Sunday, February 19, 2017

One day... when glory comes

Matthew 5:38-48 

Here’s where this season began—with a birth, a star, and a baptism. It began with Jesus calling disciples to follow, one by one. And then the followers listening to Jesus grew and became crowds. Now, for a whole month of weeks, we’ve been sitting with Jesus on a mountain, listening, as Jesus teaches us about identity. Identity that begins this way—you are blessed, you who least think you are. Yes, that’s right. You who are poor. You who mourn. You who are wrongfully accused. Yes, that’s right. You.

Next Jesus says, “You are salt. You can’t be anything else. You are light. Shine brightly. Don’t fear, even when everything around you looks fearful… love boldly.”

And then, Jesus’ teaching goes even deeper. Don’t just obey the law. “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, honor God’s name.” Go further, get deeper… there is not one of us who hasn’t somehow adapted to the empire culture we live in, and it’s time to be transformed to the core… realizing that not one person is beyond the reaches of God’s love and grace.

That’s where we’ve been… and now, this week, we hear the “closer” to this deep and life-changing message about the way of Jesus. If you would be perfect (teleos: complete, whole, finished), if you want to begin to glimpse God’s love that has no end, here’s the route:

Turn the other cheek. Give those who demand something from you more than they ask for. Go two miles. Don’t just be a benefactor to one or two people, give to everyone in need. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

My first instinct is to take these words of Jesus too literally, misunderstanding them. For a long time in churches, these words were preached in a way that encouraged passivity. I feel horrified when I imagine too many abused women going home with these words in their heads to face more abuse. For too long, these words were preached to vulnerable people pushed to give in ways that don’t seem right long-term… and we don’t want to preach these words anymore in ways that make us incapable of practicing powerful love because we’re so demoralized.

What we forgot is that Jesus stood with the vulnerable, over and over again… and so we have to find a different way to understand these words. Yes, they are asking for a total change in the way we do things… but how?

Walter Wink, who has written extensively about non-violent resistance, has something to say in response to this. He looks carefully at the culture that surrounded these examples and dives in, unpacking each scene. Each one of these commands of Jesus is actually not a refusal to set boundaries but the opposite. In quick summary, each of these actions would have drawn attention to the fact that what the aggressor was doing was unjust. Turning a cheek, giving more than was customary, going beyond a mile… all of these would have been a powerful act in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ day (and in some cases, cultures like that today). It’s just the opposite of giving in to oppression; it’s a powerful stance of resistance.

It reminds me of what I’ve heard about the women’s movement in Liberia, a time when the women came together in their desperation to find an end to violence and used sustained non-violent action to call the men running the government to account, to end the second civil war, and bring about the election of the first woman president in Liberia. Day after day, Liberian women actively loved their enemies enough to believe that they could change. Leymah Gbowee, describes it this way, “Charles Taylor had said no one would embarrass him, so we would do just that–in an action so dramatic and public it would make the demands of Liberia’s women impossible to ignore.” Day after day, they sat out along the road in the blazing sun or the pouring rain… until finally, their demands were heard and met.

In 1961, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with the national gathering of Luther League (the National Youth Gathering of its day), and this is what he told those Lutheran youth, “Now is the time to practice “agape” (God-like love in the face of rejection) and to become “proudly maladjusted” toward a society that permits injustice.

Maybe there is no time when this invitation is not needed—to practice God-like love in the face of rejection and to become more aware of and uncomfortable with injustice. And as we become aware, then the next challenge is to talk with others about it.

Late in his short life, King wrote these challenging words, “And some of us who have already begun to break the silence… have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see the show Nina Simone: Four Women. It’s the story how in 1963, Nina Simone went from being an artist to being an artist-activist. After the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers, she began to write music with lyrics. Her people were dying, fighting in the streets for their rights, and her old music didn’t reflect that struggle. In the play, we listen deeply to her struggle to put her anger, suffering, and need for change now into words, in dialog with three other Black women.

It was powerful to listen deeply to four Black women for two hours. One brilliant way the playwright drew attention to this was through a 5th character, a male pianist who accompanied much of the singing. He never spoke a word. Several times, the characters asked, “Does he speak?” And each time, the answer was “no.” And it only occurred to me afterward how powerful this was… to listen, uninterrupted, to some of the least listened to voices, those who often bear the most discomfort in the room, all kinds of rooms (both in 1963 and now).

As people who listen and speak and teach, as people called to follow in the way of Jesus, it seems especially important to say the words, “You’re already in.” There’s no one past the reaches of God’s love and grace. There’s no one who is not needed in this work. If we believe we’re held in God, can we speak honestly about our uncertainties about how to live faithfully in this time? And then, can we acknowledge how our choices and actions lead to life and death? People who are not even in the room get hurt by our action and inaction. People who are not even in the room are healed and blessed by the transformation that God is bringing about in this place.

