Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reflections on Matthew 5 - End of the Series

During the season of Epiphany our Gospel lessons have all come from the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which is the opening portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  This famous, beautiful and difficult chapter begins with the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Matthew 5:1-9
While there is a temptation for us to interpret these as conditions – IF you are poor in spirit, meek, mourning, pure in heart, etc., THEN you will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven – it is important to see these introductory verses as laying out the foundation of the rest of the sermon.  You who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, pure in heart, desiring peace, and so on, you are blessed. You, who are rejected by the society and who stand outside the cultural standards (for society has little time for those who are poor in spirit or meek or pure in heart or even mournful) – you are blessed and are part of God’s Kingdom, which is come in Jesus.   And as a part of Kingdom of Heaven you are also the salt of the earth and the light of the world – through whom the world tastes and catches a glimpse of the Kingdom come into the midst of our world.
Jesus then moves on to relationship and community in verses 21 through 37.  It is not enough, Jesus tells us, to follow the rules.  That is not what community is about.  If you want to earn your way into the Kingdom through your adherence to the law then you will have to be pretty close to perfect.  The point of the law is that it provides a framework to show us how we are called to be in relationship with God and with our neighbors, and that includes treating others with honor and respect.  In his explanation to the 10 commandments, Luther sums up this portion of Jesus’ sermon in a very concise way.  Take for example Luther’s explanation to the 8th commandment – You shall not bear false witness:
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our
neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
We are called to take that extra step.  It is not enough to refrain from lying – but we are called to take the extra step of caring for and speaking well of and treating our neighbor – possibly our opponent – with honor and respect.
And in case we did not completely understand what Jesus is trying to teach us he concludes chapter 5 with words which really make what he is teaching crystal clear:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven… Matthew 5:44-45a
You who are blessed by God are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and God is calling you to reach out of yourselves to others in profound and deep ways’ this means taking the community dimension of the 10 commandments seriously.  In this way you are salt and light which illumines a world of tasteless darkness.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rules and Relationships – Reflections on Matthew 5:21-37

Read this text here: Matthew 5:21-37
Rules and Relationships – Reflections on Matthew 5:21-37
You are blessed, you are salt, you are light! What a wonderful way to start a sermon.  Perhaps at this point you have relaxed and feel affirmed and maybe even a little complacent.  Well, what Jesus says next should shake us all out of any sense of complacency and self-righteousness:
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 5:20
And then Jesus goes into a long series of examples: anger = murder; lust = adultery; divorce = adultery; swearing will get you into hell and so on; if you sin with your hand – cut it off and throw it away; if you sin with your eye – pluck it out and throw it away!  Wow!  Jesus seems so uncompromising here.  What happened to the sermon of grace?  How do we come to grips with a sense of the grace of God as shown in the life and ministry of Jesus and these harsh words?
There are two traditional ways of looking at this passage.  One is to see Jesus as laying down a new and uncompromising law.  There is no wiggle room in this view.  Jesus expects that we follow the law perfectly.  The problem is, of course, that we human beings are not perfect, we are flawed and we fail.  This approach to this passage will on the one hand lead us to despair and discouragement as we never seem to be able to measure up; and on the other hand can also promote a sense of judgmentalism and self-righteousness which is antithetical to the Gospel.  And besides, where is the grace in this?  Is faith in Jesus only a series of rules to follow?  As David Lose writes, “did Jesus really have to die so we could have the Ten Commandments on steroids?”
The other traditional approach goes in the opposite direction: Jesus is taking the law to its logical extreme in order to show us our need for God’s love and grace and forgiveness.  The positive part of this approach is that it places Grace as the foundation.  But it also teeters on the edge of cheap grace.  Not only that, but the problem with this approach is that it also seems to suggest that Jesus didn’t mean what he was saying and that he really didn’t care about the law of Moses, which is simply not the case.
So how do we approach this passage then?  Taking both an inspiration and suggestion from Dr. David Lose, I would suggest a third approach.  We start by returning to the source of this passage, the 10 Commandments, and there we need to recognize that at the foundation of these commandments is about community and relationship.  Jesus himself says as much when asked to name the most important law in the Torah.  His response: Love God; Love your Neighbor.  The 1st table of the law is about our relationship with God (Commandments 1 to 3) and the 2nd table of the law is about our relationship with others (Commandments 4 to 10).  The Commandments are not a series of rules to be kept for their own sake.  Why are we not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet? Because those acts dishonor the neighbor, those acts destroy relationship and community.
In his explanation of the 10 commandments in the Small Catechism, Luther makes the same point.  In answer to the question “What does this mean” Luther explains that keeping the commandment is more than just following rules.
#5 – You shall not murder –What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.
#8 - You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. - What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

It’s not just that we are to refrain from physical murder, or refrain from lying about our neighbor, but we are to go the extra step and to actively help and support him or her.  This is how we treat our neighbor with honor and respect.  This is what it means to be in community. This is what it means to be a part of the kingdom.

