Saturday, January 29, 2011

Blessing & Promise – Reflections on the Gospel for Epiphany IV - St. Matthew 5:1-12

Read the Gospel passage here: St. Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed are...

What a whirlwind the opening of the Gospel of Matthew is! We started with the genealogy, then the birth narrative, which focused on Joseph and that included the visit of the Magi, the escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents.  Then Jesus emerges, is Baptized by John, tested in the wilderness, calls a few disciples and here we are – chapter 5 – ready for Jesus’ first sermon.  And what a sermon it is!  Just the introduction alone is profound and beautiful.  But throughout all of this – chapters 1 through 4 in the Gospel of Matthew, one important theme emerges – Jesus Emmanuel (God saves, through God’s presence) is born into the real world.  This is no mythical religious setting.  This is a harsh real world filled with suffering and oppression and murder and deceit and intrigue.  It is in this context then, that we hear these words:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven…..
            We all know these words, right?  We have heard them over and over.  They are popular in our culture.  There have been books written; and various celebrities have even discussed these words of Jesus at length in various forums.  Just a quick online search brings up over 400,000 hits.  But with all this attention it is curious to note that very few seem to actually understand what Jesus is saying here.
            It is common for us to hear these words as imperatives – or orders or conditional.  “If you are poor in spirit, then you will be blessed; if you are mourning then you will be comforted; if you are meek then you will inherit the earth” and so on.  The reverse of this is also assumed I think by some = “if you are NOT poor in spirit, then you will NOT inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”  And so these Beatitudes become something to aspire to, something we have to accomplish on our road to heaven.  The other problem with the popular interpretation is that it is seen as a roadmap to heaven.  “If you are poor in spirit then you will go to heaven.”  All of these ways of looking at this passage represent a complete misunderstanding of this passage.
            So in order to get at what it is Jesus is trying to say let us first remember the context.  Remember those first 4 chapters, with allusions in the genealogy to horribly sinful people (all of whom are in Jesus’ family), with the stories of Herod and murder and misery and grief.  This is the context of Jesus’ ministry: the world – the real world.  When Jesus mentions poor in spirit (those who have given up and are completely discouraged), those who mourn and grieve, those who are meek and fearful, those who show mercy to others, those who are pure in heart or have good intentions and try to do the right thing, those who try to bring peace from conflict, and those who are persecuted for all of the above – when Jesus lifts these people up he is not saying – “Be Like This!”  He is saying – this is the way of the world.  There are people all around who are in this situation, who struggle and grieve and try to do the right thing and who get discouraged and sometimes persecuted – and you know what?  They are blessed!  God loves them and God is with them.  In fact, God holds all people who struggle like this in a special place in God’s heart.
            And there is something else.  At the end of chapter 4 the Gospel tells us that Jesus started going around the region of the Galilee “proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven!”  In other words, Jesus begins preaching - It is here!  The Kingdom is not just something that is coming in the future – it is here right now!  The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst and we are citizens of the Kingdom come into our midst.  The fact that there are still those who are poor in spirit, and mournful and meek and so on is a sign that the Kingdom is incomplete, it is not yet come in its fullness.  But the promise of and reality of God’s presence, the promises that Jesus lays out in this passage are signs that the Kingdom has come into our midst.  And that it is to be found bursting forth!
            Ultimately, this beautiful introduction to Jesus’ extended Sermon on the Mount is saying something very simple – you are blessed.  In your struggles and losses and difficulties and fears, and in your human weakness, God is with you and you are blessed! 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel for Epiphany III - Matthew 4:12-23

