensible power of God?  Fear of their own inadequacy in the glare of that overpowering bright light?  I wonder what fear it was that Jesus was telling them to leave behind them on that mountaintop.  And I wonder what fear he would have us abandon, too, as we pick ourselves up --- even having realized that what we see now --- even from this great distance ---- we may never likely see again.  At least not this side of heaven.

I always feel inadequate when called upon to preach the Transfiguration.  And maybe that is the point.  Maybe we human proclaimers of this amazing story will always stand in awe --- or if we are fully aware of what is before us now -- face down on the ground trembling in fear.  But even to us Jesus says to get up and leave the fear behind.  Even to us, I expect Jesus is saying to stand up and dare to speak of it anyway. We may not get it quite right --- but even our meager attempts to point to the majesty and wonder of Jesus as we witness it in this story now may be more than anything the world has seen in a while ---  or maybe even ever.

  • How do you understand the 'Transfiguration of Jesus?'  What must it have been like for Peter and James and John to witness this?
  • What does it mean when Jesus tells the disciples to 'get up?'  What did such 'resurrection' mean for them?  For you?
  • What do you think was Jesus telling those disciples to not be afraid of?  What fear are you called to leave behind?      

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Being Perfect

Matthew 5:38-48

I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was six years old and about to enter the first grade.  Now remember this was back when kindergarten was half-days and was more about snacks and play time and naps than academic advancement.  And yes, it was before the days of 'Sesame Street' where little ones learn long before entering a classroom.  Still, I had gotten it into my head that I should know more than I did and a few days before the first day of school, I turned to my dad and confessed my fear, "How could I possibly go to first grade?  I don't know how to count to one hundred!!!"  I remember he laughed.  And then he said, "But, Janet, that's WHY you GO to school.  You go there to learn."  By then it was too late: I had no choice but to take his word for it.  Even so, I was none too comfortable going not yet knowing.  I wanted 'perfection' before I had earned it.

Fast forward some fifteen years. I was a senior in college and had many years of classroom learning behind me now.  After three years as a student at a small college in Iowa I had gained a reputation for being a hard worker and a good student.  And I would guess by then I was, in fact, skating by on what I had already done.  

Here's how it was.  I had put off fulfilling my English requirement until almost the last possible minute.  (Looking back, I have to say I'm not really sure why.)  It turns out, once I got into it, I thought I was doing fine.  And then I turned in my first paper.
My instructor asked to meet with me privately.  She sat down across from me, handed me my paper which was marked in red, page after page.  There was a "B" at the top.  And then she said, "This is 'A' work, but you can do better, so I'm giving you a B."  She went on to tell me that in spite of my excellent grades, I had gotten lazy and was coasting on my reputation. If I actually expected to go to graduate school, I was going to have to do a whole lot better.  (Ouch!)  'Perfection' was not yet mine after all.

These are the sorts of stories that always come to mind when I hear that one jarring verse at the end of this week's reading in Matthew.  "Be perfect," Jesus says now. "Be perfect like God is perfect."  I think of these for they point to that desire for perfection that lives in me as well as my seeming inability to ever really achieve it. 

Yes, these are the moments I remember even though in one way, the 'perfect' Jesus speaks of now is nothing like the 'perfect' of a six year old knowing how to count before she should reasonably expect to.  On the other hand?  Maybe it is just like that... for we can only expect to achieve the goal Jesus points to now with hard work.

And no, the 'perfect' Jesus speaks of now is not something as easily measurable as using the proper form and grammar in a college English paper--- although I would say this 'perfect' does hold something in common with meeting us where we are and then raising the bar -- setting aside what we have already done and not being measured by the standard others alongside us have set.

