Epiphany 7, Year A ~ Matthew 5:38-48
Have you ever heard the story about the woman who was bitten by a rabid dog and went to the doctor’s too late? Upon visiting the office, the doctor said, “I am sorry ma’am, there is nothing more I or any doctor can do for you.” The woman immediately walked over to the counter in the check-up room and began to write what seemed to be an endless list of names. The doctor, feeling very sorry for this woman, who just found out the end of her life had arrived, continued to give her sheet after sheet of paper to continue composing her list. Finally after several minutes of this ongoing litany of names he looked into her eyes, placed his hand on her shoulder, and said, “May I ask what it is you are writing this list of names for, perhaps a will or family members to contact?” She looked up at him and without batting an eye responded, “These are the names of all the people I’m going to bite!”
It’s a cute story. We are all allowed to laugh, no lightning from heaven will rain down upon us for doing so. Honestly, we all can associate with this woman’s plan at some point in our life. We have each felt the pain and scourge of enemies, often many of them having once been friends or family, attacking us. We know what it is like to wish certain people out of the picture once and for all. If we were rabid, chances are, at some point we would think of a person or two we would like to bite into, quite literally, and take down with us. We are human. God get’s it, he came to us as a human and no doubt knew the temptation to lunge and sink his teeth into a person who was doing harm to himself or others.
It’s human nature to seek justice, to seek some form of retaliation for evils committed by others. Our modern courts are established for this very reason. There has always been a sense of need to keep things in order and to protect by disciplining, this isn’t a new concept nor unique to American democracy. In ancient times it was the perception of most people that God worked in the same way, pouring out wrath on evildoers. Therefore, in the creation of the Mosaic Law (much of it can be read in the Book of Leviticus), the “lex talionis” or the law of retaliation was established in an attempt to create fair justice in the land of Israel. Regardless, if a harm, or evil, was committed intentionally or not the judges were to determine and authorize the law of retaliation. Those of us who are highly advanced in our state of endless love might jump to the conclusion that this law of retaliation is downright evil but actually it was created to safeguard against excessive retaliation. The law required that the punishment essentially “fit the crime.” It eliminated the possibility for arbitrarily chosen punishments seeking to get blood thirsty revenge rather than justice.
Jesus, however, comes on the scene today and once again turns the law, of his time, upside down, not seeking to destroy it but seeking to take the listeners deeper within its truths. Keep in mind we are still in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, he is still speaking to the same crowd, to people who were called the Salt and the Light of the Earth. Now, Jesus calls them to love in a way that wasn’t thought possible by most of his listeners. He says, “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” Now let me throw the brakes on right here before you start hearing in your head the sermons you likely grew up with. You know, the sermon that proceeds to tell you to allow yourself to be beaten and destroyed, to be hated, to loose all sense of self-value in the supposed name of ultimate love. Many modern Biblical texts, including the one we used today, do us disservice in translation when it says, “do not resist an evildoer.” A much more authentic translation to the original texts would be, “do not oppose the evildoer violently.” Jesus isn’t, contrary to popular myth, asking us to lay die and be destroyed, without purpose, but rather asking us to never repay evil with further evil. He feels there must be a better way to combat evil! In case we begin to think Jesus is calling us to self-hatred and bodily harm we have our Epistle reading today from St. Paul reminding us that our bodies are God’s temple and we are called to protect and honor them.
Jesus is asking us to consider the possibility that repaying evil with more evil does not lead to peace nor to ultimate fulfillment, rather it only brings a brief sense of respite. The wounds for which we seek repayment will not suddenly disappear upon a successful execution of the law of retaliation, they will continue to sting and continue to manifest themselves because they hold a power of us. A power which only we can destroy with the choice of love over evil. We, as a people of faith, are called to seek the destruction of evil, humiliation and pain by shaming those who have seemingly held power of us. What is the best way to shame one who holds an abusive position of power? To show them that ultimately they have no power because our self worth and our hope does not lie in anything tangible, nor in their decrees or actions, but rather in our faith that Divine Love will have the final word. Our power of hope lies in our innermost being where we constantly recall that we are beautifully and wonderfully created, we are sacred.
Jesus asks us to be willing to turn the other cheek, this isn't a request for further pain, but a visible sign that slapped cheeks do not dictate the course of our lives. And how do we turn our cheeks? As we walk on by saying, “See ya later!” We are called to be willing to give up our cloak along with our coat as a sign that we have chosen to walk a path of love that is illogical to most of humanity but completely logical to God and those who choose to follow after God. We will walk two miles if asked to walk one, we will be willing to go that extra distance in life to remind those around us that our steps are not ordered by hate or by shame or by retaliation but by love. We declare that we choose our steps, in synch with the Spirit of life, and no one else dictates them.
