Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him
The Fine Print
The hard part is trusting.
Especially the unknown.
We leap, jump, take chances
Not knowing if we’re courting good
Or sometimes we pretend not to know.
Either way, bring our trust back to you
Not in ourselves
Not in our own power
Amen. (Adapted from Susan Palo Cherwein’s “Sorrow Songs”)
We must always read the fine print.
When I was in Kindergarten, I told Katie…this girl in class…that Michael Jackson was my cousin. She, didn’t believe me, and rightfully so. “Prove it,” she said. “Bring him to school tomorrow.”
“OK,” I said. “I will!”
Now, for those of your snarking at this possibility, remember: I’m a good dancer. This isn’t crazy.
But I was stubborn. I was, even at that age, not willing to be wrong about much in life…
So that night, (and I remember this distinctly) that night I prayed long and hard. “God, give me a solution to this!” And all of a sudden I had a solution. And I remember thanking God for the solution.
See, I knew two things about Michael Jackson in Kindergarten: that he wore sunglasses and he wore a glove.
And so the next day I brought my Scooby Doo sunglasses and my mitten with me to school. And I found Katie in the Kindergarten room and I said to her, straight faced, “OK. Michael Jackson is here. Except he looks a lot like me.” And I went into the hallway, put on the glasses and glove, and came moonwalking back in.
She didn’t buy it. Rightfully so. Childishness. Tom foolery. It’s funny now, but it lost me some street cred in Kindergarten.
Did you catch the fine print there? “He looks a lot like me.” Bad deal there. Not trustworthy.
Always read the fine print.
You’ve seen the image before: someone signing a contract. And at the bottom of it is a whole bunch of fine print that is barely legible. It’s the fast talking at the end of the Cymbalta commercial where they tell you why you might die if you take that pill.
Always take into account the fine print.
Like Jesus, today, contending with the devil. Jesus has been in the wilderness 40 days already when we come up on this story in the book of Matthew. He’s been fasting, wandering around the desert. So, of course, the first thing he does is get tempted by hunger. He’s vulnerable there…he’s obviously hungry. These are temptation stories.
I fasted for Ash Wednesday, and by the end of the day I was smelling things I had never smelled before when walking home. I smelled M&M’s, I kid you not. All of a sudden it was like everyone and their mother was cooking something wonderful for dinner. It was all so, tempting.
But Jesus is not just tempted by hunger, he’s tempted to do something unnatural, something that would negate the Genesis story (where God said all of creation was good, even the Earth and stones) by saying that they weren’t good enough…they should be bread.
It would be nice, sometimes, if stones were bread. If stones were bread, or could become bread, we could feed the world, right? Yeah, but the fine print there is tricky. See, we can already feed the world. There is enough food…we just don’t share well. For Jesus to bring in a new world order where stones feed the world would be to usher in a kingdom that reinforces the greedy tendencies of the world rather than challenge them.
We do not live on bread alone, Jesus points out. And then he points to the scriptures…scriptures that demand that farmers leave the edges of their fields unharvested for the poor and the hungry. Scriptures that demand that debts are automatically forgiven every seven years. We do not live on bread alone, but also on the word of God which demands that we not try to work around greed, but eradicate greed.
There’s the fine print to the devil’s offer. To do the unnatural would reinforce an already greedy world. Jesus won’t be defined by that.
This Lent I’ve invited you to go “All in” by observing the spiritual practices of public worship, generosity (what we’ve traditionally called “alms giving”) and daily encounters with scripture.
I am convinced that these practices will shape the next two months for you in such a way that, come Easter, you will be different. It’s much better than giving up chocolate. When we give up something for Lent only to take it back on after Lent, we just took a vacation from our indulgences…we don’t become changed people.
I want you, I want myself, to be a changed person come Easter.
But…and there’s always a “but”…but if we head into this thinking that it is some sort of miracle self-help program, we’re going to be disappointed.
People want the miracle these days; we crave the miraculous. Jesus’ second temptation is to throw himself off of the temple to prove that God follows his commands. That would surely gain him instant celebrity, yes?
And yet, Jesus’ message was not one of celebrity. Indeed, he died alongside other criminals. This is why I cringe when I see a supposedly “Christian” book in the self-help aisle…and, I know, I pick on the self-help aisle a lot. But Jesus was not about self-help. Jesus was not about calling down God’s power to do things in life, to prove legitimacy.
Jesus was about meeting people where they were, not transporting them somewhere else. Jesus was about eating with people, and walking with people, and visiting with those no one would touch. Yes, there were miracles, but often Jesus followed up his miracles by entreating those around him to not say anything about it all…
See, the fine print here is this: if we’re always banking on the miraculous of the possible-next-future-moment, we’re never living here and now. Such living doesn’t trust that God can produce the beautiful in the mundane…something Christ was all about.
Christian Wiman talks about this in his book “My Bright Abyss,” a work about his struggle with stage-four cancer and belief. Having been an atheist/agnostic, he was led to faith slowly…hesitantly. And this poem I’m about to read is included in your bulletin. He writes:
Something is off. Life passes and we do not recognize it. The past streams through us like molecules we can’t perceive, and we miss the God who misses-as in longs for-us:
I love the calm and custom of quick fingers weaving,
The shuttle’s buzz and hum, the spindle’s bees.
And look—arriving or leaving, spun from down,
Some barefoot Delia barely touching the ground…
What rot has reached the very root of us
That we should have no language for our praise?
What is, was; what was, will be again; and our whole lives’
Sweetness lies in these meetings that we recognize.—Osip Mandelstam, from “Tristia”
The meetings that we recognize—of them faith is made and sustained.
When we need the miraculous to put our faith in something, we are not being faithful…that’s the fine print there. If we cannot see the miraculous in the mundane, if we cannot see how the past streams through us—and how this is beautiful as the “what is” bumps up against the “what was” and “what has always been,” Divinity and mortality sharing space in the mundane, well…then we’re looking for confirmation, not faith.
And Jesus was one of faith.
And this all comes to a culmination in this final bit. If Jesus is unwilling to circumvent the systems of the world in one way or another, then he should simply become the world’s system. The last temptation is for political power.
And it is enticing. Power is enticing.
I was sitting with George Callister this last week, Jackie’s husband. George isn’t a church goer; he’s a member of “St. Mechanics of the Autoparts Department.” But we were chatting and he said, “Before you go, please tell me one thing: when Hitler came to power, why didn’t anyone in the Christian world try to stop him?!”
Of course, some did, not just in the Christian world, but in all parts of the world, religious and secular.
