Peter and the Transfiguration

Scripture: Matthew 16:24-17:9 and Peter 1:16-22

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be transfigured before you to give you honor and glory. Amen.

Preceding today’s reading in Matthew we have some key passages recorded by the Matthian community that I hope will shed light on the dazzlingly text read today. In chapter 16:13 we find Peter asking his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Then we have the beautiful commissioning statement Jesus makes over Peter, found no where else in the Bible, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church….”

Our Catholic and Orthodox brethren find in this illuminating passage the basis for apostolic succession, meaning a direct line of teaching of the way of Jesus Christ from the first disciples on down to the present day, despite splinterings of the Mother Church into all her diverse children found witnessing to the Way in these current times.

Following this passage we find Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection in verse 21. Again, Peter comes to the fore in this account and, leading Jesus aside, insists that this cannot be, followed by the famous outburst Jesus has against him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This brings us to the passage just before today’s reading:

16:24 “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.”

What happens next on the Mount of Transfiguration is the crux, if you will, of today’s lesson. This instance in the Gospel is regarded as a foreshadowing of the second coming of the Lord’s Messiah.

In the second letter of Peter, we have recorded a reflection handed down from Peter himself as he looked back on this mountain top experience. Taken as a whole, a main theme of the second letter of Peter is pressing home the reality of belief in the second coming. The author reminds us that eyewitness accounts of the wonders and miracles of Jesus are only a few decades removed.

Can you imagine what that must have been like? Think of the best loved stories of your grandparents. You may remember your place in the picture and recall it from your perspective, or you may have been handed down the story from your parents. That is about the time difference from the eyewitness account of the Transfiguration to the recording of Peter’s memory of it. It is still very real and believable, it happened to someone they knew and was remembered by the community from which he wrote.

Is it any different for us today? Of course. We have a thousand years separating us from the awe and wonder of that revelation. It is extremely difficult, at least for me, to put myself in a place open enough to receive it like it was just a few years ago. For me, drowned in the reality of our contemporary era, such a miraculous happening is dulled by the distance, time, and believability of it.

But what if it were true? What if Jesus shone dazzling in white raiment too bright to look at? What if the clouds thundered and a voice was heard calling out from the heavens, veiled in mists and proclaiming Jesus to be God’s own Son? What if the ancients appeared to speak with this man who was called “Lord,” whom disciples walked daily with, learned from, left work and livelihoods to follow? Would that be life-changing?

Would we wake up, look up from the ground upon which we fell with wobbly knees just to see all of that wondrous vision gone and the Man we knew-or at least we thought we knew – walking toward us out of the fog? Would we be forever changed, or would we doubt our own senses?

Jesus speaks, “Don’t tell anyone about this vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” So it was true! We did see it! But what does it mean?

Turning back to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, 1:1, we are told it is “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” We learn in verse 18 that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and an angel tells Joseph in verse 21 to name him Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew interprets these things to mean Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

So, Jesus is God, once enfleshed among us, no longer here in that body but coming again, to be dressed in dazzling white, with a face that shines like the sun. I don’t know about you, but despite the awesome fear it must necessarily instill in us, I would still choose to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus; come in power to cast out all sin, bring healing to all the nations and leaders of the world, that we may truly learn from one another, submitting ourselves completely to the One who lived and died and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen?  May it be so.

Question for Reflection

Why does Jesus instruct the disciples to keep quiet about what they had seen “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matt.17:9)?

Household Prayer: Morning

God,

As this new day dawns, may your Spirit guide my feet and reveal you to me in new ways as I walk though your world today. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Holy One,

Thank you for the gift of this day. Whatever has happened, whatever I’ve done and left undone, help me hear the voice of Jesus tonight, telling me to go to sleep as I am and not be afraid. Amen.

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The Teacher Continues

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be found consistent with the spirit of your law and your realm, O Lord our God. Amen.

Jill Duffield, of the Presbyterian Outlook, writes a weekly lectionary reflection each Monday for the following Sunday’s scriptures. She had an interesting take on today’s scriptures, she writes:

“All three texts this week tell us who we are to be because of who our God is. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You are God’s temple. God’s temple is holy. God’s Spirit dwells in you. You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The connection between our identity and our God are inextricably bound together. The relationship between our person and our purpose is dependent upon our relationship to our God.”[1]

Jesus teaches us today to turn the other cheek, give our cloak as well as our tunic, walk another mile even after we’ve been pressed into service to walk a mile, give to any who beg or wish to borrow, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and be perfect as God is perfect. Perhaps like most of you, I think I get particularly stuck on “be perfect as God is perfect”…we’re supposed to be what? Lord, I’m so far from that I’m surprised you let me into the ministry! Just what does perfect look like and how in God’s name do we reach it?

