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February 26, 2017 is the Transfiguration of Our Lord

Exodus 24:12-18 – Moses goes up the mountain (Sinai) for 40 days and 40 nights. The glory of the Lord appears as a devouring fire on the mountain.

Psalm 2 – I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the Lord: God said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
OR
Psalm 99 – Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the Lord, and he answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them… Extol the Lord our God, and worship at the holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.

2 Peter 1:16-21 – For he received honor and glory from God when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

Matthew 17:1-9 – Peter, James, and John go up the mountain where they see Jesus transfigured, with Moses and Elijah.

Holy Experiences 

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, the inner circle of disciples, up the mountain for a mountaintop experience. This is a challenging text to understand, much less preach.

If, however, we approach it as a transcendent experience, it begs an important conversation about experiences of God. The preacher might want to begin by considering the question personally. When have you felt most profoundly the presence of God? Experiences of God are intimate. They sometimes feel personal and private. Are you willing to open up and talk about your own experiences? This may be the only way to realistically get people thinking about their own experiences.

What if you then gave people an opportunity to write down the mountaintop times in their lives when they have felt the presence of God? If you have young people, skeptics, and seekers in your pews, you may have to ask the question several different ways to connect. When have you been most powerfully aware of the incredible gift of life? When have you been overcome with beauty? Compassion? Joy? When have you encountered truth that has sent shivers down your spine? When have you been overwhelmed by hidden, underlying realities that take you deeper than the superficialities of everyday life? When have you sensed that there is more to life than meets the eye? When have you had mountaintop experiences that gave you an utterly new perspective on life and perhaps new direction? When have you been drawn out of yourself and out of your own self-preoccupation. When have you had an experience that caused you to see with new eyes? When have you been confronted with causes for which you would give your own life?

If you have a midweek Bible study, you might engage them in a conversation about this to prime the pump for your sermon preparation. Ask them when they have felt God’s presence most acutely. If it is a safe environment, expect a lot of very different answers, including some that might make you feel uncomfortable.

Some may point to literal mountaintop experiences in nature. The mountains have a deep soulfulness, as do the forests and the oceans. The stars! We are overcome by the immensity of the universe and our own short life span. Some may point to victories, while others will find God revealed in some of our greatest defeats. A theology of the cross recognizes that God is sometimes revealed in our most broken moments. Sitting beside my aging father’s hospital bed, as he struggles with mind and body, grounds me in my own mortality.

Music takes us to a deeper place, and not just religious music. Someone may point to relationships, and maybe even sexual experiences, which can be transcendent moments of ecstatic joy. For some it may be the birth of a child or grandchild. I watched the birth of my son by C-section, standing right there, while holding my wife’s hand. It was an incredible experience that brought me face-to-face with the miracle of life. Some may even point to the usual suspects: prayer, worship, scripture, and sacraments. Some will find they encounter Jesus in the face of the most needy: the poor or the stranger.

Getting people to think about these sacred experiences draws them back into the divine. It also invites us to consider, how we might put ourselves in a place where we are more open, more receptive to these experiences. You can’t make divine moments happen any more that you can make lightning strike, but you can put yourself in places where you’re more likely to be there when it happens. How do we cultivate awareness of God? How might we set aside time and prepare ourselves for holy experiences?

Well, with that mental preparation, on to the story…

How did they arrive at the Mount of Transfiguration?

This Sunday’s text of the Transfiguration comes in the fourth of five sections of narrative. In Matthew 14-17, Jesus is on the move. The Matthew 13 discourse on the Parables of the Kingdom ends with Jesus in his hometown, an unremarkable village called נָצְרַת, Nazareth, about 16 miles WSW of the Sea of Galilee.

In Matthew 14 as we begin a new narrative section, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been beheaded. Grieving, he takes a boat and goes on retreat by himself. Since there are no bodies of water in or near Nazareth, we must assume Matthew has Jesus back at the Sea of Galilee, a walk that would take the better part of a day.

Crowds somehow find Jesus alone in his boat, so he comes ashore to the deserted place and feeds the five thousand. Afterwards he made his disciples get into “the boat,” while he went up on “the mountain” to pray, trying to be alone again. (Mt. 14:22-23) Jesus walks to them on the water, and then so does Peter, sort of.

The next day they land at Gennesaret (or Genazareth, “Garden of Riches”). No trace of this city remains today, but it is believed to have been on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Gennesaret, north of Magdala and South of Caesarea (where Peter’s house is located).

mapImagine the Sea of Galilee as a clock:

  • Put Tiberias at 8:00.
  • Magdala at 9:00.
  • Gennesaret at 10:00.
  • Capernaum at 11:00.

In Gennesaret, Matthew 15, Jesus, the new Moses, the new law-giver, is criticized for not washing his hands according to the traditions. He rails on them. You don’t honor your father and mother, one of the Ten Commandments, and you’re over-focused on a tradition from the Levitical codes? Really? He then rants: What defiles you comes from what is already inside you: evil intentions, murder, adultery. You won’t be defiled by what goes into your mouth from the outside.

From there Jesus goes up to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is along the Mediterranean in Lebanon, perhaps 60 miles or 3-4 days’ walk to get there. After calling a Canaanite woman a dog and healing her daughter, he returns to the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know where exactly, but we can probably assume the NW corridor.

In Genessaret, once again Jesus goes up on “the mountain.” Great crowds gather around him, consisting of people that are blind, lame, and sick. This is the kind of crowd Jesus attracts. Then he feeds the four thousand.

At the end of chapter 15, we are told Jesus goes to the region of Magdala (9:00 on our clock). There is no indication that he is in the town of Magdala. Since he is in the region, he might be back in Gennesaret again or Tiberias. But if he was, I imagine that Matthew would just say so. So let’s imagine him in Magdala, a little bit south of where he was before in Gennesaret.