But, he’s right: many faithful people went along with it all. Some were duped. Some didn’t know better. But many in the upper echelons were attracted to the power. Power is seductive; we cannot deny that.
And when I say “political power,” I don’t just mean in formal politics. There are social politics, workplace politics…all sorts of political circles that we run in, am I right?
And power in these circles is seductive. I’ve even been told by some, and most very well meaning, good people, that political power is necessary to get things done in this world.
But…read the fine print.
What do we give up if we become the system of power? Much of Christianity wants a powerful Jesus, one that makes people strong and gives them their ultimate desires and makes them a better person…
But the Jesus that we have is one that rejects all of those attempts. We have to wrestle with greed, not get around it. We have to wrestle with the doubt that comes with faith, not wait for the miraculous confirmations that would make life so certain and so easy. We have to struggle against the allure of power.
All of these struggles, these struggles with the devil inside of us, and the devils outside of us, the devils of our pocketbooks and the power of the Loop and the power of our influence and the power of being so right in our beliefs, all of these struggles plant us firmly in life.
And a life well-lived is one that contends with struggles, not one that finds a way around them or ignores them or solves them through force. This is Lent, folks.
That is authentic life…but it is difficult. And these struggles teach us that there is more to life than just us. The Great Conversation today will ask if it is impossible to live like Jesus in the world, with these temptations. A great question to ponder…Matthew McConaughey might say “No. It’s possible.” I don’t know. I think he was wrong in his Oscar acceptance speech. When we have a friend in God we do not have a friend in ourselves. As much as you might like him, that’s a theology that puts him at the center. That’s a life that leans toward him…not toward God; not toward neighbor.
When we have a friend in God, we have a friend who doesn’t let ourselves, and the devils on our shoulder, rule the day and let us escape.
And I guess that’s the fine print of the Christian life. The Christian life is the one that doesn’t need to shy away from the struggles, from the trials, because we know that even if we end up hanging on a cross, we’re in good company with Jesus. And with Jesus, the present struggles of life never get the final say.
And that’s fine print I’m happy to read. Amen.
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Today we return Lord.
Today you greet us, dust as we are.
Today apologies are shared
And deep love.
Remind us that there is love here.
I want to tell you a story.
Picture, if you will, a man. His name is Herb Gardner. And he went walking on East 55th street about an hour ago and decided just start doling out generalized all-purpose apologies. Nothing complicated, just the words “I’m sorry.” To whomever passed by. “I’m sorry for what?” you might ask. Well, for anything, really. For being late, early, stupid, asleep, silly, alive. Well, you know when you’re walking down the street talking to yourself how sometimes you suddenly say a couple of words out loud? So he said, “I’m sorry” out loud and this fellow, a complete stranger, he looks up for a second and says, “That’s all right, man. No worries,” and goes right back to walking.
He automatically forgave Herb, without any thought. Herb just communicated. At 5 o’clock rush hour in the Loop you could say, “Sir, I believe your hair is on fire,” and no one would hear you. But you say “I’m sorry” and all of a sudden everyone listens.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry! Say there, miss, I’m sorry…
Of course some people might just give Herb a funny look, but about 75% of the people forgave him.
“Forget it, buddy…” or “That’s OK, really…”
Two ladies forgave him in unison, and one man forgave him from a passing taxi cab. One guy even forgave Herb on behalf of his dog, “Poofer forgives the nice man, don’t you, Poofer?”
It was fabulous. Herb had tapped into some vast reservoir. Something had happened to all of the people for which they felt somebody should apologize. If you went up to people on the street and offered them money, they’d often refuse it because they figure strings are attached. But everyone, everyone, accepts an apology immediately. It is the most negotiable currency. Herb just said to them, “I’m sorry.” And they were all so generous, so kind. You give them love and it wouldn’t be accepted as graciously, as unquestioningly.*
People will generally accept an “I’m sorry,” but giving them…well, Elton John said it best, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
We crave “I’m sorry’s,” but we’re sometimes reluctant to give them. Or, for some, we’re over-eager to give them for things we haven’t even really done…
But sometimes we need to hear an “I’m sorry.”
So I’m sorry that you’ve been hurt by someone, or have hurt someone. I’m sorry that you’ve been a victim of violence, and I’m sorry that you’ve victimized others with your temper or controlling ways. I’m sorry that many of you will never get the “I’m sorry” that your soul really longs for.
I’m sorry that you, perhaps even myself, can’t utter the “I’m sorry” that someone else’s soul really longs for.
We fill up the need to hear and to say I’m sorry with things that moth and rust destroy; stuff that thieves take. We wear our hearts on our sleeves, not out of genuine contrition, but because we crave attention.
I’m sorry we do that.
And why do we do these things? Why do we crave apologies and fail to give them or fail to do them humbly or…all of it?
Because we are dust. We are not the gods we pretend to be, the gods who have no need for apologies, to accept or give them; truly we have our reward.
We are dust.
Jake Byerly, little 5 year old Jake, came up to me one day and asked, “How did God make me?” And, without thinking, I pretended to gather dust from the ground and put it on his face and molded his eyes and then took a big breath and blew on his head so that his hair flew back.
“That is how God made you,” I said. I don’t know why I did that. But now…now he asks for it all the time. A ritual we share. A dear one. One that reminds me of where I, where Jake, where you, come from.
And it’s one that helps me put the “I’m sorry” moments of this world in perspective. Why don’t I get the “I’m sorry” that I deserve? Why don’t I say the “I’m sorry” that I should say?
To someone else. To God. To myself.
Because, mortal, you are dust. I am dust. We are dust. Beautiful dust, but dust nonetheless. And so much of our time wasted on waiting for I’m sorry or avoiding saying the words are the moth and rust and theives that decay life.
Humility is seeing this fully, I think.
So come, dusty ones, say “I’m sorry.” To the neighbor you have in your head whom you owe an apology. To God, who we run from and avoid and deny. To yourself, who needs a little more of a break than fake smile you’ve been giving.
And hear the “I’m sorry’s” around you as the one you’ve been waiting for.
For our time on earth is short; you are dust, mortal. Come be reminded by a gentle touch on your brow, a smudge of dirt, a little breath.
Come say, hear, receive, recall, recant, be reborn, renewed, by that phrase. It is the I’m sorry you long to say, the I’m sorry you long to hear, the thing that may bring you to say it yourself.
For such is the way of mercy, dusty one. And tonight we receive mercy from a God in Christ who deals gently with dust.