As we listen to his words today, it seems to me that the 'perfect' Jesus speaks of now is the perfection attained in the rough and tumble of life itself.  Where we may be beaten and robbed in any number of ways and where we have lived long enough and fully enough to make some enemies.  This 'perfect,' it seems, is ours to attain only after we have been bruised and bruised others or worse.  This 'perfect' is achieved when we give more than what is asked for and when we love even in the face of hate. It is not something that is done in any one way: unlike counting to one hundred.  And it is something that can always be done better --- like my old teacher pointed out to me so long ago.  And it is something I'm not certain I'll ever get quite right for the goal of being 'like God' is, no doubt, always just beyond my reach. 

So I offer an example now. This afternoon I had made a couple of communion calls and then stopped to visit with a family about a funeral we will share together in later this week.  I was circling around the block, finally heading for home and I noticed an older couple out trying to dig their car out of a snow bank.  I looked again, and realized I knew them, so backed up my car and climbed out, offering to help.  Edythe and Perry are both over 80 and neither one of them should be wielding a snow shovel.  I took the shovel from Edythe and began to dig around the back tire of the car until we got it clear.  Perry climbed back into the driver's seat and put the car in reverse.  I stood at the front of the car and pushed until he cleared the snow bank.  Then he took off on his errand and I stood in the bright February sunshine to visit with Edythe a while longer.  It was nothing, really, nothing at all like the examples Jesus offers now and it was really just a few moments out of a busy day.  Still, I knew it was the kind thing to do and I was glad I did.  Only there was this.  The whole time we were working at this together?  I was calling Edythe 'Helen.'  I'm glad she finally corrected me as I would have been mortified later to realize my mistake, but even at that, I was still embarrassed.  "Perfect?'  Oh it is so that even when I think I am doing right and good, I am far from 'perfect.'  Still, that's no reason to quit trying.

For it is so that in spite of my faltering efforts, perhaps I am still on the journey towards 'perfect.'   It's hard to say for sure as the goal is elusive and sometimes seems to be ever shifting and I know too well that I often come up so very short.  In the meantime, all I really know to do is to get out in the middle of it all and just keep trying.  Oh yes, I know by now that I won't be able to count to one hundred the first time.  And I'm still working on perfect grammar and punctuation.  And for certain when it comes to living in this world now sometimes I'll be more generous than I'm asked to be and sometimes I won't and sometimes I'll love in the face of hate and often I'll find it hard to do so and even when I'm doing 'good' I'll probably still not quite get it right.... liking calling a dear 80 year old by the wrong name.  Not just once, but over and over.

Jesus holds before us now God's perfect standard of love.  How humbling and important that is when I think, somehow, I've already arrived there and have nothing left to learn --- like a certain 21 year old in her first college English class.  And what a gift it is to be reminded that this is something we can only learn by trying. And yes, by trying again. Like learning to count to one hundred when you're six.  And as in all things, we probably won't get it right the first time.  In fact, perhaps the 'perfection'  we are to aim for is partly achieved in our willingness to get out there and try.  What do you think?

  • What do you think Jesus means when he says we are to 'be perfect' as God is perfect? 
  • How does one 'love perfectly?'  Have you ever experienced or witnessed it?  What examples would you give?
  • What would it mean in your life to give more than what is asked of you and to love and pray for your enemies?  What does it mean to you to get out there in the middle of it all and keep trying?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Choosing Life

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

I approach this piece of Moses's sermon today with joy and with trepidation, with deep certainty and with profound questions all at the same time.

For on the one hand, we know that it is so. Our choices do matter. They shape our every day. On the other hand?  Well, I know that so very much has already been chosen for me. For by virtue of my place of birth and opportunity, some choices were never really mine to make in the first place. Even more than that? I am of the particular theological persuasion that when it comes to the largest questions of my existence, in this life and in the next, God made the choice for me in baptism.  I belong to God. Nothing I choose or do not choose will ever change that. 