Commentator Barbara Essex reminded me in today’s Matthean text, Jesus is preaching and teaching that:

“God’s community is filled with people who think of others first. Every decision and action is carried out for the common good. Each person is sister or brother to the other and acts out of love. The capacity for this kind of love is due to the empowering love given by God, who is love… those who know God’s love now can love their enemies; those who experience God’s forgiveness now can forgive those who persecute them; those who claim God’s gift of generosity can now give back to those who have little or nothing. We are able to do these things because in Jesus we live in the days of God’s reign.”[2]

Hold on, you might say: I am still stuck on this being perfect thing. There is no way on earth I can be that, so why take this passage at all seriously? Because in following God, we choose to love our neighbor, even our enemy, as our self. Sometimes this means sacrificing our own personal agendas – even to our own perceived personal rights sometimes – to mold ourselves after that which Jesus teaches us to be – imitators of God – not actually God mind you, but imitators of God. How do we imitate God? How do we enact love of our neighbors, regardless of their behavior?[3] That is quite an apt question for today, isn’t it, and that’s what it comes down to: living our lives in the most loving way we can, for God is love.

When Jesus speaks “you have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” he isn’t changing the law, he is setting forth God’s vision for living into a fulfillment of the realm. Like the brilliant Rabbi he is, Jesus, “interprets the law within its proper horizon and according to its proper use, a task that at times involves criticism…especially of particular features and interpretations of the sacred text itself.”[4]

For example, “the first piece of conventional wisdom Jesus treats here is the so-called lex talionis (“law of retaliation”) found in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19. In apparent contrast with this principle, Jesus paints a portrait of active nonretaliation, a stance so far from resistance to opponents (v. 39, “Do not resist an evildoer”) that at first it seems to border on collaborating with them, offering them another cheek, another coat, another mile. Upon closer inspection, this stance is actually rooted in a profound resistance, an unexpected refusal to play the opponent’s adversarial game. By voluntarily going a second mile, for example, the first mile is likewise refigured from something “forced” into something chosen; so what might superficially seem to be docility is actually, at a deeper level, a form of nonadversarial defiance.”[5]

The point of responding in this way, as many diverse leaders of the contemporary world have done from Ghandi to Mandella to Martin Luther King, is actively live a calling of growth toward maturity in Christ-likeness, resulting in more Godlike behaviors and motivations rather than selfish ones. It is seeing the ideal and working toward it in as complete a way as we can in our incompleteness. Barbara Essex concludes her remarks with this:

“In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lets us eavesdrop on his instructions to the disciples. We too are encouraged to live as sisters and brothers in God’s realm. “Be perfect” is not an indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us—fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.”[6]

Beyond a doubt, today’s gospel passage “…is a compact, challenging teaching, and one of its chief hazards … is that it can … easily be misunderstood as somehow recommending … passive acquiescence in the face of violence and harm. In every congregation, to greater or lesser degrees, there are listeners who are suffering such harm, have done so, or soon will; any suggestion that Jesus is advising us simply to accept our wounds and embrace our assailants should be clearly rejected. … the centerpiece of this teaching is noncooperation with harm in all its forms. While this does entail loving and praying for perpetrators, by that very same token, it also entails whenever possible discontinuing arrangements that allow or enable perpetrators to wreak havoc. After all, to do otherwise is in fact to disobey not only the instruction, “Love your enemies” … but also Jesus’ signature command to love God and to love your neighbor “as yourself.”[7]

Let us pray: “Holy God, let understanding of this text govern our actions in the world as your followers. In Jesus’ name we pray; Amen? May it be so.

[1] “Looking into the lectionary with Jill Duffield” Weekly Presbyterian Outlook E-correspondence

[2] Essex, Barbara J. Feasting on the Word…

[3] Carey, Greg. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[4] Boulton, Matthew Myer. Feasting on the Word…

[5] Ibid.

