Context is Everything

Last week we heard difficult words from Jesus – but reading them without understanding the world in which he lives (i.e., reading them literally) can be really confusing.

Matthew 5:21-37

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Dear beloved of God, grace and peace be yours this day from our gracious God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.

I wonder if you, like me, tend to react to this particular gospel with tension.

You can feel it, right?  Your muscles tighten, you feel your eyes narrowing to “glare” position.  Maybe your fists even clench.

Because this is the type of language that, on the surface, can push us to a “fight or flight” reaction.

And that is why it is an excellent example of the problem of reading Scripture literally.  You’re gonna get into trouble.

The contexts in both the gospel lesson and the lesson from Deuteronomy are vastly different from the one in which we live today, and so if we simply react to it through our 21st-century eyes and lenses, we will miss the underlying concern that God has for God’s people.

That is really the essence of how to engage with God’s Word in a way that opens our minds: ask yourself, “what is God’s underlying concern here?”

Not God as detached, profit-driven CEO who is obsessed with rules; but God as our loving Creator.  Our compassionate Parent.

The phrase that sticks with us from Deuteronomy is “choose life.”  Let’s remove that from any kind of culture-wars association, and look at what the text says.

Life and prosperity, say Moses.  Death and adversity.  Walking in God’s ways, or turning to other idols.

So many times we have heard this in a very legalistic way, as if God is demanding slavish devotion to a set of rules “or else.”  Almost like a behavior trap.  But I don’t think that’s God’s underlying concern at all.  God’s not threatening the Hebrew people any more than I might be threatening my son when I tell him to stop teasing the cat.  I’m not going to punish him if he doesn’t obey me; no, the cat will take care of that!  I say something because I don’t want my son to get hurt by continuing to tease the cat.

This is what we call “the Law.”  Let’s think about this separate from our system of secular statutes and codes, the lower-case l law.  What is the purpose of God’s Law, anyway?

There are three distinct reasons for God’s Law:

First, the Law is intended for our own good.  Second, the Law draws us into community.  And third, the Law orients us toward our neighbor.

To say that the Law is intended for our own good is to say that God’s underlying concern is for our best spiritual, physical, and mental health.  God uses the law to point out destructive behaviors, ways of being that ultimately destroy us.

The Law draws us into community by reminding us that it’s God’s intent that we work together and share with one another.  Thus the whole community is impacted by the destructive behavior of even one person.

But the third aspect of the Law bounces off that second aspect when it orients us towards our neighbor.  We are all in this together.  If we have never even acknowledged the person who is now messing up – if we have allowed them to slip through the cracks and get to a place where they are desperate – then it would be well for us to check the log in our own eye.

When Jesus brings up the fifth commandment “you shall not murder” he takes us beyond the literal meaning of the words.  He reminds us of the ways we can act that “kill” in ways that have nothing to do with a weapon.  And then Jesus takes this even further: be reconciled to the one with whom you have a disagreement before bringing your offering.

Which is to say: God is ultimately more concerned with right relationship, and that God’s people are becoming the beloved community.  That is also a part of stewardship – solid relationships as well as solid financial support.

Jesus’ words about adultery are likewise not meant to be taken literally, but to help us think broader.  It’s about being oriented to the community and to the neighbor.  Notice how Jesus doesn’t blame the woman for the man’s behavior, but wants him to take responsibility for his actions.

His words about divorce have been the source of much pain visited on folks over the years by control-freak religious leaders – but what Jesus is saying here is highly contextual.  Women had no standing in that society.  If a husband divorced his wife for no apparent reason, she would be destitute.  That’s not the way the beloved community behaves.  But notice as well that Jesus makes the exception for unchastity: in other words, everyone is responsible for the consequences of their choices, and needs to consider how their actions will impact others.  The beloved community, says Jesus, rises above the minimum-standard level of statutory law to do the right thing by one another and within the community.

At verse 33, Jesus talks not about particular types of “bad” language, but about swearing an oath to guarantee your own word.  Again, he reminds us that we are called as disciples of the Prince of Peace to go beyond, to be utterly trustworthy.  We shouldn’t need to swear any oath if our word is good.

My dad impressed on me at a young age that your word is like gold.  If you keep your word, if you do what you say you’re going to do, you become trustworthy.  And once trust has been broken, it’s incredibly difficult to earn it back again.

Jesus says “if you are going to do something, then so state – and then DO IT.  If it’s not for you to do, again so state.  But don’t waffle, and whatever you do, DON’T LIE.”

Or to put it another way: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  Don’t traffic in hyperbole.

