Sunday, January 29, 2017

On the mountaintop... some perspective


Matthew 5: 1-12 and Micah 6:8                                                                                 

This gospel reading from Matthew is often called the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes… a list of those who Jesus describes as unexpectedly “blessed.” In the gospel of Luke, when we heard the Beatitudes last year, Luke describes this same event happening on a level place. In that situation, it seems right to emphasize how through this teaching, Jesus makes himself one with humanity… and especially anyone who is going through tough times. But here in Matthew, this same teaching moment takes place on a mountain, and so this time, it seems right to wonder together why… why a mountain, what’s the meaning then and now, why do we need to get up to a high mountain with Jesus, right here, right now, today?

In Isaiah, during the days of Advent, we hear this “O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid.” (Isaiah 40:9). It’s the same words that some of you might know from Handel’s Messiah.

At Christmastime, we sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a song written as an African-American spiritual song by John Work… dating back to the 1860s, and connecting the angels’ visit to shepherds on a hillside at Jesus’ birth, to the great commission to go and make disciples at the very end of Matthew’s gospel.

Next month, as we end the season of Epiphany, we’ll tell the story of Jesus taking a few disciples up a mountain where they see Jesus speak with prophets, bathed in shimmering light—a celebration day we call the Transfiguration, where they could see clearly that Jesus was actually God’s son, and were commanded again—as at Jesus’ baptism—to listen to him.

And then in the early part of Lent, we’ll go back to that mountaintop experience Jesus had right after his baptism, where Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan… and taken to a high place to view the whole world, the world that Satan was ready to offer Jesus, if Jesus would just bow down and worship him.

So… what do all these mountain-top moments, and this one today—the Sermon on the Mount—have to do with each other? Why does it matter that’s it’s on a mountain? Well, maybe, it’s that there are times in our life where we desperately need a change of perspective.

Because the ways we tell our stories matter. I’m outraged by some of the stories that I read about in the news these days… I’m outraged that the POTUS is working to move forward the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and saying it’s because of drugs (that story is at least as old as I am). I’m outraged that he is telling the story of 9/11/2001 (a story that now is 15 years old) as if people from seven countries participated in that terrorist act. I’m outraged that he went on Christian radio and told people that over the last eight years, the U.S. was only allowing Muslim immigrants in (not Christians) from Syria, when the truth was that we admitted in equal numbers of each.

And then on the other hand, my spirit has been lifted when I’ve read about the witness of Syrian Christians participating in the week of Christian Unity in Jerusalem, continuing their singing even when the power went off—continuing to sing their songs in the dark. I’ve been moved by stories of Christians and Muslims and Jews protecting and reaching out to one another, including their work of welcoming refugees of all faiths. I’ve been moved by testimony from the Isaiah gathering yesterday. Nearly thirty members of Christ gathered yesterday with over 2,000 people at Shiloh Temple in Minneapolis to give prophetic witness and to support Minnesota’s elected leaders in doing good. In fact, there were so many people there when I arrived that several of us from Christ couldn’t get in the door! (Imagine that… now, that’s a gathering!), and people are gathering and protesting and donating all over the U.S. and beyond, showing with their voices, their feet, their presence, and their dollars what they value.

When I worked with the first African American president of an ELCA seminary in Chicago and sat on his cabinet, he asked us to read this book -
Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Chapter 3 is called “Get on the Balcony.”

In this chapter, they describe how often in our work and life, we are like dancers on a dance floor. We focus on our dance partner(s) and trying not to run into the other dancers and the music swirling around us.  But, if we could get up into the balcony and look down at the whole room, we’d have a different perspective. We would see who all is dancing and who is not. We’d see patterns from above that we couldn’t see from the floor.

Heifetz and Linsky point out that, “The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. . .  and then, if you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor. So you need to be both among the dancers and up on the balcony. That’s where the magic is, going back and forth between the two, using one to leverage the other.

And that is why in preparation for this week’s congregational meeting, we took some time last week to think over the last year—what we have loved… what has been difficult… what we want to do the same and differently… and I appreciated deeply your responses to those questions. If anyone didn’t get a chance to do that questionnaire last week, I would still appreciate reading your responses.

