Jesus' Higher Standard

Jesus sometimes sets the bar so high that it seems out of our reach. He tells us to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to constantly assume the humbler position (wash each other’s feet), and here in Matthew 5:21-37, to take the ten commandments so seriously that we might maim ourselves to find holiness. It seems prudent and scholarly to downplay Jesus’ words. To say that just like the bit about camels going through the eye of a needle, Jesus is using hyperbole. But, not so quick. Jesus is speaking to the simple country folk coming with their families out to a gentle hill for the afternoon picnic and lecture. He doesn’t want to confuse them or us. What he wants is to set them on a pathway towards personal holiness. 

    The threshold to the kingdom of God is extremely low. The kingdom of God is already among us, we only need to believe in order to enter. But the daily life of a Christian is extremely hard. It begins with our family. When we flirt with a coworker, we put at risk multiple families and potentially harm the children in our care. Adultery is such a serious problem that Jesus says pluck out your eyes if you need to. Don’t go down that wrong path.

Sunday, February 12, 2017
Epiphany 6

New meets Old

It is a New Year. A new broom is sweeping. The fox is in the hen house. We  have this image as we face the New Year of an old man being pushed off of life’s stage by an infant. Meanwhile, in the Bible, we find the baby, Jesus, being brought by his parents to the temple on the first Sunday after Christmas and there are these two old geezers blocking the way to the altar. Simeon and Anna are both older than eight track tapes. Yet, they don’t speak about the past, they tell of the future. God has intruded into our cycle of birth - innocence - rebellion - maturity - midlife - old age - and death. He has given us something eternal. What we see is not a generational division, but a timeless unity.

 

Sunday, February 5, 2017
Presentation of the Lord

An Insanely Great Vision

In my workshops, I often show a slide of Steve Jobs introducing us to the first iPad. Then I ask the question, “How should we design our life together, as a congregation, so that we become what Christ has in mind?” The analogy is simple. The success of Apple Computer stems from the vision that Steve Jobs had for insanely great products. Jobs was a tyrant, constantly berating people who were content to make “pretty good” computers and cell phones. The corporate culture at Apple, the work habits of each employee, and the image the company presented to the world all grew out of the vision that Jobs expressed in that one phrase, insanely great products. I believe that Jesus also has a powerful new vision for his people. The Beatitudes, which begin Jesus’ teaching ministry in Matthew 5, is Jesus’ insanely great vision.

 

Sunday, January 29, 2017
Epiphany 4

A Psalm for the Oppressed

This past week was Martin Luther King Day. I think it is important that we remember him, not just as a leader of a minority group in our society, but as an example of how to respond to oppression. Sometimes oppression is systemic, like the racism is that still infects America. Sometimes oppression is personal, as when we are passed over at work because of our gender or age, or when a family member uses cruel manipulation to keep us in our place.The Gospel teaches us to love our neighbor and that no one truly loves God who isn’t in a right relationship with others. Yet Psalm 27 talks about the other side of our religion. There are times when you go it alone. I think of a family member who is struggling with a messy divorce and has a broken relationship with one of his teenage daughters. Perhaps distance, illness, or death has separated you from a loved one. Perhaps you are feeling oppressed. What does this Psalm 27 say to you now?

 

For in the day of trouble

Sunday, January 22, 2017
Epiphany 3

The Latent Christ

Back in the days of film, I was very aware of what it meant to say that something was latent. I would take a series of twenty-four pictures in my camera, then carefully wind the film back into its cassette. Perhaps that night, or a week later, I’d go down to the dark room and process the film. In total darkness, I would carefully wind the film onto a spool in the developing tank. Setting the timer, I’d pour in the chemicals. Each little grain of silver-chloride that had been struck by three photons of light in my camera, fixed itself in place and formed a dark image. The other silver-chloride grains are washed away, down the drain. Only then could the film be held up to the light and the images seen.

