Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Get Up; Do Not Be Afraid

“The disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”  In the midst of a passage that is filled with awe and wonder, I almost missed it.  I almost missed the part when Jesus places his hand on the disciples’ shoulders.  I almost missed the part when Jesus says to the disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
            If we are not careful, we are sure to miss the essential turn in this passage; we are sure to miss the part that helps us really understand the purpose of the transfiguration.  If we are not careful, we are sure to get caught up in the supernatural elements of this passage.  But how could we not get caught up in the awe and wonder of this passage? 
Jesus’ face shines like the sun.  Jesus clothes become a dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah, two dead men who represent the Law and the Prophets, show up and start talking to Jesus – no wonder Peter wants to set up camp!  A cloud hovers over the scene and the voice of God drives the disciples to their knees.

But when the shock and awe is over, Jesus comes over to the disciples, touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And by this time, the cloud has vanished and so have Moses and Elijah.  It’s just Jesus and his disciples alone on the mountain. 
The moment is over.  The rush is gone.  And they make the journey down the mountain back to the real world where they aren’t to speak a word about what happened until after the resurrection of Jesus.
Like the disciples, it is easy for us to get stuck on top of this mountain. Like Peter, it is easy for us to come to believe that the mountain top is the final destination.  It is easy for us mere mortals to get caught up in the sights and sounds of this passage and lose sight of the bigger picture here.  Maybe that is why Jesus tells him to tell no one about what they saw until after the resurrection. 
It is easy for us to forget that Jesus’ ministry is not about pointing to heaven for heaven’s sake.  Instead, Jesus is pointing to heaven in order to shed light on the kingdom he is establishing on earth.  Jesus is not an escape hatch that is rescuing us from a world of death.
Instead, Jesus is the instrument of God’s salvation that comes to renew and restore this world with a love that is stronger than death.  The story of Jesus is not a beam me up Scottie story like the disciples first suspect but a resurrection story, a story of the transformation of this world.
But in order for this restoration project to start to take effect, in order for the kingdom of heaven to grow on earth, a major re-ordering of things must take place.  And as we have just learned in the Sermon on the Mount the kingdom of heaven looks nothing like the kingdoms of this world.  In essence, Jesus reveals that the kingdoms of this world are run by fear and anxiety while the kingdom of heaven is run by courage and hope and love.
And this major re-ordering of things will upset the people who like the current world order.  Jesus’ re-ordering will turn the world as we know it upside-down.  In the end, God completely turns the world upside down when the glory of God is revealed in his fullest through Christ crucified. 
The kingship of Jesus is fully revealed not because he takes an earthly throne by force but because he refuses to bow down to the powers of this world and willingly accepts the sentence of death on the cross.  On the cross, Jesus reveals the ultimate power of our faith and that is the conviction that the way of love and inclusion puts to shame the way of fear and exclusion.   
Jesus predicts that the powers of this world will not take kindly to this new world order, a world order where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are filled with good things.  Jesus predicts that he will undergo suffering and death because the powers of this world will reject the new world order that the kingdom of heaven brings.
And this is why the disciples fall on their faces in fear.  They didn’t know that they signed up for a project that would result in their leader’s suffering and death.  And if their leader undergoes suffering and death, then what is in store for the followers?  Surely suffering and death, too.  But Jesus knows that his followers are scared to death and so he offers encouragement.  He touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Quite literally, this passage shows us that ours is a God who enters the human experience, enters human flesh so he can touch us and say, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  In Jesus, God is showing us that the story of love and forgiveness and hope will endure even fear and hate and death. 
Even if the story of love is temporarily put to death on the cross, Jesus shows us that the story of love continues when he is raised again on the third day.  And because Jesus shows us that the story of love defeats the story of hate we can move from a place of fear to a place of hope.  Instead of being paralyzed by fear, we can be inspired by hope because of the way Jesus overcomes suffering and death by enduring the cross and the grave.   
Beloved, I know I don’t have to tell you that we live in a world that seems to be thriving off of fear and anxiety.  We are paralyzed by fear and stuck on top of the mountain.  We are like cats pacing back and forth on top of a ledge trying to muster up the courage to jump.  We are like babies who are learning to take our first steps.  After one step, we plop down on our bottoms and start crying.
We want to live in this new kingdom that Jesus is bringing to earth but living in this new kingdom requires quite a jump, living in this new kingdom requires us accept that getting hurt is a part of what it means to walk in the way of Jesus.  And thanks be to God we have Jesus who comes to our aid, who touches us and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
There are certainly a lot of amazing sights and sounds that accompany following the way of Jesus.  There are moments of pure amazement and astonishment, moments in our Christian faith and life that words cannot adequately describe.  There are times when we don’t want to leave this place of worship. 
We find ourselves in foyer groups that we wish we could keep forever.  We go on retreats that we wish would never end.  We will encounter times in the life of St. Paul’s that we might describe as perfect and we will do everything we can to keep things that way.  But again, the Christian story is one of renewal, not preservation.   
Most of our Christian life and witness happens when we have the courage to venture outside of these safe places so that we who have been touched and healed by the power of God’s love can go out into the world and touch others with the healing power of God’s love through acts of mercy and service.
We are called down from the mountain to tell of a new story that is born out of a place of hope and love.  Instead of complaining about the problem, instead of perpetuating fear and anxiety, Jesus’ story of love calls us to be a part of the solution.  And Jesus solution shows us that the power forgiveness and the hope of resurrection fundamentally changes the story.  Instead of saying things will never change, we get to be a part of Jesus’ story of love that changes everything.
As followers of Jesus, we will inevitably become frightened by the prospect of living in God’s new kingdom – not because we don’t like the idea of God’s new kingdom but because of the changes that must take place in order to be a part of that new kingdom.  Of course we will want to stay atop the mountain because the view is better.
But through Jesus, God shows us that the way of life and peace is not an escape to the mountaintop.  Rather, the way of life and peace is through the cross, through suffering and death.  This is a way that we would not choose for ourselves, this is a way that scares us to death. 
But the way of the cross is how God turns the world upside down in order to show us that Jesus’ way is actually right-side up.  The way of cross is meant to change our perspective.  The way of the cross opens our eyes to the way the world God intends. 

