Reflection for February 26, 2017

Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Where did that happen? And how did it take place? I am sure that for many of us the answers would be different. Perhaps God comes to each person in a unique way.  We can have long stretches when God does not seem close. And then there are times when God seems near.

Sometimes we carefully prepare ourselves to move into the presence of the divine. That is what Lent is: a season of preparation for coming into the full presence of God.  At other times God surprises us. We suddenly feel the warm presence of light or hope. Sometimes God comes to us at the peak moments in our lives or when we are in the midst of celebration. At other times God comes to us precisely when everything has fallen apart and we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Sometimes God comes to us in nature and in the most elemental ways. At other times God comes to us with great drama with a miraculous presence. Sometimes God comes to us when we are alone, in the quiet of our souls. At other times we come into the presence of God as we are lifted up through a group experience. Sometimes God comes to us when we are filled with peace. At other times we feel the presence of God in prophetic anger.

Sometimes God comes to us when we are engaged in our work or craft. At other times God comes to us when we’ve had a chance to get away. Sometimes God comes to us in the careful analysis of God’s scripture. At other times God comes to us in the revelation and spirit of our hearts. Sometimes God comes to us in music. At other times God comes to us in silence.

When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Where did that happen? And how did it take place? These are questions that mark the Christian experience. They are important questions, because without the presence of God in our lives, our faith life withers and fades. Regardless of how God comes to us, we need at least now and then the sense that God is walking with us along life’s path. Somehow, someway, each one of us needs to encounter God

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which means that spring is just around the corner and Lent is beginning. This is the last Sunday of the Christmas and Epiphany cycle. On the final Sunday of that season, today, Christians for centuries recall the traditional festival of transfiguration Sunday.

What we are recalling in the transfiguration is a deeply moving religious experience of the three disciples with Jesus when they were on a mountain top. Well into their time with Jesus, after they had experienced many things together; their experience and vision of Jesus shifted. Jesus was revealed as being about much more than the healing in Galilean villages and the teachings of a wandering rabbi.  The healing and the teaching were of more profound proportion. Jesus had tapped into the mysterious reservoir of love and peace that undergirds the universe. Intimately grounded in that power, Jesus was changed or transformed as they were on the mountain together. Their experience of Jesus in this new way is what we recall as transfiguration.

The transfiguration reminds us as well, that as we move through this time of the year, as we prepare our minds and hearts for Lent, as we encounter again the stories of the great passion, we also encounter God in deep and mysterious ways. With each year, each Ash Wednesday we begin a journey that transforms us as we renew our lives around the principles of love, hope and compassion.

The transfiguration story also reminds us that when we experience the sacred in our own ways, and our own seasons, there are often some common characteristics that mark our religious experience, our epiphanies.

When we feel God is close, we often use our tradition, as do the disciples when they see Jesus with Moses and Elijah. However that tradition is part of something new and fresh.

When we feel God close, we often are on a mountain top or a height or a peak, like Jesus and the disciples, from which we can see things differently and more deeply.

When we feel God is close, we may find a mist or a cloud, like the disciples of Jesus, and sense that there is as much mystery as there is clarity to the great divine presence. We may be humbled by what we cannot see even as we are inspired by what we can.

When we feel God is close, we may hear a voice, like the disciples, which may remind us of thunder or a quiet stillness we sense within us: a voice that helps us discern for ourselves the best way down this mountain or up this hill as we continue our lives.

When we feel God is close, we may not be able to talk about it, like the disciples this morning, because God is something that we cannot fully express and because it may be the case people around us may not understand.

When we feel God close, we often are able, like I Peter this morning, to recall that experience and use it to guide our lives and decision making as we go forward.

In our times when God is close, we draw close to our tradition and reshape it, we find ourselves at the vantage points of life, we use the experience to guide our lives, we find as much mist as clarity, we may hear voices, and it’s something we may not feel free to share.

And in such ways and means God comes to us still.  When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Where did that happen? And how did it take place? For each of us the answers are different. Perhaps God comes to each person in a unique way.  And yet, no matter how unique, in each case we are encountering the same God, moving us ever more deeply into the mysterious mists of grace.