Jesus continues his words of wisdom, knowing quite well what is often hiding in our hearts and agendas. Let’s just say, Jesus was no fool! In case any of the listeners on the Mount, or any of us today, decide…this isn’t so bad, I can love my family when they treat me poorly, I can stand up for myself in a spirit of love without seeking evil for evil…. He goes on to tell us that even our enemies are our neighbors! Jesus asks us a very logical question, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” It doesn’t take great philosophical or spiritual insight to understand that if we are only willing to give to those who have already given to us, we aren’t truly giving at all. The Scriptures tell us, “God first loved us before we loved him (I John 4:19).” It is to this same willing love that Jesus calls each of us today. A love that is so earth shattering that is not dependent upon the actions of others but flows forth freely from each of us to all those around us.
I do not believe, for a second, that Jesus asks us to allow evil, death and murder to run rampant. We need courts of law, we need order and, sadly, we need the law of retaliation. However, Jesus calls us as individuals to not set up courts of law in our hearts that only keep us captive, but rather to let go and allow love to bring healing. We are called to find our self-worth not in the sayings of others or in their actions toward us but in the image of God contained within us all. When we understand that all the power of God is found within us, we can carry out love in unthinkable ways and turn the other cheek as we move onto to new and better things.
Our Gospel reading ended today with words that are almost fearful, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our minds jump immediately to moral perfection or the ability to never “mess up.” However, once again the original language of this Scripture conveys a very different understanding of perfection. It comes from the Greek word, “teleios,” which means goal, end or purpose. Jesus is asking us to set the ultimate goal of being like the heavenly father, the perfect loving parent. We are asked to become individuals who aren’t given over to anger easily, who love unconditionally, forgive always and give without expectation of reward. We are called to begin a thoughtful and purposeful process.
Jesus isn’t expecting us to walk out the doors this evening and never make a mistake again or to suddenly cease desiring personal retaliation. However, he is asking us to make a conscious decision to move from a place of seeking evil to a place of doing good, even to those we would never call our friends. To set an end goal of giving when someone is in need and choosing love always, even when we are spoken against. This is a demanding request, such divine perfection isn’t easy, but if anyone is allowed to ask this of us, it’s Jesus. The one who showed us the ability to do so most clearly as he hung on a cross and said, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” Are we willing to consider doing the same the next time someone crucifies us? I dare you to try. Chances are few, if any of us, will ever reach our end goal but all the same we keep trying. Radical love is the greatest miracle of all and we each have the power to create it in our own lives and the lives of those around us. And when you fail, just keep the ultimate end goal in mind. That is all Jesus asks of us…set a goal…to love all.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Monday, February 10, 2014
Perhaps some of you tuned into the debate that was held this past week between Ken Ham and Bill Nye on creation versus evolution. I will leave you each to decide your own views. When I was asked who I thought won my answer was something like, “does it really matter?” Obviously both camps would and have declared their proponent to be the winner unequivocally. The beginning of today’s homily will give you a clue as to my own thoughts regarding the intersection of science and faith, but ultimately you are free to disagree with me. I truly mean that.
Somewhere between four and four hundred million years ago (crystal clear, of course) it is believed the very first tetrapods began to crawl out of the salty ocean waters and took up residence on dry land. It was from these bizarre and daring creatures that I believe, in time, God would form, shape and allow you and I to evolve into the creatures we are today. Salt is an absolute essential, especially for humanity and all living organisms in the circle of life, it allows our cells to function properly and sustains us. Salt continues to keep us living and evolving and, God willing, will do so for millions of years to come if learn to truly cherish our Mother Earth and the life it gives to us. Our ancestry reminds us of our dependency, truly our very existence, based upon the salty waters of the ocean which first brought us forth and continue to sustain us with all of God’s amazing creation.
Today in our Gospel reading Jesus declares we are the salt of the earth. Most of us have heard this passage a hundred times over the course of our life. Typically we believe it is a divinely mandated call to greater evangelism, to making people uncomfortable with the Gospel, much as salt stings in an open wound, or becoming the most annoying Christian we can possibly be. Many of us have also felt the fear of loosing our salvation, our place in God’s eye, when we hear the phrase, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored…it is no longer good for anything but is thrown out.” I am here today to ask you to take all these ideas, these fears and deposit them in the trash can because the message Jesus shares with us is something wholly and completely different.
First, we must understand the stage Jesus is using. This passage is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount and follows the Beatitudes. For a quick reminder the Beatitudes are a summary of promises made to those who walk in righteousness, doing good acts for the world around them and enduring their suffering with a spirit of love rather than allowing themselves to turn toward a spirit of hatred. So it is to these people, the poor, the grieving, the humble, those hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled, whom Jesus now states, “You are the salt of the earth.” To those of us here who are wounded, grieving, humble or hungering for peace Jesus also states, “You are the salt of the earth.”
