Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfiguration: Where the Magic Happens

2-26-17 - Transfiguration Sunday
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, amen.

Sometimes the Bible can be pretty gosh darn weird. Every year, at the end of the season of Epiphany, and on the brink of the season of Lent, we get this strange little story told in three of the four Gospels where Jesus - literally - lights up brighter than the Griswold’s house at Christmas.

But perhaps it’s not quite as weird as we may think. After all, the season of Epiphany is all about light shining in the darkness. It began with the shining of a star high up in the sky, which led distant wise men to a child with the face of God, who would grow up to be the king and savior of all. So, it kind of makes sense that Epiphany ends with that same child, now all grown up, whose clothes and face and whole being are shining dazzlingly bright, high up on a mountaintop, also chilling with Moses and Elijah.

But we seem to have skipped a few bits. In the last few weeks we had been making our way through the Sermon on the Mount, in the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and today we find ourselves in the 17th, just over half way through the gospel! What did we miss? What happened in the meantime? And how did Jesus get up on the mountain and start glowing like a lightbulb?

Jesus and his disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, which is way on the north end of Israel, close to modern day Syria and Lebanon. Six days previously, Jesus had a very important conversation with his disciples, a literal “come to Jesus moment,” where he drops the news of the real reason that he is on his way to the capital, Jerusalem. He is not going there as a conqueror. He is going there to die. And Peter – Jesus’ most famous disciple – his reaction was to say, “no way Jesus, stop talking like that. That can’t possibly be true! Messiahs don’t DO that!”

It is then little wonder that Peter says what he does up on that mountain. He wants to avoid what Jesus said is just on the horizon. Peter wants the “heavenly Jesus” not the “Crucified Jesus.” But what Peter must learn is that to have “Heavenly Jesus” in all his resurrected glory, Jesus must first die.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is just about the midpoint on the Gospel of Matthew. It’s what in stories we call “the point of no return,” that moment when you realize that you can’t turn back, but to go forward seems almost too scary or unknown to bear. In the words of a poem by Catholic mystic John O’Donohue: (from his poem "In the Interim")

“The path you took to get here has washed out;
the way forward is still concealed from you."

This kind of moment smacks you in the face, and you realize that life will never be the same going forward, and yet this moment is so new that you can’t yet conceive of what life will look like tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now. You have crossed a threshold that you can’t uncross. You are no longer even the same person you were just a minute ago. From now on, everything is different.

This is the reality of change, and it feels very uncomfortable, like we are being pulled in two different directions at the same time. As Lutheran preacher and seminary professor (happened to be one of mine) Karoline Lewis describes change, it is “by definition… a simultaneous holding on of what was and a looking toward the hope of what can be. …”

Holding on to what lay behind us…. While at the same time being pulled into a future that we can’t see yet… as someone who has had my life pretty recently upended, change even for a great reason can make me feel like that Mr. Stretch toy from when I was a kid. Big change, even when it’s good, can still feel new and awkward and still brings complex emotions – grief and loss for what is no longer, mixed with excitement and anxiety for what is to come.

Like the transfiguration story from the Gospel of Matthew, we too are in the middle of our own stories. Brene Brown, the writer and shame researcher famous for her vulnerability TED talk, reminds us that in order to be integrated and wholehearted people, we need to own our own stories, which includes the really messy middle bits (from her book Rising Strong). The parts where the road behind is washed out and we don’t yet know where we are going.

Peter, unfortunately, had not yet heard of Brene Brown, so he had a little trouble. He, like many of us in the middle of our stories, tried to find a much more comfortable way to move through his story, to avoid all the messy dying stuff, which Messiahs aren’t even supposed to do anyway. Peter of course, wanted to skip that part of the story and get on to the glory part. And we can’t blame him. We try to build tents in our own way to delay or cope with change, or to try to make permanent what is only meant to be a temporary phase. Too often we get stuck right along with Peter, trying to move forward into the future, while at the same time driving down the road and using the rear-view mirror to navigate! It’s not going to work out well.