Read the Gospel text here - Matthew 4:12-23
Many years ago, during my internship in California, I attended a prayer retreat and spent some time with a spiritual director talking about hearing the voice of God.  Does God speak to us? How do we hear God speaking to us?  How can we discern what God is saying?  Those were among the questions I posed.  Of course, there are no simple answers for those kinds of questions, as God speaks to us all in different ways.  However, one thing he told me has always stayed with me.  He said that the issue for us contemporary Christians is not so much whether or not God is speaking to us or not, but whether or not we are listening.  From the moment of our Baptism, he suggested, God begins a dialog with us and for us the biggest challenge is to be able to quiet ourselves enough to be able to listen and hear what it is that God is trying to say.  There is so much going on in our lives, and when we find time to pray we have so much to say and to tell God that we are inclined to do all of the talking.  Is this not true?
I thought of this as I studied the text from the Gospel of Matthew for this weekend.  In this text Jesus calls his first disciples – Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John.  It has always struck me that there seems to have been little resistance to responding to the call.  The Gospels all report that they left their nets and followed.  Perhaps they did not think this would be a long commitment.  Perhaps they thought, well I can give up and afternoon or two to listen to the teacher.  But it turned out to be more than just an afternoon or two.  There is a scene in the movie “Jesus of Nazareth” where Peter is talking with Matthew late one night and begins to talk about his plans to return home to his family and fishing.  After some silence Matthew responds, “You won’t go back, you can’t go back.  None of us can.”  Once Jesus became a part of their lives, there was no turning back.  This call was a call to follow forever, through good times and difficult times.
In the 2nd lesson for today from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians Paul is chastising this community for what he considers unfaithfulness to their call.  The wonderful thing about this letter is how it starts out (the lesson from last week).  Paul begins the letter, not in anger or by listing all of their transgressions.  Rather he starts out by reminding them that they are all called to be saints, called to be followers of Christ – just like him.  On that foundation then he builds his admonishments.  The call to follow Jesus is the foundation of the community and of individual lives and is not something we do only part-time. 
We too are all called to be saints; we too are called to be followers of Christ.  From the moment of our Baptism God has begun a dialog with us; a journey with us.  To what are we called?  To follow and to live lives which are reflective of God’s love and grace; to care for and about others; and to recognize that God is on this journey with us, forever.  Perhaps there are times when we do not recognize that God is with us, when we feel alone.  But God is always with us, God loves us and God will sustain us.  This calling is not a promise that things will always be perfect.  But it is a promise that no matter what God will be with us, speaking with us, guiding us and loving us. 
            Baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit we are called to listen; we are called to follow.  For each of us that means something different; and it is different for us in different stages in our lives.  But what never changes is that God is on the journey with us, God is always talking to us, God loves us and is present with us.  Nothing can change this.  But are we listening?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reflections - The Funeral Liturgy

