Monday, February 28, 2011

From One Mountain to Another

This Sunday's lectionary texts are from Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9, found as always here.

We've spent the past 5 weeks sitting on a mountainside with Jesus, listening to him deliver a sermon mindboggling in its depth and complexity and simplicity and power. That Jesus was a few mere months into his public ministry; his disciples had left everything behind to follow him, but still didn't totally know who "him" was.

It's harsh to jump so abruptly to another mountain. We miss so much in the valley inbetween--years, likely, at least a couple of years worth of teaching, travelling, and amazing miracles. We've missed countless brilliant parables, multiple run-ins with the powers that be, and infinite ridiculous questions from the still-clueless disciples as they try to put the pieces together about their most unusual rabbi.

Finally, just before this little mountain climbing adventure commences, one of the disciples, at least, has put things together: when Jesus finally decides to ask the fateful question, "Who do you say that I am?", Peter is able to reply: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus' strange reaction to this moment of illumination is to start talking about his death which is, apparently, right around the corner.

And so we climb this new mountain. This time, there are no crowds; it's simply Jesus, Peter, James, and John, looking down across the valleys where they've shared so much time together, when suddenly the whole scene changes. Jesus...doesn't look like Jesus anymore, at least not the Jesus they have known for almost three years now: he's glowing...his clothes look all different...and who's that with him? No one they've seen before...but it sure looks like...Moses? Elijah? And they're talking.

THIS is what they'd been waiting for--what Peter had been looking for in that moment he'd told Jesus who he thought Jesus was--something spectacular, something that would confirm his identity without a doubt: that heavenly voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him" that they hadn't been around yet to hear at Jesus' baptism.

Why here? Why now? Why would the disciples get this vision of Jesus' full glory at this point in their journey together? Why would we get this vision at this point in ours?

Well, I guess because even if we have missed all the narrative between the mountains, we are headed to the same place in our journey that Peter, James, and John were in theirs--things are about to get painful. Things are about to change. And before everything changes on that cross, everything is going to change, for a moment, on this mountain: a preview of coming attractions, a preview of what is true about Jesus before the cross and will be true afterwards--that this is God's own chosen, the one to whom we must listen even when the road leads up another mountain, to Calvary's hill.

Mountains, in ancient tradition, were believed to be a place where you can touch the holiness of God. That holiness was seen in one way on the mount of that Sermon, where Jesus laid out a new way of life; it is seen in another here, a God shining in glory who was God in the days of Moses and Elijah and will be for all days to come; and holiness that will be seen in another way on a cross atop another mountain, where God's love lays its life down.

This mountain may seem like an abrupt shift...but it's all part of what God has been showing us all along: just as this God is different, so is his Son different. Thanks be to a God for that!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Putting on our Reading Glasses

Our Lectionary texts for this week, the last Sunday in Epiphany and the last Sunday in our Sermon on the Mount series, are Isaiah 49:8-16, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, and Matthew 6:24-34. Read them here.

Just before we began this series on the Sermon on the Mount five weeks ago with the Beatitudes with which Jesus began His sermon, I had a great post-worship conversation with a member of our congregation who posed a compelling question. His question was something like this: what if Jesus intended the Beatitudes not just as a stand-alone piece, but as the lens through which we can then read and understand the rest of the Sermon on the Mount?

This question has stayed with me as I have studied and preached on and dialogued with you about these texts over this past month. The more I think about it, the more I think Jesus was brilliant (insert the requisite "duh" here if you'd like), because I think that's exactly what Jesus did by beginning with the Beatitudes: he wanted these phrases rolling in our heads through the rest of his sermon. He wanted these to be the phrases through which we could encounter his more detailed teachings, and his more detailed teachings to be further understood as they are held together with Jesus' statements of blessing.

(As an aside, I've also become convicted that the Lord's Prayer is a lens through which we can read the whole Sermon--making Jesus even more brilliant--but that's another blog for another time...or perhaps another sermon series for another season).