It certainly didn’t work so well for Peter. This is where he ends up at the end of Lent: during Holy Week, he is all talk and no follow through, denying Jesus three times, and abandoning Jesus like all the rest during Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

And yet, even after Peter refused to accept that Jesus was going to be a Crucified Messiah, even though Peter all too often opened his mouth only to insert his own foot, even though Peter would turn his back on Jesus, Jesus still chose him. Jesus still invited him up the mountain. And I think that gives the rest of us hope.

We may not always “get” where Jesus is leading us. But Jesus calls us to be present with him in the transitional, transfiguration, threshold moments, even when we would do anything we can to stay on the mountain rather than go back down.

Much like Peter, one of my favorite characters from the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis is also someone who acts a bit thoughtlessly, makes mistakes, often misses the big picture, and yet is still sent on a journey that will save all of Narnia. Her adventure also begins on a mountain top, too, and she is also told to listen. Her name is Jill, and Aslan the king of Narnia –  a talking lion and a thinly veiled representation of God – gives her this advice before she sets off down the mountain:  

“Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind…. Remember the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Just like Jill, and just like Peter, we don’t know exactly what is waiting for us down the mountain after our transfiguration moments. Or perhaps, we feel that the air is already thick with stress and distractions, or we have already lost our way down the mountain and missed the signs. We don’t want to be in the messy middle of the story, we’d rather be at the end. This is not where we wanted to go, but this is exactly where Jesus is calling us. Not back into the past, or back to the mountain top. But forward, and downhill, into the messy middle.

The messy middle is where life is happening, and Brene Brown says it’s also “where the magic happens.” We can’t go around change, we can only go through it, day by day, until we get to the other side. And there we will find another threshold moment, and then another. Much like Family of God has done in the past, worshiping in one place then another, then another… until building a permanent home… but your work was not over, there are more thresholds to be crossed and middles to muddle through as best we can.

Most of the time, when change happens, we don’t feel completely ready. Peter certainly wasn’t and we never will be. But we don’t have to be “ready.” We just need to listen to the voice at the top of the mountain. This voice is telling us to listen to Jesus. And what does Jesus then say to Peter and the other two disciples in their fear and awe of the moment? Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

The rest of John O’Donohue’s poem goes like this:

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground, that you might come free from all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here in your mind…

We hold our confidence in being rooted in our past while at the same time being planted in the soil of our new future. We hold our confidence in this slow and hard process because we know how the story ends – Jesus went to Jerusalem to die, but he also went there to LIVE.  

And because Jesus lives, WE LIVE too. We live here, on the threshold and on the mountain and in the messy middle and in the magic. We live here, rooted in the resurrection. We live here, and we are not afraid. Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Out of the Box


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

A few weeks ago, I watched this video going around Facebook, created by a Danish television channel. It begins by different groups of people walking into a room and each group standing in a separate box marked out on the floor. Everyone was looking around a little nervously when the voiceover to the video begins to narrate: “It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us. And there’s them.”

“The high earners. And those just getting by. Those we trust. And those we avoid. There’s the people new to the country. And those who have always been here. The people from the countryside. And those who have never seen a cow. The religious. And the confident. There are those we share something with. And those we don’t share something with.”

Next, someone with a clipboard steps forward to ask questions and invite people to come out of their boxes, sort of like a getting-to-know-you game I’ve played many times at camp. Suddenly these very different groups mingle and reform into new groups. They become groups of people who were the class clown, those who are stepparents, those who believe in life after death. Those who have been bullied, and those who have bullied others.  The video ends with every member of every group out of their boxes and gathered together as ONE GROUP, as all the people who love their country, Denmark. The video ends with this thought: “So maybe there’s more that brings us together than we think.”

One person’s reaction to this video was “we all have the same color blood.” Unfortunately, this is not the natural mode that we operate in. Walking down the street, seeing someone who looks differently or acts differently from us, our brains automatically jump to the easy and simple conclusions and puts that person in a box. As the video shows us, it’s much harder to remind ourselves of our common humanity.

It’s human to fear what we don’t understand. And it’s also very human to lash out when we feel that we or the people that we love have been hurt. Because the truth us, part of being human is that we WILL hurt one another, whether on purpose or by accident. 

In today’s word, Jesus might preach these words to us – “You have heard it said on many a bumper sticker ‘Don’t get mad, get even.’ But I say to you, ‘Love the people who have hurt you, and even pray for their well-being’.”

