It Is Good For Us To Be Here

Inspired by Matthew 17:1-9

By far, this story from the Gospel of Matthew that I just read is one of my favorites in all of scripture, for more reasons that I could possibly share in one sermon. It is rich in imagery, and has this other-worldly, mysterious nature to it, just to name a few of the reasons why I love this story. But maybe most of all, it’s relatable. Now I don’t mean the vision of white light or the ghostly image of Moses and Elijah. I have not had an experience like that and I’m assuming most of you have not either. Although my wife did have a vision of Jesus in the hospital one time but that also involved a healthy dose of morphine so I’m not entirely sure that counts! I’ll let her tell that story to you sometime, she’s a much better story teller than I am anyway.

But I find this story of Jesus’ transfiguration to be relatable in many other ways, two of which I’ll share with you today. The first is this, the mountain top experience. I think most of us can share a story that we would describe as a mountain top experience. Those times in our lives when we may think that life just doesn’t get any better than this, or a moment that has left a deep, lasting, positive effect on you. Maybe it was at the birth of a child, a baptism, your first kiss, the day you were married, maybe it was the day the adoption was finalized, or maybe the divorce, or the day you went into remission, or day one of sobriety. There are so many different ways we can have a mountain top experience.

In our Gospel story for today, Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to go up with him to the mountain top to have an experience they would never forget. In our reading from 2 Peter we heard Peter still thinking about this experience, many years after the fact. And I love Peter’s reaction when they got to the top, and had their mountain top experience with Jesus, witnessing his transfiguration, the white light, Moses and Elijah.

Peter says, “It is good for us to be here.” Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that each and every Sunday we all will have a mountain top experience here at church, though I often say that as part of my usual Sunday morning greeting. But I do believe that we come here to have an experience with the divine, that at some point of our worship we will encounter God. And even if we don’t, we can rest in the promise that God did indeed show up, once again, whether or not we recognize it.

Even more important than Peter’s declaration of how good it was to be there on that mountain top with Jesus, is what he said next, “I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” In other words, how about we just stay right here. What a natural human response. Maybe in Peter’s mind he was thinking, well this is it. We made it! The end is here. What could Jesus possibly follow this with? Our work is done. As you think about those mountain top experiences from your own life, wouldn’t it be great if we could just stay there at some of those, stay in that state of exhilaration? Or at the very least, turn it on like a switch on those days when you really need it? Which brings me to the other way that I find this story so relatable.

At the end of the story, probably to the dismay of Peter, James, and John, they have to go back down the mountain. They cannot not stay there. There is more work to be done. And isn’t that always the way? No matter how many times we have a mountain top experience, each and every time, we have to come back down the mountain. That is where we spend most of our existence—in the foothills and valleys of our lives. That may sound a bit depressing but here’s the good news. At the end of the story, Jesus touches them, tells them to get up and not be afraid, and then goes down the mountain with them. And isn’t that always the way? Christ comes down each and every mountain with us, to walk with us, to be present with us, to remain with us.

No matter how dark the valleys, no matter how rainy the foothills, no matter what, Christ promises to to be our helper, to be our companion. Because, as Matthew reminded us at the beginning, that’s who Jesus is, Emmanuel, God with us. And truth be told, the valleys and foothills of our lives aren’t always that bad are they? They may not be the mountain top but there is a lot of joy to be had in our valleys and foothills, but not for everyone. The challenge for us is to look around at the bottom of the mountain, and see who else is here with us—because not everyone is having a great time in the foothills and the valleys of life. For some, the valleys of life can become very dark, more like the valley of the shadow of death from the 23rd psalm. For some, the foothills of life can be very rough terrain to navigate.

Again, our challenge is to open our eyes and see who else is here at the bottom of the mountain, and more importantly, who may need our help. For instance, our Jewish brothers and sisters aren’t feeling very safe these days. There have been numerous bomb threats around the country on Jewish community centers as well as a Jewish cemetery being desecrated last weekend in St. Louis. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, the valley is quite dark, the foothill terrain is quite rough. Could they use a companion? Could they use a helping hand? Could that be us?

Likewise, people of color in our great nation are experiencing levels of fear that have not been experienced in many decades—whether we’re talking about racial discrimination, immigration, refugees—for our brothers and sisters of color, the valley is quite dark, the foothill terrain is quite rough. Could they use a companion? Could they use a helping hand? Could that be us? Likewise, our military veterans—whether we’re talking about those suffering from PTSD or other health issues, housing, employment, or other needs—for our brothers and sisters who’ve come home from military service, the valley may be quite dark, the foothill terrain quite rough. Could they use a companion? Could they use a helping hand? Could that be us?

