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.

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