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Monday, February 17, 2014

Nursing a Legacy of Love

Matthew 5:21-37 ~ February 16, 2014
We’ve all heard them. Pithy sayings and Proverbs like “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Or, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but the one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Or my personal favorite, “It is the fool who does not control his anger.” And yet, let’s face it. We all get angry sometimes. Our spouse doesn’t listen to us, or our kids don’t obey us; our friend disappoints us, or our co-worker or boss abuses us, and we get angry. The world just doesn’t understand us, the bullies around us thrive on our suffering, injustices occur to us and around us each and every day, and we get angry. We get dangerously cut off in traffic by that so-and-so jerk in the flashy little sports car, and we start fuming. Sometimes, it seems that selfishness and lack of consideration are rampant, and there exists a deplorable lack of ethics and morality all around us. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and We. Get. Angry. It’s just natural, right?

Then we hear words like these spoken by Jesus and it feels like Jesus is pointing his finger right at us, saying that anger is just wrong, wrong, wrong, and since we know ourselves well enough to know that it is impossible to shut off the anger switch, we just shut down. We stop listening. Because you know what? It’s just too hard, Jesus. Sometimes, I do get angry, and I can’t help it. I cannot not be angry sometimes. I know that it is impossible for me to keep from getting angry in some situations, with some people, at certain times.
For instance, if you want to see me angry, just let me see someone disadvantage or abuse a child, the elderly or an animal, or anyone who is smaller, weaker, more vulnerable than themselves. Want to see me angry? Exhibit hatred, prejudice and racism, and claim that you are doing it in the name of Christ. If you want to see me really angry, catch me when I’m tired and overwhelmed with work and then attack someone or something I love, disparage someone I care about, or defame a cause close to my heart, spewing ignorance and calling it fact.
And yet, even though anger is often perceived as a negative emotion, and many believe that a good Christian simply doesn’t get angry or show anger, ever, we know that anger is sometimes useful and even healthy. Psychologists will tell you that while we often view anger as a “bad” emotion, it can motivate us in positive ways. For instance, it can motivate us to improve a bad situation, or address an injustice, or assert our rights and needs. Anger can sometimes help focus our attention on something that really needs to be changed. Properly channeled, anger can actually stimulate the part of our brain that leads to creativity and problem solving. Most of us may remember that Jesus sometimes displayed anger, most notably when he overturned the money-handlers tables in the temple and called them out for their un-godly behaviors.
So then, what does it mean when Jesus equates anger with murder? For that is what Jesus seems to be doing this first of what scholars call Jesus’ “six antitheses”? – these statements that begin, “You have heard it said,….” followed by a common teaching, and then the words, “But I say to you”….. followed by a new teaching or explanation. What Jesus says is, “You have heard that it was said …, ‘You shall not murder’; and whoever murders is liable to judgment.’ “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment,” and so on.
Our second year Confirmation students can tell you that the sin of killing doesn’t just refer to someone taking an ax or a gun and physically assaulting another until they are dead, rather, the commandment not to kill includes a prohibition against doing anything to ruin or damage another’s personhood, reputation, or relationship within the community. These things are not only hurtful to the person upon whom they are heaped but also destructive to the life of community.
Let’s remember that in this long discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount that began with the beatitudes, Jesus is addressing the disciples and those who are following him, teaching them the way of discipleship. Jesus has already told these followers that in the kingdom of heaven, where God rules, and into which all are invited, the status quo has been reversed. There is a new way of living interconnected lives as disciples in community that lives God’s justice and righteousness. In this kingdom, lives are transformed, hearts are made pure, and love is measured and treasured as never before. What you do and what you say matters not only to the individuals involved but to the community at large and by extension, to the very kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said, those who follow him and belong to God, are salt and light. We are valuable, and we add flavor and meaning to the community of the followers of the Son of Man. And here, in today’s text we get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom looks like. Previously, Jesus has said that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. And within the framework of the antitheses, Jesus is re-teaching the fundamental truths of what that means. Jesus is not giving us a new set of laws, as the gospel of Matthew points out, rather, Jesus is teaching and showing the intention of the law as God established it, especially as it pertains to living and working together. Jesus wants his followers to be people of integrity, people of honor and people of love.
The kingdom of heaven is not entered lightly. The kingdom of heaven makes its demands. The kingdom of heaven, in fact, demands radical discipleship, discipleship that shapes our behaviors, our thoughts, and our words. Belonging to this kingdom and doing this kingdom work requires that every thought and action is transformed by, guided by, and indeed is ruled by God’s reign and God’s Word.