[6] Essex, Barbara J. Feasting on the Word…

[7] Boulton, Matthew Myer. Feasting on the Word…

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Hard Teachings

Scripture: Matthew 5:21-37

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be found consistent with the spirit of your law and your realm, O Lord our God. Amen.

Today is Camp and Conference Sunday. Most of you know that up until my stated supply preaching for you began in 2014, most of my professional ministry has been in camp and conference ministry. I began as a volunteer in our Presbytery in 1998, followed every year by work with summer camp programs in one capacity or another. Most of my work in camp and conference ministry specialized in program areas: teaching, designing, developing, implementing, and finally administrating. If there is one thing that I learned from 18 years in that field, I would have to say it is the power of camp and conference settings to bring out one’s best work; in earth care, in discipleship, in experimenting with intentional community, and in growth among people’s spiritual health and life. One thing I found most challenging was making a more permanent connection between the life of camp and the life of the local church, not to mention ordinary secular life, where the rest of the life of discipleship is lived out.

Something I learned from my last ten years at Menucha is that the power experienced in being present to God and one another was just as powerful and transformative for adults as children. Spending a week, or even a weekend, away from the daily grind to concentrate on what is most important is a discipline and a gift.

Reflecting on that now that I’ve been away from Menucha for several months brings me to something everyone has to work at: relationships-both in and out of intentional discipleship communities – whether temporary, like camp, or more permanent, like church homes and family life. In this week’s Gospel lesson, we have some of the hardest-to-deal-with core teachings in the area of relationships. They break down into four topics on the surface: reconciliation, adultery, divorce, and swearing – as in, a vow to someone or something…say for example, taking an office. On a deeper level, all four topics fit hand to glove in dealing with broken relationships.

Perhaps the best way to go about understanding today’s passage is to ask ourselves: What is God’s intention for our lives? This can be answered, from a heavenly realm perspective, “for people in relationship to live in mutual support.” [1] When fractiousness occurs, mutual support dies, and brokenness enters in.

Our first five verses for today reflect our first hard teaching on reconciliation – or, rather, what happens before reconciliation takes place: action and reaction, if you will, on a continuum of hurt and brokenness. This is as extreme as murder, the first example Jesus uses, yet as insidious as judgment of others. Note that Jesus does not abolish the law regarding murder in this text, he places it, along with anger, insult, and judgment of others upon a continuum of negative and destructive behaviors; clearly non-kingdom characteristics that all of us contend with in our own beings now and again.

The next four verses bring us our second topic, adultery. It is one that takes us down a different continuum, again based in hurt and brokenness between people. Let us recall we are asking ourselves in each of these topics, “What is God’s intention for our lives?” In this case, God’s intention is for “marriage to anticipate the mutuality of the realm…. Lust creates adultery in the heart, which undermines the mutuality of marriage.”[2] The admonitions in verses 29-30 on dismemberment are agreed upon by most scholars to be hyperbole, meaning, they “underline the importance of dealing with impulses that could lead to the destruction of community.”[3]

Verses 31-32 are tricky to deal with. It might help us to understand that the text as recorded by Matthew actually comes from the earlier Mark chapter 10 verses 10-12 text which simply forbids divorce. Matthew adds the phrase “except on the ground of unchastity.” Why? Perhaps for the simple reason that a marriage relationship can be shaped by the presence of the existence of the heavenly realm in this “here but not yet fully realized” state. Perhaps in Matthews’ community – just like communities in our own time – there must have been dynamics where some marriages were actually realm-resistant and the realm as a whole would be better served by freeing the couple to live into other relationships.

I am almost certain we can all think of examples when that has been the case in our lives or the lives of someone close to us. The cases where this has helped people unfetter their best selves and/or the best selves of their children clearly have had God at work in them. Within the realm of God’s kingdom, they then experience the strength, the growth, and the flourishing to become brighter jewels once divorce happens and the gift of grace has been extended for those to drink deeply of love the way God intended it to function, instead of the broken way it had been functioning in their case.

This brings us to our final topic, which may seem a little odd when placed next to the others under the umbrella of reconciliation between peoples. Verses 33-37, in a nutshell, lead us all to consider the grave implications – personally and for the good of the realm, of what it means to hold integrity in both private and public spheres of life, as an utmost characteristic of goodness. Simply put, those who would embody God’s realm speak truth in love.