Tell me to do something – anything – else, Jesus. Anything but THAT. Tell me that God is on my side when people make me angry. Tell me to be kind to my enemies… once I have subdued them. Tell me to ask for extra forgiveness after I’ve exacted my revenge. Tell me to do anything at all to my enemies, except to love them. Because I DON’T WANT TO. 

Because deep down in my heart of hearts, if I am really honest with myself, I don’t think that my enemies deserve my love…. And I don’t think they deserve God’s love either. Because how can God love people “like that”?

We are not alone in this sentiment. The disciples must have listened to this part of the Sermon on the Mount with growing horror and outrage. Because on the surface it looks like giving in and giving up to their oppressive Roman overlords. Some of the disciples wanted to FIGHT, to set up a new political system here on earth with Jesus as the one in charge, to turn the tables on the Romans to drive them out.

What Jesus proposed seems like becoming a doormat. And that is not what Jesus is proposing at all. Jesus won’t FIGHT or take FLIGHT, but instead, shows us “a third way.” A way that breaks the mold and breaks the cycle of violence, and publicly exposes and names injustice. The way of non-violent resistance. Jesus shows his disciples how to assert their own dignity as beloved children of God and not allow themselves to be put in a box by others.

Jesus is absolutely NOT talking about domestic violence or abuse here. He is not leading a Christian marriage seminar. He is talking to a people who have been systematically oppressed by people in power, and those people in power have created laws and systems to keep their power in place by degrading the humanity of an entire people. In Jesus’ time, it was legal for a Roman soldier to conscript a Jewish man to carry his 60 pound bag of gear for one mile – and one mile only - when they were on the move. So, you know, they were at least nice about their oppression, or something, because there were punishments for soldiers who abused this rule. Imagine then, the reaction of a Roman soldier when a Jewish man kept going into a second mile, and the poor soldier is running after to get him to stop! Who is in control now?

Similarly, if someone struck you on the right cheek, that doesn’t mean they are left handed. That means that they hit you with the back of their hand, which was a kind of blow reserved for people who were considered beneath you – women, slaves, servants, children, anyone lower on the social strata. If you were to turn your face so that you could also be struck on the LEFT, they would be forced to use their palm, which was reserved for striking an equal. By turning your cheek, you are telling them that not only are you refusing to hit them back in revenge, at the same time you are forcing them to treat you as an equal, a fellow human being.

Sometimes turning the other cheek means leaving a relationship. Sometimes turning the other cheek means a police report and a restraining order. Sometimes turning the other cheek means getting out of a situation, because then you are acknowledging that you are human being with wants and needs, a human being that deserves to live a life that free from violence and fear. As we all do.

But Jesus - being Jesus - also flips the tables back on US. Just as we are called to refuse to stay in the boxes that others put us in, we are not to put other people in boxes, either. And according to Jesus, that means loving our enemies and praying for those who threaten us.
The enemies of Jesus’ disciples were pretty obvious and pretty brutal – the Roman government and those in power who colluded with them. In our time and place, I think the people who are truly our enemies are much less obvious, but just as powerful.

Our enemies are not our opposites, as many would like us to believe. Our world does not have to be about white verses black, men verses women verses transgendered people, gay verses straight, Christian verses Muslim. I happen to think that our true enemies right now are those who want us to view those people as our enemies. They want us to stay in our boxes, to fear those who are in other boxes, and to continue to operate out of hate and fear. But we all know, because we can see it on the news and all around us, that this keeps us stuck. Hate creates more hate, and fear creates more fear. It’s a cycle we can’t break by acting in the same way.

The Reverent Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, who was a champion of non-violent resistance during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, once said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Love gets us out of the box, even though we would rather put that love back IN the box. But we all know what God does with boxes. When love had every dignity taken away, when love was violently murdered on a cross, when love was sealed a way in a dark tomb, when death thought it had won the day… Jesus broke out of that tomb, broke free from the chains of death, to show us that the darkness cannot and will not win.

Love is busting out of the tomb all over the place. Jesus calls us our boxes to see that there is “more that brings us together than we think.”