And yet I also know that every moment of every day I have choices to make.Will I heed my alarm clock at 4:45 am and go to my early morning workout or will I snuggle down under the blankets and enjoy just a little more sleep? Will I continue to mindlessly eat the box of chocolate covered peanuts and almonds that some very kind friends gave me last week, or will I set it aside for another day --- or better yet share it with others? Will I spend an extra ten minutes hearing the story of the man who is sitting in my office needing a place to finish out his court ordered community service or will I send him on his way? Will I pause to pray before I jump headlong into my day or will I move ahead as though it all rests on me? Will I put away my smart phone long enough to see the person standing in front of me --- or behind me in line at the grocery store --- or serving me at the cash register? And these are the easy choices. 

No, indeed, most of the choices I am called upon to make in the day-to-day really do not seem like they are so much about 'choosing life,' do they? Or do they?  For no, they may not be 'life and death' choices', but they are choices which lean towards life or death.  If you think about it, every one of them is.  And perhaps they prepare us for the day when the choice we are offered will be monumental and life-altering:

  • That day, for instance, when it will be yours to choose between staying in a marriage or a job that is not about life, but about death. When you venture out not knowing what this new life will hold but knowing that the old one was surely not right.
  • That day when you will need to dig deep to find the courage to speak the truth, even knowing the consequences for you may be less than desirable. 
  • That day when you will sit at the bedside of a dear one and know that it rests with you to decide what life will look like for him and for you both --- and whether or not you trust the promised life yet to come.
  • That day when we are called to choose between the comfort of what we now know and the terror of what is yet unknowable. 

They are all hard choices then.  And so it is helpful that Moses's sermon in Deuteronomy frames it in such away that he reminds us that all of our choices really do come down to one choice. Will I love God or won't I? Will my choices in how I live reflect that love or won't it?

We are told the stakes are high. We also know that Moses's listeners so long ago did not heed his urging. In fact, we understand that the form we hear his sermon in now was first heard by a people in exile who understood themselves as being punished for having failed to listen to these very words.  We also know that, in spite of themselves, later God made a way for them to come home.

We do hear today, however, that our choices matter:  at least they do in this time now, today.  We know that as people who follow the Living God, who believe in the Resurrected Christ, that we are those who are called to choose life.  Sometimes I'll get it right.  Often I won't. Either way, every day the gift and the privilege and the yes, the challenge, is to sort out what life looks like and to try to choose it. And then to entrust it all back to God whom we love and who chose to love us first. 

  • When you hear the words 'choose life,' what comes to mind for you?  What does it mean to choose life?
  • Do these words from Deuteronomy fill you with certainty or with questions or with both?
  • How do our smaller day-to-day choices reflect or impact the larger choices we make?
  • What difference does it make if we believe God chose us first?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

You are the Salt of the Earth

Matthew 5:13-20

"You are the salt of the earth..."  (Matthew 5:13)

I spent a good part of this past snowy Saturday morning reading about salt.

One would not think there would be so much to learn about salt, but apparently there is.  In fact, it seems that one can write a whole history of the world just by tracing what has happened with salt.  People have done so.  (If you have the time check out Salt: A World History by Mark Kulansky)

Indeed, wars have been won and lost on the basis of who has control of the stores of salt.

Governments have found salt to be a lucrative means of raising money -- by controlling and taxing it.

At different points in history, salt has been the currency of commerce. The word 'salary' has its Latin roots in the sense that the worker was paid in order to be able to 'buy salt.'

Evidently, until a hundred years ago, salt was scarce.  And in the time of Jesus and long before that and ever since, salt was necessary for the preservation of food. Having it or not having it was the difference between life and death.

Besides flavoring our food, I am told salt has thousands of other purposes.  It softens my water, melts the ice on my sidewalk, and when gargled with can soothe a sore throat, to name just a few.

Nowadays, salt is cheap. Except when you can't get your hands on it.  In the days before Christmas we were hit with ice and cold and salt was not to be found.  We were grateful to have extra folks on hand to walk people to their cars on Christmas Eve --- to keep the faithful from slipping and falling. 