The geography is not important as a factual account, but it is of interest in considering the author of this gospel. The other Gospel writers have different timelines and place in events in different locations. As any careful reader will note. The anonymous author of this gospel is a well-educated Jew writing in Koine (common, simple) Greek. The fact that he does not write in classical Greek suggests that he is not in Greece. The fact that he quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, rather than from the Hebrew Bible itself, suggests that he is not in Palestine. So we have Hellenistic Jew writing from outside the geography he describes. Papias said that one of Jesus’ disciples named Matthew was collecting all of Jesus’ sayings into a volume. Irenaus, and later Eusebius, assume that this is the gospel Papias describes, so it gets named “The Gospel according to Matthew.” The author, however, never claims to be an eyewitness and describes events in the third person. “They went…” Never “We went…”

So far we have Jesus popping around all over the place: Nazareth, Gennesaret, Lebanon, Sea of Galilee, and Magdala. We must recall Matthew is compressing several years into a shorter narrative. We might also assume that like many story-tellers, Matthew has to fill in the blanks as he weaves together a list of many stories. I suspect some of his locations have symbolic meaning: “The mountain,” for example, and also, the boat, the house, the sea, and so on.

The Transfiguration is in Matthew 17, so we yet have chapter 16 to traverse before we get there. In chapter 16, the Pharisees and Saduccees seek a sign. Jesus warns the disciples to beware of their “yeast,” or teaching. Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, then denies the crucifixion, incurring Jesus’ wrath. If you would follow me, you must take up your cross too.

The Transfiguration

The stage is now set. The Transfiguration is the climax of this fourth section of Matthew’s gospel. Peter has figured out that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. “Six days later,” they go up on the mountain. Stanley Hauerwas suggest that this is symbolic; it hearkens unto creation. It is the seventh day, the day God rests in joy, after six days of perfect activity. The Sabbath is a day of brightness and revelation. Note below, that it is on the seventh day that the Lord calls to Moses out of the cloud.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him. There he is “transfigured.” The word is “metamorphothay” in Greek. Jesus undergoes a metamorphosis. He is transformed. And his face shines (“eLAMPsen“).

This, of course, has all the marks of Exodus 24, our first lesson. Note that it is the seventh day, just like Matthew’s account:

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The 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. Now 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. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

And also Exodus 34 (29-30):

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

Of course Matthew sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, so it is fitting for him to be in a theophany with Moses and Elijah. This is consistent with Matthew’s entire message: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 17:5-6,

When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

is reminiscent of Exodus 34:30:

When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

Keep in mind, their clothes becoming “dazzling white” is like the white-robes martyrs of Revelation (3:4-5, 4:4, 6:11, 7:9, 7:13-14). White is the garb of those who give their life.

Finally, we hear the voice that we heard at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him!”

The Transfiguration foreshadows both Good Friday and Easter. As such, it is an appropriate gateway into Lent. Many have suggested this was an event to strengthen the disciples’ faith as they prepared to enter Jerusalem. Peter’s desire to build booths is an all-too-human instinct to bask in the glory and attempt to somehow contain it. We think we can put God in a box, but it doesn’t work that way.

At the same time, attempting to keep the glow of our own mountaintop experiences, as we move back into everyday life, is no crime. While God cannot be boxed, we must learn to bring a sense of the holy into our daily routines. This may take some practice. What practices might remind us of the holy when we are confronted with the pettiness of the world?

The preacher may wish to do something with mountaintop experiences of life. One can also talk about the inevitable call to go back down into the valley. This story may remind the church that worship, while joyful, is fuel for the ministry to which we are called. We cannot remain on the mountain top forever. Nor should we. Jesus took his ministry into the dark places of life. How might we take some of the glow of hope and joy to the world in which we go? We who are called by Jesus to the be the light of the world in the gospel reading a few weeks ago (Matthew 5:13-20)… are our faces aglow with the glory of divine light?

Give your congregants a mountaintop experience on Sunday. Then give them some things they can do the following morning to carry that light into the world.

Resources

transfiguration
Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1480-1548)

February 19, 2017 is Epiphany 7A

Prayer of the Day
Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 – When you harvest, don’t strip the fields bare, leave some for the poor and the alien. Do not defraud. Do not delay giving workers their wages. Do not lie. Do not abuse the deaf and blind. Do not take vengeance or hold grudges.

Psalm 119:33-40 – Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 – Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.

Matthew 5:38-48 – Continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. Fifth and sixth of the Six Antitheses: You have heard it said… But I say to you… 5. Retaliation and 6. Enemies. You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to all who beg from you. You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…”

Antitheses (Part 2)

I want to give a shout out to Pastor Steve Rieke, a friend who was also a teaching assistant when I was at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. He helped put together much of the material for this post. Steve formerly served as pastor of Peace Lutheran in College Station, Texas.

The first lesson, from Leviticus 19, reminds us of what righteousness and justice look like in Hebrew law. Do not glean your fields a second time. Leave some behind for the poor and for the alien. This is the ancient safety net. Those passing through the land, those who are widows, orphans, or just plain poor, always have the ability to walk into a field and get something to eat.

I believe, however, this Leviticus text is included because of the last part. Do not take vengeance or hold a grudge. Jesus will, in these last two antitheses, embody the heart and soul of this passage.