And so, in this Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is teaching the Jesus-followers of every time and place what it means to be a community shaped by God’s righteousness and God’s love, we receive a lesson on how we should treat one another, how we should let God’s love and God’s command to love guide our pathways. We hear illustrations by Jesus of just how important relationships and life within the community of Jesus-followers really is. At the forefront of this message is the overarching theme that being blessed in community frees us from nursing anger.
When Jesus refers to those who “are angry” he is talking about continuing, unresolved, simmering anger. He is talking about the kind of anger that occurs when grudges are held onto, hurts and disagreements are harbored, where heels are dug in and insults, gossip and name-calling damage the communal spirit. The destruction caused by this kind of rupture in relationship is so devastating, that Jesus gives an extreme example of how it should be addressed.
So here it is: Imagine that you have just traveled all the way from home to the temple at Jerusalem, a distance that takes you several days to travel, in order to make your sacrifice, a sacred obligation to God. So in our context, imagine that our temple is located in California. We each have a holy duty to take ourselves there and bring God an offering to be presented there and only there. Since suggesting you would fly from home here in Easton, Maryland to California would be anachronistic, let’s just say you’ll drive. It’s going to take you a week. But once you arrive, as you stand at the altar prepared to offer your gift, you remember a grievance between you and a sister or brother within here at Grace, back in Easton.
God considers it is so important that you heal that rift that Jesus says, leave the gift. Set it down. Do not present it as sacrifice just yet, it is not the more important thing to do at this point. Instead, go back, and reconcile that ruptured relationship. Then you may return; then and only then should you give your gift to God. To do any less than this has repercussions throughout the community. To do anything less is an assault on the community and on the kingdom of God. Close communities need to maintain social order and harmony to exist, says Barbara Lundblad. In all matters of conflict and disharmony, Jesus bids us to avoid seeking revenge, from bearing grudges, or from nursing an anger that eats away at the fabric of community and the mission God. Disharmony in the faith community makes an appalling witness to the larger society.
Jim Wallis in his book The Call to Conversion” makes this connection: “When I was a university student, I was unsuccessfully evangelized by almost every Christian group on campus. My basic response to their preaching was, “How can I believe when I look at the way the church lives?” They answered, “Don’t look at the church—look at Jesus.”
Wallis continues, “I now believe that statement is one of the saddest in the history of the church. It puts Jesus on a pedestal apart from the people who name his name…Such thinking is a denial of what is most basic to the gospel: incarnation.”
There is no getting around it, my friends. God’s grace, bestowed on us at baptism sets us apart as Jesus followers. And that means something. The Spirit of God rests within each and every one of us, and that Spirit directs our activity through the giving of gifts, and the establishment of community, the blessing of ministry and relationship with God and with one another. Christ went to the cross for our sake, and in the crucifixion draws us all to himself in loving forgiveness of sin and restoration of the broken. As workers in the kingdom of God, sharing God’s goodness and mercy, embracing grace as a way of life, God blesses us to harbor not hate but love, not resentment but generosity, not grudges, but the life-giving love of God.
Let us pray:
O compassionate God, you have mercifully absorbed the worst of human anger and rage in the crucifixion of Jesus. Free us daily from any contempt we might harbor towards others, and help us to risk taking steps of reconciliation towards those with whom we feel at odds. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Salt Shakers and Burning Lamps

        I found it interesting that these images of salt and light come to us out of the gospel today. Just this week many in our region were starkly reminded of the value and necessity of both of these elements in our world.
About the time that I began seriously contemplating the words of these texts, I was also reading headlines from the newspaper like, “Salt Stores Diminished,” and “Predicted Storm May Pack a Wallop, While Salt Supplies Dwindle.” Salt, this precious commodity, has been both bane and blessing for many of us recently. It was just a little over a week ago that I think I must have washed half of the Eastern Shore’s annual supply of salt off my car. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience lately, because it seems as though we’ve been surrounded by SALT these past few weeks. Salt on the roads, salt on our cars, salt being tracked through this building and our homes, salt sprinkled on sidewalks. A nutrient I usually like to simply enjoy in my food has become a valuable source of protection against snow and ice.
And so, as evidenced by the anxiety with which these dire predictions of a looming salt shortage were made this week, and the fact that winter may not yet done with us, this image of salt struck a certain chord this week.