 

 

Reflection for February 19, 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48 

     The first reading for today is from Leviticus. I know: we all just love Leviticus.  But its opening line is probably the theme for the day: For you are to be a holy people. We, who are the people of God, are called to be holy.

What does that mean? What does it mean to be holy? In the ancient mind, that which was holy was set aside. It was reserved, or made special because it was set aside for an offering to God. A ram to be offered in the temple was set aside or holy. A bushel basket full of wheat to be offered in the temple was set aside or holy. A sacred place or a structure or a building which was set aside for the worship of God was holy.  That which was holy was set aside. And part of being holy was being set aside or dedicated to the presence of God for a sacred purpose. This being setting aside for the sacred purpose made something or someone holy.

Here, oddly in Leviticus, the entire community of people is deemed holy. All of the people of God are set aside for a sacred purpose: the expression of the ultimate presence of God in the world. In how they live, conduct themselves, and treat their neighbors, God’s people e are to witness to the sacred purpose.

The three readings together speak to three ways in which the people are challenged to be the holy people of God: (1) how we as a community treat those who have little; (2) how well we are able to move beyond our secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love; and (3) how we ultimately treat others in the charity of our minds.  Each of these areas of life, one public, one relational, and one deeply personal, define what it means to be the holy people of God.

 

First, how we as a community treat those who have little:

In the first reading, we have a section of the holiness code of Leviticus. Leviticus is an ancient law book which describes how religious, social, economic, and personal life is to be conducted.  We probably do not want to structure our entire lives around the book of Leviticus. And there is a great deal of doubt as to whether or not life in ancient Israel was actually constructed around these laws. But the regulations presented in this form, assembled by a group of priests focused the holy, probably reflect the values of ancient Israel in its social and economic daily life together.

Here in this ancient holiness code, we have provisions for the poor and resident aliens; prohibitions against stealing, deceit, and unjust business practices; fair treatment of workers; injunctions against mistreating those with disabilities or special needs; justice and fairness regardless of social status.

And the message of these economic and social statutes is clear to us, even today. A holy people use their personal resources as well as law and regulation to limit greed and to protect those in want or with special vulnerabilities. How well we do this determines whether or not we are holy.

 

Second, how well we are able to move beyond our secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love

In that second reading, which continues this winter’s readings from I Corinthians, Paul continues to work on conflict in this early congregation and the factions within the congregation who are fighting with each other. It seems, from the beginning, Christians have struggled with each other. Here in Corinth, some people liked one former pastor more than another former pastor, and there is a great deal of disagreement about other matters as well. Most of this ancient letter is about most of those disagreements.

But it is clear that Paul thinks that for all its arguments and squabbles, bickering and backbiting, these people are a sacred people, the holy building or temple of God, the sacred body of Christ.  He calls them to move beyond empty or futile arguments and puffed up explanations and justifications. He calls them to move beyond their loyalties to one leader or cause or another. That in his mind is all secondary stuff. A sacred people moves beyond secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love. The image of that love is not some issue we all want to discuss until we drop over dead. The image of that love is not a bunch of Christians pointing to one leader or another as more or less effective. The image of that love is not a profound thought or a catchy phrase. The image of that sacred reservoir of love is a Jesus who emptied himself of all pride and in ultimate humility suffered death as one of us all. The image of that love is fully described when he gets to chapter thirteen of this letter.

And not only here, but throughout his early letters, Paul calls us to get over whatever it is we are worried about or are arguing about, and to get back to the cross of Christ and sharing that love with everyone around. We are a sacred people, called to move beyond our allegiances, presuppositions, arguments, and attitudes.