Our gospel text is week four of our four-week walk through Matthew 5, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount:

January 29     Matthew 5:1-12         Beatitudes
February 5     Matthew 5:13-21       Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 12   Matthew 5:21-37       #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 19   Matthew 5:38-48       #5-6 of 6 Antitheses

To remind us of our context: The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great sermons or discourses in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus begins this discourse with the Beatitudes, which some say is the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount. Others say it forms the moral foundation for everything that follows, all of Jesus’ teaching:

You who are poor in spirit, mourning, humble and starving for justice: God bless you.
You who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted: God bless you.

Blessed are you, those forgotten by the rich and powerful. Blessed are you who have been driven from your homes by poverty and violence. Blessed are you whom no one wants.

So, with the message of the Beatitudes in mind, here are the antitheses that follow. Last week we covered the first four:

You have heard it said                                                                 I say to you

  1. You shall not murder, liable to judgement. If you are angry, if you insult, if you call someone a fool…
  2. You shall not commit adultery. If you look at someone with lust, you’ve committed adultery.
  3. You can divorce wife with a certificate of divorce. If you divorce a woman, or remarry you commit adultery.
  4. You shall not swear falsely. Do not swear at all. Let your yes be yes and no be no.
  1. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek.
  2. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Love your enemies and pray for them.

So this week we continue with the last two antitheses: five and six. 

5. Retaliation

The lex talionis… “You have heard it said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy…” These “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” passage from Matthew 5:38 is sourced from the Torah:

Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return. Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.
– Leviticus 24:19-20

So you shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
– Deuteronomy 19:20-21

Interestingly, in Exodus, the same rule, 21:24: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” is nestled between 2 specific applications of this lex talionis and, presumably, associated to them. Coming before v. 24 is: “(23) When people fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, (24) eye for eye, tooth . . .” Following v. 24 in v. 26 is “When a slave owner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye.” The surrounding verses stir much to mind in the way of commentary.

The lex talionis, or “law of retribution,” was established to provide fairness. It set limits on retaliation thereby restricting unbridled “getting even.” However, note that in Exodus 21:26, ‘evenness’ could be achieved through monetary compensation in place of an identical ‘matching item for item’ exchange. Lex talionis was reserved for civil matters, not private, personal problems between you and your neighbor. There’s no room for vengeance on a personal level:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Romans 12:19

The question here is: How are the people of God, the people of Christ, the Church, to live?

Consider some of Walter Wink’s works. Dr. Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Previously, he was a parish minister and taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1989-1990, he was a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. Here are some of his books.

Wink says violence is the religion of our society and proposes a careful look at the Sermon on the Mount, as a way out of retaliation and the cycle of violence. Here is a shorter summary of his views.

When it comes to retribution or retaliation, the church is to handle, or live, situations of being wronged in a way that reveals God’s kingdom at work at the very moment. The text then, “Do not resist an evildoer” means acting in the moment of “evil” in a way that reveals the kingdom’s presence then and there – in the very presence of ‘evil.’ When it comes to ‘aggressors,’ the ‘kingdom’s way’ is to live and act in such a manner that ‘allows’ the aggressor to behold both themself for they are and see God/Christ in the one who is being wronged. The kingdom of God is a “teaching way,” ” a lamp unto the world’s feet and ours” (Ps 119:105).

This is a critical message in this moment: In times of crisis and violence, human nature pushes us to fight or flight. Jesus encourages us to do neither.

Wink puts it this way:

Neither of the invidious alternatives of flight or fight is what Jesus is proposing. Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options. The Scholars Version translates ‘antistenai’ brilliantly: “Don’t react violently against someone who is evil.” 

Wink is saying this: Don’t become like your aggressor; you are a child of God.

Wink illuminates the meaning of Jesus’ statement. The striking on the cheek is not a fistfight. It is an insult. Jesus is saying: When challenged to fight, don’t take the bait. Wink continues:

Jesus clarifies: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. 

As the Dead Sea Scrolls specify, even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days’ penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.

What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and if one did, the fine was exorbitant (4 zuzzim was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuzzim (זוזים) for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatever). A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.

What’s depicted here is a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask who Jesus’ audience is. In every case, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor. Rather, Jesus is speaking to their victims, people who have been subjected to these very indignities. They have been forced to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and by the guardians of imperial occupation.

Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because the action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.”

Do not run. Do not cower. But also, do not fight a useless fight, especially one you cannot win. Stand defiantly before your oppressor. Your blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.

The ‘antithesis’ here of ‘giving the other cheek’ reveals to the abuser the truth of who they are while also revealing the kingdom’s way of living already in that moment. Give the person the opportunity to see who they are; let shame reside where it appropriately should, and do not demean your status by succumbing.

I believe we can practice this on a weekly basis, even if no one is trying to kill us or attack us physically. Recall the first antithesis, last week: you have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder…’ But if you are angry or insult another, you are liable… Attacks come in many forms. How do you respond when someone is angry or attacks you verbally, in a way that reveals the greater values of the kingdom? We could spend a lifetime learning this.

As usual, Jesus gives further examples.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

This is incredibly amusing in a two-garment society. Turn the law against your creditor by obeying it. Follow the letter of the law, but throw in your underwear as well. The creditor’s greed is exposed by their own ruthlessness.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

It is said that a Roman soldier could conscript any civilian for assistance. You would be required to accompany the soldier for 1 mile. Jesus seems to be saying, go beyond the law. Instead of being bitter about the overbearing Roman domination, instead go 2 miles. Show your enemy your love. This must inevitably change your enemy. They will relate to you in one way during the first mile, but in the second mile they will be looking at you with great curiosity. They will begin to wonder what kind of person you are as you do more than what is expected. This is what the kingdom looks like.

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

People have a difficult time with this one. Must I really give to everyone who begs? What if they are charlatans? Jesus encourages us to live a life of generosity. If someone is begging on the street, it will not hurt me to hand that person an apple. I do not have to give my life savings. It is better to risk giving to someone who does not need than to risk not giving to someone who does need. This is what the kingdom looks like.