And that is a foundation made of rock.  I’m always reminded in these lessons of that great film, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” where they bring back an assortment of historical figures via time travel for their history final, and Abraham Lincoln’s parting words to the classes at San Dimas High School are “be excellent to each other.”

Because God’s underlying concern is not merely a concern – it is that side of God’s crazy love for us that wants us to know that we are God’s good creation, beloved and set free.  God desires that the entirety of creation would be drawn into the beloved community.

Eco-theologian Michael Dowd speaks of how the Law in the peaceable realm of God is what is meant to help keep us in right relationship, and is also an accountability to the future.  We are the first generation, he says, for whom “choose life” is a decision that reaches far wider than merely our own personal or even community existence.

To choose life – may be to impact not only our lives, but the viability of the planet.

To choose life might be as simple as making choices that encourage ecosystems that allow bees to thrive.

To choose life might be as complex as working on reconciliation between people who are deeply divided.

“Choose life” is the gospel distilled down to two words.  Because those two words encompass everything else we would say the gospel proclaims: love God, love neighbor, do justice, love kindness, and all the rest.

And none of these words are meant so that we have a handy checklist with which to judge others harshly, but rather so we might look to OUR words and deeds – particularly in light of the needs of those around us, both human and otherwise.

And I don’t know about you, but when I take that look, I find myself wanting.  There’s always so much more in the “should do” column.  And that’s when I need to remind myself that “choose life” is what God through Jesus does for me.

God chose me and continues to choose me, and all of humanity; to walk with us and carry us in the hard times, laugh with us in the good times, and open our eyes to the need that is all around us.  And through it all God continues to forgive my many shortcomings and encourage me to try again.

God chooses life for us.  Let us choose life for all of God’s good creation.

Amen.

#blessed

Because we oberved Presentation of Our Lord on February 2nd, for 5 Epiphany I used a combination of lessons from both 4 & 5 Epiphany.  To consider the salt and light portion, and then return to the “blesseds”, broke this lesson open anew.

Matthew 5:1-20

The Beatitudes

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Dear friends, grace and peace and blessing be yours this day, from God who is love through Jesus.  Amen.

Much to consider today.

Matthew’s gospel follows up the Beatitudes, the “blesseds,” with his exhortation to be salt and light for the world.

These are pictures with which we are familiar in so many ways.  The saying “salt of the earth” – all the images of light we explore in this Epiphany season – and the words we know from our baptismal rite, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

I want to look first today at these ideas of salt and light, and then circle back to the beloved Beatitudes.

Salt is one of the oldest seasonings on earth; a compound that has seemingly limitless uses.  But in our most common encounter, salt as a seasoning always makes its presence known.

It’s an important seasoning in cooking.

It’s a critical activator in recipes that utilize baking powder or soda for leavening.

It’s a preservative, and an enhancer.

A little bit of Google research told me that sodium, one of the elements in salt, is used for much more than just seasoning or road salt.  Salt, or its element sodium, makes things happen.

In ancient Israel, salt was a necessary thing, but it was also a symbol of God’s covenant with Israel.  Jesus has not dissolved that covenant, but rather fulfilled it!  And in that fulfilling he describes all of God’s people as the salt part of that covenant: because we are the salt of the earth, God invests God’s self permanently in this world through us.

And here is where we might get more confused, when Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness.  Any of you with any experience in chemistry will know that salt DOESN’T lose its taste.  And frankly, if it COULD lose its saltiness, it would turn into something else.

Perhaps here is our clue.  If salt loses its saltiness, it’s perhaps straight chlorine.  If a light fails to light, then it’s just, well, broken.

If we lose our saltiness – the essence of what makes us part of God’s plan for the world – then maybe we are ceasing to be disciples of Jesus.  We’re not adding the necessary seasoning to life around us.

If we stop being a light – if we stop shining so that others might see God – then there is more darkness, and less Jesus.

Perhaps you’ve seen a meme floating around the internet lately.  For once, it’s a good one:

Act in such a manner that you are living proof of a loving God.

God keeps that commitment, that covenant, with us every second of every day.  It’s that level of commitment to which the rest of Jesus’ words point: light isn’t meant to be hoarded, but to be shared with all who need its guidance and warmth.

To be salt of the earth is to give seasoning, preservation, and enhancement to the world.  Being mindful of how salt in excess amounts can be bad for us, I think these are meant to be balanced with our being light for the world.  Shining a light on places where justice is absent.  Shining light so that those forgotten can be seen.  Shining light so that our actions are living proof of a loving God.

And the reality of following Jesus, of answering his call to discipleship, is that it’s not an easy path.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer titled his famous book “The Cost of Discipleship” for a reason.  True discipleship, authentic following of Jesus is costly.  Our Beatitudes are a comprehensive list bearing witness to this.