 

Third, how we ultimately treat others in the charity of our minds

     Finally, in the third lesson Jesus is speaking in the Sermon on the Mount. This reading continues the theme of intense or passionate morality from last week’s reading from the same sermon. Here the focus goes deeply into the person’s heart and mind. Jesus says that to be the holy people of God, to be the ones that do the kingdom, who live by the will of God: these people must actually treat their enemies as loved ones. This is primarily a decision of the heart, and it is not easily made.  But we are called to change our minds in such a way that we no longer think first about retaliation or self preservation, but to witness to the power of love even in the life of the one we despise. To get to this sacred point, God gives us prayer and confidence. And above all we are given the knowing that God loves us and cares for us and will protect and sustain us. We are simply called to reflect that confidence to others in our lives. Being holy means overcoming our anger. Just let it be for a bit. And feel, and then express, the loving presence of God in our minds and words, for ourselves, our loved ones, and our enemies.  

 

How we as a community treat those who have little; how we move beyond our secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love; and how we ultimately treat others in the charity of our minds: these are the sacred standards for the people of God. Will we ever accomplish these things? No. But we are called to set ourselves aside, to do what we can to move beyond greed, to give up the secondary, so that God’s will shines forth, and we move into the deepest reservoirs of the mysterious love of God.

 

Reflection for February 12, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

      Woven through the Hebrew Scripture is an epic struggle between two religions at the close of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age in what was Canaan and is now Israel and Palestine. This passage from Deuteronomy is part of that epic struggle.

In one corner is the desert religion of YHWH whose cause is championed in the Hebrew Scripture. In the other corner is the fertility religion of BAAL practiced by the indigenous people of Canaan.

The book of Exodus speaks of a group of desert nomads, moving from Egypt to Canaan. This desert people infiltrated the more agricultural land to their west occupied by the Canaanites west of the Jordan River. The Canaanite culture was already shaped around cities and agriculture. These were farmers, not nomads. And this society was experiencing tension and conflict between the urban elite and the agricultural villages which supported the cities. A revolution was brewing in rural areas.

As desert people infiltrated the area, they joined forces with the revolutionaries against the urban elites, and this alliance brought a regime change and a cultural shift. The walls came tumbling down. But the new alliance of peasants and herdsman, although effective, was also tense, especially in the area of religion.

In the stories of Deuteronomy we have a highly spun version of this tension, told from the perspective of the desert people. The struggle between the religion of the desert and the farm is the struggle between the two religions of YHWH and BAAL. A defeated religion would have died, but the alliance created a long lasting struggle between two competing religions views. The religious conflict is found in the political ups and downs of people like Elijah, and the writings of the law and the prophets who find it continually necessary to call the people away from BAAL, back to YHWH, the religion of the desert.

Why was BAAL so attractive? Well, the religion made sense. It was practical. It was practiced so that the crops would be blessed by the god of fertility and there would be an abundant harvest. And it had grand rituals and sacrifices that were big pageants. And it had stories of many gods whose escapades made for great entertainment. And it was sexy. Fertility of the soil was mirrored in the sexuality of the village. Let’s have sex. It’s the religious thing to do. So it was a pretty attractive religion.

And in the other corner was the religion of the desert, the religion of YHWH. Nobody lived in the desert anymore. We grow crops for our food. We don’t follow herds. So maybe we should get with the times. Instead of an interesting pantheon, there was only one god. And that god was the wispy god of the wind that nobody could see. Instead of providing moving sensual experiences, the god of the desert was an abstraction, so abstract that one was not even to use the name of god, let alone understand it. Instead of worship in grand liturgical centers and temples, this abstract god was to be worshipped in a humble tent. Ugh! So actually convincing people to choose the god of the desert, to follow YHWH, was an uphill struggle.

But the religion of YHWH had a few things going for it. Things that made sense as people thought about their lives and their futures. Deuteronomy, written much later than the story it tells, reflects these good things about faith in YHWH as it echoes this epic struggle between the two religions. The old challenges and possibilities for faith in YHWH rise again to the surface in this passage.