A member of my previous parish witnessed to me with this passage. We were trying to determine if a cause was worthy of a donation. He told me privately he always gave when asked. “I’m not smart enough to figure out who is worthy and who is not. And I’ve been given so much. I always give. Maybe not the whole farm. Maybe just a few dollars, but I always give.” I will always remember this witness from a kind, indigenous Texan with a simple faith.

6. Love for Enemies

Love your enemies. Matthew 5:43 comes from Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

Buddhism, the Dhammapada of the Sutta Pitaka (5th century BC?):

Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law. 

Jesus:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
– Matthew 5:44

Buddhism, the Dhammapada of the Sutta Pitaka (5th century BC?):

True love is unconditional and impartial – thus the metaphor of the sun that shines down on all life. It is tested and proven by encounters with those who are difficult to love. Where true love prevails, there no enemies are found.

Jesus:

for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous . . . if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
– Matthew 5:45b-46a

I’m not saying Jesus is quoting Buddhist thinking. Perhaps Jesus is simply tapping in a deep spiritual truth about power in this life.

Hate cannot drive out hate. It does not work that way. War will not solve our global problems. It may stop an aggressor for a moment, but it creates so much pain and suffering. It launches new conflicts. The outcomes of our support of guerilla warfare (we called “Freedom Fighters”) in Afghanistan created Osama bin Laden. Our wars in the Gulf created Al Quaida and ISIS. The future belongs to people who recognize Jesus teaching: Only through compassion does one win over an enemy.

I am reminded of the words of Desmond Tutu in his African Prayer Book:

Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.

You can sing these words in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 721.

I am also mindful of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.

Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Verse 46 says, “For if you love those who love you . . .” The Greek word, ‘aspazomai , (ah-spah-dzo-mai) truly means “welcome” as in to “welcome another into your home and treat not as a guest but as one of your own kin.”

Hmmm, whom to love? Jesus is a good rhetorician! In this last antithesis, Jesus argues the case a fortiori, meaning “with greater reason.”

Beginning with what is easy (love your neighbor), Jesus reasons to the more difficult, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’

Why? Well, “if you love those who love you, what regard do you have?” And, again, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” In other words, what difference is the world to see in you if all you do is to do what everybody else does? How is that being the light of the world or the salt of the earth? However, if you love your enemies, praying for them even when they mistreat you, what then will the world see in you?

And consider this: If you “love your enemies and pray for them when they persecute you,” imagine what deep love you will love those who care for you!

Could Jesus have in mind the Samaritans of his day?

Hear the words of Martin Luther King in a November 17, 1957 sermon on Matthew 5:38-45, “Loving Your Enemies,” preached in Montgomery, Alabama, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.

See remaining at Martin Luther King. Jr. Online or King Encyclopedia.

King sees retaliation as continuing the cycle of violence. Someone has to be a big enough person to stop or you always have the Hatfields and the McCoys. Here is King’s simple example:

I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didnt dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: “I know what Im going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, Im going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him right quick and said: “Oh no, dont do that. Thered be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.” 

This can be a difficult sermon to preach, and it will ring hollow if we are not willing to live it in our everyday interaction with members of the parish and nonmembers in the community.

If you need another example, consider this story about a woman who forgave the man who killed her only son.

Try praying for your enemies in church and see what happens. Pray for ISIS. People will bristle, but it may be a good teaching tool. Pray for their conversion from what have been horrific acts of evil.

Keep in mind Jesus’ own witness to his entreaty to pray for one’s enemies. On the cross, as he was dying, he prayed for his torturers. “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” For whom do you need to pray?

February 12, 2017 is Epiphany 6A

Prayer of the Day
O God, strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
OR
Sirach 15:15-20 – If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.

Psalm 119:1-8 – Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 – I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

Matthew 5:21-37 – Continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. 1st 4 of The Six Antitheses: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” 1. Anger 2. Adultery 3. Divorce 4. Oaths. You have heard it said “You shall not kill,” but I say to you even if you call someone a fool, you’re liable to hellfire. Be reconciled first, then offer your gift at the altar. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery,” but I say to you, even if you look at someone with lust, you have committed adultery in your heart.

Antitheses (Part 1)

In Deuteronomy the giving of the Law is followed by this ominous warning: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse… Choose life, so that you might live!” As we delve into Jesus reframing of the Torah, it is important for us to remember that the Law was given for our own benefit, that we might have fullness of life. The editor of Deuteronomy, speaking for Moses, speaking for God, wants us to choose life and live. As the Psalmist says, “Happy are those who walk in the way of the Lord.” Paul may be quick to point out that the Law isn’t able to create a righteous life, but he is also fully cognizant that the law was our guardian until Christ came (Romans 3:24).

The 1 Corinthians passage is a good reminder to those who plant congregations, and those who come in after church planters: Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Neither the planter nor the waterer amount to much. It is God who gives the growth. Every farmer knows that God grows the corn. We just plant and water. The planting and watering is necessary. There is a role for us, but we should not overestimate our importance. We should, rather, give thanks to God and recognize God’s work when it grows.

Our gospel text is week three of our four-week walk through Matthew 5, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount:

January 29     Matthew 5:1-12         Beatitudes
February 5     Matthew 5:13-21       Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 12   Matthew 5:21-37       #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 19   Matthew 5:38-48       #5-6 of 6 Antitheses

To remind us of our context: The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great sermons or discourses in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus begins this discourse with the Beatitudes, which some say is the Preamble to the Sermon on the Mount. Others say it forms the moral foundation for everything that follows, all of Jesus’ teaching:

You who are poor in spirit, mourning, humble and starving for justice: God bless you.
You who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted: God bless you.

