Lenten Reflections 2020
Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020
Saturday, April 4, 2020, “If God is All-Powerful, Then Why…”
What is more powerful: an 800 horsepower Indy racing car traveling at 230 mph, or the will to get up at age 95 and walk 100 yards with two canes?
The Gospel intends to upend our normal understanding of things. We normally think of power has
1. The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality;
2. The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.
“Power” gives us the ability to do what we want to do, when we want to do it, and how we want to do it. The “more” power the better. Why use an early 20th century hand drill when we can use a 20-volt DeWalt Max XR Lithium-Ion drill? If you need to dig up a large tree root on the west side of the manse along highway 94, why use a shovel when people like Ralph Shotwell have a 130 horsepower Caterpillar backhoe? “Power” makes things easier and faster. This is the normal, “earthly” understanding.
If God is omnipotent, all-powerful, then can God create a rock so big that God cannot lift it? This is a basic version of an ancient philosophical problem. If we say, “yes,” then God is not all-powerful because there is therefore a rock so big that God cannot move. If we say, “no,” then God is not all-powerful because there is something God cannot do. This “problem” is created by the normal understanding of “power.” We humans have some power. God is greater than us humans, therefore what we have in small doses, God has to the maximum capacity; hence, God has all power. Such an understanding of power leads to real-world questions when “things go horribly wrong.” “Why did God allow this to happen?” “Why is God doing this?” Behind such questions is the idea that God has all power in the sense of making life easier, in the sense of having the ability to control things.
In his famous/infamous 16th century book most of us read as freshmen in high school, The Prince, Machiavelli wrote: “Therefore, it is unnecessary for a prince [political leaders] to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious.” The good qualities he refers to are the Christian virtues personified in Jesus, chief among them humility, self-denial, and the willingness to suffer. Political leaders, within a Christian context as Machiavelli was writing in, should appear, or pretend, to have such Christian virtues, but to actually have them would be a disaster! Why? Machiavelli understood better than most modern Christians just how subversive the Gospel is, how the Gospel, the Way of Jesus, upends our normal understanding of things like power. Machiavelli wrote in his other great work, Discourses on Livy, the following: “Our religion has glorified humble and contemplative men, monks, priests, humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action. It is assigned as man’s highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things… our religion demands that in you there be strength, [and] what it asks for is the strength to suffer rather than to do bold things.” In other words, he says Christian strength or power is the ability to suffer, rather than the ability to do what we want, when we want, and how we want, or the ability to influence or control events or people.
Jesus is not controlling Judas. Even knowing what he is about to do, Jesus offers him bread. Knowing Peter will deny him three times before the sun rises, Jesus does not exercise power in the normal sense of the word in an effort to control or influence Peter. From the cross, Jesus does not call down angels from heaven to prevent the pain and suffering, and, as I discussed last week, he does not return from the grave to exact powerful revenge on those responsible for his pain and suffering. Rather, he cooks breakfast, takes a walk a dusty road, shows up in ordinary places communing with ordinary people about extraordinary ways of understanding ordinary things. This is a different understanding of power: It is not about “how much” power; rather, as Ana Case Winters helpfully elucidates in her book, God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges, it is about “what kind of” power. It is about the quality of the power, not the quantity (all-powerful, omnipotent), and as Machiavelli and the writer of the Gospel of John both fully understood, the quality of this divine power has to do with a capacity for humility, self-denial, and suffering, rather than exerting energy to change or control things. For Machiavelli, even though he understood it, it was not the Way to go. For the Gospels, it is the only Way.
This new understanding of power may not excite us in a cheerleader kind-of-way, and it certainly will not get us elected to political office; however, it will lead us to a life worth living and dying for. “A new commandment I give you, Love one another As (quality/way) I have loved you, so love one another.” Amen.
Friday, April 3, 2020, “Then and Now”
It would be easy for us to think we are so much better informed than those on the road to Jerusalem 2,000 years ago because we, unlike them, know Jesus was not coming as a political or military leader. But that idea 2.000 years ago that he would be a political and military leader meant that he would bring better days to them, that life, real life here on earth, would be better, economically, socially. So, at the heart of that idea, I suspect we have more in common with those followers 2,000 years ago than first meets the eye. Yes, Jesus is not an earthly political and military leader, yes, his kingdom is not of this world, but if I follow him, if I believe in him, if I have enough faith, things here on earth will go well for me. Right?
A hospital chaplain in Georgia left the hospital where he worked one Ash Wednesday and attended an Episcopal Ash Wednesday service that included the imposition of ashes, the priest marking on his forehead a sign of the cross in ashes. When he returned to the hospital, he was going to visit a older woman who he described as a “smiley face Christian,” someone who, it had seemed to him in the several days she had already been at the hospital, was a bit shallow, glib in her faith. As he approached her bed and greeted her, she blithely said, “Oh, goody, the chaplain has come to visit me,” and as he got close to her, she then said, “You have something on your forehead,” and as she said this, she reached for a tissue to wipe it off. He said, “No, please don’t. That is the sign of a cross in ashes.” The woman was from a church that did not observe things like Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent, so she was unfamiliar with this, and she asked the chaplain, “Why would you do that?” The Chaplain responded, “It is a reminder to me that when life goes to hell, God is still with me.” Having said this, the woman said, “Oh, I need a God like that.”
We all need a God like that. We all want a god who helps us succeed, who makes our lives go well. We dream of such a god, just as others did 2,000 years ago; but now as well as then, we all need a God who is with us when life goes to hell, and that is the God who entered Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
Thursday, April, 2, 2020 “Who is This?”
The noisy mob following from Jericho up the hill (truly up the hill, about a 3.000 foot change in elevation) to Jerusalem shouting “Son of David” think they know who Jesus is, the new King of Israel and then having entered Jerusalem (21:10) we are told, “The whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The Roman historian, Tacitus, estimated the population of Jerusalem in this time period as 600,000 people. Whatever noisy mob had followed Jesus into Jerusalem were now met with something far larger and even noisier, and “the whole city was in turmoil.” Then we are told (21:11), “The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Fair warning: “the crowds” never give the correct answer in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, at least not a fully correct answer. (In the Gospel of John, the role of always giving the wrong answer is assigned “the Jews,” but that is a matter for another day.)
The question about Jesus’ identity should ring a bell. It is the question Jesus asked his own chosen disciples at the entrance to the cave that was believed to lead to hell back in Matthew 16 just before the Mount of Transfiguration. That was the moment when Peter declared, “You are the anointed one, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” And then, as I previously wrote, Jesus says it is on this revelation of who he really is that he is building his Church, and that revelation of who he really is not the the result of human intelligence or historical or geographical knowledge (“flesh and blood”), not a human achievement in any way, but something given by “My Father in heaven.”