Think about putting on the Beatitudes as your reading glasses as you consider these teachings we've studied the past few weeks:

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

"But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile."

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."

"But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (I think this could go with "poor in spirit" too...there's lots of overlap here)

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

I've been using the Beatitudes as my reading glasses as I've read this week's passage from Matthew 6:24-34...particularly verses 24 and 33. This is because I feel one of the Beatitudes we studied last night in our meditation group, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" connects intimately with what is at the heart of this teaching. Jesus begins by speaking about the disciple's need to be undivided, reminding those who follow him that they cannot serve two masters--it is just impossible, you will end up loving one and hating the other, having to choose one over the other. Then Jesus tells them on the one, singular choice they are to make: to seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, making this their absolute focus and priority. I believe that at least one way we can think about "pure in heart" is in terms of a clearness and singleness of focus...having a heart that seeks after and focuses on one thing above all else, not getting distracted by many peripheral worries and desires...and that such singleness of focus is what can truly enable one to see God. What happens if we read these words of Jesus about anxiety, fruitless striving, and worry in light of Jesus' promise that those who are pure in heart--undivided and undistracted in their pursuits--will see God?

This could all be out there...but I think it's worth thinking about. What do you think?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Smorgasbord of Scriptural Fun

Our lectionary passages this week are Leviticus 19:1-2, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, and Matthew 5:38-48. You can read them, as always, here.

Gosh...okay, there's too much fun in the lectionary this week to stick with one idea for this blog. So this week will be a buffet of biblical reflection...a veritable smorgasbord of subjects to think about. Take your pick:

Dish #1: Leviticus? Really? Yes, friends, you are seeing correctly. This is Leviticus' one shining moment in the sun, the one time in all three years of the Lectionary cycle that we read from this third book of the Hebrew Torah (or five books of the law--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy...just in case you were wondering). Given much of Leviticus' nature, it's not surprising that only once in 150+ Sundays does this book show up: after all, it includes such lovely topics as why it's bad to eat shellfish (see chapter 11), how to properly sacrifice a goat (see chapter 16) and the grossly defiling effects of mold (chapters 13 and 14...real page turners). is also in the heart of Leviticus, here in chapter 19, that we find what Jesus named as one of the two greatest commandments: the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. I keep reading this passage for today and wonder if we've lost something in throwing Leviticus out with its strange litany of laws...yes, this is the book in the Bible where most of our New Year's Resolutions to read the Bible through hit a terrible wall. But what clues about the nature of God and God's desires from us might we have been missing in our omission? (And, just for the record, I don't think what we'll learn if we draw near to Leviticus is that God hates shrimp...)

Dish #2: Resisting Evil In our Saturday morning Bible Study, a serious question was raised: when Jesus says in Matthew 5, "Do not resist an evildoer," what is Jesus saying? What is meant by "resistance" here? I've done a lot of reading around this this week...and most commentators seem to agree that "resist" is an incredibly weak and probably not fully accurate translation of this statement by the NRSV (the translation we use most in worship). The word used here for "resist" is actually a term, in most of its other usages, that references warfare--it literally means "to stand against," naming that moment in battle when two armies have marched towards each other until they are literally face to face, standing against each other, and bloodshed is commencing. So what Jesus is saying here, it seems, is "do not go to violent battle against an evildoer"--do not take the same tactics that they take. What Jesus offers here are alternate forms of "standing against" evil that do not involve violence, it would seem. (Theologian Walter Wink has a lot to say about this, and is a great person to read if you are interested in learning more).

Dish #3: What Jesus REALLY Meant, Redux: In response to last week's blog post about ways to interpret the Sermon on the Mount, Nancy Lively (a member of our congregation currently teaching at a seminary in Prague) sent along some great words about the ways the student community at International Baptist Theological Seminary is seeking to base their life together upon the tenants of the Sermon on the Mount, and the stories they are uncovering of people who have chosen to live and act according to Jesus' words. Many of her students come from nations across Eastern and Central Europe that have seen great conflict throughout their lives; yet here, in community with one another, they are learning to live in peaceable ways, and to speak with great conviction that these teachings of Jesus are not just livable--they are vital if we are going to know the life that is truly life. I'm encouraged to know that a new generation of Christians and Christian leaders coming along are wrestling seriously with these questions along with us...any of you who are interested should get Nancy to share with you some of the things she has been learning from her students. Remarkable.