*This story was taken from “A Thousand Clowns” by Herb Gardner.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Jesus’ Identity Crisis and What We Need
Transfigure our hearts today, Lord
That we might ever see you
And call upon that sight
Especially when we can no longer see you
Transfiguration, these texts for today, are a nice little book-end to this season that we call “Epiphany” and the days following.
The church has seasons, and the church has seasons because we, as humans, have seasons. From the time that our ancient parents understood that a seed planted and watered at a certain time of year grows into food, that animals move around depending on the weather, that the Earth tilts just so toward and away from the sun causing things to be different in our environment, we’ve paid attention to seasons.
But the church is not so much concerned with the seasons outside of us…although, it still is in many ways…but more concerned about our inner seasons. The seasons of the soul. The seasons of the heart.
You know that I was at the Adler two weeks ago, learning about the universe. And they have this interactive station where you begin in the nothingness of the start of it all, what priest theologian and scientist Father George Lemaitre called “The Big Bang,” and you stand on the carpet and look at the floor, and as you step, beads of light swim around your feet; where you move, they move.
It’s what the scientists there called “quark soup,” a vast bit of confusion. You’re almost not sure what you’re looking at because it’s just the tip of something larger, something greater, something worthy of being called “Big Bang.”
It’s akin, I think, to what our reading today tells us about Jesus. Epiphany is the season where we ponder Jesus’ identity, and after the last seven weeks, we might surmise that Jesus has a bit of an identity crisis. He’s at some times serious, like last week, asking for radical challenging of systems. He’s sometimes a bit sassy, naming and us and reminding us who we are. He is Lamb of God, Messiah, and Rabbi…all of them; no need to pick one identity. He is marked for death, as the myrrh shows in the Magi story, but he also embodies transcendence…a quality we see today.
In theological terms we call today’s experience of Jesus’ on the mountain top apophatic. It is that experience that you cannot put into words because it is so powerful, words cannot encompass it. It is so real and yet makes you question reality. It is so strong, and yet in its presence you feel weak.
I wonder if we’ve all had this experience of God at some moment in time. Some claim that the Eucharist gives this experience with God, being so closely connected with Christ that tears stream down your face. Some claim it has happened in nature, at the birth of a child, in the last gasps of a loved one. Some claim that is has happened in dream states. Some claim it has happened in crowds, some in solitude.
A strong, personal, hyper-real experience of the Divine. That is what these few disciples experience today. It is called hyper-real because to make it intelligible would be impossible. This is why the Gospel writer uses these amazing descriptors: Jesus standing between the giver of the law (Moses) and the ultimate prophet (Elijah), with clothes of dazzling white and a face that is unrecognizable.
It is hyper-real. It is indescribable. It is amazing. It is like quark soup: you’re not sure what you’re looking at because you know that this is part of a bigger whole that you cannot see.
It is a glimpse of the God shown in Christ that is spectacular. And it is fleeting. Peter (it’s always him, right?) wants to make camp there. He wants to experience God in that way all the time, to bask in the divine glow of the apophatic faith that this experience gives…
But that’s not where life is lived.
Life is lived in what we, as theologians call, the kataphatic. The kataphatic is the regular, the ordinary, those experiences of God that we can say something about.
And this text comes along not just at the end of the season of Epiphany, but also when I’ve been having many conversations with many of you about cancer diagnosis. About treatments that had to be extended because everything is moving a little slower than it’s supposed to. About losing loved ones. About the challenges of having a baby, about the challenges of adding a baby to a household, about the challenges of juggling family life and work life and looking for places to live…
And see, many times in our lives, it will do to have Jesus as Rabbi, or Jesus as Lamb of God, or Jesus as fully human. Those ordinary times when we can say something about where we are and who we are.
But sometimes our lives look like a bunch of quark soup. Sometimes our lives look like a mess. Sometimes our lives look like radiation treatment and biopsies and perpetually sick parents and perpetually sick children, and in those moments I want to throw the kataphatic away, because, by God, I need to cling to a transcendent Jesus sometimes.
I need to cling to a savior.
I need to cling to an apophatic experience, one that makes God hyper real in a time when life seems all too real and all too pinching and all too hurtful…
We can’t stay in those experiences of the Divine that are too beautiful for words. But we can cling to them.
And I think it’s appropriate, as we head into Lent, as we begin walking through the darker season of the church year, the season of internal wilderness, the season of internal exploration, the season where we encounter all sorts of things, like our mortality at Ash Wednesday, our betrayals and deaths in Holy Week, I think it is appropriate that we have this apophatic experience of God today because it is these experiences that get us through those other times.
By clinging to this, we can walk the road to Calvary as a church in Lent, and as peoples in our own Calvary roads through treatment and illness and miscarriage and cancer and dementia and Parkinson’s and…anything.
Today we bury the Alleluia. Anyone know what that word means?
It means nothing in particular at all. It is the quark soup of words, a bit of confusion, used only to express a praise, a joy, that no definable word can encompass. Sometimes spelled with an “A”…the Greek form, or with an “H” …the Hebrew form, Alleluia/Hallelujah has no definition.
It is a word used for praise and glory, a word that taps into the apophatic reality of God when things are all too real.
And today we bury it. We bury it to deny ourselves saying it for the sake of entering deeply into Lent. But for those of us already in the Lent’s of our lives, already on the dark roads of uncertainty, we’re going to do some singing today. We’re going to sing Alleluia so much today that we, all of us, will have something to cling to when we don’t know up from down, right from left, when our lives are all quark soup. Sing with me a bit…and then you’re going to keep singing, as I end this sermon with a prayer. I invite you to close your eyes. Sing with me. Even those of you who never sing with the hymns, even if you sing off tune, even if you’re suffering from the worst cold in the world, today we will eek out an Alleluia because we need to be able to cling to the Christ who is savior in those moments when everything else falls away. We need to learn to sing Alleluia even on the road to Calvary; this is why the church has seasons…they teach us through practice to live, and die, well. The bell will tell you when to stop singing. Sing; Sing with me:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia…
We will lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, Lord, make us dwell is safety. (Psalm 134)
As we give up our Alleluia’s today, we rest in your peace.
As we walk the road to Calvary, we rest in your peace.
This is what we are about: we plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense in liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well, with whatever time we have left, Lord. It may be incomplete, but it will be a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, pilgrims, wanderers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
So into your hands, O Lord, we commend our spirits. For you have redeemed us. Keep us as the apple of your eye; hide us under the shadow of your wings.
In this time and forevermore.*
*Adapted from the Compline prayer in “A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals”
38″You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43″You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
On The Indigo Girls and Being Whole, Not Perfect
You ask the impossible,
Or so it seems, Lord.