Someone who has been part of Yellow Frame for years and has been reading these reflections recently said to me, “I didn’t know you had been in the military.” Many of us have had similar experiences, years into a friendship or work relationship, we suddenly discover something significant about someone we thought we knew very well. And how do we come to know this surprising new thing about them? They reveal it to us. We might, if so motivated, do some research and find out through public records or a Google search, where they were born, went to school, and where they live now, etc., but to truly know them, to truly know “what makes them tick,” they have to open up and share intimate things with us: it must come from them, not our own efforts at research. It is a gift they give us, the gift of sharing who they really are.
The central focus of all the Gospel painters is the question of who Jesus really is, and while they can paint as convincing a portrait as possible, at the same time they each tell us in their own ways that our truly knowing Jesus will be a spiritual gift from heaven, from Jesus himself, not simply by reading these Gospels, or attending seminary, or church, or any other “flesh and blood” activity/effort, as important as they might be.
Lord Jesus, I want to know you: share yourself with me today, I pray.
Wednesday, April 1, 2020 “Extended Passion Narratives”
In following Matthew’s Gospel from the Mount of Transfiguration (chapter 17) on, we have reached Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (chapter 21), and the one of the keys, first shouted by the two blind men on the roadside and now repeated several times here, is “Son of David.” The scene being painted is more and more a noisy, mob-like one, and mob is clearly painted as having in mind a political and military victor, as the title “Son of David” refers to Psalm 2 and is the title first century Jews used to talk about “the one who was to come,” the one who would “break the yoke” of Roman occupation, and “restore Israel” to the earthly glory it had enjoyed under the rule and reign of King David about one thousand years earlier.
All four Gospels have been called ‘extended passion narratives,” “passion” in this context meaning the suffering and death of Jesus, but more generally, the traveling towards Jerusalem (Mount of Transfiguration) and last week (“Holy Week”) of his life. Matthew devotes 11 of 28 chapters to it. Mark devotes 7 of 16 chapters to it. Luke has 15 of 24 chapters from the Mount of Transfiguration towards Jerusalem, and John devotes 10 out of 21 chapters to the last week of Jesus’ life. To put this in perspective, Jesus’ birth does not even get mentioned in two of the four Gospels (Mark and John), and in the two it does, a total of 4 chapters combined. The grand totals:
Total chapters in all four Gospels: 89
chapters on Jesus’ birth: 4
Mt. of Transfiguration/Journey to Jerusalem/final week of Jesus’ life: 43
Based on this, we can see why Lent, Holy Week and Easter were always the priority in the Church’s life, at least until the 19th century and Charles Dickens, and St. Nick, and the progression to Santa Claus, “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and the rise of commercialism and consumerism, etc. over the past 200 hundred years. It is easier to conflate stories of a wonder-filled birth with commercialism than it is with suffering and death, though the latter has certainly not been untainted by things like an Easter bunny and chocolate-covered eggs.
Almost half of all the Gospels are about this journey towards Jerusalem and its suffering and death, and yes, then resurrection, but the suffering and death are the way to that. Is this time of Coivd-19, during Lent, a time for the Church and its people (“church” here in the universal sense, not simply Yellow Frame) to go deeper into the difficult topics of suffering and death?
Ours has been called a “death-denying culture.” We stay so busy focused on things that ultimately do not matter, and much of it having to do with buying and selling, and then maintaining what we have, and this is never more true than in the Christmas season. To really sit with the Gospels, to truly read them, whether “Lectio Divina,” or “Contemplative Reading,” or some other immersive way, is to have some of this death-denying culture stripped away from us and to help us follow this Jesus, this Jesus who has not come to give political or military success, or even “personal success,” and whose importance and significance is not found in how he was born, but in how he suffered and died. I prefer wonder-filled stories of birth myself, so it is a question that arises as much for me as it is one I ask of any of you.
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 “Painting a Picture”
In Vermeer’s famous painting, “The Music Lesson,” it seems to be a very straightforward and “realistic” painting of something that actually happened. Closer inspection shows Vermeer has made several decisions to change “reality” in order to more fully convey his “message,” or mood/feeling. As one example, the mirror is different than what it “actually” would be given her stance in front of the Virginal (the musical instrument in front of her). In order to actually see the scene the mirror reflects, the mirror, in reality, would have to be angled off the wall about 30 degrees, which it is not. Vermeer’s goal is to convey a particular mood/impression, to bring the viewer’s gaze and focus fully on the young girl (and secondarily to the relationship/feelings with the man), not to record a scene one hundred percent “as it is.” To paint the mirror at a thirty degree angle from the wall brings the mirror itself too much into focus at that would distract us. Vermeer wants to focus our attention on the young woman, not the mirror itself, so he alters reality. He does this at several other places in the painting, such as with the shadows underneath the Virginal.
The Gospel writers are painting a picture. To say the Gospels are not “true” because certain details, say Jesus healing two blind men on the roadside, could not have happened as described is as ludicrous a saying Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” is not true because the mirror could not have been at that angle. The focus of the Gospel writers is on Jesus and who he is, not the miracles, or whether or not Quirinius was actually the governor of Syria when Jesus was born (Luke 2: spoiler alert, he was not.)
I think the healing of the two blind men on the roadside, just before entering Jerusalem, is a beautiful picture of our need to be healed of spiritual blindness, the blindness that prevents us form seeing Jesus for who he really is, One who has come to save us from our sins. Remember how Matthew begins? “You shall name him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (chapter 1: 21), not give them/us political/military success, or even physical health or personal wealth). Our greatest need is to be be saved from our sins, not physical blindness, not even the coronavirus.
All four Gospel writers paint a picture of Jesus healing blindness just before enter Jerusalem in the week before his death, and all four of them have significant differences in the details, in the angle of the mirror hanging on the wall, or the shadows underneath; and yet, in all four the focus is on Jesus and who he is, a Savior come to save us from our sins, as well as who he is not, a giver of health, wealth and prosperity: the Cross puts a nail in that fantasy.
Monday, March 30, 2020 “Blindness”
We are approaching Palm Sunday, April 5th, and in the Gospel of Matthew we are following Jesus from the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17) to Jerusalem (Matthew 21), and he has now traveled about 65 miles south and he is on the other side of the Jordan, 10-15 miles east of Jerusalem.
In order to now continue traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus must cross back over the Jordan River (movement there is alluded to in Matthew 20:17) and travel through Jericho, and the writer of the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 20:29-34) paints a scene in which two blind men are sitting by the roadside, and they begin shouting, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” Matthew paints a scene with a large crowd following Jesus, not simply the 12 disciples. There is now something of a mob around Jesus, a noisy, excited mob of people who are expecting something great from this thirty year old Jewish man from Galilee 65 miles north of their town. We are told this crowd tells the two blind men to shut up (“sternly ordered them to be quiet”), but then comes more comedy. The two blind men respond by shouting even more loudly! And then the really hilarious after that. Jesus stops in front of these two blind men, and we are told Jesus asks this question: “What do you want me to do for you?” The comedy of this question is usually lost on people. What else might they ask for? Are these two blind men sitting by the roadside shouting loudly in order to get Jesus to autograph their walking sticks? Would they ask for some coins to buy a cup of coffee? Are they going to ask him for financial advice? Will they ask for directions back to Main Street Jericho? What else are two blind men going to ask Jesus for? The comedic absurdity of the question is akin to breaking a leg and being carried into an emergency room and the doctor saying, “So, what do you want me to do for you?” Really? I need to tell you? How about re-setting the bone, putting a cast on, and give me some pain-killers, and, as the kids say, duh!