Here is what one of my colleagues noticed this week. “The radical things about Jesus is not saying that he’s God, but saying that you are children of God. Over and over, Jesus is handing this work to you.”

Loving enemies? It’s another practice in a long list of invitations from Jesus that seems as first glance, impossible… but maybe it is possible to try, to fail, to try again… to practice.

The beginning of God’s story is a good creation, and the end of God’s story will be good. We can rely on those visions, that long arc. But in between, we struggle. Because we’re in the middle of the story, the struggle part of the story, the work’s not going to be easy—to love not only our diverse and beautiful neighbors but… enemies? God help us!—but we can try to be bold in practicing, to find ways to love (and yet still challenge) those whose actions we deplore.

We’ve been with Jesus for weeks in the Sermon on the Mount, and next week, we’ll end the season of Epiphany on another high mountain. There, we’ll glimpse Jesus in glory. In anticipation I’ll share this blessing from Jan Richardson:

When Glory
That when glory comes, we will open our eyes to see it.
That when glory shows up, we will let ourselves be overcome not by fear but by the love it bears.
That when glory shines, we will bring it back with us all the way, all the way, all the way down.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A seed... grows

Matthew 5:21-37

It begins with the tiniest seed, but it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, a tree sheltering all kinds of birds. That’s the parable image of the kingdom of God that we read last Wednesday night in Confirmation. We were talking about the kingdom of God and Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms. So, how do we understand the kingdom of God? Well, it’s already here. But also, it’s not here fully… we glimpse it. It’s coming more fully. God’s work in the world, Luther explained, can be understood in two realms. The kingdom of the left is the civil authorities. Its purpose is to provide law, justice, and peace for all. We need it because people don’t live together in perfect harmony. We need some rules. It’s power is temporary though. Rulers come and go. The kingdom of the right is the church. It is full of grace, love, and mercy for all without condition. When motivated by God’s way, the vision is that people don’t need laws to make them do the right thing because they do it before it’s demanded. It’s eternal… but we can sometimes see glimpses of it now…

This “two kingdoms” theory of God’s activity is not the same as the principle of the separation of church and state. According to Luther, the civil and the church realm are not two mutually exclusive realms. Both coexist at the same time. We participate in both… God is present and interested in both. And unlike how this doctrine was mis-used during the years of the Nazi regime, a time when some Lutherans argued that we must obey civil authority even when it is wrong, our Confirmation booklet was very clear that Luther’s original teaching was that if civil authorities do not fulfill their role of providing justice and peace, that’s when we—people of both kingdoms—must speak and act.

So… then one student raised a really good point. We don’t really get the image of “kingdom.” We decided together that we don’t love this term since our closest way to understand it is England or fairy tales or maybe the Emerald City. So, we came up with some different words to describe the kingdom of God. The way of God, the safe space of God, the embrace of God… if you’ve always wondered about that, too, the Confirmation class and I invite you to try using these different words. Try reading all those parables about the kingdom of God with this wording…

The way of God is like a widow who searches for her coin that is lost. The wide embrace of God is like a father who runs out to greet his long-lost son. The safe space of God is like a tiny seed (so small, you might miss it, you might think it’s not important) until you see how it grows into a tree so expansive it can shelter all kinds of birds.

God’s way means that things that might seem insignificant… grow. And become bigger and bigger.

And so, the little things you do… matter.

Remember, Jesus didn’t live in a democracy. Jesus lived under the Roman Empire. Jesus was born in a time when Herod was king…. someone obsessed with his public image, grasping at absolute power, intolerant of any question or competition. That’s what kind of world Jesus and this big crowd of listeners were living in.

And so as we listen to Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount (this is week three), we heard first about identity. “You’re blessed. You’re salt, you’re light.” Now, we hear Jesus’ charge—don’t just follow the bare minimum of the law. Change your life.

If there is some part of you that is causing you to act like the empire, change yourself.

Jesus uses hyperbole to get his point across. You’ve heard it said, “Do not murder, but I tell you… even anger is the way toward murder.” Jesus uses strong images to say that there is not one of us living who hasn’t committed sin. Not one of us has escaped some kind of participation in this empire mentality. This mindset is fueled by murder, yes… but long before that, it’s fueled by anger and a disregard for other people. It’s fueled by adultery, yes… but before that, by looking at someone as an object rather than a person, looking at someone as a prize rather than as a partner. It’s fueled by lying to God and other people, but before that fueled by a puffed-up sense of who we are and what we can do.