And yet, we know you do the impossible
Not just water into wine
Not just sick into well
Not just sinner into saint
But more amazingly
Hard heart into loving and beloved
Do that today
And we shall not be perfect, but whole
I blame my wife for me liking The Indigo Girls. Any fans?
They have this song Galileo that starts off, “Galileo’s head was on the block/his crime was looking up the truth…”
I heard a bit about Galileo this past Tuesday, having been invited to the Adler Planetarium as they honored clergy contributions to science. Other clergy…not myself…I haven’t contributed anything to science since my seminal balloon model of mitochondria from Freshman year. Mitochondria are the “powerhouses of the cells.” Surprised you didn’t know that…
But in this presentation they hauled out all these little 16th and 17th Century gadgets and books and maps, including some old telescopes made of paper and ivory. They were wonderful!
And then we did what all people do around ancient objects: we told stories. And the Vatican’s curator for meteorites (yes…they have one of those) was there, and he spoke about Galileo. Galileo, amongst his other controversial discoveries, believed that the sun had “sunspots” and was a dynamic presence in the universe. Other scientists of the day also observed these sunspots, but they did so using the sun’s shadow to expose them.
Not Galileo. No. He took out his trusty telescope and looked directly at the sun…and went mostly blind because of it.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the final portion of which we hear today, we have Jesus giving all sorts of instructions. From “blessed are the…” to, “you are salt and light…” to, “you have heard it said…but I say…” We’ve been doing this all month…
And we end there today with Jesus using these last lines, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Good ending for a super-long sermon, right? Except perfection eludes us, and the quest for it is dangerous. Like looking at the sun…
If there is any reason the Christian community should require its pastors to take Greek (and require them to go to school at all), these texts of recent week provide it. Beware of lax interpretations. We saw this last week with Gehenna translated as “hell,” and this week we see it with the imperfectly translated word: perfect.
The Greek word here is not “perfect” like we think of “perfect.” Telos is the Greek word here. Telos is the word that connotes God’s good, whole, end. It is God’s emphatic exclamation point at the end of the sentence of life. Telos: the arrival at the truth of all things.
See, we think of “perfect” as being without blemish or flaw, and to have Jesus say that we must do that…well…there are plenty of churches in this city or around the world that claim this to be the end-all and be-all of religion and Christ’s call: moral perfection and success. You, too, can have it!
On the flip-side, you have places that almost claim the other end of that spectrum to a fault; that claim that God requires nothing of us.
Both poles are wrong, I believe.
No. God calls us to live radically. “Radical” literally means, “to get to the root” and in the ending of Jesus’ sermon on the mount we have Jesus getting to the root of Divine love.
Just as that curator got to the root of the Galileo story by exposing its historical underbelly, these last sayings in this sermon get to the root of what it means to love as God loves by getting to the underbelly of all these other laws that were floating around the Jewish world at the time giving the appearance that you could live perfectly with practice.
That idea still floats around this world, today.
“Eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth.” Another way to say that: “let the punishment fit the crime.” In the Old Testament it is actually a call for leniency. If a man takes your eye, you can only take his eye…not his whole face…a tooth only allowed for another tooth extraction.
Which is gross. Gandhi rightly noted that, if humanity lived by “an eye for an eye” we’d just all be blind…
But Jesus takes that notion and blows it up. He injects radical understandings into life, love and law.
Jesus says that to love as God loves, to love wholly, is to take no eyes and no teeth, but to love our enemies, to pray for them, and to up the ante on their violent games and systems of subservience.
Yes. We are called to up the ante on the violent games, the games of destruction, in this world.
If someone in the ancient world hit you on the right cheek, they did so using the back of their hand…like you’d strike an inferior. Offer the left side, and they had to strike you open handed…as an equal, shaming them into acknowledging you as an equal.
If a Roman soldier asked you to carry his sack, he could only lawfully ask you to carry it for one mile. Take it one step farther, and he’d have to beg you to take it off. Up the ante; don’t play their game of subservience. Instead, force them to take their game of violence to its natural next step and see what the result is…shame on them.
If you were indebted to someone, they could demand your cloak to use for the day. It was a way of shaming you; showing your indebtedness to the world. They had to give it back to you at the end of the day, though…the cloak may be the only protection the very poor and indebted had against the cold. You could not force them to die of exposure, the law said. Remember, an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. But Jesus says, “If they demand your cloak and shame you in public, give them all your clothes. Stand there naked in front of them.” Because there was greater shame for the one who caused someone to be naked then for someone to actually be naked…a state of vulnerability that was to be pitied.
Jesus takes all these laws, these games of tit-for-tat, and tells the disciples, tells us, not to play them. No. Don’t play them. Instead, take them to their natural conclusion and see if the other person wants to keep playing.
That, by the way, is what it means to love wholly in world that thinks love is “tough love” and “tit-for-tat” rules. It’s not loving “perfectly” as we understand it; it’s not without blemish. Offer the other cheek and you may get a blemish…but in doing so you’ll expose the blemish of the whole system, the whole game. By the way, Jesus was not talking about domestic violence here…we should not make that mistake. That is not loving wholly; that is abuse.
To love wholly is to love in such a way that the underbelly of the world of systems of violence and greed and fame and fortune and pursuits of pure success is exposed for what it is: morally and ethically bankrupt.
And God in Jesus does this masterfully in the cross. The cross is the place where the games of violence are taken to their natural end: death. And on the cross God in the Christ exposes violent death as the ending point for all our games of tit-for-tat, for all our games of rule keeping and punishing rule breakers…and then rises to redeem the whole process and its people.
The cross of Christ is that which holds up the mirror, carries humanity’s baggage for the extra mile, shows the other cheek, stands naked in front of us exposing our shame as a culture that still clings to “an eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth” mentality.
All the while praying for humanity.
Today, if the question is, “Who is Jesus” we see plainly that Jesus is the one who ups the ante on our violent games…and calls Christians to give up tit-for-tat mindsets in favor of behavior that exposes the folly of those mindsets because those mindsets cause the world to be blinded by violence and systems of dishonesty.
Kind of like Galileo looking at the sun in the quest for knowledge. Whole knowledge couldn’t be discerned in that way…it just ended in injury. Whole knowledge, whole justice, whole love can’t be discerned in an “eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth” way…it just puts us in Gehenna.
Instead, we are to love as God loves. It’s a strong love, a love that exposes a thing for what it is by looking at our shadow sides, exposing those portions of our humanity that we’d rather justify by laws and moral codes and systems.
And we are to practice this type of exposing love. But how?