As we sit in our homes quarantined by Covid-19, what would we ask Jesus for? What is our greatest need? Is our self-understanding of our greatest need truly our greatest need? If Jesus gave us what we thought we most needed, would it really change our lives in the way we most need? Or, instead of breaking a leg and knowing we need a doctor to re-set the bone, is it more like we have some serious symptoms and we need the doctor, a Great Physician, to figure out what we need? Self-diagnosis, particular by the non-professional, is too prone to error, to prone to being blind.
Lord, in our blindness, show us our greatest need.
Sunday, March 29, 2020
I said the other day that followers of Jesus are not asked to go out seeking martyrdom: that’s insane. Some would. Later in the history of the church, 200-400 C.E., groups like the Donatists and Circumcellions would actually provoke Roman soldiers, taunt and harangue them incessantly in the hope the soldier would kill them and thus make them a martyr, and, as they believed, be instantly transported to paradise. That’s like walking into a bear’s den and slapping it on the head and then being attacked and killed. That does not make one a victim or a martyr: it simply reveals a case of crazy.
The portrait of Jesus being painted by the Gospel of Matthew is not of one who is seeking martyrdom for self-glorification purposes. He had circled around Jerusalem and is now on the other side of the Jordan River about 10-15 miles away. He is on his way to Jerusalem not seeking death, rather, he simply knows the hearts of people, and he knows that who he is and the kind of “kingdom” he is announcing is so different and so counter-culture to those in power (Romans and Jews both) that it cannot but lead to their using their power to silence and extinguish him. To know, as a nurse or doctor, that going to the hospital every day amid Covid-19 may very well lead to your own death is not seeking death for self-glorification purposes: it is simply fulfilling one’s calling, being who one is.
On his way to Jerusalem and then after entering Jerusalem, Matthew paints the picture of Jesus teaching on a variety of matters (chapters 18-25 are teachings), including here in Matthew 19:3-12 on the matter of divorce. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus saying something different about divorce than Luke’s Gospel, and both have their differences from the Gospel of Mark. Here we get to a big and thorny issue. As I have said, Jesus is creating something new, the Church, the “ekklessia” or “called out ones” and these teachings are meant to help an actual church community living decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection (most believe Matthew was written between 75-85 C.E. to a group of followers of Jesus who were Jews living in Egypt) understand what it means to follow this Jesus in their day-to-day world, a day-to-day world were things like divorce happen. These teachings are what some us refer to as the “imperatives of the Gospels, and we distinguish the imperatives from the “indicative.” Example: “Jesus is Lord” is an indicative. “Jesus is Lord and therefore that means women cannot cut their hair and be a faithful follower of Jesus” is an Indicative (Jesus is Lord) followed by an imperative (therefore women cannot cut their hair: a real, true example for some groups of Christians even today). Those of us who make this distinction say the indicative is what matters and what we need to agree on and we can allow for a great variety of perspectives on the imperatives, like women cutting their hair, or divorce. “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love” to quote Saint Augustine, and while there are many reasons we have reached this conclusion, the one I mention here is that even Matthew, Luke, and Mark had a variety of perspectives on Jesus’ teaching about divorce, though they all agree that Jesus is Lord, that he was and is “the anointed one, the son of the living God.”
Again, you do not have to agree with me. I am only sharing my perspective; but, if you find yourself suddenly losing the big picture of who Jesus is and of this journey to Jerusalem because you are getting “bogged down” in the details of some of these teachings, you might consider my approach. I have found it frees me to worship Jesus, to focus on Jesus, to see Jesus, rather than myself or others. And was not one of the things the Mount of Transfiguration revealing was that as important as Moses and Elijah were and are, we are to see Jesus and Jesus alone? “And when they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus alone.” (Matthew 17:8)
However you choose to read the Bible, and whether you cut your hair or let it grow (for those of you who have that blessed option unlike us bald people), my prayer is that it leads to seeing Jesus, and Jesus alone.
Saturday, March 28, 2020 “When he had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.”
I received a call Thursday night from someone telling me about a pair of eagles nesting at Little Swartswood Lake. On Friday after work I went and found the place they had described. I sat with my camera on the ground about 35 yards away from the large tree by the water’s edge, the tree with the intricately woven nest atop it, a nest about four feet in diameter. I could barely see the head of one eagle as it sat inside the protective fortress. There was constant vigilance on the part of the nurturing eagle, as it is the season of birth. The average clutch (group of eggs) is one to three, and each egg is laid with a separation of a day between each, and then each egg hatches in the order it was laid. After they are laid, the eggs must be constantly kept warm, and, of course, protected from predators. Both mother and father share incubation responsibilities, though the female usually spends more time in the nest, and males typically spend more time hunting for food.
After about thirty minutes, the nesting eagle raised up from the nest, sat perched on the nest’s edge for a moment, then sprang into flight with the whoosh of its wings. Moments later, I heard the cacophonous screeching of two eagles above me, at which point I stood and looked up and spotted them flying together. They circled the nest and then above and around me, the screeching continuing. I had thought I had maintained a respectful distance, but I was being told I was not welcomed, so I clicked a couple of quick photos and retreated from their space.
Creating and protecting and nurturing new life: it is instinctive. Jesus is depicted here as leaving the nest of Galilee, about 60 miles north of Jerusalem/Judea, and we are told he goes to “the other side of the Jordan,” which means he has circled around Jerusalem and is currently just outside the “holy land,” in what today would be the border of the country Jordan. He has circled around Jerusalem but is getting closer, now only about 10-15 miles from Jerusalem. And what strikes me is his getting closer is the opposite of protection. He has told his disciples he must leave the nest of Galilee, the region in which, and at least to according to the Gospel of Matthew, has spent most of his life, the place where he has had a home (important mentions of that in the earlier chapters: Jesus had a home, a house: was it a Colonial, or Cape Cod, or Tudor style? We don’t know, but he had a home), and now he is leaving behind all that is familiar, comfortable, and protective, and heading towards the danger.
It is anti-instinctive to go towards the danger, unless the danger threatens the very life we instinctively want to protect, and this is the path, the journey, the Gospel writer wants us to see, and this is the journey of Jesus whom we call Lord; and, this Jesus is creating this new thing called “Church” (“eeklesia” in the original Greek, meaning “called out ones,” called out of the protective nest), is on this journey towards danger, and while he is doing so, he is healing others, restoring others to health and life. This is what is happening every day right now across the world amid the Coronavirus pandemic: nurses, health care aides, doctors, physician assistants, ambulance drivers, emergency responders, police and firefighters: whether they identify as Christian or not, whether they espouse atheism, or agnosticism, or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, they are on the journey of Jesus, the journey of going towards the danger and offering healing as they do so. It is a wonderful thing for which we can all give thanks.