Just this last week, in the Los Angeles area nearly two hundred thousand people were told to evacuate because of a hole in a local dam. Sikh temples all over the area opened their buildings to give the evacuees shelter, food, and supplies, just five years after a tragic shooting happened in a Sikh Temple in my home state of Wisconsin. The Sikh community in California opened their doors to complete strangers, because they were in need. They had every reason to say no. But they said yes. “We all have the same color blood.”

 Love knows no bounds and destroys every box we try to create. Thanks be to God. AMEN. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Love and the 12 Commandments

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I am a big Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her books, I’ve seen the movies, multiple times, so I was both surprised and delighted when last year it was announced that one of her little-known novellas made it onto the big screen. Imagine, the first big Jane Austen hit in YEARS! It was a BIG DEAL! (At least for me!)

It’s called “Love and Friendship,” based on Austen’s short story “Lady Susan,” a widow who uses ever person and situation to her own advantage. Not even the 10 Commandments are safe from her. She tried to convince her daughter to marry a very silly but very rich farmer by using the fourth commandment. Which is……? Take a wild guess? That’s right, “honor your father and mother.”

But this rich farmer-gentleman, named Sir Martin, has his own opinions about the 10 commandments. While on a visit to Lady Susan’s family, he hope to impress them by talking about “the old prophet who came down from the mount with tablets bearing the Twelve Commandments.”

When he is told that there only 10, he exclaims, “Really?? Only 10 must be obeyed. Excellent. Well, then, which two to take off? …Many of the ‘thou shalt nots’ – don’t murder, don’t covet… one simply wouldn’t do anyway! Because they are wrong.”

Yes, Sir Martin, they indeed are wrong. I think that many of us, myself included, can tick off most of the 10 commandments and think “well, this week I didn’t murder anyone, I didn’t rob a bank, I didn’t go on a date with someone who is married, and I haven’t wrongfully used the Lord’s name. All things considered, I think I’m actually doing pretty well.”

The Atlanta Falcons in last week’s Super Bowl game might have gone into half time thinking the same thing, when the score was 21-3 in their favor. That they had this “winning the Super Bowl thing” locked in, in the bag, and for the rest of the game they could sit back and phone it in. But we all know what happened in the second half. The lesson of that game was clear – you gotta show up for the second half of the game.

The last two weeks in the Sermon on the Mount were the wind up, believe it or not. You are blessed. You are salt and light. And now, this week Jesus is really digging into the hard stuff, the kind of topics that would have make most people walk away if he had started his sermon here. This is the second half of the game, where the rubber meets the road about what it means to be a disciple. Following Jesus doesn’t give us a pass. In fact, the standards will be higher and the stakes will be greater, and our actions under more scrutiny.

After I bought my car last year, I got a Luther Rose magnet to put on the bumper. When that went on, and especially now that I have the official “Family of God” sticker on the back there too, I find have to check myself while driving. Just the other day, someone cut me off to get into the left turn lane, only to notice what I could already see: their lane had been blocked off by a police officer. I admit, I had some very not nice thoughts about them, and I almost didn’t let them back into my lane. But, not only was it the right thing to do, but I also knew that I had to do it because of who the back of my car advertises – Jesus and Family of God. Did I want to let them in? No way. But successful driving not just about what is lawful. It’s about what’s best for the flow of traffic as a whole. In other words, how would Jesus drive?

The rules of the road that God gave us is the 10 Commandments. But it seems that even these 10 are not enough for us. We always seem to find our way around following the rules. Squeaking through at the end of a yellow turn arrow because we know there is time buffer between lights. Parking crooked because we’re in a hurry. Following a little too close to the car ahead of us. Been there, done that. But… technically NOT illegal.

 So Jesus takes on a couple of the well-known commandments that we might feel pretty confident about, and – surprise! Jesus ups the ante for those of us who claim to follow him. Which is not very nice of Jesus at all.

“You have heard it said you shall not murder.” But, according to Jesus, it turns out that if we are angry with any of our fellow human beings, if we insult them and call them names, when we convince ourselves that this is acceptable behavior, we have made them into less than people. When we reduce the humanity of any of our neighbors, forgetting that they too bleed and have feelings, we are putting our own lives above theirs. It is as if we have killed them in our minds. Been there, done that.

In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther provided explanations for each of the commandments. For the 5th commandment, “you shall not murder,” Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all life’s needs.”