It’s difficult. It takes some imagination. But we have some examples.
Like when black students sat at counter seats reserved for white people only. The understood racism was called into the question. The answer was forced. “If you don’t want us to sit here with your quietly racist ways, you’re going to have to expose the true violence by ripping us from these seats.” Such sit-ins channeled the Sermon on the Mount, it turned the other cheek on systemic racism.
As did the bus boycotts. And Stonewall. As did a little woman sitting at the front of a bus. As do stories of monks chanting peace amidst Molotov cocktails in the Ukraine. “If you’re going to kill, you’re going to have to kill us while we call for peace.”
And it looks like we have work to do still with the news coming out of Ole Miss…or, pick up any paper in Chicago any day of the week. God’s kingdom has not arrived. We have work to do.
Work to turn the other cheek on racism. Give the second garment to homophobia and patriarchy. Walk the extra mile to expose economic injustice and inequality and sex trafficking and sexism. We cannot totally divest from these systems in our complex world, but we can expose them for what they are; we can up the ante.
And, yes, in doing so we often expose how we’re complicit in these systems as well. But that is OK. Let a little light shine on that hard reality; we need to see it. Because our God loves wholly and doesn’t demand perfection and will walk mile two, three, four, and five with humanity to redeem it fully even while exposing our imperfections so that we grow and transform into God’s kingdom come to earth.
And I know…some of this is unwelcome news for us, for me. I like laws and rules and follow-able creeds. They seem to make life easy. Jesus just complicates it all. Because an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth world is easy to understand. Don’t put my head on a chopping block, Indigo Girls; I’m just trying to look up the truth…
Because we’re not called to easy; we’re called to wholeness.
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
“The Long Sermon on How God is Even in Gehenna” or “Everyone in the Handbasket”
Your prophetic words,
Sting a bit today.
And yet, we know that there is an underbelly of grace.
Grace is the final word, nothing more
For with grace, nothing more is needed.
Let us hear your grace today,
I’ve been to Hell, Michigan. So, I could say, I’ve been to hell.
I’ve been the sole Packer fan in a crowd of raging Bears fans. In many ways, I guess, you could claim that’s a hell of sorts. I might…
I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. That’s hell.
I’ve been to the American Girl store here in Chicago…
See where I’m going here?
In this reading today, we hear Jesus give all these impossible demands, effectively putting everyone in the handbasket; we’re all headed to hell. We can’t keep hate and lust and false promises out of our hearts. They put us in hell.
I heard a comedian say the other day, “Someone told me that if I kept up with my ways, I’d be going to hell, and I thought, ‘At this point, honey, it’s go big or go home…’”
This reading is all part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” that begins with the Beatitudes, moves to the passages on salt and light that you heard last week, and now continues with this discussion on Jewish law where Jesus starts shoving people into hell right and left. He’s giving this sermon to this diverse crowd of disciples and lepers and paralytics and Pharisees and demoniacs and…well, a whole lot of people in a whole bunch of different places in life.
And at these many mentions of hell, I’m sure all sorts of images and questions pop up in our heads. Hell, the place of brimstone and fire? That imagery is taken more from Dante, and before him, ancient Greek conceptions of Hades. Is that what Jesus is talking about here?
It’s not. We know it’s not because the Greek word used here is neither Tartarus nor Hades, those Greek words used to describe that place of Greek mythology.
Regardless, we don’t like Jesus talking about hell. Or maybe some of us like it a little too much, which is a problem, too…
Well, just as Hell, Michigan, is a place, we know that Jesus is talking about a place. A geographical location. The Greek here is Gehenna, and Gehenna is a valley that was outside of the Jerusalem that had been used as a place for ritual violence. Human sacrifice, especially children sacrifice, and it is thought that it eventually became a place where dead bodies of the poor were dumped after death or crucifixion, along with other things that nobody wanted in the city, perhaps even trash and refuse.
And so when Jesus says, “It is better for you to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand than to have your whole body end up in hell,” Jesus is using hyperbole to talk about you ending up in the place of ritual violence and death, the dump heap of Gehenna.
And it is a scary place. Hell, Michigan, is a vacation spot. Gehenna was…well…hellish.
It was the spot of cursed memory, where people knew others had died. It was Aushwitz. It was the gallows. Bodies were burned, so it is thought that it was often on fire.
It was a reminder that people once thought that the gods desired human sacrifice; that ritual violence got you closer to Divinity. Jesus fully debunks that with his life and mission.
If last week Jesus was the sassy friend who tells you who you are, or as a favorite theologian Edward Schillebeeckx would say, Jesus is the sassy friend who “gives you back to yourself,” this week Jesus is not so sassy.
Jesus is serious. Jesus is the serious prophet telling people that the law is not filled by strictly adhering to it, but rather by loving and forgiving one another radically. Otherwise we just end up in the Gehenna’s of life, those places where we reenact violence upon ourselves and others ritually because, well, in striving to fulfill the law we fail over and over again.
Jesus says in the passage just before this that the follower of God must have righteousness, and remember “righteousness” means “right relationship,” and that righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
But to the ancient ear, that would be like hearing that your mathematical skills must exceed that of the engineers and the statisticians, people who have devoted their life to studying it. I’m terrible at math, so this is bad news. Scribes and Pharisees studied the Torah their whole lives, if there was anyone who would know what the Torah says about being in right relationships, it would be them, right?
Well, it was them, at least in their eyes. And they came up with all sorts of rules to govern right relationships.
For instance, they took the Decalogue, what we know as the Ten Commandments, and they said, “You cannot murder.” But you sure enough could hate someone, just as long as you didn’t murder them. You could hold hate in your heart just as long as you didn’t physically murder.
To which Jesus says, “You’ve heard you shall not murder, but if you even hate someone, or deride them, or call them a fool, you’ll end up in Gehenna…”
That is, your inner hate will put you in a violent place because it is violent toward you in the same way that murder is violent toward another person. And remember, Gehenna is outside of the city, and in the ancient world you didn’t want to be outside of the city because it meant that you were vulnerable, not protected, and not surrounded by the community.
Hate surely does that, does it not? It does in me. Hate in my heart leaves me vulnerable to all sorts of other things like gossip and lies and bearing false witness and before I know it, I may not have killed them, but I’ve done all sorts of other damage to myself and them. Lord, hate is violent.
Here Jesus is serious about the fact that the followers of Jesus will not just be known because they don’t murder with their hands, but because they don’t murder with their hearts, either. They will be known for radical forgiveness and radical love, even seeking out the person before the trial has begun to reconcile themselves to them.