Reconciliation, the process by which brokenness is healed into wholeness, is a ministry all are called to in God’s realm. It is a true gift of the Church we can extend to all, for in reconciliation is forgiveness, in forgiveness is mercy, in mercy is compassion, and in compassion we find the heart of God’s love.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Allen, Ronald J. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Questions for Reflection

Today’s readings speak of blessings and curses, life and death, good relationships and those that are broken. Moreover, the texts suggest that we have a choice in these matters.

Where do you find life, and where do you not—and what role do your choices play? Where have you experienced broken relationships in your own life or in the church? How do Christ and the reign of heaven enable us to move beyond brokenness and live in mutual support?

Household Prayer: Morning

Holy God, I greet this day with thanks and the determination to choose the good.  Help me to walk with you in blessing. Let my “yes” be yes, and my “no” be no, as I share the light of Christ. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Lord Jesus, it is night, and night is for sleeping; yet, my mind is racing fast. I give thanks for the blessings this day, and then I worry—there is so much left undone. But you are with me! You calm my anxiety, fill me with peace, and help me choose the way of rest. Amen.

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Salt and Light

Scriptures: Matthew 5:13-20

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts reflect your light and bring you joy. Amen.

Last week we looked at the Beatitudes, examining why they set the tone and foundation for the Sermon on the Mount, the ministry of Jesus, and the life of discipleship. Today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“…Expands what we learn about the call to discipleship…. In verses 13–14, Jesus uses two metaphors to describe and prescribe who his followers are and what they do for and in the world. The first metaphor, “You are the salt of the earth” (v. 13), suggests that Jesus gives… his disciples a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth. Like salt, which is used to alter or enhance the tastes of food, the disciples’ capacity to elicit goodness as they participate on the earth should be of profound consequence….”[1]

What we have to watch out for as modern disciples is that, no less than the original hearers, we may forget we are called to:

“…Disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, caring for those who suffer loss, seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what [we] believe.”[2]

There are also some additional uses of salt that we should bring to the fore; after all it does kill slugs and melt snow. None-the-less,

“Salt has an edge as well as a satisfying taste. It makes come alive what would otherwise seem tasteless and bland. In certain circumstances, salt can be used as a preservative, keeping food fresh for an extended period of time. Salt is also used to stimulate thirst. We can begin to see how this image of salt might relate to the practice of ministry…”[3]

“The second metaphor, “You are the light of the world,” invites us to consider the role of disciples as a gathered community (vv. 14–16). Light enables us to see things and is a kind of energy that gives things color, helps vegetation to grow, provides solar power for electricity, and can be focused for specific uses, such as a laser.

Like light, the disciples as a gathered community have the overarching purpose of being the mirror that refracts God’s light so that all Peoples and nations can know of God’s justice and mercy. As a gathered community the disciples are like light when they engage others in the world, enabling diversity (giving things color), nurturing a healthy, Eco-friendly world (helping vegetation to grow), generating policies for Eco-justice (providing solar power), and restoring or repairing whatever relationships that need such (focusing for specific purposes).”[4]

Additionally,

“Jesus encourages his followers to bring light to a dark and broken world. The light is the light of the gospel, and it draws all people to its warmth and radiance. This mission has been primary, from the very beginning, throughout every age. … In order for the light to be seen, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, so that, in time, the light can overcome it.”[5]

There is danger for the light-bearer, however. It is this: if we are not aware of the darkness within ourselves, if we do not read our inner landscape, as Parker Palmer calls it, we cannot be effective light-bringers. Instead, we potentially bring our own shadows and partial-light out into the open and pass them on. I speak for myself when I say, “O Holy One, let not the fear of inner exploration keep me from bearing your light into my own darkness, so that when my own shadows have been illumined with your presence, you will grant me the strength to heal and bring your light unto others.”

“Be brave and salty, me hearties,” let it be our prayer that we all do this, enabling us to shine forth like the light on the hill for a world in darkness that needs to see your light now and always.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Riggs, Marcia Y. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cook, Charles James. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[4] Riggs, Marcia Y; Ibid.

[5] Cook, Charles James; Ibid.

Additional Inspiration:

  1. Sing/meditate with the song “The Light On the Hill” by Maire Brennan (track 3 on her album Perfect Time)
  2. Sing/meditate with the song “Shine Jesus Shine”
  3. Consider your own experience/reflect on the metaphor of Lighthouses

Questions for Reflection

What does it mean to have the mind of Christ, and how do I live with the mind of Christ in my daily activities? If I let my light shine, what will others see in me? Will others see Jesus? Will they give glory to God?