 

Sunday, January 15, 2017
Epiphany 2

A Light for the Nations

Christopher Columbus noted in his private journals, how the words of Isaiah 42, especially the line “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” kept him going, through the dark times of his life. When no one was willing to back him on his westward quest, the fact that God had given him this vision drove him on, hat in hand, visiting the various courts in Europe looking for a sponsor. When everyone turned against him, Columbus held tighter onto this personal interpretation of Isaiah. The phrase, “I give you as a covenant to the people,” is spelled out in the next line of Isaiah 42:7, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” This sense of mission, Columbus says, and not the search for gold, is what made him return to the Americas for two additional journeys.

 

Sunday, January 8, 2017
Epiphany 1

Why do the innocents suffer?

When we do Christmas, it is very tempting to skip the story of King Herod's murdering the children of the Bethlehem region. In a year when the innocent children of Syria, and their parents, have been made to suffer, this ommission is unconsciencable. I remember one adroit fool suggesting that we could skip Matthew 2:13-23 in our Sunday lections because the event discribed doesn't appear in the secular histories of the time and could have been made up by Matthew. The only secular histories we have from this period are pro-Roman (Josephus wants to paint the Herodians in a better light for his Roman audience) the way Putin/Trump is pro-Assad and love FOX news. Putting current political concerns asside, the real reason for preaching Matthew's slaughter of the Innocents is to counter our dangerous tendency to down play the depravity of the human heart. When we say, "No one could do such evil," we give tacid support to the rise of dictators and future holacausts. 

 

I want to quickly list bullet points for telling Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt:

Herod verses Jesus

It is the Christmas after an election year and we read Isaiah’s prophesy knowing that Isaiah’s audience heard it as a political statement. The people of the Bible actually were looking for someone to make their nation great again. They heard Isaiah and imagined a ruler with such wisdom that there would be; “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (9:7)

 

Sunday, December 25, 2016
Christmas Day

Disappointed in Joseph

I’d like to criticize Joseph today. I don’t think that his plan to dismiss Mary quietly is all that virtuous. I know, the alternative was to drag her to the public square and have her be publicly shamed and stoned. But, what would Jesus have Joseph do? I mean Jesus would later teach an ethics that demanded love, even when there is no religious value at stake. If there had been no angelic visitation, with its mysterious explanation for Mary’s pregnancy, there still would be a child coming into this world.  It seems to me, that the concerns of that child, whoever he or she is, should be primary. That child deserves a father. The cultural stigma that segregates children born out of wedlock is evil. If it hadn’t been for the angel, the personal queasy-ness, that Joseph may have mistaken for his conscience, would have caused him to disown this child just because he wasn’t biologically related to it. This is a gut level, animalistic, response to painful relational issues. Humanity today, needs a better ethic.

 

Sunday, December 18, 2016
Advent 4

Mary and Lou Gerhig

When reading Mary’s Magnificat song, I am reminded of Lou Gerhig’s speech about being the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Just how is Mary lucky? I am of the opinion that the Holy Spirit did a full disclosure — or at least she knew on a deep, intuitive level, the sorrow this pregnancy would bring her. We do well to name the three parts of Mary’s misfortune: 1) the active shaming by family and neighbors of her having a child out of wedlock, that continues for decades and is even amplified when that child is grown 2) her own misunderstanding and the suspicions of those around her, as to whether Jesus was in his right mind 3) the agonizing day when she watched her son die on the cross.  How is she the most blessed among women?

The Magnificat is a song of the oppressed — it is important not to gloss over the people Mary is identifying with — the hungry, the impoverished, and particularly, the nation-people groups who have been colonized by a foreign military power. Mary’s song could get her on the Roman government's watch list of suspected terrorists.

Sunday, December 11, 2016
Advent 3

Longing for Peace

In the early 1800's there was an American painter named Edward Hicks who became fixated on the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. He painted a child with his arm around a lions neck, his fingers twirling the mane and at his feet a wolf lay with a lamb and a leopard and goat and behind them a big brown bear and all were at peace.  He painted this same image over sixty times, with a variety of backdrops and arrangements of the characters — but always a diverse group of normally competitive creatures were at peace. The paintings all have the same title; The Peaceable Kingdom.  