Notice Jesus does not ask us to somehow become the salt of the earth through conversion or ritual but tells us we already are. How can this be? How is it that his audience, and those of us with kindred hearts today, are being equated with a compound that is essential to the continuation of life? The answer is simple. Because they were people living honestly and authentically and hopefully we are too. They were people who knew what it was like to have financial wows, to watch a loved one die or endure sickness, to witness war and feel the heartbreak it brings. It takes a messy human being doing their best to live in a messy world to be the salt of the earth.
Salt brings forth life and the greatest way that we bring life to one another is though honesty and interaction with the world around us. The Beatitudes are all about interactions with difficult situations and tragic ordeals and the blessed outcome that occurs if we continue to live gracefully no matter the cost, no matter the sense of impossibility, knowing that ultimately peace and comfort will arrive and laughter will once again become ours. It is to the messy people that God promises the kingdom of heaven, laughter, peace and eternal life.
Salt was once an extremely expensive item and a huge driving force in commerce. Salt was the creator of empires and often the death of slaves who were forced to mine it in unhealthy conditions. Containers of salt even held prestigious positions on dining room tables and you could tell a person’s perceived value by their location to the salt bowl. During Jesus’s time salt was not available for a dollar in the local grocery store, it was a symbol of status and the poor would often give most of what they had in order to obtain just a small amount. It is these people who Jesus calls ‘salt,’ equating them with one of the finest possessions of the day. Today it would be like Jesus calling us pure gold or flawless diamonds. Jesus was reaffirming to his audience that their suffering, their tears, their pain was not in vain but truly made them the most valuable human beings on earth.
We are also warned that the cost of giving up our ability to truly live life results in our saltiness being lost and our ability to be a profitable member of society ceases. No, Jesus was never asking us to be an annoyance to the world in an attempt to force others to agree with our faith outlooks, he was simply asking us to never stop living, to never stop interacting, to never stop loving. The greatest gift we can give to others is to be honest to ourselves and to be honest in the situations we face. Yes, you are the salt of the earth, you are the sustainer of life for another with each and everyday that you choose to wake up and go into the world being beacon of authenticity.
Jesus goes on in our Gospel reading to also say, “You are the light of the world.” As we continue to travel through the season of Epiphany until the Sunday before Lent begins, we continue to hear this idea of light and God. We have been told that Jesus is the light of the world but today Jesus turns to us and says YOU are the light of the world! Once again keep in mind, he is speaking to the same people who have endured all sorts of hardships in life and yet declares them to be light in the darkness. He goes even further to encourage them to never hide their light, their authenticity, under a basket but to display it for all the world.
To Jesus it isn’t the people who have an easy-breezy, mess free life that are salt and light but the ones who have endured and are enduing some of the toughest of times. Isn’t this a wonderfully counter cultural message to what is often heard in faith communities today? We are told by so many preachers to always smile, to show how much Jesus has done for you, to essentially put on a “faith show” in attempt to lure people into the good news. You have to wonder what good news can be found in a call to be fake, to deny your feelings and to parade around as something you aren’t? I believe absolutely nothing and from what Jesus has told us today, I think, he would agree with me. Jesus never once calls us to be fake, instead he praises our ability to be real.
Jesus is attempting to get us to accept the reality that the light is already within each of us who live on this earth striving day after day to simply be. Nancy Rockwell, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, made this powerful statement concerning today’s Gospel:
“The divinity we need in our powerlessness, Jesus says, we already have and already are.”Imagine that! In the midst of all life’s battles that seem to be epically hopeless at times, Jesus reminds us that the power we need is already within us, it is us! Yes, God allowed you and I to crawl out of the ocean and be fashioned in God’s own image with all the power and blessing that contains. When we accept that we are salt, we are light, then we will begin to fully experience the blessings the Beatitudes promise us. It is then, that we will become a hope to the world around us. Not through putting on a charade of happiness or through denial of of the messes we encounter, but through our loving interactions and the ability to continue to exist and evolve.
So the question I leave with you, is this: Are you worth your weight in salt?
Be honest, be you, be the salt of the earth and you have the possibility of illuminating the darkest of places because of your steadfastness to live life for real.
Monday, February 3, 2014
The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus
Most of us have reached the point of exhaustion with the winter season. It seems the holidays are long gone and the hope of Spring has yet to be seen. We have endured cold and ice and snow and gloomy skies and we sometimes wonder…"will it ever be warm again?” Of course, we know the answer, we know that winter is not eternal in our part of the world and that Spring will arrive about the same time it does every year. Still it seems almost hopeless most days, doesn't it? Many of us battle with winter depression, cabin fever and the feeling that gloomy clouds dictate the course of our lives. It is doubtful I can take that feeling away as much as I would love too, believe me I would! However, the event in Jesus's life which we celebrate today does give us a little hope. It shares a little ray of light, to keep us going until we have those first few 50 degree days and until Wal-Mart puts out the first flowers of Spring, much to early to actually survive.