What does it mean that I am salt to the earth?

Household Prayer: Morning

God, open my eyes to see the world through your compassion. Open my mind to understand the world through your wisdom. Open my heart to receive the world through your love. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Lord, if I have lived this day in the knowledge that perishes, correct my thoughts, rectify my judgments, and mend my foolish ways. Give me the mind of Christ that I may see the world rightly and discern the blessings you bestow. Amen.

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The Teacher Begins

Scriptures: Matthew 5:1-12

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness. Turn our words into silent listening, that we might focus on you. Open our ears that we may hear your voice. Reveal not only your Word to us, but your very self, that your Holy Spirit might nourish our souls anew and guide us in the way everlasting. Amen.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. In Western Christianity there have been countless commentaries on these, countless writings from classical times to contemporary times on this entire sermon where Jesus begins his teaching. Classical writers boiled down the sermon into a bi-directional trajectory: what has been called the “monastic trajectory,” based in Catholicism where purity is attained through cloistered focused communities; and the “theory of the impossible ideal” grounded in Western Protestants’ understanding of inherent sinfulness. Contemporary interpreters have two additional interpretive stances they have applied to the Beatitudes: social scientific interpretation and literary interpretation.

Our task today, using aspects of the above, is to consider just what, why, and how we might appropriate the teachings of Jesus in this first unveiling of the magnificent message of the Incarnate One.

“Jesus delivers the blessings to an audience of followers (his disciples and others) whose sociopolitical context is the Roman Empire and whose religious context is the elite Jewish establishment. What Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes critiques both contexts because of the groups upon whom these blessings are pronounced. In these blessings those who receive God’s favor are neither the privileged classes of the Roman Empire nor the elite Jewish establishment.

The Beatitudes are spoken to those groups whom God deems worthy, not by virtue of their own achievements or status in society, but because God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peace makers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.”[1]

What do the Beatitudes teach us? Something which we need to hear just as much today in our contemporary context as the Jews needed in the Biblical times of the Roman Empire, namely that the political agenda of Jesus is:

“… organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able—at potential risk to their own lives—for the sake of a world in which the unvalued (including they themselves when they are persecuted) are at last fully valued as human beings.”[2]

What we can also glean from this teaching is why such a message is the preface to the entire rest of the Sermon on the Mount. This opening set is the foundational context for any of those who choose to follow Jesus in that Roman world, and I would add anyone of us in our contemporary world. These are the blueprints, if you will, for being called into discipleship – commanding our character and placing us on the path pursuing righteousness grounded in God’s steadfast love, goodness, justice, and mercy. Anything less and all around us suffers, not to mention ourselves as well.

Yet reading the Beatitudes as commands for our way of living, we are afraid they challenge us beyond our means. Who can survive in a time when all around us we see blessings being given to those who succeed, often at the expense of others? The very fabric of our contemporary society is based in competition and fear. How can we live into the Beatitudes when they seem impossible idealistic statements for this time and place? Wiser minds than mine say:

“Living daily into the spirit of the Beatitudes involves looking at them as a collection of the whole, rather than looking at each one individually. Each is related to the others, and they build on one another. Those who are meek, meaning humble, are more likely to hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they remain open to continued knowledge of God. If we approach the Beatitudes this way, we see they invite us into a way of being in the world that leads to particular practices. There are three principles for living into the spirit of the Beatitudes: simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion. These three principles allow us to be in the world, while not being totally shaped by it. [In effect,] we offer an alternative to what the world seems to be pursuing.”[3]

To understand these practices, place yourselves in a posture of listening to the words of Jesus and receiving them for the first time, without any prejudices or subjectivity from our time: Jesus says, in effect, simplicity is this: “You are blessed in this life whenever you demonstrate humility, bring a peaceful presence, open your heart to others, and show mercy on those who cry for it.”[4]

Hopefulness, then, is this: when we place our hope on Christ, who offered hope to the hopeless, it transforms the way we approach the world – with a spirit of hope, even when outward signs indicate otherwise, we become the positive countercultural role models, standing in the world as witnesses that the day will come when mercy, humility, peace, and love are the descriptions of what it means to live and to live fully.