Friday, March 27, 2020
My objective as a “Teaching Elder” is not to tell other people what to believe; so, when I give a sermon, or write a Lenten reflection, or lead a book discussion, or teach a class, the goal is to stimulate thinking, curiosity, and honest searching on the part of others, to encourage your own journey which will likely be different than mine. To this end, I encourage your own reflective reading of the Gospels. In addition to necessary and often helpful things like simply reading a passage, like the parable from Matthew 18 I discussed yesterday, or simply listening to what someone else like me has to say about the parable, I encourage you to prayerfully linger in the story, sit with it for a while, listen for “a word from God for you today.” Two traditional methods or “disciplines” for helping us do so are: Lectio Divina and Contemplative Reading.
This method of prayer goes back to the early monastic tradition. There were not bibles for everyone and not everyone knew how to read. So the monks gathered in chapel to hear a member of the community reading from the scripture. In this exercise they were taught and encouraged to listen with their hearts because it was the Word of God that they were hearing. When reading alone, one goes to a quiet place and recalls that one is about to listen for a word from God. Then one reads the scripture passage aloud to let oneself hear with his or her own ears the words. When one finishes reading, pause and recall if some word or phrase stood out or something touched one’s heart. If so, pause and savor the insight, feeling, or understanding. Then go back and read the passage again because it will have a fuller meaning. Pause again and note what happened. If one wants to dialogue with God in response to the word, one should follow the prompting of one’s heart. This kind of reflective listening allows the Holy Spirit to deepen awareness of God’s taking the initiative to speak with us.
Saint Ignatius Loyola invited people to engage in a prayer method called contemplation. This is not some kind of mystical prayer but a prayer form in which one uses his or her senses in an imaginative way to reflect on a Gospel passage. One uses the senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling to make the Gospel scene real and alive.
Select a passage from one of the Gospels in which Jesus is interacting with others. Recall what one is doing in engaging with the Word of God and what one desires from this encounter. God is present and because God is present one relies on God.
Read the Gospel passage twice so that the story and the details of the story become familiar. Close one’s eyes and reconstruct the scene in one’s imagination. See what is going on and watch the men and women in the scene. What does Jesus look like? How do the others react to him? What are the people saying to one another? What emotions fill their words? Is Jesus touching someone? As one enters into the scene, sometimes there is the desire to be there. So a person can place oneself in the scene, perhaps as an observer, as one lining up for healing, or as one helping others to Jesus.
Some people’s imaginations are very active so they construct a movie-like scenario with a Gospel passage. Others will enter the scene with verbal imagination, reflecting on the scene and mulling over the actions. Vividness is not a criteria for the effectiveness of this kind of prayer. Engagement is and the result is a more interior knowledge of Jesus. As one finishes this time of prayer, one should take a moment to speak person to person with Christ saying what comes from the heart.
Taking yesterday’s parable from Matthew 18, one of the times I become aware of needing to slow down and linger with the story is when a question arises, and one big question arose for me when I re-read this yesterday. Did anyone other than me notice the King did NOT forgive seven times, much less seventy times seven? The King in the parable forgives the servant once, and when the servant returns, instead of being forgiven again, the king sends him to the tormentors. What’s going on here?
Allowing time and space to prayerfully linger with this, through Lectio Divina or Contemplative Reading, can create opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak a very personal word to us.
Thursday, March 26, 2020 “How Often?” Matthew 18:21-35
When we live in the nitty-gritty with other ordinary, finite creatures like ourselves, “stuff will happen.” And because stuff will happen, forgiveness is going to come up as a subject: when to forgive and when is it okay to hold on and nurse a grudge, enjoying the sweet satisfaction of knowing we are better than the one we have deemed unworthy of our forgiveness. Peter, thinking he is being really generous, going the second mile and more, says, “How often shall my fellow church member sin against me and I forgive him or her? Seven times.” (Notice again the number 7 and the idea of perfection.) If you think that is generous and perfect, Jesus says, try, seventy times seven: a sort of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious perfection!
While Peter is picking his jaw up off the floor following this ridiculous response from Jesus, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a king who had a servant in debt to him. The servant begs forgiveness, and the king is “moved with compassion,” and forgave the debt. The forgiven servant then goes out and roughs up people who owe him, rather than forgiving them. The king hears of this, summons the servant back to his court, and “delivered him to the tormentors until he should pay all that was due him.” Nursing a grudge is its on form of torment, even if it feels sweet and familiar at times. Forgiveness is difficult: the cost of not forgiving is even more painful.
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Matthew 18:1 “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Having come down from the mountain top moment of transfiguration and having rebuked evil, the Gospel writer then shows Jesus teaching about how this new thing, this new entity–the Church–should live, and in chapter 18 in particular, how members of this new thing called the Church should live with one another. The hard work of living faithful lives is not just about big, dramatic moments, but also the every day nitty-gritty of living with other ordinary, petty, jealous, ambitious, self-centered people, people, well, people like ourselves.
The disciples are portrayed (18:1-5) as immediately asking which one of them will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, a question no doubt spurred on by the fact Jesus took only three of the twelve to go with him up the mountain of transfiguration. As Jesus, Peter, James, and John walked away from the other nine, we can imagine what the other nine were saying: “What’s so special about them that they get to go with Jesus?” “That’s not fair, we’ve been as committed as they have?” “And Peter? Really? Jesus just rebuked him and said to him, ‘Get behind me Satan.’ Satan indeed. Why him?'”
Jesus’ response about who will be the greatest is often misunderstood to be about the sweet, angelic quality of children, and anyone who has ever had a child or worked with children knows that children can be as petty, jealous, ambitious and self-centered (“My toy, she can’t play with it!”) as adults. Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them.” (18:2) Appreciate the full picture being painted here. These twelve adults, and probably other adults as well, are gathered around “the guy,” the superstar, the One they think is about to go to Jerusalem and become King of Israel and militarily kick some Roman rear-ends, and so they are eager to know who is going to be Jesus’ pick for Vice-President, for Secretary of Defense, for Secretary of the Treasury, etc. And in response to their eager ambition, Jesus called a child: “Hey Sarah, come here please!” Jesus has to call Sarah over because children, long before the days of “helicopter parents,” were of little value, on the margins. Sarah is outside the circle of adults, over there somewhere playing with the other children. Or, in another picture, Jesus and the adults are at the big Thanksgiving table in the dining room, and the children are at the “kids table” in the den, and Jesus calls little five-year old Sarah in and sits her at the head of the dining room table where usually only dad gets to sit. The point is not the angelic nature of children, rather the kind of kingdom Jesus is establishing, the Church, is going to require a change in our unusual ways of thinking about who and what is important, and how and why we relate to one another. The people and things previously on the margins will now be at the head of the table.