The Beatitudes are also a snapshot of what happens in the kingdom of God.  It is not a kingdom of the world; it’s the world turned upside down.

Because in our society, the poor – or the poor in spirit – are on the margins.

Those who mourn are told “get over it.”

The meek are called names like “wimp” and “chicken.”

Those who work for righteousness find themselves viciously trolled on social media.

The pure in heart are seen as naïve.

The peacemakers are brushed aside as bleeding heart types.

Those who are persecuted because they stood up for what they feel is right, are the victims of harassment and death threats.

This, my friends, is not the kingdom of God – it is the cost of discipleship.  The way of Christ, of following the Prince of Peace, is one that is in direct conflict with the ways of the world.

Maybe you see yourself in one of those categories I just named.  I’ve seen myself there.  Sitting in those places can be painful.

And still God sees you, and hears you, and loves you.  God knows your pain.  God walks alongside you as you travel these rocky roads, because God in Christ has traveled them too.

I came across a great modern version of this famous passage, one that really brings this idea of the Beatitudes as a glimpse of God’s peaceable realm, full circle.  It’s not a translation, but more of a transliteration.

Here come the depressed, they own the future.
Here come the grieving, they will be comforted.
Here come the enslaved, they will have the whole earth.
Here come the ones who are starved of justice,
they will be filled.

Here come the gracious,
they will be shown grace.
Here come the uncorrupted,
they will see God.
Here come the peacemakers,
they will be protected.
Here come the oppressed,
they own the future.
Here you come, you oppressed, you wrongly accused.
Take heart, they did this to your heroes whose ghosts will not die.

(by Matt Valer)

God has not and does not abandon this vision.  We are the salt and light through which God continues to reach toward that day for us, made possible by Jesus’ fulfilling of the law.

The shape of the law is promise, and narrative, and commandment.  This is important to remember: the promises God made, the actions God takes, and the commands God voices are bound up together.  Do we live and teach the commandments, or do we ignore them and teach others the same?

It’s not a matter of moralism, or partisanship either for that matter.  It’s a call to a life of trust in the God who loves us.  Such a life bends toward the life-giving ways God has called us to follow: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Micah sums it up so well.  To not do these things is not simply breaking a rule; it’s not like a minor vehicle code infraction.  It’s denying the promises and action of God – and perpetuating that to others denies their very being as beloved children of a God who promises, liberates, and teaches us how to live towards abundant life for all.

In the last sentence of this lesson, Jesus is not looking to compare or keep score so much as to emphasize that this is all a starting point for righteousness.  The basic outline with which we begin.  The field guide for disciples.

It’s never easy.  The rewards can seem distant.  But there is nothing to compare with the soul’s hunger being filled by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

That is abundant life.   Amen.

Keep the faith

My sermon today used the lessons for Presentation of Our Lord, telling the story of Simeon and Anna in the temple when the infant Jesus is brought for the purification rites of the Jewish faith.  I was struck how they maintain faith and hope in a dark time.  Many years ago, a colleague’s twin daughters were baptized on this day, and I will never forget him carrying them both and remarking how the words “a sword shall pierce your soul” were ringing in his ears; it reminded him to hold this moment close because there would be difficult times too.

Seems to be appropriate for the times we find ourselves in, when hope can seem distant.  Simeon reminds us that God’s promises are real and do not fail.

Luke 2:22-40

22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day, from our good and gracious God through the Son, the light of the world, Jesus.  Amen.

This story is one that has some deep resonance for us, at this juncture in our journey together.

Simeon has watched and waited.  This day, the Spirit has moved him to come to the temple.  Anna has watched and waited, has basically been a temple resident for decades.  Both have waited in patient hope.  And, I would imagine, depressed or despondent hope from time to time.

At the time our gospel lesson opens, they are in the midst of Roman occupation of Israel.  They’ve been around a long time, and maybe their hope is a bit diminished.

I wonder if they’ve gone back to the words of the prophet Malachi that we heard too:

1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Have Anna and Simeon found solace or despair in these words?  These words of promise, and of sobering reform?

Do they hear the words “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears” and say to themselves, “well maybe but I’m gonna give it my best shot”?

So much hope, so much dreaming in these older folks.

Simeon has been told he will live to see the Messiah, and the Spirit guides him to the temple on the day of Jesus’ presentation.  Anna is open to God’s word as she spends all her time in the temple.

Simeon and Anna are both veterans of a difficult time in Israel’s history.  They wait and they hope because that’s all they have left.  How amazing is it that the Spirit gives them discernment to realize that it is this infant, this baby named Jesus, who is the Messiah and the redemption of Jerusalem?