I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever believes in me in me will never die…  St. John 11:26
            Since September I have used this space to explore the Sacraments of the church: Baptism and Eucharist; and Sacramental living.  Everything we do can be a Sacramental experience for us or for others.  Rooted in Baptism and strengthened and empowered through Holy Communion we are sent out into the world to be vessels of Christ’s Sacramental presence.  And we don’t have to “try” to do this.  It happens through the power of the Holy Spirit.  As we live our lives faithfully and responsibility the Spirit reaches out to others through us, without our even being aware of it at times.  Everything from being kind to others, to not being greedy and irritable when shopping to being honest and open to others can be a sacramental experience; from sitting with a friend and supporting that person in their loss or grief, to opening a door for someone who is disabled are sacramental experiences for us and for others.
            I also spoke about how various liturgies of the church help us to focus these experiences – to recognize them and acknowledge them: Confession and Forgiveness (corporate or individual), healing services including anointing with oil (corporate or individual) and a liturgy of commendation of the dying can all help us recognize God’s presence in our lives and empower and strengthen us in our faith.  This brings me to a very important liturgy – the Burial of the Dead or the Funeral liturgy. 
            The Funeral liturgy is a unique liturgy of the church as it is the only liturgy which really has two foci – 1. The celebration of a life lived and completed in Christ - the celebration that the deceased is now resting in the arms of Christ into whom he/she was baptized; and 2. The comforting of the grieving.  One does not negate the other.  I have heard well-meaning people admonish family members for being “too” demonstrative in their grief because now the loved one is “now in heaven.”  As true as the last part of that statement may be, nevertheless, the expression of grief is completely appropriate and is an important and healthy way to deal with loss.  The death of a loved one is a loss – there is no denying this.  Even if he/she is in heaven, they are no longer with us and we are going to miss them.  The funeral liturgy is designed to encourage healthy grieving by bringing closure to a relationship.  Often the funeral liturgy is the beginning of a process of grief which may take a long time.  This is natural, it can be different for different people as we all grieve in our own ways. I do want to add that if ever you feel that the grief is overwhelming I would encourage you to speak to someone (a friend, counselor or pastor) to help you verbalize it, instead of holding it in. 
            The liturgy itself is rooted in Baptism – the casket may be draped with a pall, a large white cloth covering which reminds us of the white robes which may be used to clothe the newly baptized and which covers the chalice for communion.  Many of the prayers have Baptismal references and at the committal includes the sign of the cross is traced in the air or drawn in dirt or sand to reminds us of the sign of the cross which is drawn in oil on our foreheads at baptism.  Other parts of the service will celebrate the life of the deceased and help us remember him/her and what they have meant to us.  The funeral helps us accept the loss and then moves us back into our daily lives having brought some form of closure to the loss.
I have been asked about the appropriateness of celebrating Holy Communion at funerals.  Holy Communion may be celebrated at a funeral.  This is very appropriate for those who die in the Lord and it can be a gift to their loved ones, as the formal experience of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament can be a very comforting experience.  Sometimes, though, it is not desired or appropriate and this is ok too.  There are many options that the funeral liturgy provides – from the choice of venue (church or funeral home), the choice of lessons, the choice of memories to be shared, hymns to be sung, communion or no communion and so on.  It can be difficult for the family to make some of these choices and to this end I have created a Funeral Liturgy checklist that you may complete and put on file here at the church.  This gives you the opportunity to make some of these choices yourself and can be a gift to your family as well.  I have filled one out myself and if you would like a copy I will be happy to send it to you, we can discuss it and I can put it on file in the church office.  (Note: this is not to duplicate the funeral pre-arrangements that can be done through the Funeral Home; nor is it a duplication of an Advanced Directive – these are also important and should be done.  But this focuses completely and solely on the funeral liturgy itself).
We do not always like to think about death – our own or the deaths of those whom we love.  But death will come to us all sooner or later.  The promise of the Gospel is that Christ is with us through the experience of death and will bring us home to live in God’s loving arms forever; and that through Christ God is present with us as we mourn and grieve.  And nothing can separate us from God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Beginnings" – Reflections on Matthew 3:13-17

Beginnings – Reflections on Matthew 3:13-17 
Read Text Here: Matthew 3:13-17
“I can hardly wait!”  How many times have we heard these words and how many times have we said or thought them ourselves.  Usually this phrase occurs in the context of looking forward to an important event or when one is working towards a goal.  “I can hardly wait!”  "I’m finished!"  We spend so many years in school, for example, finally we reach graduation and it is over!  It is accomplished, we are done!  ……… Now what?   “Aye, there’s the rub.”  This is the difficulty with our goal-driven society: once we have achieved the goal, then what?  What do we do now?  How many of us end up feeling lost after that kind of major achievement!  I have known so many high school and college students who, once they have been graduated spent the following years completely lost and uncertain. 
We have spent the last six weeks in our worship on prologues, primarily in Matthew, but also in Luke.  The Christmas story in Luke is a prelude or prologue to the story of Jesus ministry and passion; and the Nativity accounts that fill the first two chapters of St. Matthew are also prologue.  So, finally, we come this morning to the Baptism of Jesus in chapter 3 of St. Matthew and Jesus is now grown.  The prologue is over.  Jesus comes to the River Jordan and is Baptized by John – finally, the story is done!  Well, no, not really.  Actually the story is now beginning!  The Baptism of Jesus is the beginning, not the end!  From here we will follow Jesus as he preaches and teaches and heals and reaches out to so many people in Palestine; we will listen in on Jesus’ arguments with the religious authorities of his day and be there as he gets frustrated with his struggling disciples.  We will stand on the road through the Golden Gate in Jerusalem waving palm branches and crying “Hosanna!”  We will sit with Jesus in the upper room, pray with Jesus in the Garden, stand in the shadows watching the trial before Pilate and watch silently as Jesus is crucified.  We will accompany the women to the empty tomb earlier in the morning on the 1st day of the week.  Is it over then?  Nope, then the story really starts!
The story of God Incarnate, born into our world as Jesus, the Messiah is the “Never-Ending Story!”  It may have many moments of finality, but those moments all double as new beginnings as the story goes on and on and continues into our own time today!  Our lesson today – the Baptism of our Lord – is the conclusion of the birth/childhood prologue; but it is also the beginning of a new part of the story, it is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry!
How easy is it for us to see endings in our lives as final.  Even in our spiritual lives, how easy is it for us to see Baptism or confirmation as being final.  How easy is it for us to say to ourselves: Well, we are done with that, we have accomplished that, we are now “graduated” from church.  How sad, when there is a life filled with spiritual opportunities and growth and learning and experiences which await, if only we can see these gifts (Baptism and Confirmation) as the start of something new – a New Beginning!  Those words spoken by God, “This is my beloved son, in him I am well-pleased!” can be read as “Good Job, take a break now!”  But it might be more accurate to the biblical account to read them like this:  “Good, work – now it’s time to get started!”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