The texts on adultery and divorce are difficult to our modern ears, causing Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Playboy magazine, to admit that he has probably committed adultery due to lustful thoughts in his heart.
“Jimmy, you’re a little too hard on yourself,” I’d say. But in the ancient world where you could do anything but actually commit adultery, Jesus is calling the way the ancient peoples looked at adultery into question. The scribes and Pharisees had created all these systems to keep a person to physically stay within the law, and yet, Jesus notes, the insides should match the outsides; the desire with the action. It’s not just about adultery. It’s about the heart and intention.
In a patriarchal system where men dominated over women, the lust of the heart could easily lead to rape, incest, or adultery…leaving the woman lost in a world where she didn’t have a voice. Jesus’ comment on adultery takes women out of the property category that the ancient world had placed them in and gives them agency: the agency not to have to give in to someone else’s lusts just because they are male. The agency not to have a divorce forced on them just because the husband wants one.
The reason for divorce in ancient days could be as trivial as burning bread, by the way. Perhaps in knowing that you’ll see why Jesus rails against someone just handing their wife a document of divorce…
Systems of patriarchy put us in Gehenna.
“And when you promise something,” Jesus says, “don’t swear on God or anything else to back up your promise.” Lord, I do that all the time! “I swear on my grandmother’s grave,” or “I swear on my honor,” or…whatever. We swear on all sorts of stuff. People do this as insurance, but Jesus says that the followers of God won’t need that kind of insurance to assure that they are telling the truth because they will just be known as truth-tellers.
Man, that’s convicting.
The follower of Jesus will not just be known by their actions, but also by their insides. When the two don’t match up they end up in Gehenna, in the hell of having caused others grief and pain, and having caused themselves the same.
And we look at this list of antitheses, this list of impossible realities (because, really, we all have bits of hate and lust and covetousness and have made false promises), and we realize that, indeed, Jesus is ushering us all into the handbasket.
All of us. You are there. I am there. These laws are impossible to keep.
And you bet those ancient hearers of this sermon found themselves there, too. Because they had been trying this whole time not to murder or commit adultery or make false promises, all the while hating people in their hearts, or divorcing over small reasons because of their lusts, and using insurance to back up false promises.
And here we can begin to see what Jesus’ intent is: not to usher people into the handbasket on its way to hell, but rather to usher people into understanding the radical grace of God.
Because the scribes and the Pharisees, and indeed many in the church today, here and now, even here in Chicago, perhaps even in your heart, have set up all sorts of sin-management programs where we can earn our way to a sinless life. And in that reality, there is no need for God or grace, only the need for strict, follow-able rules.
Sin-management systems are all like bad infomercials: they promise results but they do not deliver, and they drive you crazy in the process. Because we’ll always just end up in Gehenna, in the place of sad memory, the dump heap, as we sit with the fact that we failed once again.
We cannot earn righteousness, as the Pharisees and scribes prescribe. We cannot. We end up in Gehenna.
But you know who else ended up in Gehenna? Jesus.
Because, you see, that valley outside of Jerusalem was also the place where they crucified the criminals for capital crimes. It was the place where they still enacted ritual violence, like those child sacrifices, only this time they thought that the ritual violence of killing criminals and the accused brought them closer to the divinity of the Emperor.
And all along the road outside of Jerusalem, down to the valley, there were crosses, and up on the hills were crosses, and there, indeed, at the place of the skull, Golgotha, otherwise known as Calvary, hung Jesus on the cross.
Directly across from the valley of Gehenna. Chances are that Jesus had a firsthand view of Gehenna from the cross.
Jesus, even he, ended up in the handbasket, sacrificed for ritual violence.
And the radical grace of God is one that tells us that we should stop trying to earn righteousness, but rather allow our insides and our outsides to be transformed by the grace of a God who restores us to right relationship even as we fail to do it ourselves through radical love and forgiveness. Because even if we find ourselves in hell, God in the Christ is there, even there, with a word of grace for our self-righteous and violent ways, encouraging us to give up our sin-management systems and instead live into the grace of God fully, inside and outside.
Today Jesus is a serious prophet, because today Jesus gets serious about how we are to be in this world. We are not part of a sin management program. That’s not what religion does when it’s at its best.
We are part of a life movement, being known for how we are just as much as what we do.
And one of the things that we are is forgiven. And one of the things that we do is change systems of power and patriarchy, and forgive one another and ourselves when we fail and find ourselves in the Gehennas, the hells of hate-filled hearts, broken relationships, and false promises that we can’t keep.
And if there’s one thing that we are here at Luther Memorial, if there’s one voice we can claim for a Chicago that is full of sin management systems, both secular and sacred, its claim that God’s law is not fulfilled in such ways. We don’t get closer to the divine by following the rules, sacrificing ourselves on the altars of this world. They are impossible to follow well. Instead we practice both on the outside and the inside radical love, radical forgiveness; that is the message of Jesus. That is why we’re all put in the handbasket, because only there do we see that God is the righter of all relationships.
So, fellow handbasket dwellers, take heart: God’s love is bigger than the Gehennas, the hells we find ourselves in, perhaps even the hell you find yourself in today. And as that radical love invades our beings, turning our insides into havens of love and truth and peace, we’ll give up our systems of patriarchy and false violence.
Jesus is serious about that, today. It will happen in God’s time.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Here’s Some Bad Advice
Blessed are the meek, you say
And then we boldly claim the title
Blessed are the poor, you say
And then we shop for blessings
Blessed are the peacemakers, you say
And then we fight over who is more peaceful
Lead us to blessing today, Lord
That we might truly enact your kingdom.
How many of you are Pete Seeger fans? Pete Seeger is one of my musical inspirations, though I didn’t always know it. I grew up in that time between our modern “Praise and Worship” music and the previous incarnation, the “Bonfire-Camp-Guitar” songs.
If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land
There we were, the late 80’s, singing about hammering out “danger” and “warning.” And the Berlin wall had just fallen and in-between our neon pants and big hair, we didn’t know danger or warning like our parents did, cowering under their desks or watching the mailbox for that draft letter.
And yet, we sang it because it was peppy. Maybe it means something again?
Or that iconic song trumpeted by The Byrds,
To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
Pete Seeger grabbed these lyrics from Ecclesiastes, and the Byrds made it a hit. But listen to the lyrics. This passage from Ecclesiastes is great advice. It’s all about trying to tell what time it is in your life. It’s one of the places I continually turn in my discernment for my life.