Keeping the 5th commandment is NOT about NOT killing, pardon the double negative. Truly keeping the 5th commandment in the Jesus Regime also means not labeling people or not insulting them and their families. AND, as Luther adds, it also means living together in unity and helping our neighbors out when they are in need. 

The same goes for Jesus’ take on the 6th commandment – “you shall not commit adultery.” Luther’s explanation reads: “you are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.” Jesus takes it a step farther and says this shocking statement that is one of the banes of preachers everywhere this week: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 

It could have been worse, folks. This could have been my FIRST week with you instead of my THIRD. But bear with me. This is not the first time that Jesus goes into some pretty uncomfortable territory, and it won’t be the last.

When a man looks at a woman in this way, he sees her only as function of what she can give to him, he denies her autonomy as a person, and he reduces her to commodity be acquired. Take a look at any magazine in the grocery aisle, every billboard, every commercial on TV. 

When a half-dressed, photo-shopped female body is used to sell a product, she too becomes an inanimate object rather than a person with hopes, dreams, desires, and a will of her own. And so it has been throughout human history, before advertising was even invented. Women’s bodies have always been feared, shamed, and controlled.

With this additions to the 6th commandment, Jesus isn’t telling women to cover up because “boys will be boys.” Jesus is instead calling boys to be men, to put an end to centuries of blaming and shaming, and to remind them that God created women to be people too.
Jesus lived at a time where women could not have a career, make a living, or live independently from her husband or male relatives. Marriage provided financial stability and the assurance of a future through children. The idea of romantic love, or our obsession with a holiday that celebrates romance and couples would be completely foreign to them.

So imagine divorce at this time. Divorce is a traumatic, life-shaking event no matter what the context. Imagine though, that a woman in Jesus’s time is divorced by her husband – because it is the husband who initiates this, not the wife – what are her options? She would either be homeless, or go back to live with her family of origin in shame and disgrace… or she could get married again. All pretty bleak options. All leave her with even less value in the eyes of her culture.

Imagine the kind of man who would pursue such a woman at her most vulnerable, after her previous husband had used his societal advantage to cast her aside. Such a man is taking advantage of this woman when she is at her most defenseless.  He participates in and condones in the first man’s sin for his own gain.

By calling this a sin, Jesus is affirming that, in the words of a colleague of mine, “Each person is sacred and deserves to be treated that way.” In Jesus’s time, and in ours, the sacredness of each life is threatened when anyone is treated as less than human. In Jesus’s time, Jesus said that meant for men to be faithful to their marriage promises in a world where women had much less power and choice than they do now. In our own time, I believe that Jesus would say divorce is the most loving option when it is the only way that the sacredness of human life can only be upheld, and that remarriage between two consenting adults who respect the sacred humanity of one another is never wrong.

Love in its truest form is more than just red hearts and a nice dinner. Love is seeing the needs of the other as important. Love is living in a relationship built on mutual kindness.  Love is seeing every person as sacred and deserves to be treated that way. Love is how we were created to live with one another.

God is love. And God created us to love. Love gives us life. Jesus is the love of God with skin on, literally love fully fleshed out.

Love is hard. It calls us to do difficult things. Love asks us for our words and our deeds to be life-giving, not life-limiting. Love calls us to walk the truth path of who we were created and called to be: no more and no less than beloved Children of God.

As it turns out, silly Farmer Martin from the movie “Love and Friendship” was right all along. When Jesus was asked which commandments were the greatest, Jesus actually gave us two more, clever man: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (Matthew 22:37–39)  Ten plus two equals twelve. There you have it. The Twelve Commandments. Only, we don’t get to “leave any of them off.”

When we leave here today, as we brush the crumbs from coffee hour from our coats, we’ll hop in the car, and I know I’ll probably break at least three commandments on the way home. But we keep driving, knowing that we don’t believe in a God of Rules. Our God is a God of Love and Friendship and Forgiveness. So don’t worry about trying to keep at the commandments all at once. Just keep the one that’s right in front of you. Take it one day at a time. We got this. And God’s got you. Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

You are Salt and Light!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

As I was putting my call sermon from December 4th and my sermon from last week on my online blog, I realized that though these sermons were almost two months apart, I talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer both times. And, at the risk sounding like I am totally uncreative, I thought it would be a good idea to mention him AGAIN, in order to share with you who he was and why I have quoted him so much in the past and probably will in the future.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor in the 1930s who preached, wrote, and was a leader against the Third Reich, and the Nazis did all they could to prevent him from speaking out. At one point Bonhoeffer escaped to the United States, and could have lived here permanently, out of harm’s way. But he could not stay away from his people. So he bravely came back to Germany, and not long after was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis. He was executed just days before his prison camp was liberated by Allied forces.