Yesterday I heard that the town I call home will only be salting main thoroughfares and dangerous intersections. It's been an especially tough winter and we are running out of salt.  Oh, there is an abundance of salt --- only what is still out there is stuck on barges which are frozen in the Mississippi River. 

Indeed, the metaphor Jesus offers now means more to me knowing all of this in this place and time where much of the time the availability of salt is never in question.  This would not have been the case when Jesus preached so long ago.  And so it matters that Jesus says to those who were listening then and to those who listen still: "You are the salt of the earth." 

In other words, you are of great value.  And just think of all the varied ways the gift you are and the gifts you offer impact the world.  And so far as I can tell, in spite of Jesus' assertion today, salt never actually loses its taste.  Salt is only 'useless' when it is not used.

"You are the salt of the earth."  These words are meant for you and for me.  And by getting the salt out of the shaker, out of the bag, off the barge, salt simply does what salt does.  It preserves and brings healing and provides safety and offers just enough flavor.

And it all starts with being reminded that this is who and what you are and this is what you are for.

I offer a couple of examples now.  Ones close to my heart.  It seems to me that both are examples of 'being salt' and of 'naming the salt' in others.  And they cost next to nothing --- a couple of first class stamps and a little time.  And a lot of love.

On the anniversary of my dad's death a couple of weeks ago, my sister Martha scanned a couple of letters and sent them on to my mother and sisters and me.  I laughed and cried at the same time to read them and to remember.

The first was a letter that was written to my dad.  I remembered it when I read it again.  In December of 1989 he began correspondence with a police officer in Chicago.  He had read about her heroism in breaking wide open a ring of corruption in the Department... putting her life at risk. (You can find the article here.)  I never saw the letter he sent her, but here are some excerpts from her reply:

"My Dear Mr. Hunt,

You simply can't imagine how much I appreciate receiving your letter.  It came at a time in my life when I truly needed something to uplift my spirits....   You said in your letter that I have courage and strength.  I don't know if I have those attributes, but I do have a concept that police officers are not above the law.  ... My husband and I have suffered a great deal because of my stand on corruption, but when I see how proud he is of me and when I receive letters such as yours, I know that I did what was right and I have no regrets.  God bless you for having the courage and initiative to write to me and let me know that someone cared.  Thank you very much, Cynthia A. White."

I don't know if Officer White ever fully accepted the truth that she was a person of courage and strength, but it had to make a difference that someone else recognized it and named it. 

You are salt.  You are a person of principle and integrity.  You are courageous.  You are strong. Being told it is so may just be the beginning of it being so -- or of it continuing to be so, don't you think?  

"You are the salt of the earth."

And there was this, too.  Another letter he had sent to Martha in his usual rambling, humorous style. The part that broke me up though was the fact that as an afterthought or maybe as a last thought, he had penned on the outside of the envelope flap:  "When I look at you 4 girls, I am amazed at what a couple of "C" students can produce."  It is pictured above.

Now as far as my folks' academic achievements, my mother would say to this day that he should speak for himself.  And yet I laughed and cried to read the words I had heard him utter a thousand times --- words which spoke of his humility and pride all in the same breath.  Words which point to love and words which have, in fact, given me something to live up to.  Words which more than twenty years after he took the time to write them down still stir me up and urge me on.

"You are the salt of the earth."

Jesus says these words to you today.  You are of great value.  Who and what you are and all that you give to the world makes the world a better, richer place.  All you have to do is get out of the shaker, out of the bag, off the barge and be and do what you were made to be and do.

"You are the salt of the earth."  Believe it.
  • Perhaps it is so that to be called 'salt of the earth'  meant more in the time of Jesus than it does today.  Can you think of another metaphor which would speak better today?
  • Why do you think Jesus calls us 'salt?'  How is this a good metaphor for us?  What examples can you think of where we are 'salt?'
  • What difference does it make to you to be called something of such value?