Beloved, it is time again to come down the mountain and walk in the way of the cross as we begin the Lenten Season.  But fear not and don’t miss our transfigured Lord Jesus Christ who desires to meet you, touch you, and give you courage this day to face the season of Lent, face the way of the cross with a posture of hope and not fear.  Amen.          

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Be Perfect

            “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus calls his followers to be perfect.  Jesus calls his followers to be like God.  He didn’t say, “be almost perfect.”  Jesus didn’t say, “try to be perfect.”  The call is simply, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
            This sure sounds like an impossible task, doesn’t it?  How can we be perfect?  We are sinful creatures.  We are a people who are destined to die.  How can we be perfect like our heavenly Father?
            As you can gather, I am struggling with this statement from Jesus just as much as you are.  Even more, how can I preach a sermon about being perfect when I know I am not perfect? At some point during the week the Holy Spirit tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “if this reading isn’t causing you fits, then I’d be worried.”  Okay, whew!
            Today’s lesson is supposed to challenge us and if these words from Jesus didn’t challenge us, then we are only lying to ourselves. The instructions that Jesus gives today go against everything I understand to be true about human nature.  When someone hurts us, our first reaction is to hurt them back.  When evil strikes, our first reaction is to strike back.  We are all just overgrown toddlers. 
            Several years ago I did a presentation on the Seven Deadly Sins at St. John’s Montgomery.  After presenting on the deadly sin of anger, a veteran of World War II made the comment, “If we didn’t act on our anger toward the Hitler and the Nazis, then the whole world would be under the rule of Germany today.  Tell me how is that bad?”
            I was, of course, tongue tied.  I don’t remember what I said but know it was a lousy response.  I should have said something like, “Jesus’ instruction to turn the other check, to love the enemy, to pray for those who persecute you is a great way to lose a war.”  And just left it at that.
Throughout the ministry of Jesus even up until his death on the cross, Jesus makes it perfectly clear that his is a non-violent movement.  He is not on a mission to raise up a group of rebels who will bring down the mighty Roman Empire by force.  Instead, Jesus is on a mission to gather a group of followers who respond to the evildoer with love and prayer.
But wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow quarantine those who do evil, if we could somehow contain the wicked to one area of the world, and then just drop a bomb, dust off our hands, and say, “it is finished.”?  Well, in case you forgot, God already tried that with Noah and it didn’t work.
The problem with evil isn’t simply – there are good people and bad people.  Instead, the problem with evil is that evil draws a line through the middle of every heart.  So if we were to try and wipe out evil by lethal force, then we, too, would be wiped out.  There would be no more.
Jesus comes to tell us that the most effective response to the way of evil is the way of love. I know what you might be thinking, well that sounds like a great way to get yourself hurt or even killed.  And you’d be right.  The way of love got Jesus killed as well as most of his disciples.
And let me be clear.  The love that God gives us in Jesus is not a sentimental love that you get from reading Chicken Soup for the Soul.  The kind of love that Jesus brings is a sacrificial love, an authentic love, a love that is more than being nice to your neighbor.  Walter Brueggemann said, “Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.”
The article for the week in your E-pistle is entitled, “We are called to make disciples, not converts.”  The basic premise of the article talks about how our conversion story is what compels us to be followers of Jesus, to be people who are glad to risk pain and death for the sake of the gospel. 
In other words, if our conversion stories are no more than stories that make us feel better about ourselves, then we have not heard the gospel – we’ve only read a really good self-help book.  The gospel calls followers of Jesus outside of themselves, calls them to risk their lives and livelihood in order to show the world that Jesus’ story of love really does defeat the story evil and death.
Of course, we are going to be a little anxious to live into this new story of love because of the consequences.  Of course, we will be tempted to turn back to the safety of our own homes.  Of course, we will be tempted to respond to evil with evil.  We are human! 
But Jesus is trying to tell us that these very human responses only lead to more destruction and more death.  Jesus has come to turn this sinking ship around by showing us again that the way of love is the way to life.  And I firmly believe, that when we follow the way of love, the way of Jesus, we become perfect. 
Jesus’ way of love creates space where we can go and be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect.  Jesus’ way of love creates space in this broken and sinful world where all people can come and know the healing power of God’s love – and the Church at her best is the place where all people can come and be perfectly themselves and rest in God’s love. 
Being a follower of Jesus is all about creating space where all can come to be loved and valued as children of God.  And as crazy as it sounds, some will not like that you want to make space where all are valued.  Some want this space all for themselves and their closest buddies.  Some want to regulate who is in and who is out but Jesus issues the invitation to all and as his followers so do we – even to the enemy.
Jesus’ way of love, a love that extends even to the enemy, is the only way this world can be saved from certain death and destruction.  Otherwise, we will continue to go bouncing off the walls until there nothing and nobody left.  And in fact, the world has been saved from the total destruction of evil on the cross.