About a year ago a Catholic acquaintance heard me preach on Bonhoeffer and he was shocked: “What? He’s Lutheran?” he said, “I assumed he was Catholic.” Nope. The Catholics get plenty of cool people… like Mother Teresa and Stephen Colbert. But WE get Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is OURS!

Lutherans don’t have saints the same way Catholics do, but we still lift up models and heroes of the faith that show us how to live as disciples of Jesus during challenging times.
There is still plenty to learn about being a disciple. The Sermon on the Mount keeps going and Jesus is still preaching. In fact, his sermon goes on for about two more chapters, and we’re going to get a pretty solid chunk of it in the next few weeks before Lent starts.

“Previously in The Sermon on the Mount”: Jesus flipped the expectations of the world upside down by telling us who is really blessed in God’s kingdom – the poor in spirit, the outcast, the mourning, those hungry for righteousness, those who work for justice and peace. 

Bonhoeffer knew what it was like to be blessed by Jesus as he was hungry and thirsty for righteousness, as he mourned for the state of his nation, as he was reviled and persecuted by those who sought to silence the message of the Gospel. Bonhoeffer also how to live as salt and light, and how hard that would be in a world that would rather make that light stay hidden.  

Speaking of things that are hidden, February is not just “Valentine’s Day Awareness month,” or “Super Bowl Month.” February is also Black History Month, a fact that seems to get buried underneath all the red hearts and guacamole.

If you haven’t already seen the movie Hidden Figures, after fellowship time, drive over to the Regal Cinema or the theater of your choice and catch the next matinee, you’ll probably make the 12:25 showing. Hidden Figures is based on a book that tells the story of three African American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. I’m going to let that fact sink in for a moment. Black women, working in math and science, in the 1960s.

When a fellow colleague asked Mary Johnson, one of these amazing women, “If you were a white man, would you wish to be an engineer?” Mary answered, “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.”

I don’t think it’s spoiling the movie to reveal that these women were the true “hidden figures.” At every turn, they were minimized, ignored, feared, misunderstood, and excluded. But at every challenge, the minds of these women shone out as they did their patriotic duty to safely launch John Glenn into orbit. They could not help but shine as the brilliant women that they ARE, pioneers and heroes in their own right. It’s pretty awesome that we can learn about the amazing stories of these hidden figures by watching points of light projected on a giant screen.

It is a property of light to shine. Light can’t NOT be itself. It can’t NOT shine. Light doesn’t have to TRY to be light. Salt doesn’t have to WORK AT being salt. They just are. Light doesn’t second-guess itself or worry about what the other photons will think if they shine. Salt doesn’t strive for the perfect work-life balance before deciding that it has the time to be salty. Salt flavors, light shines. It’s what they do.

Jesus said, “You are salt and light.” The end, end of story. We just are.

But that also means, if we are the light, we can no longer remain hidden, even if we wanted too. Light shines - the Body of Christ is seen in the world. It’s who we are. If we follow Jesus, we won’t be able to help ourselves. It’s going to get us noticed by people whose notice we may not want.  But this light is also going to make us see things that we might rather not see.

If you look into bright light for long enough, a shadowy image of that light will stay in your retinas for a few minutes. And on the flip side, if we look into darkness for too long, our eyes can adjust to the lower levels of light, if the sun sets slowly enough or we wait long enough in the dark.

The world seems like a pretty dark place right now for many of us. But after a while we can convince ourselves that it really isn’t all THAT dark after all, especially when certain aspects of the darkness don’t affect us ALL that much.

But many of our brothers and sisters have been plunged into darkness and despair. Those who are misunderstood, feared, vilified because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality are suffering in the darkness. Their struggles are unseen, unnoticed, or deemed as unimportant. And there are many in the world who would like the darkness, and want to keep it that way. The darkness may be scary, but perhaps even scarier is how comfortable the darkness can become to us.