 

Sunday, December 4, 2016
Advent 2

Advent and Uncertainty

The bumper sticker on my neighbor’s truck says that he’ll be a first responder in case of a Zombie Apocalypse. One popular TV show chronicles doomsday preppers while another show gathers survivors of a nuclear holocaust in Jericho, Kansas. The movies, Ender’s Game and Hunger Games, are not about games, but about the loss of childhood innocence in a post-apocalyptic world. One of the unexpected consequences of the shift to a secularized/post-religious worldview, is that the end of days can be spoken about without any reference to the Book of Revelations or Judeo-Christian prophesies.

 

Suddenly, Jesus’ “Nobody knows the day or the hour,” has become very main stream. We have seen enough of the horrors of 20th century technology and violence to almost believe that every day of the 21st century could be our last. Having said all of this, I don’t think Jesus is calling his people to master the crossbow, stock their basements with years of rations, or wear a gas mask clipped to their belt. He is instead inviting people to be spiritually ready. This seems to be a good place to begin Advent.

 

Sunday, November 27, 2016
Advent 1

It’s not good to be the king

I have a friend who is the president of the board of a small non-profit organization. He’s having a difficult time. A while back there was an issue where he acted on his own without consulting the board. “I’m the president and I’m more knowledgable than anyone else on this. I want it done this way,” he said. A conflict arose. It was true that he had expertise in the subject, but he was also disrupting the group process. This is not what a good leader does.

 

Jesus takes his role as Messiah very seriously. He stays true to his leadership position all the way to the cross. Pontus Pilate is confused by Jesus becoming the head of a populous organization, but refusing to wear kingly garb or behave as other rich people do. Jesus is known to do great miracles and speak with authority, but nothing that he does puts money in his pocket or a crown on his head. Jesus is humble to a fault. You are the silliest king of the Jews I’ve ever met, Pilate thinks. He has Jesus crucified wearing an ironic crown of thorns.

Sunday, November 20, 2016
Pentecost 29

You Never Know, Do You?

I’m posting this blog the night before the election. It reminds me how often preachers make plans for the week’s worship, only to see something unexpected happen after its all gone to press. A lot of newspapers last week missed the opportunity to print the winner of the world series because the Cubs kept us awake past midnight. You never know, do you? The only thing that is certain is that God is in charge of history and his plans are inscrutable. That is what makes Jesus’ comments about the apocalypse so much fun. Jesus says that both those who put their certainty in sound foundations and good planning, as well as, those who look for portents in the sky and signs in their tea-leaves, will be wrong. No matter what tomorrow brings, we must decide before hand to be compassionate and faithful (Luke 21:13-15, 19). Christians don’t know who will be the best for America. They only know that Jesus calls them to love their neighbors, feed the hungry, give aid to the sick, visit those in prison, turn the other cheek, and to do unto others as we would wish them to do unto us. 

 

Sunday, November 13, 2016
Pentecost 28

Defining Marriage

In Luke 20:27-38 we encounter the rather odd custom of Levirate Marriage. This is where the widow of a man who has died without an heir is given to his brother. Jesus lived during a time of transition. Marriage customs, such as Levirate Marriage and the practice of having young people always marry someone from within the clan, were dying out. Hellenism — that is the more urbane customs of the Greeks and Romans including their acceptance of homosexuality — was reshaping the daily life of first century Palestinians. We too, are going through a time in which marriage customs are being reshaped. In the passage above, Jesus is being asked, not only about eternal life, but also about marriage. The Sadducees no longer practice Levirate Marriage, but they know that some rural villages, perhaps even Jesus’ Nazareth, still do. It was common before the talmudic reforms of the first century for a widow to be given to her husband’s brother so that she might have a home and not be forced to marry outside the village. In a similar way, arranged marriages were once common among immigrants to this country, as they sought to prevent their young from leaving the confines of their ethnic community.

 

Sunday, November 6, 2016
Pentecost 27

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