The first advantage of the religion of the desert is this thing called human choice. Choice. At this point in human history, religious choice is a very new thing. Notice how choice is important in the passage today. Now we take choice for granted. We are expected to choose, and we are encouraged to think of life as a series of choices. And for some reason, we think everybody should choose their own religion. In some ways , in our consumer society, we have actually trivialized choice. Walk down a grocery store aisle and see how many superficial choices stare you in the face. But in the Bronze and Iron Ages human choice is a rare thing, a new idea, and something precious. The idea that a human being has the freedom to choose is a radical idea. It’s too radical for BAAL. Grounded in agriculture and temples, it is a faith designed to support an agricultural system, an urban empire and an elite, while it keeps all the peasants happily distracted with its spectacular displays. It will push as many people as possible into a non-questioning serfdom where choice is no longer a part of life.

But one who follows herds through the desert has to make constant choices about where to go and when: sometimes several times a day. Choice in the unpredictable desert, following the herds, is a necessity and a given. And everything may rest on the choice a sheep herder makes about where the water and grazing possibilities may exist.

Today, remember that you are not just a cog in some industrial, consumerized, corporate controlled, demographic to be used to support some ideology that is in turn used to support some highly veiled elite. No, you are a person, wandering through a contemporary moral desert and you are facing important decisions. And the younger you are, the more important each decision is. And this old, dusty god of the desert is calling you to remember that you have a will and a choice. Choose, and choose wisely.

Now in this passage there is something else about YHWH that was at first difficult, but gradually made more and more sense. It was the idea that religion had moral implications. Now if you are following the religion of BAAL, and all of the partying that involved, this morality thing at first sounds like a real drag. Ugh! Do we have to? Must we be good? Can’t we just practice the cult and do what we want?

But the faith of the desert actually connected morality and faith. They were intertwined. The morality of the ancient desert is grounded in the universal desert urgent responsibility of hospitality. We are to welcome the stranger at our door. We are to feed the hungry. We do not kill. We do not steal. We respect the sexuality of others. And we tell the truth.

And the truth is that self-centered hedonism may work for awhile, but it all too easily becomes the tool of commercial, political and media manipulators. It starts to break down after time passes, sometimes very quickly, as lives and cultures become depleted of meaning. And when one is constructing a life, or a country, or a faith tradition, one begins to sense how important it is to live the morality of a desert faith. Now, more than ever, we are called to be a moral people. What is the moral decision we need to make this week? And what is the moral fiber which holds us all together? After all these centuries, it’s amazing how relevant the ancient desert is in our own time. For our morality is still grounded in the universal and urgent responsibility of hospitality. We are to welcome the stranger at our door. We are to feed the hungry. We do not kill. We do not steal. We respect the sexuality of others. And we tell the truth.

In this passage from Deuteronomy there is one more thing in YHWH’s favor in this struggle with BAAL. It is that there is a good to work for, to strive for, and to discover. A benefit, a common goodness of life well lived in community. A blessing if you will. In the desert, there was a choice to make, with moral implications, and if there was wise discernment in those choices made, the group would survive and prosper. There is a goodness to life well lived in community. A benefit that comes to all.

Now we have so twisted the Hebrew Scriptures with our emphasis on individual salvation (whatever that is) by turning this whole benefit thing into things I get if I am good, like god is some sort of cosmic Santa Claus and with an elf named Jesus whose job it is to fill our personal lives with all kinds of presents. Ugh!

No, there is a blessing in community, and if we as individuals together remember that we have a choice, a choice that will change our lives and the lives of others, then we are blessed with a goodness beyond our kin. This sustaining common good comes as humans treat each other with moral respect and mysterious love. There is a greater good, benefit, or blessing to which we all aspire, a blessing beyond the pettiness and shallowness of our lives and desires.

Yes BAAL was the attractive one. But the god of the desert somehow prevailed. Humans need to make choices. The choices involve how we treat others, our moral life. And wise moral choices lead to a common goodness.

Now I want to say something briefly about Corinthians and Matthew. Paul says in Corinthians that we need to get beyond what we have been taught in order to find a deeper faith and vision. It’s time in Corinthians to stop the spoon feeding. It’s time to stop the narcissistic use of God and scripture to support our own opinions, life styles, and viewpoints. What have we done to the Hebrew Scriptures? We have chopped them up into little pieces that we read Sunday after Sunday. We use them to prop up some theme we think is important in the New Testament. While most of HB we just throw away and never read because it is hard or because it doesn’t fit our ideology.