The beginning of the Gospel of John states that “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) That light is the arrival of Jesus, who came to defeat darkness and the power of evil, and to the world who God is.

With Jesus, the mask comes off, and we get to see the love of God in action. Like Clarke Kent taking off those fake glasses that were never really fooling anyone anyway, revealing a real flesh and blood superhero who came to save the world. But not by flying and jumping higher or running faster than anybody else. Instead, he saved the world by becoming a normal, regular, everyday human being. A human being who could experience pain and sadness and grief and even death. A human being who was also God’s son, who died and rose again so that we might live, too.

So when Jesus says we are blessed, we’d better pay attention.

So when Jesus says we are salt and light, we’d better listen up.

So when Jesus says it’s time to assemble the super heroes and super heroines, we’d better be ready to saddle up.

We belong to a real-life league of heroes, one who don’t wear capes or have secret identities. WE, actually, wear our identities on our sleeves, in plain sight, for all to seen.

Admission to this league of heroes isn’t reserved for the fast, strong, or superior. We belong to this league because we are God’s beloved children. We don’t consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer a hero of the faith because he was perfect, supernaturally brave, or above making mistakes. He’s a hero because Jesus trusted him to be who he was called to be – salt and light until the day he died.

We are light and salt for the world. The darkness will only get darker until we decide that we are going to BE who we ARE. Like beacons of light, we reveal the injustice of the world, which would rather work undisturbed hidden in a cloak of darkness. We shine to say to our brothers and sisters, “I see you, I see what’s happening to you, and I’m NOT ok with it.” 

Like salt, we are the spice of the world that brings out the flavor of love and kindness that already exists out there, which the world has chosen to forget or is too afraid to show.
The world is watching, and people are going to notice. The world is going to try and prevent us from being who we are.

A little salt and a little light go a long way. Just a little light in the darkness, shining wherever you are, can make a big difference. You don’t have to be the next Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You just have to be the next YOU. Child of God, salt of the earth, light of the world. Amen.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

You are Blessed!

Sermon – First at Family of God 1-29-2017
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

Remember back to the last time you experienced a big, life-altering event. Whether it was the birth of your first child, news that a loved one had just died, hearing that you’ve been hired for that perfect job, or receiving an unexpected diagnosis – one minute life was normal and the next minute normal life was thrown out the window. At the very moment, your life changes, and your brain becomes completely up-ended. Like opening up your checked luggage from the baggage claim and discovering all your neatly packed belongings have not ONLY “shifted during flight”…. But have become a complete jumbled mess.

Confession time. I met many of you for the first time almost two months ago, and since then I have said goodbye to my previous congregation, packed up my life and my cats, and moved across state lines. My brain right now probably looks something like that piece of luggage, and I thank you in advance for bearing with me as we orient ourselves to one another.

The disciples who said “yes” to the call of Jesus were no strangers to transformation events. Last week we hear about how they were at the beginning of their own exciting journey. They had just been called by Jesus to follow him, to even drop what they were doing and just go. No more fishing for fish – Peter, Andrew, James, and John would be fishing for people from now on. So I’m sure their brains were more than a little addled, too, trying to wrap their minds around the whole thing, and wondering, “What happens now? What did we just commit to? Who are we now? Where in the world are we going?”

Jesus’s answer comes in the next chapter in Matthew, as he begins what we call “The sermon on the mount,” which is pretty helpful in making it obvious that this is a sermon and it happens on a mountain. But less obvious is the fact that is Jesus’ very first sermon the Matthew - his inaugural sermon if you will, and this section is what is commonly called “The beatitudes.” This sermon will set the tone for the Jesus administration and sets the terms for what it means to be a disciple.

To be a disciple is a fancy, “churchy” way to be a learner, a student. A student learns from and listens to a teacher. Jesus is the teacher, and we the students. And the very first thing that Jesus teaches in his very first sermon is that his students are blessed. Jesus’s disciples are blessed, even though they would not be considered first round draft pics for Jesus’s Kingdom. And they are blessed RIGHT NOW, even in their jumbled brain states.