Those are just a few examples of people here at the bottom of the mountain that may need a companion, that may need a helping hand. Our job is to open our eyes, open our ears, to look and listen for who that may be. And then ask ourselves, are we the ones being called to be that companion, to be that helping hand? Because when one group of people’s valley becomes dark, doesn’t the entire valley become dark, even ours? When one group of people’s foothill become too rough, don’t the entire foothills become rough, even ours? The answer to that is yes. So, between our mountain top experiences, we have work to do, with Christ, so that everyone can say at all times and in all places, “It is good for us to be here!” Even in the valleys and foothills of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.


One Simple Rule

Inspired by Matthew 5:38-48

Love your enemies. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Oh, you want more? What more is there to say? I mean, if we could get this one command of Jesus—and make no mistake, this is not a request from Jesus, but a command—but if we could get this one command of Jesus down, we could probably close all our churches, pastors could find a new career, we could all sleep in on Sundays, our work would be done! Following one command, one rule, what could be so hard? There’s a story about a pastor who preached the same sermon four weeks in a row and when someone finally confronted her about it she simply said, when y’all start doing what I’m preaching I’ll write a new one! Well, I’m not that bold, but if there’s one command of Jesus’ that I would do that with it would probably be this one.

So, why is this so hard? I think the answer to that is simpler than you realize. I think we get hung up on the word love. Jesus did not define that word the way we do. In fact, no one did. The ancient Greek language actually had four different words that we all define as love today. Apparently is too important of a concept to leave up to just one word. In English, we use context in order to figure out what kind of love we are talking about. For instance, we know when someone says “I love this new coffee!” it means something entirely different than when someone says to their spouse, “I love you.” We do not need to stop them and ask, “Well, what kind of love are you talking about?” We just know.

Now I won’t go into the differences between the four Greek words for love but I will say that the one Jesus is using here, doesn’t make this any easier for us because it means charitable, unconditional, Godly love. The same kind of love that God gives us. Yikes, I know, Jesus really raises the bar, once again. But still, I think we get too hung up on the word love. Let me explain. At its heart, the word love is a verb. And this was true for the ancients as well. As an interesting side note, a noun form of the word love came much later than its verb form. It is an action, it is something you do. Not something you feel or think. But because English just has this one word, we use it interchangeably for actions, feelings, thoughts, and more—which can make Jesus’ words confusing and open to misinterpretation.

Jesus is not asking you to feel love for your enemies. He’s not asking you to have loving thoughts about them either. What good are feelings and thoughts anyway if they don’t lead to loving actions, which is what Jesus is really interested in. What is our faith in Jesus causing us to do—and specifically, to our enemies? Because I don’t know about you but if I acted on how I felt towards my enemies, I’d probably end up in jail and you’d be searching for a new pastor. If I acted on my thoughts toward my enemies, I’d probably end up in the hospital or morgue. And don’t sit there and pretend you can’t relate, I know better because I’m human just like you!

So, let’s put a little meat on these bones we’ve constructed about love. What does this look like? How do we practice this? Well, Jesus starts us on this path by commanding us to pray for our enemies. And you might think, well, that’s easy to do pastor, and what good would that do anyway isn’t prayer just thoughts in my head. Well, yes, but I think those are thoughts that can influence our actions. I guarantee you, that if you start praying for your enemies, by name, regularly, the next time you see them and feel like saying something you know you shouldn’t or maybe even do something that you know you shouldn’t, you’re eventually going to remember that you’ve been praying for them and that might give you pause before you act. Try it! Prove me wrong, please!

But I think praying for our enemies is just the beginning, because that might not always lead to loving actions. So here’s some questions for you to help on this road to loving our enemies: Do you have to feel love for someone to respect them as a human being? Do you have to feel love for someone in order to want the best for them? Do you have to feel love for someone in order to feed them, clothe them, visit them, communicate humanely? And here’s one many of us are struggling with these days, do you have to agree with someone’s thoughts in order to demonstrate loving acts towards them? Do we even have to understand them, in order to love them?

And now turn the tables. What kind of prerequisites do you want others to have before they love you? Are you ok with them not respecting you as a human being, wanting the best for you, feeding you, clothing you, visiting you, communicating humanely with you, if they don’t feel love for you? Are you ok with them not loving you because they don’t understand you? Are you ok with them not loving you because they don’t agree with you? If so, I hope you know what you’re walking into! I have to watch my back enough as it is in this life. I don’t know about you, but more often than not, I need people to love me, in spite of me, not because of me.