Blessed are you, those forgotten by the rich and powerful. Blessed are you who have been driven from your homes by poverty and violence. Blessed are you whom no one wants.

This week I penned some beatitudes for those folks:

Blessed are the refugees
Blessed are all 65 million people
Those who are victims of war and poverty
Those who have been evicted
Those who cannot return home
Those who seek a safe place for their children
Those who are feared and despised
Those hated by both sides of the conflict
Those for whom nobody seems to care
You are children of God
And the people of God care about you.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Don’t lose your spice. Don’t hide your light. I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Let your light shine. Let your righteousness exceed that of the legalistic scribes and Pharisees.

Matthew’s Jesus is the new Moses, the new lawgiver. This week and next week we get to hear Jesus’ reinterpretation of the law. Let us call them “antitheses.” “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” This week we get the first four antitheses (anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths). Next week we get the last two (retaliation and enemies).

You have heard it said                                                                 I say to you

  1. You shall not murder, liable to judgement. If you are angry, if you insult, if you call someone a fool…
  2. You shall not commit adultery. If you look at someone with lust, you’ve committed adultery.
  3. You can divorce wife with a certificate of divorce. If you divorce a woman, or remarry you commit adultery.
  4. You shall not swear falsely. Do not swear at all. Let your Yes be Yes, & No be No.
  1. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek.
  2. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Love your enemies and pray for them.

This week we take on the first four of these.

I suppose the challenge of preaching Jesus’ ethical teaching is not preaching a sermon of law, with no gospel. People tend to revert to the law at every opportunity, so it will be the task of the preacher to sandwich these ethical teachings in the context of grace.

God loves you with an everlasting love. All of life is grace. All of life is gift. You did not earn this life or even ask for it. It’s grace from soup to nuts. God clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air and will also take care of you. God is not an angry judge, but a loving parent. Even the hairs on your head are numbered. You are forgiven even before you ask. In Christ the dead are raised and invited to live a resurrection life. What does the resurrection life look like? How might we live into our baptism, into the new creation? These words spell it out.

Jesus’ ethical exhortations are not entrance requirements for heaven, but rather, the joyful response of those who have received grace and forgiveness.

Notice that after every antithesis, Jesus gives an example. This is good preaching. Make it plain how this is lived out.

1. Anger. The 5th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you if you are angry, you’re liable to judgment, insulting you’re liable to the council or name-calling, you’re liable to hellfire.

Wow. So, does Jesus lower the bar or raise the bar? Does Jesus relax the law, or does he raise the bar? Jesus is basically saying that being angry with someone is killing them slowly.

Matthew’s message to the early church is being a follower of Christ does not let one off the hook for moral uprightness. It simply reinterprets what moral uprightness means. You thought washing your hands in the waters of purification was really important, but I say to you, how you treat your neighbor is critical. You thought tithing was a sign of moral superiority, but I say to you get your forgiveness act together first; then go about tithing.

And to give us an example, he says, tend to relationships ahead of worship. Before you go to the altar to make your tithe and show everyone how truly religious you are, first tend to the most basic relationships around you. Because if you don’t love your neighbor all that religious folderol won’t matter hill of beans.

Matthew’s community may be asking an important question: 

As long as I do not murder, is it okay if I still hate?

Let’s hope the answer to this question is obvious. We know the errors of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Luther draws upon the Sermon on the Mount when he interprets the law, for example, in his explanation of the fifth commandment:

The Fifth Commandment
You shall not murder. 

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

Luther makes it clear that a Christian understanding of the fifth commandment involves more than simply refraining from murdering your neighbor. It means not harming your neighbor in any way. It means helping and supporting your neighbor.

Liable to hellfire: I’ve discovered that when people hear “hellfire,” they take it quite literally. Jesus may have meant it literally, but I suspect not. Here’s why. The phrase reads: τὴν γέενναν τοu πυρός, means “the Genhenna of fire.” “Gehenna of fire” refers to the valley of Hinnom, which was the dump south of Jerusalem where garbage was burned. We don’t want to negate the image of judgment here. Jesus certainly is alluding to an eschatological judgment of some kind. Nevertheless, years of Greek mythology and even Dante have accustomed our people to hear this passage as an eternal torture passage. They immediately think Jesus means a place where people burn eternally. We read Dante (1265-1321 A.D.) into Jesus (0-33 A.D.). Jesus certainly means to say that there is a Judgment Day coming, in which things are going to be sorted out, good and bad. Bad stuff will be burned like chaff. But be careful not to drag along either Dante, Greek mythology, or thousands of years of assumptions. Let Jesus speak, unencumbered by years of interpretation and misinterpretation. This is challenging. How might we free Jesus from all of our preconceived notions?

We have to hear this as a literary hyperbole. Here’s why: In just a few verses (29), Jesus will instruct his listeners to tear out their eyes if they are a cause of sin. I presume he didn’t mean this literally. There’s no evidence that Jesus’ disciples mutilated themselves. Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. These shocking images work. They ring in people’s ears two thousand years later. He is using a powerful homiletic tool to make his point.

St. Augustine sees the absurdity in saying anyone who says, “You fool,” is going to hell. Check out his sermon on this text. St. Augustine assumes that Jesus is speaking metaphorically throughout this passage. For example, Augustine says, “And so we may interpret the altar spiritually, as being faith itself in the inner temple of God, whose emblem is the visible altar.” It’s important, when we are interpreting this text, to hear from those who are much closer to them historically.