So there you go...enjoy, and see you Sunday as we dig into this scriptural feast, seeing how it might nourish our life together...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What does Jesus REALLY mean?

Our sermon texts this week are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37, found here.

Last week we talked about the interpretive challenge of the many apparent contradictions found in Jesus' core teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This week, it seems that the broader question of how we interpret the Sermon on the Mount might be a good one for us to consider based on the comments I've been hearing around the church as we've dug into these texts. Things like, "If we took this literally, I'd be walking around without a right eye...or a hand...or legs..." and questions like, "Does Jesus mean we all have to do all of these things? How is this possible? It looks impossible."

The Sermon on the Mount as a whole can inspire these reactions in us. But perhaps no section more than this week's, where the things that plague us most--earthy things like anger, lust, making promises we can't keep, broken relationships--are confronted by Jesus head-on. We all get are we all subject to hell? Is calling someone an idiot really as bad as murder? If Jesus really wants us to gouge our eyes out when we look at someone lustfully, why are we not all walking around like pirates in eyepatches?

As you read these texts and wrestle with questions like these, I thought it might be useful to introduce some different ways people have looked at these texts over the years in their interpretations of them for practical living, as they've tried to answer that most annoying of questions: "What does Jesus REALLY mean?" I leave them up to your meditation, but do include my snapshot reflections on each view at the end.

Option 1: The Sermon Applies to Everyone, or to All Christians, and to All Times.
Early Christianity took this sermon quite literally, and problems quickly emerged (as expected) when Jesus' high ethic ran into a world that tends to run by the lowest common denominator.
So, interpreters have worked to figure out realistic ways the Sermon could still apply to everyone. Some say it is best to think of Jesus' teachings as standards of idealistic goals that, even if we cannot literally reach them, can at least provide us with direction for our ethical striving. The sermon, in the way, is seen as principles and attitudes that should influence our practice. Others (Martin Luther was a big proponent of this angle) said the sermon applies to us all at all times, but that its function is to help us all realize how much we are in need of grace as we cannot possibly live by this law. I don't love either of those spins; I don't believe Jesus was about scaring us into grace with visions of severed arms, but nor do I believe Jesus would speak this seriously if Jesus didn't really mean it and just wanted us to get the gist of what he was saying and do the best we can with it...this doesn't feel like Jesus to me.

Option 2: The Sermon Applies Only to Certain People.
During the Middle Ages some theologicans began to argue that the precepts of the Christian faith apply to all Christians, but that these loftier teachings are only for a select few--say, priests, monks, and nuns. This view says that as a few people embody this way of life, they help the Church as a whole be a witness to what life in the kingdom of God looks like. This feels like a cop-out to me, but maybe that's because I, as a minister, don't want to be the only one who has to live this way...I recognize that this sermon was aimed primarily at Jesus' inner circle of disciples, but he said it in the hearing of everyone...and Jesus never seemed elitist to me in the way that this view implies.

Option 3: The Sermon Applies Only to Certain Times.
Some have said this is the kingdom ethic that will be practiced during the millennial kingdom, after the second coming of Christ; or that Jesus expected the end of the world to come soon, so people would only have to live this way for a very brief period of time. Eh...this makes me nervous, too. Jesus was speaking in present tense. Jesus never mentioned time limits. And Jesus seemed to believe that with the constitution of this new community, the kingdom of God is already among us, not just a way that is to's the way Jesus lived while on earth.

So....that clears it all up, doesn't it?