Simeon responds with his canticle of praise.  Anna becomes the first evangelist.

The Holy Spirit moves in Simeon and Anna so that they discern this child before them is God’s promises kept.  God has acted once and for all to address the question of death with the promise of life.

And yet we know this kind of wisdom and truth is not limited by age.

What is God revealing to us?  What kind of hope and dreaming can we summon this day?

What might our eyes see in the distance if we allow ourselves to fully trust in the promises of God, the same God who promised Simeon he would not die until he had seen the Messiah?

The God who, in our psalm today, provides even a home for the sparrow alongside the sacred table of God.

It can be hard, in these times we’re living in, to see down the path towards the future and imagine that it holds blessings and peace.

We might be in a place of deep darkness, wondering if all is lost.  A place that echoes the imagery we heard in Advent.

Anna and Simeon are living in a time so similar to our own, a time that might not seem to hold any hope whatsoever – and yet, they guard near their hearts a spark that might ignite a flame of hope once more.

They seem to me to be living what Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr calls “a non-binary existence” – they refuse to make life an either-or.  Just because it’s hard for them to see God doesn’t mean God’s not there.

And that stubborn refusal to throw in the towel comes to fruition in a baby brought to the temple by an unremarkable, rather poor couple.

Keep in mind, when Simeon announces the Messiah in this passage from Luke he names him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”  Suddenly, Jesus is for ALL the people of the world, not just Israel.  From the very beginning, Jesus’ mission is focused outward.

Jesus hasn’t come to protect the status quo.  To build a wall around Israel.  No, he has come bearing God’s grace and mercy to ALL people.

I can’t help but ponder the so-called “pathway to peace” recently announced, that takes into account only Israel’s desires.  Such a one-way approach doesn’t bear the imprint of Christ.

And it can lead us to the depths of despair.  What is the point? We may ask.  Why bother?

This is where I find Simeon’s words to Mary so interesting: “ a sword will pierce your heart.”

Isn’t that true of every parent?  Certainly Mary’s situation would eventually bear this out – but every parent has had an episode of a sword piercing their heart.

And yet, AND YET – Simeon gives thanks.  Because this life is one of both-ands.  Both the joy, and the sorrow.  Both the rough, and the smooth.  Both the birth, and the death.  Both the difficulties of raising a child, and the moments of deep joy.

Even in the midst of difficulty and oppression all around them, Simeon and Anna give thanks and tell good news.  Because they have seen and held, literally held in their arms, the promise of life granted through Christ, which God grants to us as well.

This is why Simeon’s song is the one that is typically sung as a post-communion canticle.  Because here at this table – in this meal – we also hold this promise of life God makes to us.

We hold this bread in our hands.  We hold the cup, literally or by dipping our bread in the wine.  Our hands become a little manger in which Christ is held, and by which Christ becomes one with us.

Dear friends, it is in times like these that we must hear these promises as much as we can.  So that we might be moved to confident and courageous lives in this world that is so marked by death and destruction, by pain and loss.

We push back against these forces of darkness when we respond to God’s call in our lives.  When we hear those promises again.  When we stand firm and proclaim that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This is why Simeon’s song is often requested for funerals: in the seeming shadow of darkness, we commend ourselves to the God made known through both the manger and the cross, who has promised us eternal life.  All these centuries later, we continue to sing of God’s great love for us that even death cannot destroy.

In all this, we don’t deny the bitterness and the hard reality of daily life.  By no means.  But as Ray Makeever has written, “death be first but never last.”  The forces of darkness do not have the last word.

Every time we come to this table of grace and mercy, we proclaim Jesus’ triumph over the grave.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  As we hold out our hands, we receive in them the body of Christ, our salvation and the light of the world.  We embody and live out a world in which all are welcome and all are fed.

Leonard Cohen wrote, “there’s a crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in.”

In the broken moments of our lives, on the days when nothing seems right and all seems lost, God’s light is a spark, waiting for the wind of the Spirit.  And perhaps both God and the Spirit are waiting for our exhaled breath in the form of a tired and weary sigh to ignite that light, so that it might stream through the cracks of the shattered world around us.

Anna and Simeon remind us to keep the faith.  Keep up hope.  Keep breathing.  Keep living the life to which God has called you.  Remember, to some the cross is foolishness.  A life that keeps up hope, that walks with those forgotten, is foolishness to some.  But to those who are being saved by the light streaming through the cracks, the cross, the reminder of Jesus’ triumph over death, is the power of God.

May we always be bearers of that light.

Amen.