If you’ve been placed on a salt-free diet or had salt inadvertently left out of your recipe, then you have another reason to acknowledge that salt is something we really don’t want to be without. Salt by itself is, well, just salt. But salt added to food brings out its flavors. Salt used as a preservative keeps meat and other foods from spoiling.
Yet, this element has held a different kind of meaning and power throughout history, particularly in Jesus’ time.
Mined out of the earth, the ancient SALT industry could make empires rich, as they rationed and taxed it. Control of salt stores could determine which side was victorious in war, and, at different points in history, salt has been the currency of commerce. In Jesus’ day, (as it is still today in some parts of the world), salt was necessary for the preservation of food—having it or not made the difference between life and death. While in the recent decades our society has over-dosed on sodium and many of us are now on low-sodium diets, both then and now, SALT is an essential ingredient of life, present in every cell of our bodies, and useful in so many ways.
And yet salt on its own is, as Cardinal Suhard once wrote, hopeless, unhandy, unmanageable, and inedible. “You can’t do anything with salt alone; in a time of famine, you cannot eat it; in a time of drought, you can’t drink it; it only would make things worse. Salt alone is no good; it makes the field unfertile, it kills life, it preserves death, it is heavy and useless. It becomes useful only when it is used as Jesus indicates in the text today, mixed up with other things, and he explains as well how we should mixed up. We are not salt, we are the salt of the earth, we should be mixed up with the reality around us.”
That other image named in our text, light, is another element whose value we can especially appreciate this week – especially when, amidst yet another winter storm and frigid temperatures over a million people throughout this region lost power. Last night over one hundred thousand of them spent their fourth night in the cold and dark last night, due to power outages from the storm. For many, no power meant no light, no heat, no plumbing. For utility crews, downed trees and wires brought urgency to the dangerous work that has kept them out working in miserable conditions for long days and nights, trying to restore electricity to customers throughout the region whose homes and lives are endangered by the loss of power and resultant lack of light.

So, while we might be focused on the issues of power and what it means to be without it, what does it mean when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world”?
In both cases in our text today, Jesus uses the plural “you” in this continuation of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount which we began last week. These words from the Gospel of Matthew beckon to us, they call and commission us as a community of Jesus’ disciples. The Sermon on the Mount comes from a section in Matthew’s gospel that serves as a sort of training manual for those who follow Jesus; through these words, we learn more about the ways of discipleship. And so, by use of the second person plural, Jesus is telling us that together, “Ya’ll are the salt of the earth. Ya’ll are the light of the world.” It is the value and promise of the community of disciples that is being lifted up.
These are words spoken not simply to individuals living on the fringe, but specifically addressed to a community shaped in identity and mission for the sake of Jesus Christ, through God’s gift of grace.
Last week we read the verses just before these, known as the beatitudes. You might remember that in those verses, blessings were declared upon the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and so on. By God’s blessing, saltiness and light - are already theirs by God’s grace. Despite the hostility of your world, you all are salt, you all are light.
And so I ask you, are you feeling particularly salty this morning? Is your light shining brightly? Jesus tells us, You are light, meant to shine, not to be hidden under a bushel, but meant to be seen by others.
Let us remember what salt and light meant to the people of Jesus’ time. Salt and light were both precious commodities; both sustain life, neither can be produced easily on one’s own, they are gifts of creation that require careful ingenuity to access and conserve, and they make all the difference for life.
In first century Palestine, the image of light was pregnant with meaning. Just think of how many times, especially in the past weeks, we have noted the images of light and life in our scriptures. Isaiah promised the “great light” that would shine in the darkness. And now Jesus is using these elements, salt and light – essential, life-sustaining elements, to convey something of extreme value to the people who surround him, those who are listening to his teaching.
Light in the Body of Christ is created and shared when God’s work is done and God’s love is shared. The Holy Spirit of God gives and sustains that light, by God’s grace. The light is meant to shine. It is meant to be seen through the words and deeds of Christ’s disciples, meant to be seen and witnessed in community. The words of verse 16 are spoken within the baptismal rite as one member of the community shares the light of Christ with the newest member of the Body of Christ: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.” I wonder if we shouldn’t change the way we say these words, to reflect the communal aspect of this light – it is borne I community; as children of God and members of the Body of Christ, we are never alone in shining or casting this light.