The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst and is a community of those who are called and blessed by God.  At the heart of the Kingdom is relationship – our relationship with God - Father, Son and Holy, Spirit; and our relationships with each other who are all part of God’s Kingdom.  The point is not that Jesus is advocating a system of plucking out the eyes and cutting off the limbs of those who transgress and fail.  The point is that in the Kingdom, God takes relationship seriously.  All are honored, and respected; all are treated with love.
David Lose writes: “Law understood primarily in legal terms, you see, ends up being a moral and all-too-often self-justifying check list: No murder today; check! No adultery; check! Jesus wants more from us. Actually, Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to regard each other as God regards us and thereby to treat each other accordingly. Jesus is getting radical about the law precisely by calling us to look beyond the law to see its goal and end: the life and health of our neighbor! In this way Jesus calls us to envision life in God's kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting that they are doing the same for us.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel – “Salt and Light” – Matthew 5:13-20

Read the Gospel text here: St. Matthew 5:13-20
You are the salt of the earth…
Two weeks ago our lectionary began a series of Gospel readings which give us the opportunity to consider Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.”  The sermon begins with a series of blessings: those who are poor, mourning, merciful, pure in heart, etc. are blessed!  These are not the kinds of people who our society tends to honor.  Nevertheless, Jesus says they are honored by God!  They are those who make up the Kingdom of Heaven.  And in our lesson today, Jesus goes further – they are salt; they are light.  Actually – “they” are you – and YOU are salt and light!
This weekend I am going to focus on salt, since over the last month or so there has been a lot of focus on light and darkness in our lessons.  There is much that can be said about salt.  Most, importantly, it is essential for life.  Salt was a central part of the lives of people in the 1st century.  There were major salt deposits in Palestine, salt mines were worked, the Dead Sea is dead because the salt or sodium levels are so high that no life can be sustained in its waters.  We think of salt today primarily as a flavoring agent, and we have other uses for salt – making ice cream, melting ice, water purification and so on.  But in the 1st century, salt was used primarily as a preservative. For example, fish that were harvested from the Sea of Galilee had become a major delicacy in the Roman world.  So fishermen (like Peter, Andrew, James and John) would catch the fish and then they would be salted and dried and then shipped around the Roman world – especially to Rome – where they drew top drachma.
There were other uses as well.  Taste was a use of salt, even if it was not the major use.  Salt plates were used to stoke fires used for cooking as they burned slowly and would help to maintain a consistent heat of the fire.  The word “Salary” has at its core the word salt (sal), which comes from the Latin salarium.  Pliny the Elder tells us that Roman troops were originally paid in salt, so that is where the word comes from.
How does all of this relate to Jesus words in verse 13?  Well, I could take a couple different approaches here.  I could list all of these uses of salt and try to force illustrations or metaphors upon each one.  They all don’t really work, so then what does Jesus mean by this?  Following after the Beatitudes I believe it is clear that Jesus is NOT exhorting us to be salt, or be light.  Jesus is saying – as children of God and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven you ARE salt – you ARE light.  And not only that, but you are essential – just like salt.  And just like salt is so obvious when it is present – so are you.  You are the salt and light of the Kingdom.  Others experience God’s kingdom through you.  Or to put it another way – others can taste the Kingdom of Heaven through your saltiness!!!
So, we are salt and light!  Are you aware of that?  Do you see others being the salt and light of the Kingdom?  Do you experience the Kingdom through others’ saltiness or brightness?  How are you salt and light of the Kingdom to others?  Professor David Lose from Luther Seminary suggests that we should start and maintain a “Salt and Light Log” for the remainder of Epiphany, and I think it is a great idea.  I have included a card in your bulletin to help you get started, or you can send me an email or write it in a journal.  What does this mean?  Well, just jot down experiences of God’s presence.  When you have observed, when you have experienced and when you are aware of being used by the Spirit to be the salt and light of the Kingdom.  Here is what Dr. Lose says about this: why would we do this? “1. To help us start to look for God in the world… and 2. To help us to come to believe that we are vessels through which God is working.”
Over the next few weeks please get your stories and cards back to me and I will find a way to display them.  It is so easy for us to miss signs of God’s presence.  Jesus’ sermon proclaims loudly – God is present and is in your midst and all around – and God is even using you and salt and light!