And again, I can’t stress this enough, I’m not talking about feeling love for me. I’m talking about loving actions: like respect, like healthy communication, like interpreting what I do or say in the best possible light rather than the worst, like giving me the benefit of the doubt, like caring for me when I’m in need. And this comes in its most complete form when we don’t feel love toward someone, and yet those loving actions remain. That’s unconditional love—love that doesn’t require certain feelings, or thoughts, or beliefs, or anything else. That is the kind of love that God demonstrates to us. That is the kind of love that God commands us to do, not feel, not think, to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Spirit of the Law

Inspired by Matthew 5:21-37

We are quickly coming to the end of the Epiphany season. The season in which we celebrate the coming of Christ, both then and now, as the light of the world, and in this lectionary year of Matthew, as Emmanuel, God with us. We get this short green season to process what that means and how we are to live that out. The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday which this year is the last Sunday of February. Which is right around the corner, and then we will be in Lent already. One theologian said about Epiphany, it’s the time of year when we celebrate not just the beginning of Jesus ministry on earth, but also his continuing ministry on earth. I think that’s a good summary of this season but I would add that Jesus ministry continues through us.

Today’s Gospel reading really hones in on what that should look like by giving us some very specific behaviors that Jesus addresses here. And some of these can be quite challenging for us, but they don’t have to be. Unfortunately, these verses have been misinterpreted and worse yet, misused by many pastors and theologians within the church for centuries. If taken at face value, which by the way you should never do with scripture, then all angry people are going to hell, if you’ve committed adultery you might as well not even come to church, divorce, you’re outta here, heck you can’t even make an oath or a solemn pledge, as this translation puts it!

What angers me about this is that pastors and churches have used these verses to shame people and control people for far too long. That was not Jesus intention here. In fact, he was constantly getting on the Pharisees case for using the Bible that way! So why would he do what he scolded them for doing? What has helped me as I interpret this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, and next week’s Gospel reading as well, is to remember the difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. The Pharisees were more interested in the letter of the law, and Jesus was more interested in the spirit of the law. And here’s why, many times, following the letter of the law, is easier. Let’s see exactly how by taking a look at how Jesus interprets some of these laws.

Murder, the law says, do not do it. Well, if we follow the letter of the law, that’s easy! Well, unless you’re my wife having to live with me, in that case murder may be a very tempting option. But I think murder is something that most people have under control. But Jesus says, uh uh uh, don’t stop there, because the spirit of the law is bigger than that. There are other ways to murder people than just physically killing them. And Jesus gets very specific here and points out name calling in anger. “You idiot!...You fool!” Now, if I asked everyone in the room to raise their hand if they’ve ever murdered someone, I’m guessing no one would, but just to be on the safe side I won’t ask that. However, let me ask this, if you’ve ever called someone a name out of anger, raise your hand.

Yeah, that’s not as easy to refrain from as murder is it? Especially in this political storm we are currently in! Now, for these next two, I think it’s important to remember who Jesus audience is—males. Now, were their female disciples, of course there were. I’d go so far as to say that the church wouldn’t exist today if there weren’t. However, we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus lived in a patriarchal misogynistic society, a society ruled by men who used that privilege to take advantage of and control women. This is the society that Jesus is speaking to. Why is that important? Because that made what Jesus had to say about these two laws regarding adultery and divorce, very controversial, very radical, and a direct attack at the establishment, the men of that patriarchal misogynistic society.

Jesus was saying you can’t just say you’ve never cheated on your wife because you’ve never had sex with another woman, he adds lust to the equation. Well, thanks Jesus, the men of the world collectively reply! And no, men don’t have a monopoly on lust and unfaithfulness, but again, that’s not all that’s going on here. Jesus is challenging the establishment, because the establishment was taking advantage of certain people, in this case women. Same with divorce, Jesus was saying that you can’t just get a divorce for any reason, like your tired of your wife, or you want a younger one, or even for bareness! These are just some of the reasons that men were allowed to get a divorce! And I’m not sure how much things have improved in two thousand years but that’s for another sermon.

And again, men do not have a monopoly on questionable reasons for divorce or lack of commitment, but there is more going on here in Jesus words. Jesus is challenging the establishment, because the establishment was taking advantage of certain people, in this case women. But let’s not forget, Jesus too was a product of the same patriarchal misogynistic society. I would have loved Jesus to have taken this further. I would have loved Jesus to have said directly to women, and you know what, the same goes for you too. Why? Because women couldn’t get a divorce in Jesus day, only a man could make that decision. But Jesus didn’t take it that far, maybe because of his upbringing, maybe because he knew his audience. We can only guess.