Today we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the temple and it is no mistake that it falls in the bleak midwinter season when Christmas is long gone and Easter is still far away from us. The church planted this feast, this celebration of humanity, to remind us that all hope is not lost, that the gloomy skies do not withhold the light of God from us and that sunshine is truly on the horizon.
The Gospel today reminds us of Mary and Joseph’s visit to the temple to present their child Jesus forty days after his birth, as Jewish law required, and for Mary to undergo the postpartum rites of ritual cleansing. The author of the Gospel of Luke tells us a resident prophetess named Anna and a very old man named Simeon immediately welcome Jesus into the court of the temple and acknowledge his presence. Simeon takes the little child Jesus into this arms and turning his voice toward God offers praise and thanksgiving for the “light for revelation” that has come into the world for both Jew and Gentile. Today, we might say for both the believer and non-believer. For the Christian and non-Christian.
Simeon catches a glimpse of something in the flesh and blood child Jesus that is sacred, hopeful and life-giving. He believes he has seen a fulfillment to God’s promise that one day all humanity will be freed from slavery, imprisonment and fear and this allows him to depart, or to die, in peace. Yes, Simeon beheld in the eyes of a innocent child the light of hope and in the coos of the forty day old infant the emphatic proclamation that deliverance had arrived not only for Israel but for all the earth.
Today we are presented with the sacred opportunity to take up the gift of hope into our arms and acknowledge the light of God has not perished nor is it far removed from us. We too are called to bear witness to the hope of God found not only in the child Jesus but in the faces of every newborn who graces this earth. We find hope in the laughter of children and in their innocent ability to love all equally without regard or bias. We stand in the temple of our own lives, surrounded by signs of God, signs of promise, but do we take the time to acknowledge and interact with them as Simeon and Anna did? Do we present ourselves to God or do we stand in oblivion?
Often times we are so very busy with our own agenda that we miss opportunities to interact with God. On the day of Jesus’s presentation you can be assured the temple was overflowing with people who had gathered to worship God, it was constantly busy. People were coming and going making sacrifices for theirs sins, striving to offer up their best gifts to God, begging for forgiveness and demonstrating (or showing off) their talents. However, most were so busy trying to be faithful believers in God they missed his appearance, when it came in an unexpected way, in the child Jesus.
Most of us would probably be just as guilty, we presume to know the ways in which God manifests herself, we know our doctrines, our traditions and we know to keep our eyes to the heavens - after all we were taught that is how good people of faith behave. However, today we are reminded that God can show up in whatever form she desires and it is often much closer to the earth than it is the heavens. Much more simple than the grandiose plans we have concocted in our heads for how God should appear. And ultimately much more satisfying, if we will take notice that God constantly comes to us in a tangible and realistic way. God is presented to us in the seasons of the year, yes - even the slushy snow, in the creativity of artists, in the theatrics of humanity and in the flicker of a candle.
If you followed any of the fringe news this week you might have heard of the insanity that occurred in a public school in Utah. Forty some children had their lunches torn away from them, when it was realized they had negative account balances. Here is an excerpt from the story:
"She took my lunch away and said, 'Go get a milk,'" fifth-grader Sophia Isom told NBC station KSL. "I came back and asked, 'What's going on?' Then she handed me an orange. She said, 'You don't have any money in your account, so you can't get lunch.'"
This story is heartbreaking beyond words and I will let you decide who, or what force, was represented in the abusive power display. However, if you followed the story any deeper you eventually read about the lunch ladies who shed many tears watching this horror be committed in the name of the almighty dollar and “teaching a lesson.” Yes, God cried in that lunch room, God was found in those lunch ladies. God was also found in the student who went home and told their mother what had happened, resulting in the two of them making lunches for all the students the following day to be sure everyone had enough to eat. I dare say God was found in those lunch ladies, that student and the mother, more visibly then God is found in most Christians, most churches and most worship services. That isn’t something we necessarily want to hear, we treasure our rituals but God is oftentimes in the background yelling: “HELLO! I am over here!”
Where has God been trying to reveal himself to you lately? I encourage you in the coming week to take time to be aware of the many appearances of God in some of the most unlikeliest places. Become an Anna or a Simeon and be on the lookout for God’s presentation, not in liturgical acts or in the sky above, but close to the earth, in the faces of people around you, in the movement of the weather, in the tears and laughter you encounter. When you find God be ready to present yourself and your love fully and completely. And then be ready to turn around and become the flesh and blood human that presents to someone else the light of hope. This is our calling, to seek God and to offer God to others. And rest assured, the sunlight is returning, the snow will eventually melt, hiding itself, and the flowers of Spring will peek out and reach for the sky.
I leave you with this simple thought: Seek and you will find, for God is everywhere.