Or, my favorite,
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
Oh Deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome
Now that last one wasn’t written by Seeger, but he was the first one my young self heard sing it, and is derived from Galatians 6:9, “You shall overcome if you become not weary…”. And in seminary we sang it together at the beginning of my class called The Theology of Martin Luther King. And when Rhonda and I watched Lee Daniels: The Butler the other night, I sang along to it in the movie…
Pete Seeger was a voice of peace in a time when that wasn’t popular, and it got him in trouble. He was labeled a Communist, which I find interesting because “We Shall Overcome” became the rally song of anti-Communist movements in Czechoslovakia. But that’s to be expected, in many ways…all this labeling, right? After all, today Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And Pete was a peacemaker.
So along with the poor, and the meek, and the mourning, and the abused for the faith, are the peacemakers. It’s an odd category to lump them in. We don’t often think of peacemakers as being in the same category as the poor and the mourning.
In this season, if we’re trying to figure out just who Jesus is, we can arrive at this: Jesus is one who gives bad advice.
Last week he was a questionable judge of character in choosing people with commitment and family issues, plain non-descripts, to be his disciples. Today he sits down to teach, and he gives bad advice. At least to our modern ears.
Because, and this is the rub, people have heard the Beatitudes, as this passage is called, and they’ve said, “Huh? If that’s what it takes to get blessing, than that’s what I’ll become. I’ll seek out poverty. I’ll seek out mourning. I’ll seek out abuse. It will give me blessing.”
And we do this, I think, largely because we feel we have to earn blessing in this world by doing something.
But that’s not it. The Beatitudes are bad advice. Don’t follow them as advice.
But, you see, while they’re bad advice, they are good news. In fact, they’re God’s good news to a world full of people who try to seek out blessing, and in doing so, trample on one another in their egos and their greed and their desire to be the head of the banquet table that we call life.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus sets up what the Kingdom of God, or the “reign of God,” or what “God’s world,” looks like. In God’s world, the one who is the outcast is the head of the table. The humble one, the one calling for peace, is the child of God; the one after God’s own heart. The meek one is the one who has everything. The poor in spirit is the one who is rich in God’s indwelling.
And it makes a little sense, if you think about it. Take that last one, the “poor in spirit.” Often times our spirits are so full of other things: pride, ego, success, money, that there’s no room for God. The empty spirit, the one devoid of all that other crap, there God has space to dwell.
But in our world, all of those other things that fill up our spirits are the marks of success, of blessedness.
Not so in God’s world. Not so in God’s kingdom, in God’s house, in God’s reign…
See, that’s why the Beatitudes are bad advice but good news. Because the minute you seek after being the poorest in the room, your desire to be so has already filled you up to the point that there’s no space left. Your desire to be the meekest has filled you with too much pride.
If you’re full, where is God to dwell?
But a life that follows Christ…
A life that talks like Christ talked, lives for the other like Christ lived, and honors the call of sacrificial love like Christ’s life honored, and continues to honor, that life will put you in a place of meekness. It will drain your spirit because, well, living that way is harder than living full of yourself. It will make you merciful because you realize that God must be merciful with you in your imperfection and mistakes. It will make you a peacemaker because it will shove you into the middle of conflict…because if there’s one place that Christ went, and keeps going, it’s into the middle of people’s hell.
And that life…that is blessed. It’s not always happy in the way the world defines “happy,” but it is blessed. Makarios is the Greek there for “blessed”. It can mean happy, but here it doesn’t seem to. It seems, rather, to indicate an identity that is, more than anything, future leaning. It’s a recognition of promise or respect. It’s a state of being wrapped up in something bigger than yourself.
Blessed. Blessed means inheriting the promise.
And that’s good news for those marchers in Selma, Alabama. For those marchers in apartheid South Africa. For those oppressed all over the world today who sing loudly, “We Shall Overcome” and who get beaten down for it.
Christ led them to those marches, as they work in their meekness for equal rights, as their spirits are drained by water cannons and dog attacks, only a fool would call them blessed. No one would seek after doing that kind of work; that’s bad advice.
And yet, Christ marched right there with them. Marches right there with them. And in the presence of Christ, we are blessed. We go there not to get blessing, but to be with Christ.
So, I think, if last week we heard that Jesus is the one who calls us into community, and calls us to repent and face one another, this week we hear unmistakably that Jesus is the one who calls us into living in this world differently than the world tries to force us to live. A world who tells us to earn blessedness is not God’s world. No.
God’s world is a world where blessedness occurs because you follow Christ into a life of self-giving love. And it often looks nothing like blessing. And sometimes you’re brought up on charges of suspicion because, well, no one should be that focused on meekness, on peace, on encouraging right relationships, on encouraging righteousness.
And yet, Christ is and does. It’s bad advice, but it’s some good news for us today who try to earn blessing. Don’t earn blessing. Follow the Christ into the hells of this world, and you will be blessed. Deep in my heart, I do believe it.
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —
16the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
I Don’t Want to Sit Next to That Guy…
Let us pray,
Bind us together, Lord
Even when we don’t want to be bound
Bind us together, Lord
Even when we continue to practice outsider/insider behaviors
With chords that cannot be broken
For we will try to break them with all our might
Bind us together, Lord
For the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus
They say confession is good for the soul. So today, on this, the last Sunday of January, your dear pastor has a confession to make.
And, no, it’s not that I’m “tired of winter.” That’s not a confession…I don’t feel the need to confess that.
No. And it’s not the confession that I told you about where, if I mistakenly forget to include my clerical collar in my suitcase, I’ll sometimes use an index card. That’s old news…and I know you remember it because a number of you have checked to see if my collar is real lately.
I have a confession, and this is it: when I’m standing in line waiting to board a plane, I make judgments about the people around me, because, frankly, I’d rather not sit next to “that guy.”
And, no, the judgments aren’t around body odor, or dress, or halitosis, or even fussy babies. I’m a pastor; I’ll put up with a lot.
No. The judgment I pass is sitting next to “the talker.”
When I’m stuck in one place for more than an hour, I do not want to talk to you non-stop. I’m an extrovert, but even I have my limits. Give me the person on the ipod. I want to sit next to them.
We all have judgments, of course. I remember after 9/11 hearing about Muslim students on my college campus requesting student escorts to class. We’ve heard…and have unfortunately witnessed…all of those things, probably in person. We shake our head at it. And yet, in our own hearts, we all have said in some form or another, “I don’t want to sit next to that guy…” about someone.
It would seem, by today’s reading, that Jesus is a questionable judge of character.
In today’s Gospel he personally invites these fishermen, tradesmen, nobodies, non-descripts to come with him. And their eagerness, indeed the text says that they went “immediately” to follow him, might suggest (at least it does to me) some inherent character flaws.