Here’s the bottom line. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as next week’s portion, Jesus is stressing the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Because when you only focus on the letter of the law you can easily find loop holes, as well as use it to shame and control people. But when you focus on the spirit of the law it open up possibilities and new life that wasn’t there before. Sure, it can make the journey a little more challenging as we have seen today, but think of the amazing fruit that we enjoy from taking Jesus’ lead in this way. We ordain women today because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.

We ordain people from the LGBTQ community because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it. Pastors can give communion to children of any age rather than waiting until they reach a certain age or have taken a class because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it. The church is now more interested in working with people of other faiths like Jews and Muslims to make this world a better place, rather than telling them they’re going to hell and trying to convert them, because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it.

I could go on but I will stop there. The ironic thing is, many have turned this passage, into law. They have turned Jesus’ spirit of the law into the letter of the law, to shame people and control people. And that really needs to stop. And that’s where we come in. We have the blessed opportunity to share with people a kind of grace that they may have never heard from a church or from a Christian before. We have the blessed opportunity to share with people that we know a place where they won’t be shamed, where they won’t be controlled—a place where they may be challenged but where they will be valued and loved by a God who is slow to anger, and abounding in faithful love. Imagine if we shared that simple truth whenever the opportunity arose? Imagine if that was what the Christian church was known for, and not shame or control or judgement. Just imagine.


Blindingly Salty?

Inspired by Matthew 5:13-20

So, we continue in the Sermon on the Mount, as we will for two more Sundays after today. Last week we explored the Beatitudes, the sayings of Christ that help us see the world from Christ’s perspective that then urged us to respond in some very particular ways. Today’s reading come right after the Beatitudes, we skip no verses between last week’s Gospel reading and today’s, so the same thought process continues into today. This is the state of the world in Jesus’ eyes, these are the promises that he’s made, and this is how Jesus wants us to respond if we are going to call ourselves his followers. And then over the next three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives example after example, image after image, analogy after analogy of what that looks like.

But before we get into that vivid imagery from today’s passage, let us deal with the elephant in the room that Jesus provided us at the end of the Gospel reading when he said, “I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yeah, that little gem. Now there are a variety of ways that we could tackle this seemingly problematic verse. And maybe this isn’t a problem for you. But this verse, on the surface, implies that a whole hell of a lot of people are not going to go to heaven, and I have a problem with that. That idea does not fit well with my Lutheran theology.

Maybe it does for you, but it doesn’t for me, and you called me as your pastor so here we are. So, as I mentioned, there are a variety of ways to tackle this. We could focus on the Greek word for righteousness, δικαιοσύνη and what that means. Or we could focus on the legal experts and Pharisees and how they relate to all of this. Or we could focus on the Greek word for kingdom, βασιλείαν. But let’s keep it simple, and possibly a little less boring, and remember that almost every time Jesus uses the phrase, kingdom of heaven, he is talking about the here and now—not some other world, in the future, after we die.

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus quoting John the Baptist saying “Change your hearts and lives, here comes the kingdom of heaven!” And last week, we heard Jesus tell those who are harassed for their righteousness that the kingdom of heaven is theirs, not will be theirs, is theirs. For Jesus, salvation was a matter of bringing new life and healing to this world, bringing the kingdom of heaven, the power of heaven, the ways of heaven, here, and now.

So when Jesus says, “I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” what he is saying is, unless your willing to get on board, and see the world as I see it, and are willing to work with me to bring about the kingdom of heaven here, than you won’t get to experience it here. How will we be able to experience the kingdom of heaven here if we are not willing to bring it here? It’s really that simple. I’m not dumbing it down for you, I’m not oversimplifying it, that’s really all there is to it. Could we make it more complicated, sure. Would that add a little more depth and nuance. Sure. But there’s just no need. And we need to move on.

Today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount gives us this beautiful imagery of salt and light. This is one of my favorite passages to read to a congregation because I get to look you in the eyes and say you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world—especially the title light of the world, that we usually reserve for Christ, but here he calls you the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. Now I know that many of you have heard lots of sermons on this passage, but just as a quick reminder, salt was highly valued in the ancient world—it was difficult to mine, difficult to process, difficult to transport, but was used as a preservative, for healing purposes, for dietary needs, not to mention the fact that it makes food taste better!