Which reminds me that God did figure out a way to quarantine evil.  God did figure out how to draw evil to one spot and defeat it.  But God doesn’t defeat evil with kind of instrument of war that we humans have ever tried.  God defeats evil through a radical kind of love that embraces even the enemy. 
Think about it – the ministry of Jesus draws all evil out into the open – beginning with Satan, then the Roman empire, the Jewish establishment, and eventually the evil that exists inside the hearts of even his closest followers.  Ultimately, the evil powers and forces of this world combine to put Jesus on the cross. 
At any point Jesus could have called on the power of God to rain fire down on these evil doers like the prophets of old did, but he didn’t for Jesus knew he would destroy God’s entire creation if he took that route. 
Instead, Jesus looked evil in the face and said, “do your worst.” Even more profoundly, looked at the sea of humanity and uttered those famous words, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” 
And this is the moment when the whole world is saved from the totality of sin and death; this is the moment when the true instrument of salvation, the instrument of unending love breaks into this world and saves humanity from total despair; this is the moment when a glimmer of hope starts to shine in the darkness. 
Jesus on the cross is where God makes space for us to first recognize the horrors that humans bless.  And from here God begins to move our hearts to love even the enemy and those who wish us harm because on the cross Jesus shows us that love of the enemy is what brings salvation to a world that will otherwise destroy itself. 
Beloved, do not be afraid to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. The good news tells us that Jesus has come from heaven to earth to create space in this world, space at the foot of the cross for all to come and know the healing power of God’s love.  And as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, go forth into the world and make space where all – even the enemy – can come to know God’s salvation story through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Raising the Bar