In order to reach that state, we let God’s love for us and within us guide the practice of compassion. Compassion is not pity, nor is it sympathy. Compassion, as Henri Nouwen described it, “grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you….”[5] In my opinion, compassion is the very seat where loving kindness and understanding, implanted by our creator, begins to bloom in earnest.

To what end, you may ask? So we can grow as a blessed community, witnessing to the wider world in which we find ourselves-living into the higher standard to which we have been called as children of God, beloved of God, chosen by God, and adopted into God’s family through Christ. With this foundation, the Teaching begins.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Riggs, Marcia Y. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[2] Tod Lindberg, “What the Beatitudes Teach,” Policy Review, no. 144 (Aug. and Sept. 2007) 16, as quoted by Marcia Riggs in Feasting on the Word – A, above.

[3] Cook, Charles James. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[4] Ibid.

[5] Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands (New York: Ballantine, 1972), p. 86 as quoted by Charles James Cook in Feasting, above.

Questions for Reflection

How do we live in hope of a reality we cannot yet see or, at best, catch only fleeting glimpses? Where in your community’s life of prayer and service do you see instances of God’s justice, peace, and healing? Then give thanks, and ask God, Where am I being called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly into all blessedness in the ordinary course of my day?

Household Prayer: Morning

Blessed God, I yearn to see your vision of justice, love, and peace made real for me this day. Open my eyes to the way of love that I may see your brilliant light shining into the hidden places of my heart and the darkened corners of the world. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Loving God, you led me in the way of life this day and now call me to the way of rest. I give thanks for your light that illumined my path today. Now, it is night. As you beckon me to enter into holy darkness where I am one with you in your realm of uncreated light, I open to you in peace. Amen.

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A Compelling Calling

Scriptures: Matthew 5:1-12

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness. Open our ears that we may hear your voice. Turn our lostness into belonging, our wandering into purpose, our words into listening and our hurts into healing. Reveal not only your Word to us, but your very self, that your Holy Spirit might nourish our souls anew. Amen.

Have you been fishing lately? Or, I suppose, with just a little imagination, ice fishing might be possible. I recall the first time I ran across a little hut out on the frozen lake in Michigan at Camp Henry and wondered, “what in the world is this?” So of course I went to investigate. As I approached and heard conversation, I then remembered descriptions from some of my books of yore and put two and two together. You know, wherever two or more are gathered, there’s bound to be a fisherman. When, in friendly communities, you come across such a fishing hut on the ice and stick your head in, there’s about a 50% chance you’ll be invited in for the other two plus two lesson: Whenever two or more ice fishermen are gathered, there’s bound to be a fifth.

Today’s Gospel reading from the Book of Matthew is often thought of as the launching place, the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Or perhaps I should say, his first cast? However you want to view it metaphorically, here’s what happens:

“Matthew describes Jesus walking by the Sea of Galilee and calling the first four of his disciples. All fishermen, he called them to follow him. Matthew says they immediately left what they were doing and followed Jesus.

As readers, we are struck by this idea that immediately they left what they were doing. It is as if they were compelled to follow Jesus and to obey him, almost as if they had been waiting all their lives to hear this voice, to be issued this call, so that when it came, they dropped what they were doing.”[1]

Believe it or not, I had never thought of it that way before. Can you imagine being able to discern the voice of God instantly the moment it is spoken to you? Being raised so that not only can you recognize God’s voice at first hearing, but move immediately to action with no thought of looking back?

With this new perspective of what it may have been like for Simon, and Andrew – even more for the younger James and John, still working the boat with their father Zebedee – the thought occurred to me: what must it have been like for Zebedee? Certainly he heard and recognized the same voice, yet had not been called to come and follow! On one hand, that deeply disturbs me. On the other, perhaps that is my first step toward what it may be like to learn the wisdom of a parent: knowing when it is time to let your children go freely of their own will to fulfill their destiny as only foreseen by the Master. Bearing all of that in mind, let’s hear the story again:

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” (Mt. 4:18-22)

I echo the words of Rodger Nishioka when he writes:

“I wish the task of discernment was that easy. In one sense, it may be; but in another sense, it is so complicated. It is complicated because it seems that the voices—many of whom are claiming to be God’s voice—are so numerous these days. This is why the last verse in today’s reading is so important. The reading for the day does not end with disciples following Jesus. The reading ends by reminding us what Jesus sets about doing, as these four and others become his disciples. Jesus goes throughout Galilee, “teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people”[2] (v. 23).