If you come to make your offering to the altar, and your brother or sister still has something against you, go first and be reconciled. Make peace with your accuser before you go to court, Jesus says. Or you’ll get thrown in jail.

So what’s the point? Relationships are important. More important than vengeance. More important even than generosity and other religious obligations. Forgiveness and reconciliation are critical. We can do violence with our words. When we do, mending those relationships is more important than going to church or making our offerings. Asking their forgiveness is as important as seeking God’s forgiveness.

2. Adultery. The 6th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you, if you look at a woman with lust, you’ve already committed adultery with her in your heart.

Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.
-Frederick Buechner (American Author, b.1926)

He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it, hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.
-C.S. Lewis (British Scholar and Novelist. 1898-1963)

Society drives people crazy with lust and calls it advertising.
-John Lahr

Jesus is very interested in the heart. Jesus just said at the beginning of this sermon, in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Blessed are those who are pure inside, not just outside. Jesus warns us about outward shows of piety and self-righteousness. To act righteous outwardly when one is quite comfortable harboring unrighteousness inwardly is hypocrisy. It is interesting that these are the very words that unchurched people use to describe the church.

A search for “heart” in Matthew yields 17 results in an English Bible. Blessed are the pure in heart (5:8). Where your treasure is there your heart will be also (6:21). The mouth speaks what the heart is full of (12:34). People can honor God with their mouths while their hearts are far away (15:8). It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but what comes out of it, which comes from the heart (15:18). Moses allowed divorce because people’s hearts were hard (19:8). Their hearts can become calloused (13:15). Jesus’ heart is humble (11:29). And, of course, we are to love God with our whole heart (22:37), a phrase that appears all over the Hebrew Bible. Obviously, this writing is not about the organ that pumps blood. It’s about your soul, the center of your being. Jesus is concerned not as much with the outward show, but what’s going on inside you.

I suppose even if we are entirely chaste, technically, our lusting will work its way out in other ways, resulting in unintended consequences. Anger? Resentment? Unhealthy relationships? Fear of intimacy? Selfishness? I’ve always felt that lust and covetousness came from the same source. It’s the desire for more, more, more. No matter how much I have. It is, at the heart of things, self-centeredness. God will have to deal with this in us, if we are to become spiritually alive.

3. Divorce. The 6th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “Whoever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce,” but I say to you whoever divorces a woman (except for unchastity) or whoever remarries, commits adultery.

This one always raises eyebrows. Out of everything, this is what people hear. The preacher cannot skirt this issue. No matter what we want to preach on, every divorced adult in the congregation (50%) will hear this and only this. If you don’t address it, they will make assumptions. They will equate 21st century Western marriage with 1st century Middle Eastern marriage. They confuse our modern understanding of equal rights in marriage with marriage in antiquity, which sometimes involved a parental arrangement and always was completely controlled by men.

Consider this. A man could “put away” a woman by simply writing down a note. “I divorce her.” The Bible was used to justify this practice. The woman had very few options. There was a huge power differential. Jesus is upholding the sanctity of marriage. The goal is faithfulness and fairness.

The Hebrew Bible’s laws about divorce are draconian and patriarchal. They are about men’s rights to divorce women, not women’s rights to divorce men. By and large, they assume women as a possession of men, traded for shekels like cattle. Women have few rights in this system. Consider just a couple of passages.

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
-Deuteronomy 22:28-29

So, if a man rapes a woman, his punishment is paying the father 50 shekels and marrying the woman. She is forced to marry her rapist. She cannot seek a certificate of divorce and neither can he. One can only wonder about the marital dynamics in such an arrangement.

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.
-Deuteronomy 24:1-4

A second man divorces his wife because he “dislikes her.” Let that sink in. This reflects the capriciousness of divorce here. “She does not please him” is ample grounds for a man to divorce his wife. She, of course, cannot divorce him for any reason whatsoever.

It seems to me that Jesus, by criticizing divorce, is making it more egalitarian. He is defending the powerless person: the woman. The woman couldn’t divorce anyway. Jesus is leveling the playing field. And he creates a loophole: “except on the grounds of unchastity.” And it’s quite a loophole. What qualifies? Cheating? Physical abuse? Emotional abuse? There’s wiggle room here, just not, “the man said so.”

I once recommended an abused wife get a counselor, a lawyer, and a divorce. She was shocked: “Shouldn’t you be standing up for marriage?” I knew he was hitting her and the kids too. She wasn’t going to leave. I worried something really bad would happen. He was furious with me when he found out. I had the privilege of being present when the police arrested him. Shining moment. Jesus is not a fan of divorce or broken relationships of any kind. It’s tragic really. But even he leaves a loophole. There is grace here.

4. Oaths. The 8th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “Do not swear falsely,” but I say to you, don’t swear at all. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

Also note Luther’s explanation of the eighth commandment:

The Eighth Commandment
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

So, the question burning in Matthew’s community might be: “If I make a promise and don’t swear to God, is it okay to break it?” You know, like, I had my fingers crossed behind my back. Jesus encourages us to be people of integrity. Your word is your integrity. Let your word be gold. Don’t lie, whether under oath or not. Do not bear false witness in court. Do not bear false witness in everyday conversation. Yes means yes, and no means no. Don’t use God to play word games or cheat your neighbor. My parents never allowed us to say, “Swear to God.”

We know Matthew to be methodical in the construction of his gospel. It has very clear form. As we learned a few weeks ago, even the beatitudes have a very symmetrical structure. So, why these six antitheses? Twenty-two, 28, 34 seem to intensify the Mosaic Law. Thirty-nine, 44, and perhaps 32 seem to overturn Moses. These six points seem to convey the behavior that Jesus expects from his disciples vis-à-vis the religious teachers of the day. Clearly, adhering to the letter of the law will not give life.