And as far as light goes, I don’t think I need to remind you of all the beautiful and life giving uses of light in our lives. Jesus uses these images to help us understand our role as baptized children of God, and the way in which we are to live that out and bring the kingdom of heaven, the power of heaven, the ways of heaven, here on earth, as coworkers with Christ. However, another motto that I live by is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century American essayist, lecturer, and poet who urged “moderation in all things.” Moderation in all things—which got me asking, can we take our role as the salt and light of the world too far? Can we be too salty? Pun intended. Can our light become blinding to others or ourselves?

Now, you may be wondering why pastor is asking such strange questions. Well, I think a lot of it comes from the current political climate. Ha! The word climate doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s more like political storm! And if this wasn’t a sermon I’d use more colorful language to describe the kind of storm this feels like! But don’t worry this sermon is not going to be about politics, at least not in the way you may be fearing right now. It’s more about the polarization that the nation is facing today.

I’m seeing and hearing people say such hurtful things to each other, or about each other. Sometimes it’s online, sometimes it’s in person. Sometimes it direct, and sometimes it’s generalized comments about a certain group of people. I see and hear it between people on opposite sides of the aisle but also between people on the same side of the political spectrum! Conservatives telling fellow conservatives that their not conservative enough and liberals telling fellow liberals that their not liberal enough! It’s madness! Some are saying that this is the most polarized that we’ve ever been as a nation. I’m not sure if that’s true, we’ve had some pretty polarizing events in our history, the civil rights movement and the civil war come to mind, but it’s probably pretty close.

Worse yet, the effects of this are being felt in the church. And I don’t mean between denominations, and I don’t mean just within the ELCA either. I mean that the effects of such polarization are being felt right here at Bethlehem Lutheran Church! I have the honor, responsibility, and challenge, of being the pastor at a church that is filled with people of all walks of life, and that means people on both sides of the political spectrum. And that’s an honor and a responsibility that I take very seriously, and am very grateful for.

Now I mentioned that it’s a challenge too and yes it can be. I have to constantly remind myself that not everyone thinks and believes the way I do. I have to write sermons that can speak to as wide an audience as possible—knowing of course that no sermon is going to speak to everyone, that’s impossible and would make me go crazy if I tried. But it’s a challenge that I gladly accept, and I wouldn’t have taken this call had I thought I was not up to the challenge. And for those of you who think I go to far, and for those of you who think I don’t go far enough, please remember that I am not just speaking to you, but to everyone, and that the good news of the gospel is not just for you, but for everyone here.

The saddest thing for me as a pastor, is seeing people, both here at Bethlehem and elsewhere, who have a history of working together, of loving each other, of supporting each other, of empowering each other, of picking each other up when one has fallen, now not only being unable to do these holy things because of the political polarization, but outright hurting each other. And I have to wonder, not as a pastor, but as a fellow baptized child of God, if that’s really what we are called to do? Can we be too salty? Can our light be blinding?

Salt is great, in moderation. But as many of you personally know, it can be deadly. Or, to use a less dramatic example, have you ever added to much salt to your food? Add too much and you can’t even taste your food anymore can you? Now imagine that food being the very life-giving, salvific, healing, good news of God that we are called to serve the world, being over-salted by our egos, by our self-righteousness, by our hypocrisy, or just plain carelessness. Can our saltiness get in the way of the work that we are called to do? Can we be too salty? That was a rhetorical question, I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think so.

Jesus also calls us the light of the world. Can we be too bright? Can our lights become blinding to those around us and maybe even to ourselves? Can we be so focused on our interpretation of scripture, or on our own view of God and the world, that we then turn into the legal experts and Pharisees that Jesus refers to, causing our light to be so bright that it’s blinding to others who may think differently, who may believe differently? Can our lights be so bright that we are actually causing people to turn away?

And again, maybe some of you are ok with that. Maybe some of you are ok with people turning away from us because they don’t think and believe the way you do. Maybe some of you are ok with people spitting out our food because it is too salty and going elsewhere to be fed. I am not. I am not ok with that. And you called me as your pastor so here we are. I know many of you want to grow the church, and by that you mean membership numbers. And I’m all for that but let’s make doubly sure that there isn’t some growth that needs to occur from within before we do that—because I want to invite people here and be able to say all are welcome and mean it.

What I don’t want is to have to say all are welcome but let me warn you, if you don’t believe or think the way the majority does here you may not feel welcome—because if I thought for a second that that’s what I would have to say to people I would have never taken this call because that wouldn’t be Christ’s church, that would be someone else’s. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But can we be too salty? Can our light be blinding? Ponder these questions please. Not for my sake, not for Christ’s sake, but for the sake of the world that we are called to serve. Amen.