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Horatio Spafford, a 43 year old businessman, and his wife were grieving the loss of their son when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 struck and devastated them financially. Following these two tragedies, Horatio sent his wife and four daughters on a ship to England with plans to join them later and begin building a new life in England where they had relatives. On its way across the Atlantic Ocean, the ship was struck by another ship killing more than two hundred people including all four of their daughters. When the tattered ship finally arrived in Cardiff, Wales, Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband with the news and these words, “Saved alone.” After the loss of his only son, having been devastated financially by the fire, and now grieving the deaths of his four daughters, he booked a trip on the next ship to join his equally grieving wife. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, sailing over the same waters that had recently engulfed his daughters, he wrote the hymn, “When Peace Like a River.”
When Peace Like a River
(It Is Well With My Soul)
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll,
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.
Refrain: It is well with my soul; it is well; it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul. [Refrain]
He lives: O the bliss of this glorious thought.
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! [Refrain]
Lord, hasten the day when our faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend;
even so it is well with my soul. [Refrain]
The season of Lent, and the story of the Gospel, is not one that “promises a rose garden,” in the words of Lynn Anderson’s number one country song from the early 1970’s (remember those days? Vietnam, race riots, Watergate, oil embargo, economic recession: there is “nothing new under the sun”). The promise is not for a constant walk through a rose garden. The promise is that in living a faithful life focused on Jesus and “The Way,” a way that rebukes evil (Matthew 17), a way that looks after the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned, the sick (Matthew 25), a way that leads to times of agony and even death (Mathew 26-27), there is a new day dawning, a new heaven and earth, a rose garden if you will, that is beyond the uncertain, dangerous ocean of this life. We can look for and enjoy the occasional rainbow, but those mountain top moments are only to strengthen to us to do the hard work of living faithful lives here and now and to endure with faith, not fear, wherever that Way leads us.
Monday, March 23, 2020
After teaching and rebuking evil during this final week before the cross, Jesus would leave the city of Jerusalem for the evening, for rest, just as we are told he at times “withdrew” to solitary places. In that spirit, the rest of today’s reflection can be found by clicking on the video below. You may want to turn the volume up on your computer.
Sunday, March 22, 2020
It was May 23 1982. On that day I had hair. On that day I had a 30-inch waist. Back then I ran marathons. I was in great physical shape, but like most young people in their late teens, I was wet behind the ears, meaning my physical fitness was not matched by my fitness to make decisions or to control my emotions.
It was a Friday morning in the small town of Walhalla, SC. I was in my red, 1972 Volkswagen bug. Going downhill, I could easily reach 50 miles an hour. But I was in no hurry, for I had reservations concerning what I was about to do. I needed money. I needed money to pay for college. I came from a family with no money. My father quit school in the sixth grade; my mother in the seventh grade, my mother married at 14, three children by age 18. My family had no money, nor any ability or inclination to help me figure out things like grants and student loans.
So, even though not the least bit excited about it, I thought what I was about to do was my best and perhaps only option. I drove thirty miles northeast of Walhalla to the big city of Anderson, SC, population 30,000. And there inside a recruiter’s office I would sign my name and enlist in the United States Air Force.
As I drove into the center of the city of Anderson, I was stopped at a traffic light. At this intersection, there was a huge K-Mart store on my left, and on the right a Baptist Church, a large stone church, unlike the small, rural Baptist church I had been reared in. In front of that Baptist Church was a marquee sign, and in addition to the name of the church and the times of services, the sign had one of those drippy pious proverbs. The traffic light was slow in changing, and with the time given me, I read the proverb: “Profanity is a crutch for the conversational cripple.”
Big deal. Yada Yada. The light turned green, I drove on, red VW bug and reservations all.
I raised my right hand and a few weeks later I said goodbye. Two months later I was in my final week of basic training in San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio is not the place you want to be in July and August. During our last week of training, we all received orders for our next stage of training, our technical training school. This would be the stage where we would be trained for what would be our particular job in the Air Force. Earlier in our training, we had been allowed to list five preferences of jobs, and since my only reason for being there was to get money for college to become a pastor or seminary professor, I put down as my first choice, Chaplain’s Assistant.
My second through fifth choices had to do with office jobs: anything I could find on the sheet that suggested air conditioning and a lack of guns (I had never fired one in my life). Told we were likely to get our first choice, and almost guaranteed to get one of our top five choices, I was confident that I would get a job I would be satisfied with for four years while I earned the money I needed. My confidence increased as the orders were passed out and all my buddies were getting what they had wanted. Happiness is contagious.
When I opened my orders and began to read, I was dismayed to find that not only did I not get my top choice, but I also did not get any of my top five choices. Instead, I learned to my horror that I was going to be trained as a Military Policeman. Just as happiness is contagious, sadness is isolating.
Adding to my dismay, I asked my drill Sgt. where the military police academy was located because one of the secondary benefits to my five choices was that the schools associated with each were located far north and east of sweltering San Antonio. So, when I asked where the military police academy was located, my drill Sgt., said, “Right over there son,” as he pointed across the street in good ole San Antonio.
The news only grew worse. I was later made aware that the first eight weeks of the military police academy was the same for Air Force and Marines, and that the Air Force military police academy was run by Marines.
Back in May when the military seemed to me my best but unfortunate option, I intentionally chose the Air Force. In addition to having never fired a gun in my life, I weighed 125 lbs. soaking wet. I chose the AF because it was the least military-like branch. Training with Marines was not what I had in mind when I signed my name back in May.
And in all candor, I was intimidated by the Marines. Prior to that Police Academy, those of us in the Air Force had been through six weeks of basic training that included a few short jogs, light calisthenics, and a lot of classroom instruction on proper military etiquette. Having run marathons, I was actually in worse shape coming out of basic training than I had been going in. I didn’t mind, though: It was exactly the un-military like experience I had wanted.
On the other hand, the Marines coming into the Police Academy had just finished 12-15 weeks of blood-curdling physical exertion. They had intentionally chosen to be Marines, with all the gore and glory that comes with it. I just wanted college and air-conditioning.
So there we were on our first morning of police academy, marched into the classroom, with the broad-shouldered, squared-jawed Marines dressed in camouflage fatigues sitting on one side of the classroom, with us Air Force “weenies” –as they affectionately called us— dressed in powdered blue short-sleeve shirts sitting on the other side of the classroom.
We were told to sit at our desks in the seated position of attention which consists of palms flat on the desk, feet flat on the floor, back straight, eyes forward, mouths closed. We were told to wait there until our instructor arrived.
We sat there for what seemed like an hour, and then we heard them: the sound of boot taps coming down the hallway, click, clack, click, clack, click clack. I might as well have been on death row: I was that intimidated.
Soon a body appeared with that click clack sound. Dressed in starched combat fatigues with creases so sharp they could draw blood, he was no more than 5’6, but he was dripping with toughness. Pit bulls are not the biggest dogs. This pit bull began to bark. “I’m MSgt. McColl, a Vietnam veteran. I don’t give a __***!!______ that we’re in a so-called peace time. I’m here to get you ready for the next f-ing war, and I’ll either accomplish that mission or f-ing kill you trying.
He continued barking for about fifteen minutes, describing in detail the things he was going to do to us. And during those fifteen minutes, every sentence was punctuated by either the f-word or the g.d word, and I’m not talking about fabulous or good day.