Take a look over who Jesus says is blessed one more time. This is a list that seems totally backwards, and shouldn’t make any sense to us. This is not how the world works, as we see on a daily basis. THIS is who the world says are blessed – those who are wealthy and successful, those who are in power, the famous, the popular, those who seem to “have it all together,” those who are beautiful or attractive or thin or strong…THESE are the blessed ones in the eyes of the world. Just look at the news, social media, or the cover of any magazines in the checkout aisle at ACME. They do not feature people like us. THAT is the way of the world.

But Jesus turns the world order on its head. He opens up our carefully packed luggage, dumps it all out, saying we won’t need all that in Kingdom of Heaven. The NEW Kingdom, the Jesus regime, starts NOW, with his first sermon. That regime starts with the revelation that you are blessed, right where you are, however you find yourself. And we can find ourselves in some pretty touch places right about now.

THESE are the blessed ones –those who don’t have it all together, those who are bullied, dispirited, or fleeing their homes as refugees, those who are grieving, those who hunger and thirst for the common good, those who are merciful and compassionate, those who work for peace and reconciliation, those who have a single-minded devotion to God’s kingdom, those who don’t back down from working for justice, even when they are misunderstood and challenged. Jesus calls THESE people blessed. And I am sure that we can all find ourselves somewhere on this list.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and martyr in Nazi Germany, wrote in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” that this is the reason we are blessed by God - “All are called to be what in the reality of God they are already." (p. 107) It is a heritage we lay claim to because it is already ours. Jesus calls YOU blessed, because you ARE a child of God and a fellow disciple of Jesus.

Jesus teaches us that we are blessed because we need to know where we are FROM before we can know where we are going. Oh yes, the journey does not stop for the disciples on the mountain where Jesus preaches his first sermon. This is only the beginning. The journey of discipleship and the teachings of Jesus continue.

Every teacher worth their salt knows that they can’t just TELL, but they also have to SHOW. All the best teacher I know teach by example. And Jesus is no exception. Jesus doesn’t just talk the talk in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus also walks the walk, in every aspect of his life.

If you haven’t seen the show The West Wing, I think now is the time to start, and it’s even on Netflix. On the show, Leo McGarry is President Bartlett’s chief of staff, and he wrestles with challenges like alcoholism and divorce, and yet, always seems to know the right thing to do in a crisis. In one episode, his friend and fellow staff member is struggling to come to grips with his PTSD, and Leo tells him this story:

“This guy walks down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and he shouts up "Father, I'm down here, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out.’”

Jesus has been down here before.  Jesus spent most of his time with people down there in the hole, with the downtrodden and displaced, with those grieving, with those hungering and thirsting for God’s kingdom, with those actively making peace, with those with a heart for God’s justice, with those who are merciful when the world thinks it’s a sign weakness, and with those who are hated and feared by others.

Jesus lived the true meaning of being blessed, he fulfilled his inaugural promises, and while doing so he turned an instrument of death into a symbol of new life and the new family we are all a part of. To quote again from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The fellowship of the beatitudes – the blessed are yous – is the fellowship of the Crucified [one]. With him [we] have lost all, and with him [we have] found all. From the cross there comes the call, ‘blessed, blessed….’” Blessed, blessed. (p. 114)

I recently saw this message in my Facebook feed which caught my attention: “I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. He said Deny me in front of your friends and I will deny you in front of my father. Challenge Accepted. If you are not ashamed Copy and Paste.”

I would like to propose an alternative version. “Jesus Christ has accepted me as a blessed and beloved child of God. He said, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’ Challenge Accepted. If you are not ashamed, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

We are called to be hungry and thirsty for God’s justice when there is a clear shortage. We are called to march against the tune of the rest of the world. We are called to show compassion when we are taught to only look out for ourselves. We are called to follow the voice and vision of Jesus above all the other desires of our hearts. We are called to be an active force for peace in the world.

To the rest of the world, this is a completely foolish endeavor. But, as Paul wrote, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

In the Jesus regime, what is foolish is wise and what is weak is strong. The merciful, the meek, the peacemakers, you, and me are all blessed and are brought together into a blessed community and family. And a crucified man is our ruler and guide in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with him. Challenge accepted. Amen.