That bears a bit more ruminating, doesn’t it? Here are four (at least) fishermen who know who and what they are, know what to do and how to go about it. They are on a path set down from their youth, with a set of skills in hand they have learned to make them good at what they do. They are fishermen, therefore they fish.

In a recent interview podcast between Rob Bell and John Phillip Newell, Rob recounts the analogy of walking along a path, knowing the way you are to go; but then unintentionally wandering from the path. All of a sudden when you realize you have wandered from the path, you cry out, turning back and thanking God that you have realized it in time to turn around, and find again the path upon which to set your feet.

The Hebrew term for this is T’Shuva, to “turn back” or “turn around.”[3] The Greek term for this is Metanoia. Our English Bible translates Metanoia in today’s text to read “Repent,” and goes on to record, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Would it change your understanding of this basic premise for the entirety of Jesus’ message and ministry if you changed back to the meaning of the original languages? Listen again to what Jesus says anew: “Metanoia, Turn around, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

That means something profoundly different to me. It doesn’t condemn me or tell me I am on the wrong track per say, as if I am filled with sin – which is a typical western Christian perspective on the word “repent.” Instead, this calling arrests me in my forward motion, halts my personal agenda and gives me a new direction – directly from the Master’s lips.

Beyond this, there is something even more of note about today’s passage. Jesus is not teaching about how to go to heaven, a common misinterpretation of Matthew’s language about the “kingdom of heaven,” rather, Jesus is, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (author’s emphasis) Jesus is about, as NT Wright notes, “God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’”[4] God’s call through Jesus is not to fish for a heavenly ladder but to fish for people – that means here on earth, in this life we live in right now. That IS profoundly different, isn’t it? I would like to end with another quote from Rodger Nishioka:

“To discern whether the voice we are hearing is truly the voice of God, we have to examine the person behind the voice, to see if the person is consistent with the God who is revealed to us in Scripture. … It is our responsibility, in the midst of the many voices calling us, to know the person of God so well that we are able to discern what voices are consistent with the God who created us in God’s own image, redeemed us through God’s only Son, and sustains us by God’s Spirit in and through the body of Christ.”[5]

In that, we have our work cut out for us. Let us pray:

O Most Holy, you who sojourned among us for a time, guide us in our wandering ways that we might set our feet in your path and see you, the Christ, in the faces of each and every other. Guide us as we take that which we know we know and craft it for offering divine hospitality to all whom we meet in need; for indeed, such is the nature of our calling here in your heavenly kingdom. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord; Amen? May it be so.

[1] Nishioka, Rodger Y. Feasting on the Word—Year A (Feasting-Year A); David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 2.0

[2] Nishioka, Rodger Y. Feasting on the Word—Year A (Feasting-Year A); David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 2.0

[3] Podcast interview on January 2, 2017 with Rob Bell, John Philip Newell: https://robbell.podbean.com/e/episode-133-live-robcast-with-john-philip-newell/

[4] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 18. As quoted by Greg Garrett in . Feasting on the Word—Year A (Feasting-Year A); David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 2.0

[5] Nishioka, Rodger Y. Feasting on the Word—Year A (Feasting-Year A); David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 2.0

Questions for Reflection

What does Jesus mean when he calls his follower to be “fishers of people”? What must I leave behind to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?

Household Prayer: Morning

Lord Jesus, you call me to be a faithful disciple. Enable me to hear your voice above the distractions of this day, to see each challenge as an opportunity for faithful witness, and to offer myself in obedient service in all that I do. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Your face, O Lord, have I sought this day and your beauty have I beheld. I have seen you in the face of the stranger, and beheld your beauty in creation. Thank you, and keep me aware. Amen.

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John’s Epiphany

Scriptures: John 1:29-42

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness. Transform us to be more holy. Turn our hurts into healing, our words into listening and our wandering into purpose. Reveal your Word to us, that you might nourish our spirits anew. Amen.