Suddenly, for reasons I would never learn, Sgt. McColl stopped the tirade and calmly asked this question: “Does anyone here object to my language?”
Before I fully thought things through (remember I was wet behind the ears), I noticed my right hand rising slowly into the air. And before I could pull it back down, Sgt. McColl barked, “Stand your f-ing self up and tell me who the f- you are!”
“Uh, uh, Sir, uh, I’m Airman Basic Nelms.”
“Tell me, Airman Basic Nelms, why the _____ do you object to my ______ language?’
“Well, ssss-sir, I’m a Christian.”
“A Christian?! What the _____ does religion have to with it?!”
At this point, instead of just scared and shocked, I was also forced into a defensive, reactionary mode,, and more out of reflex than courage, and, once again, not fully thinking things through, I simply said the very first thing that came to my mind:
“Well, sss-sir, I also believe ‘profanity is a crutch for the conversational cripple.’”
The pit bull attacked. He sprinted toward me, clickety clack, clickety clack, stopping a half-inch in front of me, and while he never touched me, he was close enough for me to smell his breath as he “dressed me down” as it was called, using every expletive known to man, and I stood there scared _____less.
After 2 or 3 minutes of this, which of course seemed like an eternity, he quit, and he walked back to the front of the room, turned to the class, and said, “Take 10 minutes, then have your ______s back in these ________ desks.” He then turned, left the room, click, clack, click, clack.
For a brief moment, I felt relief at the thought of a ten-minute break; but then, just as my muscles were about to relax, I realized that I was now in the middle of a room of unsupervised, young and eager Marines who are trained to defend their leaders. Relief turned to more fear very quickly.
And I did get some evil stares. And a couple of Marines “accidentally” bumped me as they walked past me, but nothing worse happened. And I was the butt of some jokes throughout the next eight weeks of the Academy. I was nicknamed “Rev.” However, something else also happened. Three other young men came up to me and said, “You know, I’m a Christian also.” A Bible study group formed in the barracks in the evenings. Three other young men would later be baptized in a local church before our graduation from the Academy.
After he left the class that first day, I never saw Sgt. McColl again. I don’t know what happened. I do not know what conversations took place among the Academy sergeants during those ten minutes and beyond. Other sergeants led us for the next eight weeks, and they led us with as colorful language as Sgt. McColl had used, so the language did not change even if the sergeant did.
Now, before I get canonized as a saint, let me share one more very brief story. After surviving police academy, I eventually served my four years, one year of which was in Thule, Greenland, just south of the North Pole. Because of the remoteness of the place, each person there got one month out of the twelve to go home. At the end of my one-month leave, I went to get a hair cut at my hometown barbershop, owned by a man who had been part of the first church I had attended. Mid-way through the hair cut, the owner/barber, who had been speaking with several men his age while cutting my hair, pointed out the window of his shop toward the sidewalk, said to those men, “Look at that no-good nigger walking up our street.” I was shocked and angry at such a racist, small-minded, offensive comment, yet I sat there silent. My haircut finished, I paid the money and left, knowing I would never again go there, but still I was sinfully silent.
Like the Apostle Peter, we can one day confess Jesus rightly and another day deny him by our words or by our silence, by our actions, or our lack of action.
And the truth be told, the defensiveness that led me to stand up to Sgt. McColl was, in many ways, no better than the silence I exhibited in the barber shop. While the obvious effects of what I did in regard to Sgt. McColl where better, the spirit behind what I did was not better. I was angry in both situations. In the first situation, my anger led me to speak reflexively rather than reflectively. I spoke as much out of a spirit of competitiveness, than out of a desire to confess Jesus. To go back to our text from Ephesians, my words to Sgt. McColl were not fragrant: they simply matched his pugilistic spirit because I was being attacked. More reflective, more fragrant words, might have been spoken in private to Sgt. McColl after class, and to have remained silent during the class. And yet, to remain silent at the barber shop when another human being, not me, was demeaned, was mere self-preservation, taking the least difficult path, and a denial of the Jesus who rebuked evil, who took up a cross, and who said his followers must do the same. My silence in that barber shop was for my comfort. I should have stood up and performed a Bill Stringfellow-like exorcism! I had the opportunity to take up the cross, and I chose personal comfort instead, just like Peter by the fire, before the rooster crowed three times.
God who anointed Jesus, anoint us so that in the hour of trial, we may be willing to take up the cross laid before us. Amen.
Saturday, March 21,2020
William (Bill) Stringfellow was born in 1928, began college at the age of fifteen, earned a scholarship to the London School of Economics, and then Harvard Law School. Oh, by the way, he also served in the U.S. Army. With his brilliant education and many lucrative opportunities before him, Bill chose to live in the poorest section of Harlem, to identify with and help those who most needed help, those for whom the American dream was not being realized. During his work in Harlem, Bill, a devout Christian, was asked to give a talk at Harvard Divinity School. Having agreed to do so, the department chair of the Harvard Business School asked if he would also give a talk to the Business School. Bill agreed, but due to time-constraints, he gave the same talk to both the Business School and the Divinity School. At both he talked about evil, about the “principalities and powers in the air,” the evils that perpetuate systems that marginalize and impoverish entire groups and classes of people. When asked to describe the reaction to his talk, Bill said, “The Business School understood it perfectly. They see greed and corruption every day, so evil is nothing new to them. The Divinity School on the whole was offended: for them evil is too negative of a word and concept.”
The Church Jesus founded in Matthew 16-17 is a Church sent on a mission to rebuke evil, thus the story of demon possession as the first encounter when coming down from the mountain. These stories also depict these events as occurring in the last week of Jesus’ life before the cross, on his way to Jerusalem, which is what the Season of Lent reflects upon. In chapter 21, on entering Jerusalem in that last week before the Cross, we Jesus angrily driving out the money-changers at the temple, rebuking them for turning the place into “a den of thieves.” Have we, in our own imaginations, turned Jesus into a nice, polite white man, a calm, erudite dispenser of wisdom, of advice on how to be nice ourselves and succeed in the world? I’m uncomfortable with anger. So, yes, I am uncomfortable with an angry Jesus, but there it is in the Gospel. I’m uneasy with talk of evil, and yet, there it is in the Gospel. Like Peter, I will confess that Jesus is the anointed one, the son of the living God. And yet, like Peter, I may be doing so for the wrong reasons. Peter wanted a political king to restore Israel’s earthly glory. I want a personal Savior who will give me eternal life. Neither Peter nor I really want an angry prophet rebuking evil and doing so at the cost of his life and asking us to do the same. Political success, yes, but a Cross, no thank you. Salvation, yes, but a Cross? Really? Are things that bad to make that necessary?
During the Vietnam War, there were often protesters with signs outside the White House gates. Bill Stringfellow did something different. As an Anglican using an ancient rite in the Book of Common Prayer, Bill stood outside the gates of the White House and shouted and performed an exorcism of President Richard Nixon. I am uncomfortable with that, but I must reluctantly admit that has more in common with the Jesus who overturned the tables in the temple than the “Jesus” I personally wish for, the Jesus of my own making, the nice, polite philosopher dispensing advice on living a decent, middle-class, American life.