Can the preacher think of examples where one kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law? Where keeping the law resulted in an unjust situation? There are plenty. What will hit home with your people? Likewise, can you think of times that people had to break the law in order to honor the spirit of the law? Or break one law for the sake of a higher law?

Those who are peacemakers, full of mercy and hungry for justice, will see beyond the letter of the law, operating instead from a purity of heart, seeking the law’s deep inner yearning for justice and peace. God doesn’t want robots, who do the least required to fulfill the law. God wants changed hearts. Jesus’ followers will exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, not by dogged adherence to the law, but by loving the neighbor from the heart. Righteousness is not obedience to legislation, but perfect conformity to the will of God. (Green, McKnight, and Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.) That may be a bit of a Pauline spin on things, but it rings true if we keep in mind Matthew 23.

The end product is this: so that we might be children of our heavenly God who is righteous and merciful. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

February 5, 2017 is Epiphany 5A

Prayer of the Day
Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12) – The fast God chooses is not just ritual humility, but undo injustice and oppression, to share your bread with the hungry, to invite the poor into your home, to clothe the naked and not hide from your neighbor.

Psalm 112:1-9, (10) – It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice… They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.

1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16) – When Paul came to the Corinthians, it was not with lofty words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power.

Matthew 5:13-20 – Continuation of the Sermon on the Mount: You are the salt and light of the earth. Let your light shine. I have not come to abolish, but fulfill the law. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Salt, Light, and The Impossibly High Demands of Discipleship

Thank you for reading these weeklies. It was so nice to hear, this week at the Theological Conference, how many of you find these helpful for sparking homiletical thoughts. Preparing these blog posts and podcasts is helpful to me too. They keep me grounded in the Word, and they have provided a foundation for dialog. I gave some consideration to switching to the Narrative Lectionary, but finally decided to stay firmly grounded in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by most of our congregations, and also by most of Christendom in one form or another.

These next few weeks we are in the Sermon on the Mount:

January 29     Matthew 5:1-12         Beatitudes
February 5     Matthew 5:13-21       Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 12   Matthew 5:21-37       #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 19   Matthew 5:38-48       #5-6 of 6 Antitheses

The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great sermons or discourses in Matthew’s Gospel, and it does not disappoint. I like to joke with congregations that if this was Jesus’ first sermon, It was a dynamite first sermon. If they’re still reading your first sermon in church 2000 years from now, you’ve done pretty good.

We began last week with the Beatitudes, which some say is the Preamble to the Sermon on the Mount. Others say it forms the moral foundation for everything that follows, all of Jesus’ teaching:

You who are poor in spirit, morning, humble and starving for justice: God bless you.
You who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted: God bless you.

saltNow Jesus turns up the heat and turns it on us: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Don’t lose your spice. Don’t hide your light. Shine bright. I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Let your light shine. Let your righteousness exceed that of the legalistic scribes and Pharisees.

Mighty to Save comes to mind as a contemporary option. This Little Light of Mine.

Warning: Following Jesus won’t be easy.

Matthew’s Jesus has just delivered his breathtaking Beatitudes. Blessed are the hurting people God loves and the caring people God sends. And, oh yeah, expect resistance. Blessed are you when you are persecuted.

Blessed are those who persist when others resist. That’ll preach.

I sometimes think of those times that I didn’t speak up, because I was afraid that somebody would not like me. Have the courage of your convictions to speak the truth in love. Then expect pushback.

We are living in a time when people of faith need to speak up more than ever. When you do, people will get mad at you. Expect this. They will say you’re being political. I am mindful of this quote by Dorothy Day:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.
When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.

I also remember the history of Lutheran quietism. History judges the response of the Lutheran Churches in Germany as woefully inadequate. This photo tells the story.

germanyAlso, Lutherans prior to the Civil War voted to not talk about slavery and abolition, because it might be too church dividing. I believe it is vital to show up to the conversations that matter, regardless of the cost. Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are you for speaking up on behalf of those who are suffering.

Blessed are you when you suffer a few blows for standing up for the vulnerable, being a voice for the voiceless and touching the untouchable. Bless you.

Pastor Tracey Breashears Schultz (Zion Houston) submitted this poem by apartheid activist Alan Paton, saying, “It reminds me of what we mean to say when we preach The Beatitudes.”

o Lord, open my eyes
that I may see the needs of others,

open my ears
that I may hear their cries,

open my heart so
that they need not be without succor.

let me not be afraid to defend the weak
because of the anger of the strong,

nor afraid to defend the poor
because of the anger of the rich.

show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
and use me to bring them to these places.

open my eyes and ears
that I may, this coming day,
be able to do some work of peace for you.

Now that Jesus has lined himself up clearly with the message of the prophets, it’s time for a few illustrations in his sermon. You are the earth’s salt. You are the earth’s light. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. John’s Gospel proclaims that Jesus is the light that enlightens the world. As in the Psalms, the word is a lamp unto our feet and a light for our path. In Luke, Simeon sings that he can now die because he has seen in Jesus the salvation of God, a light to reveal God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Matthew’s Jesus, however, reminds us that we are called to be the light of the world as well.

One doesn’t light a lamp and put it under a bushel. Instead it goes on a lampstand to provide light for the whole house, at least if you live in a society with one-room houses. God is light. Jesus is light. And now, so are you. It gets personal. You are God’s light, shining in the darkness. Light is powerful. It only takes one small candle to dispel the darkness.

Next, Jesus will engage the law. Matthew is divided into five sections like the five books of the Pentateuch. Jesus is being presented as the new Moses.