There are many, many things we are not in control of in life, including other people. One response to this is to try to control others. Of course, it makes sense that we hope to teach and influence others, through the civic arena or through the way of God, to shape, inspire, challenge, and motivate people to take a course that is different than the one they are taking.

But really, we know that it’s true that the only person we can actually shape and change is ourselves… and even that is a daily struggle, isn’t it? Even changing myself is only by the grace of God, because once I’ve learned a pattern, it’s hard to change it. I heard someone say this week that there’s no one more closed-minded than a person who thinks he’s open-minded.

I heard another person say that within ourselves, we have many different ways of being. There’s the reformer, the socializer, the thinker, the server, the comedian, the adventurer, the victim, the bully, the pleasure seeker… If we look, we’ll notice that we give way more power to some of these characters in us than to others. If that’s not what we want to do, maybe it’s time to give one or two of those voices a “time out” and allow another to have a bigger part.

Matthew loves righteousness—but it’s not just doing the right thing—it’s doing the right thing with mercy and love.

When Jesus lays out his hardest teachings: calling us out on our anger, lust, broken relationships, and broken promises… Jesus is calling us to the impossible. He’s not just saying that the big, bad things (like murder) are killing us… it’s the little things (that are not actually as little as we thought). Jesus seems to be challenging us to recognize that how I deal with this little thing… today… can be my salvation or damnation in my life today. My attitudes, my behavior can lead to broken relationships or whole relationships today.

In this, Jesus sounds a lot like God, way back in Deuteronomy, calling people to choose life. Today… how do we live well, offer healing to one another, and make this life matter each moment? We might find ourselves crying out with the singer of the psalms, “Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statues.”  -Psalm 119:5

But even if we don’t quite know the way, we gather here in difficult times to hear scriptures stand out in a new way, pray together prayers that send us in new directions, and share a meal that replaces fear with love. We gather around a vision of the beloved community that God is creating here. It’s like this:

Ben has been reading a book about Norwegian wood stacking. Here’s an interesting detail he’s learned and shared with me. When a tree is cut down, you can plant 1-3 small tree seedlings in the stump and they’ll grow so much quicker, drawing from the root system that is already there.

We are not the first ones who have gathered here. The church, the way of God, has been going on long before we were ever born, and it will continue when we have returned to the soil… but for now, we get to grow here… nurtured from an already deep root system.

And we go out into every situation that we’ll encounter beyond here this week… knowing that there is no place that Jesus hasn’t been, is now, or won’t be with you. Whatever you are experiencing, whatever you have suffered, you’re never past the reaches of God’s love and grace.

Here, we’re invited to tell our stories of being in the abyss, of caving in to empire, of failing each other and failing God… we’re also invited to watch for miracles. When we can suddenly see the safe space of God all around us… when there is a moment of making peace, of releasing the anger that’s killing us, when there’s a relationship restored.

Something amazing has already happened this morning… can you think of what it was?

Where have you been light for the world? Or where have you seen another being light for the world?

Where have you glimpsed the way of God… already?

This is what we come together to share. The milestones of what God is doing in our lives. How God transforms us and from the smallest “yes” or “no,” brings life and growth.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Salt and Light







Matthew 5:13-20                                                                                

This has been my meditation this week:

You are salt. You can’t be anything else.

You are light. Shine brightly.

Do not be afraid… even if everything appears fearful… in the middle of that, love boldly.

This week, Karoline Lewis wrote this:
You are the salt of the earth.

Jesus doesn’t say think about it. Jesus doesn’t say you will be, you may be, or try to be. No, you just are. You are made that way. You are salt and light.
The question is, do you know you are? Do you believe or doubt it?
Do you imagine that Jesus could not have meant you? Do you think that Jesus might have been mistaken? Do you hesitate? Have you convinced yourself that you can’t make a difference?
If you are afraid you have lost your taste, if your light is barely visible, then you need to ask yourself why. What, or whom, do you fear? What or who has silenced you?[1]

At my text study table this week, we talked about two kinds of fear. The fear that keeps you from going all in… and then the fear that drives you so far in that you’ll drown. Is one of those fears the one that’s keeping your light hidden?

In a sermon just prior to his arrest by the Nazis, Pastor Martin Niemoller spoke of Jesus’ words, You are the light of the world. He preached:

“What are we worrying about? When I read out the names (73 names of pastors & church members who had been forbidden to speak or were missing or arrested), did we not think: ‘[Oh no!] Will this wind, this storm that is going through the world just now, not blow out the Gospel candle? We must therefore take the message in out of the storm and keep it safe.’