We need times when we individually and as a congregation, look at the big picture together as a time for gratitude, reflection, strategy, and visioning. We need some time on the mountain now, in a time when in our daily lives, it may feel like chaos, a too-fast swirling dance. When we are hurting and we are tired, when we are outraged and we are protesting, when we are trying to be vigilant and we are afraid, when we are sick and filled with grief. This is not our whole story… but for many of us, this is where we are right now.

This month, in the February newsletter, I wrote about love and anger. If you didn’t have a chance to read that, check it out. I think that Jesus speaks the Beatitudes into the middle of us today with that same combination of emotions—anger at the places where God’s values are violated, and love… deep, embracing care for everyone who is going through the worst right now.

Listen… take in these words, they are words of life for this time, for now. Breathe in each blessing; breathe out each promise. See who comes to your mind, what prayers rise up…

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.

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

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

How do we live our lives in a time that needs radical reconciliation and social change? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started his list of “Ten Commandments for Cultural Change” with this practice, “Meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus.” This was a practice he followed in his daily life. His life and faith was very much lived in public, but it was solidly grounded with mountain (or balcony) perspective… he spoke to God and opened himself to listening for God’s voice, so he could access the bigger picture, and those practices sustained him through tremendous difficulties.

Today, the way we tell our stories matter… and today, we have the opportunity to meet with Jesus and listen to Jesus’ words and take them with us… allowing them to sink in so that our identity can be ever more deeply grounded in the God who values the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, those hungry for justice and peace…  God promises to transform lives and circumstances but before we can even see that transformation, God gives an epiphany, an awakening… already you are blessed, before you even knew it, by God who is bringing a new world into being.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come and you will see


John 1:35-42                                                                               

What do you want?

What are you looking for?

What are you doing?

John, who has just baptized Jesus… recognizes that God’s Spirit is with him and sends his own followers now to follow Jesus. Jesus turns around and there they are… and this is what he asks would-be followers—What do you want?

They don’t really know. We don’t really know. What are we looking for as we come together on a Sunday morning? Healing? Wisdom? A word of hope in a bitter cold and challenging month? Something that satisfies? We can’t exactly put it into words, so like those first followers, we ask our own questions…

Where are you staying, Jesus?

Where are you going? Can you take us with you?

Today, it sounds a little like… could we go to Canada together?

And Jesus invites them, in response to their question about where he’s at… Come and see.

Come… and you will see.

It’s not an invitation to escape. It’s an invitation to deeper engagement.

This is a moment in our national life where many, many people are anxious, worried, concerned about the future…probably for good reason. It’s the month (January) when people who suffer from depression tend to be most depressed. It’s cold. It’s dark. A few of you love winter… others are just trying to endure. Through our news we know, it’s a time when people are so divided about what to do and how to move forward that we belittle our opponents, then struggle with our allies about who has the most right path forward.

And I wonder if it’s comforting to know that we are not alone?

Five hundred years ago, in another moment of re-formation, there were terrible abuses of the whole population going on. Fear-mongering, telling people they would be punished or rewarded, telling people they could buy their way out of their fearful situations… and into that time of great upheaval came the voices of reformers. Sometimes, reformers said to pick up a sword and fight. Other reformers martyred themselves. Here’s what our namesake, Martin Luther did… mostly, he wrote and wrote and wrote. It’s not as flashy a picture of Luther as the 95 theses nailed to a door, not as dramatic as appearing before the religious authorities and refusing to recant his writings. After the high drama, Luther hid (for years) and translated the Bible to get it in ordinary people’s hands because he was convinced that making God’s word accessible to people was the most transformative and powerful thing he could do. And then when the Bible still wasn’t accessible to ordinary people, he devoted most of the rest of his life to teaching and table talks… deliberating together about what it means that Jesus looks at us and asks us, “What are you seeking?” and stays with us, and invites us to follow, saying… “Come, and you will see.”