Does their willingness to abandon everything not show some sort of commitment issues, probably buried deep down? James and John even leave their father Zebedee in the boat, left to manage the day’s business alone. Uhm, doesn’t that scream “family issues” to you?
People with commitment issues and family issues? I’d rather not sit next to that guy…
Except that, well, I am that guy.
There are tons of things to pull from this text on Jesus calling the first disciples; it drips with meaning around vocation, around immediately switching tracks to follow a calling, but the one thing that lays heavy on my heart this morning is this deep truth mined from this text: Jesus calls people by personal invitation…but calls them into groups, into community, which means you can’t go it alone.
Life, especially life done in the faithful pursuit of meaning, isn’t solitary. It is communal. Simon and Garfunkel were wrong…we are not rocks or islands.
And that’s instructive for those of us hesitant to sit next to “that guy.” Because Jesus calls him, too.
Now, before you think you’ve heard all this before, about how you’re to “welcome the stranger” because God is found even there, let me drive the point home just a bit.
How many of you are aware of the intense fighting going on in Kiev, in the Ukraine?
I won’t go into immense detail, but in Kiev the right to protest is eroding precipitously by the elected government who has commitment issues, issues keeping social promises with the European Union, and the people are protesting against a militarized police…with deadly results, and the potential of much more death.
And, as it turns out, some monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were tending their nets, as it were; were minding their own business, when they heard Jesus say, “I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their studies and their translations and their prayers and they went between the two lines, barricades of tires on fire and police riot gear, and they lifted up the cross and they said, “Repent!”
Repent. It’s a funny word. In Greek it’s metanoeo. In Hebrew it’s shub.
In liberal spheres the word is barely uttered. Too much guilt. In conservative spheres it’s said so much that it becomes a weapon. But in radical spheres…and I hope we can be that here…it’s neither anathema nor a weapon. It is what it means. “Repent” in both Greek and Hebrew means the same thing: turn around.
Now imagine yourself an Orthodox priest in Kiev standing between military police and angry protestors yelling, “Repent!” or “Turn around!”
Turn around, there’s another way to do this.
Their faith, the call of Christ, moved them to immediately take this position and yell for both sides to “repent” for as Jesus says, “the kingdom of God has come near!”
That’s a tricky phrase, too. Probably better understood as “God’s world is now!” God works here and now. Turn around! Look for it! Don’t look for violence; look for the marks of God!
We need that, here, too. Not just in Kiev. There’s a war undergirding our kingdom today. How many shootings have we heard about in the last two weeks? Six, I think? Six by my count. Maybe more.
One was a middle schooler who snuck the gun in his band case. And this is not even mentioning the unspeakable family tragedy we all heard about in Mundelein…another instance of family issues.
My thoughts on guns and gun control are well known by most of you, I’m sure. But to pretend like the recent violence is only about gun control is to be naïve and short sighted. There are a variety of factors here.
And one of them, I think, is that so many of us consider ourselves such good judges of character that we know who to turn our backs on, and we do so.
We, collectively. We. We in families, even in our own families sometimes. We. We do so, too much and too often.
And to that, I say, “repent.” Me, too. We must repent. I must repent. We must turn around.
How much I wish I could have yelled at that middle schooler to “repent,” to “turn around…not today. Don’t do this today.”
Not today. The kingdom of God is near. Right here, if we practice it. Right here if we turn to one another instead of turn away. Right here if we take our seats next to one another instead of protesting that we refuse to “sit next to that guy…”
Because “that guy” is loved and claimed by God, and perhaps a personal invitation like the kind Jesus gave would be enough to immediately stop the nets of death from being fashioned.
Kiev isn’t quiet, but it isn’t as bloody. The monks take shifts. They understand that they needed to do this “immediately.”
And I hear Jesus, today, calling us. As a church. As individuals. “Repent!” “Turn around! Face the one you’ve written off; they are mine, too!” It’s one of the gifts we can give to this world today.
You all know I write a blog other than just my sermon blog, and sometimes write things that push some buttons in the faith world. There’s a woman in Florida who reads, and attempts to comment, on my blog very faithfully. And her comments might generously be identified as “terse”. If I were speaking honestly I’d say she’s downright mean.
And she took great exception to an article I wrote last week where I used the joke, “I found Jesus…he was behind the couch the whole time!”
She noted, that behind her couch are dust balls and old cheerios and all sorts of nasty things, and that she dare not imagine her savior covered in filth hiding behind the couch…
“Irreverent,” she called me. That’s OK. I’ve been called worse. I want to write her off…I need to repent of that.
But, this is the thing, just two days ago I was on the “L” and got on a crowded train where there was only one seat available, and it would have meant that the person choosing the seat would sit next to a man who had obviously soiled himself, was covered in salt and snow and dirt, had an unkempt beard. The whole train was packed except for the one seat next to this man.
And people chose to stand. Me too. Another confession.
Fine; I rationalized the choice. But that seat needed to be taken, not for me, but for him. And I didn’t realize it. Or maybe I did, but didn’t want to face it, so I turned my back.
Because…what if that was Jesus, behind the proverbial couch, and I missed a chance to encounter Christ? I’m being serious. That’s not romanticizing. The Jesus born in a stable, the Jesus with woodworker hands…why would we think that Jesus would show up in any glory other than the glory of the ordinary?
Or what if I was Christ there…sometimes I don’t know how the Holy Spirit is moving in me…and I needed to repent, to turn around, because I was being called to immediately meet a need.
And this act, this is not charity. This is not kindness. This is not even justice! This is humanity. This is community. This is taking seriously the call of a Christ who didn’t call just one person to be the Robin to his Batman, the Laurel to his Hardy.
This is the call of the Christ who calls us into community, even if you don’t know what you’re doing here. Because this walk of life, especially this faith life, is not one that you do alone, and it is one where you may be called, immediately, to follow Jesus in repenting, in turning around.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”
I think he overstates it. I don’t even know that we need friendship to give value to survival. Sometimes all we need is a little basic humanity.
And if we’re trying to find out in this time between Christmas and Lent, just who Jesus is, I’d say that Jesus is one who calls us to true humanity through the call to repent, and in practicing true humanity we do the work of the Christ in this world. We follow Christ in practicing God’s reign.
For the reign of God is near! And we practice it best when we turn. Turn from our violence. Turn to face the stranger in our midst. When we heed the call to follow.
The reign of God is one where we’re not afraid to sit next to “that guy,” but rather choose it for the sake of this call of faith. And choose it immediately. Amen.