Why is it, as David Toole writes, “We need more than Christmas…we need to see Jesus walk into the Jordan. We need to see the clouds part. We need to hear the booming voice name Jesus a beloved Son. We need to hear Jesus himself ask us, as he does Peter and Andrew… “What are you looking for?”[1]

Could it be that we so easily forget the Angel voices from Luke? Could it be we forget the visit of Matthew’s Magi, signifying that Jesus is indeed born more than just King of the Jews but Lord of all Creation? Could it be that we forget, Gentiles that we are, that Jesus also came for us in our mortal finitude? Has contemporary culture of anxiety, disappointment, fear and cynicism sucked us in? Have we fallen sway to doubtfulness and suspicion, losing sight of a hopeful light in the darkness?

Then perhaps, if nothing else, our current times will enliven our souls to better understand God’s perspective of us, and thus help us understand better why the Christ was needed as an avenue for salvation.

Think about it: imagine sitting at a favorite café, sipping on a steaming vanilla chai, listening to the conversations around you; perhaps we can identify with or maybe even simply follow along with the masses and take a “wait and see” approach to life right now. That might include the economy, healthcare, public education, benefit packages for public employees, politics, or maybe even religion in general. Would that effect our understanding of Jesus, a homeless immigrant itinerant preacher from Palestine? Even if John the Baptist came along and pointed out the Messiah, “the lamb of God that takes away the sin” (v. 29) of today’s world, would we take a second look or dismiss such a crazy prophet from the wilderness – I mean, he’s not even wearing the right clothes, you know? Camel hair tweeds went out centuries ago.

Okay, maybe go ahead and stick Jesus up on that Sunday only shelf and talk about politics or health care or what’s on sale this fine MLK weekend when we celebrate cultural acceptance of diversity. But what if you were daring enough to take your faith seriously? Daring enough to really listen to the teachings of Jesus and put them in to practice in your life? Not a Sunday only shelf religion but a daily reality that informs your inner and outer being as you choose your course for the day? Would you hear him out, decide if the words he says are true enough to live by?  Would you dare to pair his teachings with action in the social and environmental justice spheres of our current times and lead the way to true justice?

In six of the next seven weeks, we will be hearing almost exclusively from the teachings of Jesus found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We have ample time to hear him out. We also have two thousand years of continued study and reflection on his teachings as they may relate to contemporary thinkers, writers, and doers for each and every age since John’s Epiphany revealed the Incarnate One as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29).

A colleague and mentor of mine, Rodger Nishioka of Columbia Theological Seminary, reminds us what the basic foundation of incarnational theology is: “that God became incarnate – became flesh – in Jesus Christ to embody fully God’s love for the world.”[2]

In today’s passage, John the Baptist, “provides testimony as to who Jesus is and points the way so that others come to recognize Jesus Christ,”[3] making him the first “doer” if you will.

Several hundred years after John the Baptist and Jesus walked the land witnessing to God’s heavenly kingdom, Teresa of Avila shares her take on incarnational theology as a poem in a letter to her nuns as she was nearing the end of her life:

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

No hands but yours,

No feet but yours,

Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;

Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

I wonder: for us, in our contemporary society, and perhaps especially this year, finding the balance between living our lives embodying Christ and pointing the way to Christ is what we, as faithful followers of the Way, should be about. Yes, we are the hands and feet of Christ now, but no, we are not – and cannot be, individually or even as one Unified Christianity – fully become the Messiah who sets out to save the world – much less the one who does so. No, we still need Jesus – just like we need all the other life-giving expressions of Spirit represented as the light in the world, which the darkness cannot overcome. May all glory be unto the Holy One;

Let us pray:

O Most Holy, you who sojourned among us for a time, guide us in our wandering ways that we might set our feet in your path and see you, the Christ, in the faces of the other, offering divine hospitality to all whom we meet in need. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord; Amen? May it be so.

[1] Toole, David. Feasting on the Word—Year A (Feasting-Year A);

David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 2.0

[2] Nishioka, Rodger. Feasting on the Word—Year A (Feasting-Year A);

David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 2.0

[3] Ibid.

Questions for Reflection

Andrew invited his brother Simon Peter to meet Jesus, and Peter’s life was changed forever. Do you invite others to come and see Jesus? How do you watch and listen for those who might be seeking Jesus? Do you trust God to give you gifts for sharing the story of your salvation? How then do you show the world God’s love made real in Christ?

Household Prayer: Morning

You inclined your ear and heard my cry, you lifted me when low; strengthen me for service, Lord, to carry your light in the world. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Fill me with your peace, O Lord, strengthen every end.  Find us resting in your arms, our life with you to spend. Amen.

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