Friday, February 4, 2011

“Standing on Tiptoe” – Reflections on the Gospel - St. Luke 2:22-40

This weekend we are celebrating one of my favorite Festivals - the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord - which I moved from February 2 to the weekend.  Here is a description of the Festival, which will appear in our bulletin for the weekend.  It is written by Pr. Thomas Weitzel:

This morning we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the temple at Jerusalem. Ancient Jewish law required that, following the birth of a firstborn male child, the mother must come to the temple after 40 days for purification and for presentation of the child to the Lord.
The presentation of Mary's child, however, was different from most. This was the Christ Child, Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah who had been promised.  And he was recognized as such by the old prophet Simeon, who knew that this child was a light for revelation to all nations.  Thus the image of light carries an important part in today's liturgy and links itself with the Christmas season and its lights of the Advent wreath, the decorative tree lights, and the many candles of the Nativity celebration.
To mark this particular feast, the ancient tradition calls for 1) the blessing of candles to be used during the year and 2) a procession "to meet the Lord," just as Simeon and Anna went to the Temple and found the Christ there. The liturgy was called Candlemas (the Candle Mass).  
Read the Gospel text here: St. Luke 2:22-40
“Standing on Tiptoe” – Reflections on the Gospel
Sometimes it seems that life is filled with waiting.  We wait to be born, we wait to start school, we wait to do things we want to do until we are old enough, big enough, experienced enough or strong enough.  It seems as though much of our lives are spent as if we are standing on tiptoe gazing over the fence into the future with hope and longing.  The difficulty is of course that if we are too focused on the future we will miss the gift of the present.  But to wait for the future with hope and expectation is a natural and normal thing for us to do.
According to our text today the old priest Simeon and the prophet Anna both spent a fair amount of time “standing on tiptoe” looking into the future, waiting with hope and expectation for the coming of the Messiah.  The Gospel tells us that they were both greatly advanced in age, and had spent the better part of their lives at the temple watching and waiting.  And finally Mary and Joseph enter the temple with their new baby Jesus and the waiting and watching is over.  The old priest Simeon can hardly contain himself and he bursts into song – Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.  My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people…..  Simeon will not live to see Jesus grow into adulthood.  He will not live long enough to hear Jesus preach and teach or to see the events of the passion and crucifixion unfold.  Neither will Anna.  But, it doesn’t matter.  God has sent the Messiah.  God has fulfilled God’s promise.  The anticipation, the expectation and the hope of these two saints has come to completion. 
This wonderful scene represents the conclusion of Luke’s introduction to the Gospel.  We started with Elizabeth and Zechariah waiting and hoping, and after going through the annunciation and the birth of Jesus, with angels and shepherds, we now conclude the introduction with this story of Simeon and Anna and fulfilled hope.  Luke through all of this is setting this story of Jesus right in the middle of the Old Testament tradition.  From the earliest stories in Genesis right up through the events narrated in this Gospel prologue God is with God’s people.  God is faithful to the covenantal promises God has made and is constantly finding new and different ways of entering into the story of human history.  Simeon and Anna may have been standing on tiptoe, waiting with hopeful expectation, but there was never any doubt that God would fulfill God’s promises.  The only question was how would God do it.  And in typical form, God chooses the most unusual, unexpected and creative way to do it: being born into the world as a human baby.  Who would have thought?  And by being born into a dark period historically, into the darkness of poverty and oppression, God brings light to the darkest corners of human existence.
And not only that – Simeon goes on: …a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.  The light is for all – not just the chosen people of God, but through them to us all.  There is also a thread of darkness woven into this tapestry of hope.  As Simeon holds the child he speaks to Mary: This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed…. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.  The darkness is real.  It envelops us all, even Mary, the mother of our Lord, is not immune.  But the light is real too and in the light of Christ is our hope.
Each of us struggles with darkness in some manner.  Each of us is also standing on tiptoe – waiting and hoping.  What do you see as you gaze across the field of the future?    This Gospel today reminds us that in Jesus God is present with us and that our hopes will be fulfilled.  We do not know how God will ultimately choose to fulfill God’s promises, but we know that God keeps God’s promises and always manages to come up with new and different ways of showing God’s love to us.  And so as stand on tiptoe, gazing across the field of the future, let us never forget that God is with us – no matter what and God will never abandon us.
 Painting by Carpaccio - Notice the crumhorn player at the bottom left of the painting!