Now that the Messianic age is here, is the Mosaic covenant and the Mosaic law irrelevant? Are the prophets passé? This is by no means an obvious question for the early church. The Bible was not yet assembled. Christians had decided to do away with circumcision, which the Law said was an “everlasting covenant.” They decided the dietary laws were not relevant to their global movement. As the first drafts of the Bible came together in the ensuing years the question remained: Should the Pentateuch even be included? Marcion (144 A.D.) said no. His bible had no Old Testament, only Luke, plus Paul’s letters. Irenaeus (170 A.D.) said yes, assembling a Bible of 23 books (like ours only without Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John). As we all know, Marcion’s tribe eventually lost and a final canon was settled upon in the fourth century. (In fact the first time we have a Bible list just like ours is Athanasius’ list in 367 A.D.)

But the matter was probably really settled by Matthew’s community (90 A.D?) in this passage. Should the Torah be abolished? By no means! We may not choose the path of Jewish orthodoxy, but these books trace our faith journey, our heritage. And the heart of the law is in tact, despite a reframing of it in Christian thought. Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. As such, Jesus will have to teach extensively on the use of the Law. So the next week and the week after we will get six antitheses: You have heard it said, but I say to you…

Not the tiniest stroke of the pen or diacritical mark need be removed from the Torah. And indeed this is what happened. Modern Biblical scholars have wondered if centuries of manual copying had decayed textual accuracy. Then the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947. They contained manuscripts (copied between 152 B.C. and 68 A.D.) of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. The verdict? Isaiah’s text from Qumran was almost identical to today’s text: to 95%. The differences were mostly letters and word spellings that didn’t change the meaning. Word-for-word. Gives me chills. 2,000 years. Seems… miraculous.

But I digress. Matthew’s Jesus wants the whole Law intact. But don’t preach this text without a quick glance ahead at Matthew 23. Please read Jesus’ scathing critique of legalism in Matthew 23, or hurried sermon preparation could lead to a premature and facile understanding of what Jesus is saying here in Matthew 5. Jesus doesn’t want to do away with the Law, but neither will he be much in favor of a dogged adherence to the Law. He himself will break the Law. Jesus wants us to understand that the Law is about justice and mercy, not tithing herbs or self-righteous one-upmanship. If following the law results in a loss of compassion, then Jesus’ followers have misunderstood or misused the law. Laws were made for us. The Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath. Let’s not make Jesus into a post-Enlightenment fundamentalist, clinging to Victorian ethics in a desperate attempt to hold off the creeping forces of modernity. It’s Jesus in a leisure suit, and it just won’t do. Soon enough he will start revising, or at least reinterpreting the Torah: “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you…”

The aforementioned would not have been the most shocking part of this passage. What is about to come is much more challenging: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)

Okay, this is a hard saying. As Fred Craddock points out, “Those who hear Jesus’ teachings are struck, some quite deeply, by the level of ethical conduct expected of his followers.”

The Pharisees don’t even comb their hair on the Sabbath, because it might be work. In fact, they cover their mirrors because they might see their disheveled hair and be tempted to comb it, which might be work. Really, how do you trump that? This seems to be an unreasonably high level commitment to righteousness.

But it is not the kind of righteousness that Jesus has in mind. Or the prophets for that matter. Micah: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good, what the Lord requires: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. Isaiah: Is this the fast that I choose? Sackcloth and ashes? Are you kidding me? Here’s my fast: Do justice. Feed the hungry. Care for the orphan and widow and alien. Invite the homeless poor to your house. Amos: Take away from me the stink of your incense and the sound of your dreadful praise songs, just let justice roll down like mighty water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Jesus is not so worried about combs and herbs. He’s interested in the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy. Stay tuned.

Next two weeks: The Six Antitheses (You have heard it said, but I say to you…)

How to preach this? More than ever, I hear faithful people struggling with “The Bible says…” What is our relationship to the law? One person quotes, “Obey the governing authorities…” But that was written by Paul, who was in jail, for what? Disobeying the governing authorities. What about immoral or unjust laws? What about Nazi Germany? Concentration camp guards who were just “obeying the governing authorities?” Martin Luther King reminds us that everything Hitler did was legal. He made it so.

What is our relationship to the law, both the laws of the Bible and the laws of the land? Where is our allegiance? What is at the heart of the law? This may be an opportunity to remind people that Jesus addressed this question, in Matthew 22 (verses 34-40):

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

“On these two rest all the law and the prophets.”

One might find Luther’s sermon How Christians Should Regard Moses, instructive.

Yes, the Old Testament may say not to eat pork and shellfish, but that’s not really the heart of the law. The heart of the law is love of God and neighbor. Christianity is not following a biblical checklist of dos and don’ts. We don’t worship the law or the Bible. The Bible is a witness to the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

Our preaching might focus on re-instilling in our people’s hearts a sense of the centrality of love of God and neighbor. If the Samaritan follows the letter of the law, but leaves the man in the ditch, something’s wrong. Christianity is being in relationship with a loving God and with our neighbor. On this rest all the Law and the Prophets.

Photos from our Theological Conference 2017 in Austin

We were privileged to have the Glocal Musicians with us:

And Pedro Bullón, President (Bishop) of the Lutheran Church of Peru:

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton: 

General secretary of the Lutheran world Federation, Martin Junge: 



Fireside chat with Bishop Eaton:

Blessed are the refugees

Blessed are the refugees

Blessed are all 65 million people 

Those who are victims of war and poverty

Those who have been evicted

Those who cannot return home

Those who seek a safe place for their children

Those who like Mary, Joseph and Jesus, flee Herod’s persecution 

Those who are feared and despised

Those hated by both sides of the conflict

Those for whom nobody seems to care 

You are children of God

And the people of God care about you

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