            In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard Jesus say, “I did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.”  Another way to understand this is to hear Jesus saying, “I have come not to destroy the law but to restore the spirit of the law.”  In today’s section of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reminding the people of the true intent behind the laws that God has given to his people Israel.
            The main trouble with the people of Israel is that the law is being used in a way that it was not intended to be used.  Instead of using the law as a way to build moral character, as a way to keep the people in communion with God and neighbor; the law has turned into a means of self-justification; the law has turned into weapon, a weapon to convict others of their sins, rather than a tool to help the people recognize their own sinfulness so that they may repent and return to the Lord.  Later in this sermon Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not see the log in your own eye?”   
            Simply put, the law is being used only to convict the worst kind of sinners but those who are moderate sinners get off free because at least they aren’t doing anything illegal! They say, it’s okay to be angry just as long as you don’t kill someone.  It’s okay to lust after another in your heart just as long as you don’t act on that sexual desire.  It’s okay to get a divorce as long as there is a proper legal document.  It’s okay to swear as long as it isn’t done falsely.
            I’ll never forget what a close friend of mine said after he did a two-month Bible study in a local prison.  I asked him, “What was the biggest surprise?”  He said he was surprised to learn that he could have been one of those men sitting in prison. 
I was sort of taken back and asked him to clarify.  I said, “But you are a good guy, what do you mean?”  He went on to tell me that he felt like one of the lucky ones.  He said the only difference was that he didn’t get caught. My friend also recognized that he lived in a system where even if he did get caught, then he would have the means to get out of jail.
In the end, my friend felt as if he was just as deserving as a prison cell as those to whom he ministered to.  Even though he didn’t get caught, he still knew the sin of his own heart and his own capacity for evil.
In order to restore the spirit of the law, in order to remind the people that the law is a wonderful tool and not a weapon, Jesus must reinterpret the law.  Instead of seeing the law as something only criminals need to worry about, Jesus is raising the bar so that even the righteous Pharisees are convicted of their sins.  Last week we heard Jesus say, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Today’s gospel lesson shows us what it looks like to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.  Jesus says it isn’t good enough to say you haven’t committed murder; you must also refrain from anger.  And if your anger threatens to kill a relationship, you must be reconciled with that person before approaching God at the altar. 
Jesus says it isn’t good enough to say you haven’t committed adultery; you must also refrain from looking at another in lust.  Jesus goes as far as to say, “if your right hand causes you to sin, then cut it off; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”     
If we take this passage from Jesus too literally, then I’m not sure we could have communion this morning.  But if you want to go that route then you have about 15 minutes to either go out into the world and be reconciled to every person you have offended or at the very least start cutting off limbs.  But I’m not sure that is what Jesus is hoping that you take away this morning.
Our gut reaction is to simply take these sayings from Jesus as a prescription on how to live a better life.  While these sayings are certainly good advice for a better life, the problem is that we are people who do not take the medicine as prescribed. 
We might start off strong but at some point along the way we will miss a dose and then start unraveling.  After a few days, we stop taking the antibiotics, ditch the prescription, and believe we can continue to get better on our own.  Through the narrative of scripture, it is clear that humanity cannot sustain life on its own.  Like we affirm in our baptismal covenant, in our commitment to live in God’s kingdom, we need God’s help. 
The Sermon on the Mount is especially difficult to apply because it is calling us mortal creatures to a standard that can only be accomplished in heaven, in a place free from sin.  While I have no doubt that you desire this good life that God puts before you through the law, we are a people who are incapable of choosing this good life because the temptation of the flesh is too strong.  Eventually, we will run out of gas.  We cannot exceed the righteousness of even the Pharisees. 
So what is the remedy?  The short answer is Jesus.  But what does that look like in real life?  In tangible terms, how is Jesus saving our life today?  How is Jesus helping us get out of the ditch that we have dug for ourselves?  How is Jesus ending the desires of the flesh?
For me, the cross of Christ is the tangible way in which God helps us out of the ditch.  First of all, the cross is a gruesome display of the severity of human sin.  The desires of the flesh, the desire for power, wealth, prestige, even the desire to pursue our own good works not only kill God through a terrible display of injustice but our worldly desires end up destroying the image of our common humanity as we see when Jesus is stripped from any dignity and hung on the cross. 
The cross should emblazon in our minds the truth that human sin will ultimately cut us off from God and each other.  The cross is the painful reminder that over the course of time humanity is destined to a world of destruction. The cross is the place where the whole world is silenced, the place where the whole world is put to shame, the place where not even the Pharisee can say, “I am not a part of the problem.” 
But the good news begins to take a hold when we also see the cross as the place where both the prisoner and the Pharisee kneel before God to beg mercy. The good news is proclaimed to all the world on the cross when Jesus utters some of his last words, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” 
Like the opening collect says, God’s help comes only when we have the grace to know we can do nothing good without God.  And in my experience, I am only able to cling to grace when I am made low, when I am humbled, and there is no place more humbling than the place at the foot of the cross.
Simply put, grace is a gift first recognized at the foot of the cross.  Grace is not something human wisdom and intellect can acquire.  Instead, grace can only be accessed through God’s foolishness on the cross which is wiser than human wisdom.  
At the foot of the cross, humanity is shown that their sin is much more devastating than they could have ever imagined.  But the cross is also the place where humanity is shown that God’s love and compassion is bigger than they could have hoped – Father, forgive them.
And the good news gets better.  Jesus lives beyond the cross.  Jesus makes a world that was once unavailable because of human sin available now because of God’s faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness.   Jesus is the One whose life, death, and resurrection make our hearts want to follow the way of life and peace. Jesus is the One who makes us exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees not by demanding we follow a law we can never live up to but instead by following him – the only One who is righteous before the law. 
Jesus calls us to righteousness first by humbling us at the foot of the cross where we are allowed to die to our vain and destructive attempts to be perfect and rise to a life where God makes us perfect through his great love poured out for us in his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. 
Beloved, may Jesus’ perfect love poured out for you on the cross make your hearts and minds love to do the will of God in both word and deed.  Amen.