Sunday, February 26, 2017

When God is Frightening: Exodus 24:12-18 - Transfiguration Sunday

12The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”
15Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (NRSV)
Sun rise on Mt. Sinai 2 by Endlisnis.  Creative commons image on flickr
“When was the last time you let God love you?”

My spiritual advisor asked me this question a few days ago.  To be honest, this question never crossed my mind.  The reason being (and this is going to sound silly) is that I’ve subconsciously that God would love me only when I got myself get right with God. 

The truth is, God always makes the first move.  But God has a funny way of loving people.  Case in point: Moses.

God first appears to Moses in a burning bush.  The Bible tells us that he was scared to death—and God wasn’t exactly gentle.  God commands Moses remove his sandals, and then God places on Moses a most impossible task: to go to Pharaoh, demand God’s peoples’ release from slavery, and lead them out of Egypt.  And God does not give Moses the option of saying no…

With God’s help, and with no shortage of struggle, Moses does this.  Now, the people are free—but they’re in the wilderness.  Food and water are scarce.  The people are growing restless and angry.  And Moses’ approval rating is falling fast. 

If anyone needs God to love him, it’s Moses. 

God is calling Moses up onto Mt. Sinai—and think about Moses is walking into: God’s presence at the mountaintop is a devouring fire in the middle of a harsh, barren, and dangerous wilderness.   There, Moses will receive God’s Holy Laws and the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.  At this point, Moses already knows that he’s got his work cut out for him…
To make matters worse, Moses will have stay up there to for forty days, while the people will grow even more restless and devious in his absence. When he finally comes down the mountain, the people have rebelled against God and Moses.  So how could Moses possibly feel any love from God?

Moses’ experience is extremely common in the Christian life.  Speaking personally, I would feel loved by God if I could silence all the noise of life; throw off the burdens and challenges; stop the passing of time; and just rest with God in the Garden of Eden.  If God would just give me heaven on earth, I would be okay.

Sometimes, you do get to taste heaven.  And it is vital to your own well being that you do—here at Church, in your prayers, and in your faith practices.  I feel God’s love in music.  I see it in nature and creation.  I see it in the sunlight shining through our stained glass music.  I see God’s love in my family and my friends—and in you.

But God will not always be like a warm, cuddly, and gentle.  Sometimes, God will be elusive, frightening, mysterious…  You’ll have with no answers…  Prayers met with silence.  Distress instead of peace…  You’ll be wandering and waiting…  Death and evil will be at every turn, and you will ask: where is God?

Sometimes, God will send you into frightening situations to do impossible things.  God will send you to serve people who may not like you or accept you.  God will literally knock you off your feet, just as Peter, James, and John were by Jesus’ Transfiguration.  God will literally “scare the hell out of you.”

Yet the good news is that God will love you even then.  In questions and doubts, fears and failures—God will love you even then.  When you’re waiting on God for what feels like an eternity, and you feel like giving up on God, God will love you even then.  When you’ve sinned by your own most grievous fault and God would be justified in condemning you, God will love you even then. 

God will love you by driving you out of your comfort zone; changing your plans; and challenging your deeply-held beliefs.  Jesus calls you to be a disciple so that God may love you in your dying and rising with him every day. 

This Wednesday, we begin the Lenten journey.  Lent is a solemn season, and appropriately so—because as God’s child, you must face harsh realities: you’re a sinner.  You are not at peace with God or your neighbor.  You have questions; you have fears, you have doubts.  Death is real. 

You need comfort—but you also need discipline.  You need security—but you also need change.  You need assurance—but you also need repentance.  You need resurrection—but there is no resurrection without the cross.  So receive your cross—because God’s love comes with it.  In Christ, every cross gives way to light and life. You may see hell on earth—but God will love you even then. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Standing Christ's Ground: Matthew 5:38-48 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (NRSV)
Diner by Jeremy Keith.  Creative commons image on flickr
On Valentine’s Day, my grandmother celebrated her 88th birthday. 

I always think about her when I’m eating out—and the server hands me the check.  Grandma is very generous with tips—even when the service isn’t “top notch.”  And she always hands the tip directly to the server—and the reason why is because she had an aunt who would steal tips.  The aunt would always say, “if they want to make more money, they should get a better job…

I realize my grandmother and her aunt lived through the Great Depression—and these tough economic times still can’t compare to life back then.  That being said, my grandmother is a very generous person—as are many who’ve lived through the Depression.  She’s not a rich woman, but you’d never know it by her generosity.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching a most irrational form of generosity.
§  “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, give them the other…”
§  “If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well…”
§  “If someone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…”
§  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!”

Now if you’re living a comfortable, middle class lifestyle in 21st century America, obeying Jesus’ teachings will indeed make life more livable for you and everyone else. 

But what if life isn’t so cushy?

Bear in mind that nearly one-third of all people were slaves in Jesus’ world.  A vast majority of persons lived in extreme poverty, including those who had steady employment.  Roman culture celebrated the dominance of the strong over the weak.

So imagine, then, what it must have been like to hear Jesus say these things
§  If you didn’t know when you were going to eat your next meal…
§  If you were a slave and your owner treated his farm machinery and his livestock with more care than you…
§  If you were a being physically or emotionally abused…

Jesus’ teachings weren’t just absurd; they were a threat to your survival.

How can you be generous to others when YOU are in need?  If you’ve worked hard and been a good person, why should someone take what’s rightfully yours and there be no response?  If somebody poses a threat to you, do you not have the RIGHT and also the DUTY to defend yourself, by whatever means necessary?

To make matters worse, it sounds as though Jesus is playing right into the hands of the abuser.  I can just hear one of them saying, “Yeah, I’m wrong; but YOU should turn the other cheek.”

So how on earth can you “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” when you’re face-to-face with evil?

It goes without saying that Jesus’ teachings are humanly impossible to fulfill.  But Jesus will personally do everything he says.  Humankind will nail Jesus to the cross, and he will forgive.  God will take that evil it into victory by raising Jesus from the dead.  Realize, then, that Jesus will accomplish his victory by enabling you to do these very same things.

This begins by loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you—because God loves them as God loves you.  As you pray, Jesus will help you to be merciful to them, just as he was.  Christian love seeks the redemption of the enemy—and not their destruction.  Christ’s love has the power to break even the most hardened hearts and change even the most evil persons.  Look at the Apostle Paul. 

But know also, that when you cry out, God hears.  It matters to God that you have your daily bread. Jesus will still give you what you need to be the person God created you to be.  The slaves and destitute people Jesus taught were being given the power to enact God’s mercy with their otherwise measly power and resources.  Just imagine, then, what Christ can do in you. 

You can make life more livable—and your life can become more livable, through simple acts of forgiveness, patience, and generosity.  Jesus will break you of bad habits and lifestyles that bring safety, comfort, and convenience at your neighbor’s expense.  Jesus will use you to transform scrooges into saints.  And—Jesus will liberate you from people who are keeping your life from shining with the light of Christ. 

God’s kingdom doesn’t come by standing YOUR ground, but standing CHRIST’S ground. 

In this world, strength will fail.  Power will corrupt.  And “an eye for an eye” will make everybody blind.  But Generosity heals.  Grace transforms.  Light banishes darkness.  Love drives out hate.  Jesus creates new life out of death.  Stand Christ’s ground—and he will be the peace, security, and purpose we all need.