Friday, March 20, 2020
Matthew 17 and its story of “the Mount of Transfiguration,” begins with these words: “After six days…” Why six? Why not five? Or three? And what is it following, what is it “after?” It is “after six,” meaning it is now the seventh day, seven being the number of “completion” or “perfection” in the Hebrew scriptures: seven days of creation, remember, and now a new creation, a new heaven and earth has begun. It is “after” the beginning of the Church (capital “C”, church is the universal sense, not Yellow Frame Church or the Presbyterian denomination). Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And the disciples oblige Jesus by sharing things they have heard people saying. And then it gets pointed, and real: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” And Simon Peter, always the first to talk, says, “You are God’s anointed one (which is what the word “Messiah” means), the Son of the living God.”
This “anointed one, son of the living God” refers to Psalm 2, and this is no doubt what Peter, a good Jew, has in mind about Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. In Psalm 2, the king of Israel, at the time of coronation, is anointed by the prophet of God (Nathan in the case of King David), and at the time of anointing the king was also proclaimed to be the “son of the living God.” As becomes clear in what happens next, this earthly kingdom is what Peter has in mind. Peter says the correct thing, though he says it for the wrong reason. Peter thinks Jesus is about to go to Jerusalem and become the king of Israel and restore Israel politically, free Israel from being occupied and controlled by the Roman government. And, of course, if that were true, Peter and the other eleven disciples would have powerful, influential positions in the government of King Jesus.
Even though Peter says the correct thing for the wrong reason, Jesus responds positively to Peter, just as Jesus is portrayed doing on many occasions such as in John chapter 4 when the woman at the well also says the correct thing for the wrong reason, a half truth, half lie: “I have no husband.” Jesus, instead of correcting the woman, says, “You have spoken the truth,” even though everyone knows she hasn’t really. Here Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was revealed to you not by flesh and blood (not a result of human intelligence), but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (the name means “rock” or “stone”) and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Time for a sidebar. The Roman Catholic Church says Jesus here founded the church on Peter himself, so Peter was the first “Pope.” John Calvin and Martin Luther and most “Protestants” (from the word “protest”) said, no, the Church is found on the revelation of who Jesus is, such revelation being a gift of God (“by my Father in heaven”), not human intelligence (“not flesh and blood”) as evidenced again by what transpires immediately after Peter’s statement, i.e. Peter is shown to be thinking on an “earthly” (Political) level, not a “heavenly” one.
Tradition has it that this place they are standing was at the entrance to a cavern, a place you can still visit today. In the first century, this cavern was believed to be the actual entrance to, the “gates of” Hades. The story is being written to place Jesus and his disciples in this very specific geographic spot. Again, Shakespeare could not have written it any better. The Gates of Hades, the source of evil, will not prevail against the Church because the Church is founded on, built upon God’s gift of revealing who Jesus is. Because it is not built on a finite human being, it cannot die or be destroyed: it is as eternal as God.
Peter’s finite-ness is revealed in short order. Jesus, after founding the Church on the gift of God’s revelation of who he (Jesus) really is, Jesus immediately begins to speak about his impending suffering and death. “Peter took Jesus aside (sidebar) and began to rebuke him, “Never Lord!” he said, “This shall never happen to you!” (16:22) Peter cannot fathom a “King” who instead of a coronation will instead be crucified on a cross. And Jesus’ response to the human, finite-thinking Peter: “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have your mind on heavenly things but merely on earthly things.” Did Jesus establish his Church on the one he now calls “Satan?” Of course not. The Church was established on God’s gift of revelation of who Jesus really is, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus not only speaks of his coming suffering and death but says the same things will happen to those who follow him, to his Church. Six days then go by, and on the seventh day, the day of perfection, a new creation on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Church who follows Jesus and Jesus alone: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” And so, what does it mean to follow this Jesus? Does it mean to stay safe on top of a mountain? No, it means going down the mountain to “rebuke” evil (17:18), the word “rebuke” being what Peter used on Jesus (16:22), and then Jesus used back on Peter (more comedy). This rebuking of evil will lead to suffering and death: it is dirty, dangerous work; yet, somehow, even though it leads to suffering and death, “the Gates of Hades,” evil will not overcome it. Say what? How can this be?
Thursday, March 19, 2020
His name was Steve. He was my first cousin, and he was ten years older than me. At the age of twenty-five he went to a party at a friend’s house with his girlfriend. He parked his car along the street, and they went inside the house to the party, with music, drinking, lots of people. At some point during the party, another young man approached Steve and “propositioned” him. As the story was told to the family, Steve was angered by this, said some things, and walked away. Later on Steve and his girlfriend left the house and got into his car. Once seated in the car, the young man who had propositioned Steve appeared at the driver’s side window, raised a gun at Steve’s head and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through Steve’s head and into the neck of his girlfriend. Steve died instantly. The girlfriend survived following surgery and critical care. Steve’s father, my Uncle Ralph, had to drive his son’s blood-spattered car back from the police crime lab. Ralph, and his wife, Jean, were never the same.
Evil exists. There are “principalities and powers in the air.” When Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from the mountain, the Gospel writer decides this is the place in the story to add a scene about “demon-possession,” about evil. The Gospel writer is not writing an historical account, or a journalistic, breaking news story. He is, instead, creatively putting together a theological portrait of Jesus, wanting us to see Jesus in a certain way, knowing his readers did not get to see Jesus during his earthly ministry, so he has to paint a picture with words for his readers. Coming down from the “high” of the mount of transfiguration, the mount where, hilariously, Peter wanted to build shelters and stay safely on top of things, the Gospel writer presents Jesus immediately encountering evil.
Many of us 21st century, “modern” believers get a little uneasy when the subject of evil comes up, as if it is an outdated concept that is no more germane to our enlightened day than ancient peoples using leaves or their left hand in lieu of Charmin toilet paper. (The current “toilet paper crisis” is on my mind!) This Jesus the Gospel writer is portraying, and the Church this Jesus is depicted as initiating, cannot stay safe on the mountaintop but must come down the mountain to what? To be nice people who will be nice to other people? To do good deeds like good little boy scouts helping little old ladies cross the street? To be socially progressive because “we’re all God’s children?” No. And no. And no. Jesus, and the Church he inaugurates, come down from the mountain to rebuke evil, to confront and overcome evil. New Easter clothes and shiny shoes and hats with flowers and white gloves? Only if you want to get them torn and messy: Confronting and rebuking evil is dirty, dangerous work.
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
After being told by God to “Listen to him,” this is the part of the story where we might expect a long, Shakespearean monologue wherein Jesus tells them the top ten things (David Letterman) his followers should know, or describes, at least in general terms, the essence of who he is and what he is about and what his followers must believe. The stage is set. The spotlight is on Jesus and Jesus alone. The moment is ripe. We are listening with Peter, James, and John. Speak Jesus: we are ready.