As long as we do that, we will miss the power of the most ancient scripture to speak again as we learn more and more about its situation, and the issues it faces. Yes, this ancient material is difficult, and it makes for longer sermons, and I’m sorry about that. But we cannot unlock the power of this ancient faith, a power we most desperately need, unless we let it speak for itself about the challenges of choices, moral decisions, and the goodness of the common life. It’s time in Corinthians to stop the spoon feeding. It is time for us to read the Bible again, even the hard parts, with questioning minds and open hearts as we discover again how God has been active in and shaping the human experience from the beginning of time.

And when we do this with the Rabbi Jesus, oh, my. For Jesus this morning takes that moral choice for goodness and drives it inward. Believe me, if we have distorted the Hebrew Scripture, we have distorted Jesus even more. Today, it’s like he rips open my chest, and taking my heart in his hands, he says here, in your heart is where the ancient choice is made. The moral choice begins inside of you with the first stirrings of struggle between hatred and love. There in your chest that epic religious struggle still continues. And as soon as you begin any form of hate, you are moving away from that elusive voice of the windy god calling to us in the desert of our own times.

 

 

Reflection for February 5, 2017

Isaiah58:1-9, I Corinthians 2:1-12, and Matthew 5:13-20 

It’s clear from what he says about salt today, that Jesus never experienced Wisconsin winter. You are the salt of the earth, he says, but if salt has lost is taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

For us, one of the very best uses of salt is for it to be thrown down on roads and sidewalks so that it can be trampled underfoot and give traction on ice for shoes and tires. As Jesus might have said, had he grown up in Wisconsin, “Even the salt which the cook has rejected has become the traction we need to get where we are headed.”

Of course these days, there are alternatives to road salt which are safer for all of us. And in our era, we need to use less salt not only on our roads, but also in our food. Even the ancients knew that salt was not good for the earth. Invading armies would scatter salt on the fields of their enemies so that the field would not produce a crop.

But as Jesus shakes the salt shaker this morning, the point still pours out. We are the salt of the earth, he says. In the world of Jesus, salt had three primary uses. It seasoned. Salt preserved food in a time before refrigeration. It was used as a cleansing agent or astringent before the age of modern antiseptics.

When he says that we who believe are the salt of the earth, he is calling us to be the seasoning that brings flavor to life. He is calling us as the salt of the earth to preserve the earth. He is calling us to cleanse our own hearts and the society in which we live.

Seasoning. Preserving. Cleansing. How salty are you today? What seasoning are you providing to the stew of life? Is your life full of flavor? Are you having fun? Do you need to focus a bit on something called joy or delight? What would faith look like if we strove to be the spice of life rather than the custodians of guilt? Today, Jesus calls you to get out there and have some fun. Even if you are Lutheran! Enjoy something today. And let your joy be infectious.

And how is preserving going for you? In what ways are we as individuals and as groups engaged in the preservation of this planet, this earth of which we are the salt? It’s all about little things regarding plastic bags and fuel consumption and weather stripping and eating more vegetables and recycling containers and keeping leaves out of the gutters and working for peace rather than the waste of war. All those things add up.

And there may be something more to salty preservation. God wants us to love the world. There is nothing more beautiful than this little section of the planet we know as southern Wisconsin, even in winter. At the center of the earth’s preservation is divine and human love for the land, sky and water that we inhabit. We preserve the earth because it is our mother, because God so loved it and we do too, and because it sustains us still. This affection for the planet is at the heart of salty preservation.

And how is cleansing going for you? Is there something that needs to be cleaned out of our spiritual or emotional closet? What wounds need to be cleansed? What values have become so tarnished by the forces at work in this world that they need to be cleaned and polished again?

This little verse of Jesus on salt calls us to spice up our lives, to care for our world, and to strive for emotional, spiritual, social, and cultural cleaning. Season. Preserve. Clean. Did he not say to us: You are the salt of the earth? Amen