You, people of Grace Lutheran Church, are salt and light. Through the cross of Christ, you have been made valuable, you are precious, you are powerful. And, like salt and light, you exist for the good of others. Like salt and like light, you are meant to be intermixed and intermingled with the world—you weren’t created to work alone, or to exist for your own well-being. Combined with other elements, salt preserves, adds flavor, melts, cleans, stabilizes…makes a difference. Combined with other elements, light illumines what was hidden, makes visible the unseen. But here’s the thing: Jesus says, right here and right now, you are salt, and you are light. And, yes, there are of course many ways you are still becoming the salt and light Jesus desires for you to be, but there are also many ways you are already salting and lighting our world. I see you, salt and light, being what you were created to be, when you gather on Sunday morning: sharing caring conversations with one another, reaching out to those going through tough times, offering words of welcome to those who are here for the first time, sharing tithes and offerings to support the ministry God is doing in and through this congregation.
As the Body of Christ, as community working together as salt and light, I see you providing meals for the lonely, providing clothing and essentials for migrant workers, offering the use of this building for groups from the community around us who need a place to meet, contributing to the Souper Bowl of Caring, providing meals and gifts for our poorer brothers and sisters in Easton during the holidays.
But here’s the really remarkable thing about salt and light: neither are controlled very well. You start shaking that salt shaker, and the salt particles land where they will, often ending up everywhere. Road salt melts the ice then clings to your car, your shoes, the floor, anywhere you don’t want it to be. A single candle lit on a dark night can be seen 30 miles away. No, salt and light are not easily contained…but, sometimes, that can be a very good thing.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. May it be so. Amen.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Blessed Are You

Matthew 5:1-12

I have moved around a bit in my life, and with each move, with each new situation and context, I have met new people, developed new relationships, and ultimately, formed new friendships. It’s not always an easy thing to do; for one thing, it takes time. It takes risking a certain amount of vulnerability all over again. I am an introvert, and as such, I am sometimes challenged to reach out and put myself out there, to connect in a deep and meaningful way with someone new. I wonder if it’s any different for you. Connection doesn’t happen instantaneously. You can’t force it. Friendships and relationships are organic. They grow and change and morph and as they do, there may be surprises – many of them (let’s hope most of them) delightful, along the way.
I wonder if you can think back to a time when you met someone new? How did the relationship come about? It’s likely you spent time with this person, that you listened to what they had to say, that you learned something about their story and as you did, you came to understand what was important to them, which in turn told you even more about who they were as a person. When you first met them, you probably exchanged the basic information; name, rank and serial number – or something like that, right? But as you became more familiar with one another, your understanding of the other deepened, broadened, and became more meaningful.
So it is with our relationship with God, now revealed through Jesus Christ. Led by the Spirit of God, this relationship also grows as we spend time with God, in the Word and in prayer.  We listen to what is important to God, and now, through the incarnation of God in Jesus, as we learn who and what Jesus values, we become more in touch with God’s subversive love come to fruition in the kingdom of heaven. As we come to know Jesus better, we also come to know about this kingdom of God that sets a new frame of reference for what blessedness is and what being blessed means.
We’ve been doing a lot of getting acquainted with God and God’s ways in the time since our we were introduced to Jesus at Christmas. In the past few weeks, guided by scriptures appointed for each week, we have moved from Jesus’ baptism to the early days of his ministry including the calling of Jesus’ first disciples and his early teaching, preaching and healing ministry. This movement now takes us to the Sermon on the Mount, and a picture of Jesus has begun to take shape. Like a flower that begins as a tightly closed bud and then gradually opens to reveal layers of intricately patterned blossom, we begin to see more and more clearly this Jesus of Nazareth, this God incarnate, and the new way of life he proclaims. Through Jesus’ ministry and teaching, God is revealed. In the ways this kingdom works, the way this household is run, in its values and priorities, God is made known.
In the gospel of Matthew up to this point, Jesus has been unveiling a new reality which he identifies as the “kingdom of heaven”, a kingdom of God that is packed with layers and textures that are frequently surprising, often unexpected, and destined to turn the status quo on its proverbial head.
“Kingdom of heaven” is a phrase that we will hear over and over again throughout the gospel of Matthew. Already, in the verses before these, Jesus has introduced us to it, as Jesus has called those who wish to follow him into discipleship. Discipleship is created as we come to know Jesus better through these texts, and we are introduced to a re-ordering of reality that was initiated with the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven at the coming of Christ. Discipleship is deepened as our relationship is deepened, as we come to know Jesus more fully, and introduce him to others as well.