It is… during these days that I have realized—that I have understood—what the Lord Jesus Christ means when he says: Do not take up the bushel! I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel in order to protect it from the wind. Away with the bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick! … We are not to worry whether the light is extinguished or not; that is [God’s] concern: we are only to see that the light is not hidden away—“Let your light shine before [others]!”[2]

Last week Jesus began this teaching time on a mountain with… blessings, blessings, blessings… for those in circumstances that we would not immediately think of as blessed, which means somehow that blessing is not tied to our circumstances but to an identity rooted in God. The blessing comes from outside us and moves in… teaching us who we are when we need it the very most. As we come to know who we are more and more deeply, then we’re invited to really be that person—beloved friend of God, salt, light.

Yesterday, I found out about a homework assignment, due Monday. My seventh grader had to find someone, not a relative, and interview them… as I got the details, it was more complicated. We needed a scientist. A woman or person of color in the sciences. Luckily, we thought of our neighbor, an engineer of Chinese descent at Boston Scientific, and he was open to it. As my daughter began to ask him the questions her teacher assigned, we heard what he’s noticed about being Asian in the field of engineering. We heard him describe how he did not have role models growing up. We learned how although the number of Asians and South Asians in his field has increased over time, still in his group of 50 engineers, there are only three women and even fewer people of African descent. Then, our insightful neighbor began to talk about Boston Scientific’s STEM program (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), a real effort to begin at an early age to bring those fields to kids in schools and cultivate interest in these fields among kids who have not traditionally been encouraged in the sciences. And then, when the interview was done, we two parents began to talk out loud in front of our daughters about how they don’t always see themselves as good at math (even when they’re getting As)… but they are just as good at math as anybody else…

And I thought… Salt. Light. And what rose up in me was a feeling of gratitude, for the teacher, for this assignment, for an unexpected reason to reach out to our neighbor, and for the honesty in the conversation. Culturally, we have different ways of promoting (or not promoting) ourselves, and it’s a struggle to have our voices heard when we are in the non-dominant position… and then also I was grateful for the discovery of what we share, hope for our daughters. We share a hunger and a thirst for righteousness in all aspects of life. A hunger and thirst for things to be “Tzadik” (as Ralph shared a few weeks ago)—like a purring engine, right, just, working together beautifully in right relationship.

Matthew loves that kind of righteousness. And the point of Matthew putting salt and light together was that we become “fire starters” in the best sense of the term, bright lights, glowing for our children, our neighbors, our loved ones, and strangers.

This week, I’ve watched as people have been angry with each other and then reached out… and found reconciliation. This week, I’ve noticed as people have been paralyzed by fear… and then offered each other a word of hope. This week, I’ve thought about all the ways that we—with our diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives—have something to offer each other, in so many ways, if we can just keep coming together, sharing our real stories honestly, and asking for one another’s full participation.

If you fear, remember that by the power of God (not your own power), you are salt. Just a little bit goes a long way… just a generous couple of shakes, a spoonful to season a whole batch of dough. When salt is dissolved in water, its power to cleanse and heal is still remarkable.
I remember my sister-in-law sharing a story about being on a beach in Jamaica and suddenly realizing with pain that she had been stung by a jellyfish. But the little Jamaican boys knew exactly what to do! They ran up and peed on her leg, and immediately it felt better. Usually, we don’t think of pee as a healing balm but turns out, it contains an assortment of inorganic salts and organic compounds… in a pinch, at the seashore… well, now you know.

Barbara Lundblad writes, “Jesus chose these two images on purpose. To be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God.”[3] These are deep, rooted images… like the tree of life of our vision statement. And Henri Nouwen says it this way, “It is in the midst of this world that we are invited to live and radiate hope. Is it possible? Can we become light, salt, and leaven to our brothers and sisters in the human family? …. Do we dare break through our paralyzing fear? Will people be able to say of us, “See how they love each other, how they serve their neighbor, and how they pray to their Lord? Or do we have to confess that at this juncture of history we just do not have the needed strength or the generosity? How can we live in hope so as to give hope? And how do we find true joy?”[4]

You are salt. You can’t be anything else.

You are light. Shine brightly.

Do not be afraid… even if everything appears fearful… in the middle of that, love boldly.

What better time for learning and embodying this big vision of hungering and thirsting for righteousness?

[1]Karoline Lewis,

[2] Quoted by Suzanne Guthrie: Martin Niemoller, Soulwork Toward Sunday: “Let your light so shine…”  At the Edge of the Enclosure,

[3] Barbara Lundblad, ON Scripture, 2017.

[4] Quoted by Suzanne Guthrie: Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome, At the Edge of the Enclosure,