"Into Darkness" - Reflections on Matthew 2:13-23 (and John 1)

            Joseph has dreams, and in his first dream he is instructed to take Mary for his wife and to name the child that is to be born Jesus.  In my notes for Advent IV (below) it was noted that the name Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua.  Both Jesus and Joshua mean “God Saves.”  And how does God save?  In verse 1 of chapter one Matthew tells us that the child to be born will be named Emmanuel, “ which means God is with us.”  God saves through God’s amazing presence; God saves through the taking on of human flesh and being born into the midst of the darkness of this world.  It is not our goodness or our ability to follow the rules that saves us, we are saved through the grace of the love and presence of God in Christ Jesus, who is born of Mary on that Christmas day.   It is this Jesus who brings light into the darkness of this world.
            Have you ever noticed how important the theme of “light” is to our cultural celebration of Christmas?  There are lights everywhere this time of year – in stores, homes, streets, parks, trees – everywhere.  The theme of the light come into the darkness, which is stated so beautifully in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John is a theme which gives profound meaning to our celebration of Christmas, even in contexts which are not specifically Christian and even in contexts which may be hostile to Christianity.  There is something profoundly comforting and reassuring about Christmas lights illuminating the darkness of the night. 
            In Matthew the theme of the light of Christ being born into the darkness of this world is played out in a more dramatic fashion.  The baby is born “in the time of King Herod” and he is named Jesus, Emmanuel – God Saves/God is Present.  Just the mention of King Herod confirms the darkness of the world into which Jesus is born.  Herod the Great was perhaps one of the greatest architects and builders in history; he was also one of the bloodiest and most brutal dictators in history.  Even the Emperor Octavian Augustus, not a timid man himself, was nevertheless taken aback at the scope of Herod’s violence and was known to have remarked that it was better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children.  What follows then in chapter 2 is first a manipulative power play between the Magi and King Herod, in which Herod is tricked.  This does not make him happy and he takes out his rage and his insecurity on the children of Bethlehem in the event known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”
            All of this confirms that Jesus is born into a world of darkness: a world of murder, violence, genocide, grief, sorrow, suffering, loneliness and fear.  Jesus brings God’s presence into the midst of this darkness and provides light and comfort.  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot over come it, “ says St. John.  No matter how deep the darkness the promise of Christmas is that the light of Christ will always penetrate it with the presence of God’s love and grace and in that we are offered comfort and hope.
            We still live in a world of deep darkness, and the promises of God to us through the birth of Jesus at Christmas continue to bring us hope.  All those twinkling lights all over the city and in our homes and in our churches remind us that the Jesus Christ, born of Mary on Christmas, is the light of the world!