The text from Gospel of Matthew that we read today opens a discourse by Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount. We’ll become familiar with Jesus’ teaching through this discourse in the next couple of weeks, but for today, we are reminded of these introductory words, sometimes called the “blessed bes”, otherwise known as the beatitudes. While these beatitudes may read like a laundry list of those who are blessed, it is a scripture passage that reminds us that God’s economy is not like our economy. Being “blessed” does not depend on health, wealth, status or happiness, as we define happiness. It doesn’t depend on self-satisfaction and is not measured by levels of success or power. It is not reward for a job well done or for being correct, or for fulfilling all righteousness or duty.
Blessedness, instead, is a gift. It comes to us as grace. To the people for whom these words were originally spoken and recorded, the reign of God, preached to a largely Jewish audience of peasants who were oppressed by the Roman system of taxes and tributes and suffering under the demands of the tithes and offerings demanded by the Jerusalem temple, they are words of balm for the desperate ones who live on the edge: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven!”
Mary Hinkle Shore writes: “The word of grace is that blessings as Jesus describes them here are a surprising glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. They are a statement of a world turned upside down. They include those who mourn; those ones are comforted. They include those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they are satisfied, not ignored, ridiculed or further burdened, where the meek inherit the earth rather than being ground into the dust.”
But, while that good balmy news may in fact be great news for some, it may be troubling news for others. As Scott Tunseth, General Editor of Fortress Press points out “Being poor of spirit may sound pitiful to those puffed up by their own knowledge. Being merciful might sound horribly weak to those bent of revenge. But for those who mourn, the promise of God’s comfort is an oasis of peace. For those who are pure of heart, God will surely be near.”
The beatitudes concern not just the way these words make us feel emotionally, though we may feel a deep emotional response inside; neither do they simply highlight personal qualities of those whom we may call “blessed”. Rather, the Beatitudes function to reveal God’s favor for certain human conditions, for particular human actions, and situations. Regardless of where we find ourselves, we are assured that God will act – in hopelessness and suffering, through pain and turmoil, and God’s reign will find ultimate satisfaction in the lifting up of every single one of the afflicted, and raising them to new heights.
Yet, I think there are two things we need to note about these beatitudes. The first is that while they apply to the “ones” who are poor in spirit, or mourn, or are in dire straights, they also call disciples of Christ into community and into action, where we are both blessing and blessed for one another. As we traverse the landscape of Matthew’s gospel this year, we will find that a prime objective of Matthew’s is to call up disciples of Christ. Discipleship for Matthew is found in community. It is the same today and these words can help us to define the community response to the kingdom of God as revealed through the life and ministry of Christ and those he initially invited to follow.
This revelation of God’s life is an invitation that calls for a response. By following Jesus into God’s abundant life, we will conform to the way this kingdom works, its values and priorities. We are born and reborn into new relationship with God, each other and creation. Jesus invites us: we respond. Always first, the invitation; always, the blessing; always, God reaching out acting first; always, God creating ways of new life, always, where and how we least expect it. Always!
Kingdom life is a responsive life, always seeking, always moving. Discipleship leads to community and the beatitudes call us to a hope filled community focused on God, blessed to seek connectedness through relationship to God and to one another, and embracing what God promises for the future.
Theologian James Bailey writes, “the cumulative effect of the beatitudes puts divine imprint on the community – how the community understands itself and views what God values and whom God honors.”
How poetic! What a beautiful way to describe the way that God is revealed here at Grace and anywhere God’s work is done. We bear the divine imprint as the body of Christ, community alive for the kingdom of heaven!
Henri Nouwen puts it another way:
“I am increasingly aware of how much we fearful, anxious, insecure human beings are in need of a blessing. Children need to be blessed by their parents and parents by their children. We all need each other’s blessings masters and disciples, rabbis and students, bishops and priests, doctors and patients.”
“I must tell you that claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others. The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing.”
It is a wonderful reminder on a day when we raise up God’s grace that blesses us through the radical nature of the kingdom of heaven, as we welcome into the Body of Christ our new sister through baptism, Lisa Buescher. We are reminded that God’s promise is for grace upon grace upon grace, as gift that is governed by the promise of God’s abundant life. As both blessing and blessed, may we each, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, understand that all human beings are blessed by God and worthy of our love and care.
In closing I would like to remind us how Micah instructs us in bearing the divine imprint in our first scripture reading today: “He has told you, O mortal what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?”