I read all these angles that try to make sense of what Jesus is saying, and wonder if our problem is just that: trying to make sense of what Jesus says. Because Jesus isn't trying to give us common sense wisdom for living in this world: he's trying to give us an uncommon way to defy the sense of the way this world works with our foolish way of the cross. We look at these standards and say, "There's no way to live this in the real world; we're just human," when maybe what we need to be asking ourselves is, "How do we live the witness of a different sort of world while in the midst of this one? How can we show that, yes, we're human, but we're animated by more than that--the Spirit of God lives within our broken lives and, on occasion, helps us live in a way that is radically different?" It's almost like Jesus is inviting us (as I mentioned in my post last week) to live with imagination that goes beyond lists and things that make sense...that wades us into the messiness that is human relationship that is always in flux, that challenges us to challenge the ways that are accepted and those least common denominators we've been living by and to believe we were called by Christ to something more...and can live into that something more, bit by bit, right now.

I don't know what Jesus really meant...but I don't think he was trying to trick us, maim us, chronically frustrate us with our own inadequacy, or leave us a helpless puddle of guilt. Nor do I think he was trying to let us off the hook in any way...I think he was challenging us to be that salt and light he had called us, to live for the sake of others in a way that transforms and gives life to the world--to choose life that others might live. How can we begin to choose this life in ways that are imaginative yet faithful, possible even as we toe the line of impossibility?

*I am indebted to Eugene Boring's outstanding commentary on the Sermon on the Mount found in the New Interpreter's Bible Commentary for helping me sift through these three options of how to read and apply Jesus' words in Matthew.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How is this possible?

Our lectionary texts for this week are Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, 16 and Matthew 5:13-20. You can read them in full here.

Have you ever noticed how much Jesus seems to contradict himself? If you were to carefully read all those red-letter (words of Jesus) portions of your Bible in one sitting, it would seem like Jesus often presents contrasting ways of discipleship that don't seem like they can simultaneously be true (see photo at's really not too far off of this).

Nowhere do Jesus' seemingly contradictory tendencies show up more clearly than in some of his core teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Take, for example, Jesus' famous statement in our Gospel text for the day:

"Let your light shine before all people, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:16

How do we mesh this with Jesus' words just a few minutes later, according to Matthew's account:

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." Matthew 6:1 (a theme Jesus continues for many verses after this).

Then look back at the Beatitudes we studied last week. How do we hold "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" together with Jesus' later question of, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?" (Matthew 9:15). How can "Blessed are the peacemakers" be uttered by the same Teacher who declares, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34)? How does the One who tells us later in this sermon not to worry about tomorrow but focus only on this day (Matthew 6:34) later tell a parable condemning young women who fail to take enough oil with them to last more than one day in their lamps (Matthew 25:1-13)? Jesus, I would really love to live the way you teach me to live...but seriously, how is all of this possible?

We could go the route that some biblical scholars have gone and just write these things off as examples of contradictions in the Bible that should have been caught by good editors, showing us, perhaps, that these words are only human after all. We could (as many preachers have) try our hardest to weave these teachings together or harmonize them, compromising each until neither actually says what it initially said.

But I was completely struck--perhaps even captivated--this afternoon when I read the words of New Testament scholar Eugene Boring about the presence of these contradictions:

"The Gospel is not intended as a rule for life, but to stimulate imagination and personal responsibility. The jagged edges of Jesus' sayings should not be too quickly rounded off to make them consistent with other biblical teachings, or even each other. Talk of the kingdom of God generates a certain wildness that is lost if it is domesticated" (Eugene Boring, "Matthew" in The New Interpreter's Bible).

It makes me wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said in the later part of our Gospel lesson, "I have not come to abolish [the law] but to fulfill [it]" (Matthew 5:18). Is this what it looks like to live fulfilling the law--not to follow orderly, logical steps but to dance between the contradictions, learning our own place and embracing the wildness of it all if it allows us to imagine and begin to create a whole new world, if it lets us participate in and experience God's kingdom here on earth?

I'm still chewing on it, but wow...I sure like that idea. What do you think?