This week, a book on the Holocaust came home from the school library. It’s not a new story for me, but I opened the cover and got sucked in. Here’s what I read, “At the start of the twentieth century, Europeans had new opportunities that their ancestors could only have dreamed of. However, such dreams faded as war and economic hardship created fear and suffering. The destruction and instability enabled extreme parties… to take control. A new wave of racism evolved that challenged our deepest beliefs in human nature. The book describes in detail embittered people eager to blame others for their defeat, destabilization of the government, leaders who stirred up public anger and chaos. Increased powers at the top level of government, political opponents rounded up and arrested, and persecution and death of 6 million Jews and 5 million others, including Christians who spoke out against the atrocities. And at the same time, in a whole variety of ways, a whole variety of people sheltered and hid and helped people escape. Most did their work in utter secrecy because discovery meant the end of their lives, the end of their work. In 2005, the United Nations made January 27th an International Holocaust Remembrance Day (the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp in 1945).

Fifty years ago, in the United States, at another incredibly turbulent time, Martin Luther’s  namesake… the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King prayed and preached, studied and wrote, sat in jail and marched in the streets because the deep grounding of his faith compelled him to engage in the best ways he knew how to do… and he, too, gave his life. Today is the 88th anniversary of his birth, and we are all invited to commemorate his life and faithful witness at Luther Seminary tomorrow.

When I look back at this history—500 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago—and see the diverse ways that people managed to remain human and care for others in terrifying times… I can only think of Jesus’ invitation. “Come, and you will see.” And see, here’s the thing I believe most deeply, when I can access God’s gift of faith, through my own array of doubts and fears… Jesus doesn’t simply invite us to go into the future on our own. Jesus, who stays with us, goes with us. Jesus didn’t come into the world to show that he was better than us. Jesus came to be with us, to be one of us.

Some of you have been to the exhibit at the MIA, Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation, and if you have been, you cannot have missed the outfit that doctors wore when they visited patients throughout the Plague. The doctors were covered with a scary looking suit with a big mask with a long beaklike nose… in the display, it said something like this. People were almost as afraid of the doctor coming as they were of the plague. People lost half their family. There was no one untouched by this horrific disease. And here’s what Luther said in response. “I cannot tel if the plague will allow me to finish [translating] the Epistle to the Galatians. Rapid and sudeen, it is making great ravages, especially among the young. You advise me to fly. Whither shall I fly? My place is here. Obedience will not permit my flight, till God who has called me recalls me. Not that I do not fear death (for I am not the apostle Paul, I am only his commentator), but I hope that the Lord will deliver me from fear.”[1]   

In this suffering community, Jesus is painted this way… not as the perfect Lamb but as the one who came to get the plague.

One of the lies we are told these days is that this is power: the one with control of the microphones at the press conference, the loudest bully, the one who says all who challenge him are liars, the one who can make the stock market rise and fall at his whim, the one who can give the biggest and best party, the one with the tallest, finest towers. However, as we look back through history, we can see that the way that Jesus has stayed with us, the way Jesus has loved, and how Jesus has been powerful has always been very different from that.

Jesus shows up as the DA in the courtroom, on the streets, with the dying, among the poor, with the grieving, and yes, in little gatherings like this one… around a bowl of water and a taste of bread and sip of a cup… Jesus shows up as we try to figure out what we are seeking by reading the Bible and listening intently for God’s words for today. Jesus stays with us as we pray, “Oh God, where are you? Who are you really? Can we walk with you?” Jesus continues with us, inviting us to move forward with unusual, counter-cultural hope and confidence… not based in naïve trust or blindness to what’s happening around us… but in deep trust in God’s Holy Spirit who has been all of these places and will never leave us, and will never stop giving people the ability to do good in the face of evil.

That’s why King could preach about the promised land on the eve of his death… that’s why so many people sheltered and helped people escape during the Holocaust… that’s why Luther put the Bible into our hands and prayed for courage and love to replace fear. Who knows what we will be called to do this year, and in the coming years, but Jesus invites us, “Come, and you will see.”

In times like this, a prayer that comes to mind is one that I said daily for a year …

“Lord God, you call your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet not traveled, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

[1] Author Tim Ehring, editor, MIA,, November 9, 2016