Other than saying, “Get up, don’t be afraid,” Jesus says nothing. This strikes me as utterly astounding: does it you? I mean, the moment is perfect for this new religious guru, this prophet from Nazareth to say something profound, to present a new set of Ten Commandments, or a new Vedas, or something like the “Analects” of Confucius, or like the Koran, or Book of Mormon even. But no. Nothing. Well, what is it we are “listening for?” We are listening, but nothing is being said. This is very odd.
After simply saying, “Get up, don’t be afraid,” Jesus says nothing, then after they are on their way down the mountain, the next thing he says is that they are to say nothing! They are not to speak about what they saw or heard on top of the mountain. Are you kidding me?!!! What kind of new religion is this with a guru who instead of expounding the secrets of the universe says almost nothing and who then tells his disciples to say nothing?
The strangeness of this story, as well as the comedy, can be easily lost on us because it has become too familiar. We have heard it all before, or so we think. Life can become so familiar that we become oblivious to its fragility until something like a global pandemic stops us in our tracks, and suddenly things change drastically.
Feel the strangeness of this story, the odd-ness of being told to listen and then nothing being said. Allow yourself to be puzzled anew by this story. Returning to a place of strangeness and uncertainty can sometimes be the first step to new insight.
Tuesday, March 17, 2020
“Listen to him! When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked, they saw no one except Jesus.”
With pardon from Dante, this divine comedy on top of the mountain is, in addition to comical, presented as, well, a mountain top experience, a peak experience if you will. This is as good as it gets: Jesus, Moses, and Elijah all in one place and Peter, James and John have a front row seat to this triumvirate of theology. Imagine Peter and James and John’s first thoughts upon seeing all three together. I mean, Peter, James, and John must have already been feeling very special as they are picked by Jesus to walk up this mountain, leaving the other nine disciples behind (which sets the stage for the question about who will be greatest in the kingdom at the beginning of chapter 18), and now, at the top of the mountain, they find they are not only with Jesus, but the great Moses and Elijah. Have ever been picked to be part of someone’s inner circle? Peter, James and John must have been feeling pretty good about themselves. This is a peak experience indeed. They have made it to the top, and the top is good, and the top is where they want to stay.
This is also part of the comedy and tragedy of Peter’s proposal to build shelters or dwelling places. Beyond having no materials or tools, God’s voice is terrifying because it shatters any notions of staying on top where it is safe and cozy, just a few of us elites hanging out together talking theology. God’s voice is terrifying because it does not allow for the personal enrichment of a few while forgetting about the many. The mountain top experience is important, but not a place to permanently reside. The mountain top experience only prepares us to go back down the mountain and do the hard things that need to be done, so there will be no staying, no shelters on the mountain: they must go back down. And with the touch of Jesus, and his words, “Get up. Don’t be afraid,” Peter, James, and John get up and now see only Jesus. For the writer of the story, Moses and Elijah are important and have their significant place, but for the work that is to be done once they get back down the mountain, the focus must now be on Jesus and Jesus alone. Something new and extraordinary is beginning.
Monday, March 16, 2020, “Listening is Difficult”
Fred Buechner tells how when he was a young man trying to figure out his future, he went to church one Sunday and something specific the preacher said made it clear that his future involved going to seminary. Not long after, in gratitude for this new found clarity, Fred made an appointment with this preacher to thank him for what he had said. The result? The preacher had never said what Fred “heard,” and several listenings of the audio-recording of the sermon made this fact clear.
I have personally experienced this on many occasions. Whether praise or the rare complaint, what someone heard in my sermon has not been what I said.
Even when we attempt to be quiet and listen for God speaking, how can we know it is really God and not just the little voice inside our own head?
The answer to this is in the journey from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Cross and beyond as described in the Gospels. This is the journey we are on in the season of Lent. Stay tuned.
Sunday, March 15, 2020, “A Still, Small Voice”
“While Peter was still speaking…a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son…Listen to him!”
Yesterday I mentioned the hilarity of this: God having to talk over, interrupt, the babbling Peter. And I do find it comical. With the comedy, something else is evoked within me about our human (actually, “in-human” but I will get to that another day) nature, something that strikes me in our current context of a global pandemic. It strikes me that Peter is so overwhelmed and feeling so powerless, so unsure of what is going on, he instinctively attempts to wrest control by talking incessantly, by proposing to busy himself by doing something, that something as hilarious as God interrupting him. Think about it: Peter says he is going to erect three shelters! With what? They are on a mountaintop with no tools or materials. This is another moment of comedy by the writer of this story. And as with all great comedy, something about human nature is being revealed: when we are scared and feeling overwhelmed, we sometimes resort to mindlessly talking, or repeating old, familiar cliches out of the need to say something, anything, or we can at times simply engage in mindless busy-work. How often have we witnessed in others, and ourselves, when a loved one dies how we can get so preoccupied with minor details about clothes, or hymns, or which old photos to display that we do not adequately listen to the grief within us or to the God who knows our pain? Which photos to display is something I can manage, control, but death, well…
Yes, I read this story of Peter and I laugh, and that is what the writer of the story intends; however, because it is really good comedy, as I am laughing, I see myself more clearly, how I sometimes do the same thing, and that also is what the writer of the story intended. Whether in the face of a global, invisible pandemic or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or an impending major surgery, or a loved one with an addiction, or a marriage going the wrong way, or facing ever greater limitations in our own old age, or any of a myriad of things that can overwhelm us and make us feel as though we have no control, perhaps becoming silent and listening should be our first and primary response, the first step toward our own transfiguration from fear. As Elijah learned years earlier, the Elijah who appeared with Jesus on this very Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17, God is found and heard not in the earthquake or fire, but in a still, small voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)
Saturday, March 14, 2020, “Glass Half Full”
Matthew 17:1-9: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them,and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
In my absence, Mark Hontz preached on this text on February 23rd, and when Mark shared a copy of his excellent sermon with me, I shared with him that I always find it hilarious when the text says of Peter, “While he was still speaking…” Peter is talking too much. Peter is too busy. God begins to speak over him. “While he was still speaking…a voice from the cloud said…’This is my Son, whom I love…Listen to him!” Notice the exclamation point: Shut up Peter, and listen. Stop being so busy with your plans about building shelters: stop and listen.
Cancelling Sunday worship service due to a major snow event, or a storm and power outage like Superstorm Sandy, is difficult enough, difficult to say, “No, the doors to the church will be closed.” But to cancel church services for an invisible virus, and one that has not yet truly wreaked “too much” havoc, has been a difficult decision for your elected church leaders. In the end, we felt it better to risk, in hindsight, being accused of having overreacted as opposed to, in hindsight, being guilty of a complacency that led to more people getting sick, or worse. In reaching this difficult decision, we have stopped and listened to health officials, to civic leaders, and to one another.
Might we view this as the glass being half-full? While we will miss the gathered community in worship together, might this “stoppage” be an opportunity to be less busy, to listen more intently to the One whom we most need to hear from, the One beloved of God? I will shut up now, lest God has to start talking over me!