Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Love Your Enemies, and . . .

Love Your Enemies, and . . .  

Old Testament:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18     
Gospel:  Matthew 5:38-48

Leviticus is a book devoted to spelling out the “laws of God” - and there are a lot of them. This is rich ground for those who are all about perfection. The passage this morning comes from a particular section of Leviticus known as “The Holiness Codes.” It is distinctive in vocabulary, and grammar, scholars believe it was inserted from a different source. 

In general, many of the specifics in the Holiness Codes are not embraced by the larger portion of those who practice either the Christian or Jewish faith. Sometimes specific laws appear to be concerned with challenges or threats that no longer apply. Sometimes, the Codes are assumed to be largely applicable to the priests, and not to the general population. 

When we deal with controversial areas of the scriptures, there are anxious folks who want to confront liberal, mainline, protestants about selective reading of the scriptures. I can accept that criticism. I do my level best to be aware of what I give greater and lesser honor to when reading the Bible. The Bible has a great variety of types of literature, and is meant to inspire, not legislate. Even this morning, as we saw in Deuteronomy last week, the intent is to encourage the faithful to grow closer to God. To use the scriptures as simple rules defeats the intent of building our spiritual relationship with God. 

What we pulled out of Leviticus this morning reminds us that as the people of God, we should care for those who need things we can contribute. We allow and encourage the poor and the stranger to help themselves to the fruits in the field we intentionally leave for them. I know, is that weird or what? We leave wheat, grapes, and corn in the field so that the poor and strangers can go into “our” fields to take what they need? 

This is the kind of “rule” that does not get much attention on “Meet the Press” or the other Sunday morning news shows. This is the kind of expectation that is hard to institutionalize. But it is no less a part of the heart of God. 

So we have found the Sermon on the Mount to be comforting in the past weeks. What do we have this morning? "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.” 

Oh boy, here we go. Do we have enemies in our personal lives? I believe that few of us live in a constant pitched battle with enemies. Do we have enemies as a church? The church in the US really does not routinely confront challenges. Do we have enemies as a nation? 

Trying to give a clear answer to that question - in this time - can be difficult. It is difficult because we feel - to some greater or lesser extent - a threat from terrorists in the world. But the nature of terrorism makes it hard to name, agree on, or even confront terrorism in a meaningful way. As soon as we try to draw lines and name names, we are confronted by the complexity of the world and the diversity within the human family. 

The time that I spent visiting the Holy Land has helped me to more clearly focus on the issues of security and safety in a theological way. We expect our elected government to provide us with security from violence in the public spaces and in our homes. Where it gets sticky, is trying to decide how to modify or interpret the laws of God and man, when we seek the “feeling of safety.” 

Jesus tells us this morning to “turn the other cheek.” When I get included in the invitation as a visitor to the National Security Council, along with the Director of Intelligence and the Pentagon’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even I am not ready to offer that “turn the other cheek”  guide our national security policy. I say that I wonder if this demonstrates a greater lack of faith or a imagination on my part. This might be a more serious concern about my devotion to Jesus than selectively reading the scriptures.  

I know, you let me go to the Middle East with a Peacemakers Tour, so you may have expected me to return with more answers than I left with. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I learned a great deal, and met respected members of the peace community - active in the effort to find a peaceful way for the Palestinians and Israelis to live together in their ancient and holy land. 

The truth on the ground is hard to believe. Like many nations in the world, the State of Israel has a government that is more conservative than it was in the recent past years. This government finds a greater feeling of safety from stringent laws, vigorous enforcement, and an aversion to criticism. 

As I view the dramatic pronouncements and actions of the new Administration in Washington, there is a high value put on the feeling of security that is enhanced by laws, militarized enforcement, and little desire to debate values or tactics. 

In Sunday School last week we talked about the contrast between the rules of Leviticus, and the commands of Jesus in the gospel. After we talked only a short while about the guidance from the gospel, it was suggested that we turn back to the laws of Leviticus, that seemed so much easier than what Jesus really expects of us. We laughed together, but recognized these are hard words for us today. 

It may have once seemed that nice people follow Jesus, by being nice. When the times get a little bit harder, we recognize that Jesus wants us to be in favor of justice for all of God’s creation. Justice is not always easy and comfortable and nice. Justice makes us want to ask hard questions. 

The Palestinians suffer under the occupation of their land by the Israelis. The situation is a continual assault. Travel is restricted, even within the West Bank, by the military who must authorize all movement. The Settlements claim the tops of the surrounding hills, a constant visual reminder of their occupation. The Peacemakers we met with - were careful to say that not all settlers are the same. 

Some of them are religiously motivated people who want to be near and preserve the Holy Sites associated with the roots of their faith. Some of them are vigorous Zionists, anxious to displace all the people who are not Jews, since they feel it is “God’s will” for them to control all of the land. Some folks simply want to enjoy the subsidized modern housing, when they cannot afford even a rundown apartment in Jerusalem. 

The hope for a two-state solution is kind of a laugh if you realized the investment Israel has made in the settlements within the West Bank. It is highly unlikely that would abandon that property, and the restrictions placed on the Palestinians make it very unlikely many could afford to “buy them out;” even if there was a will to restore boundaries. The bad news is, I do not have the wisdom to bring about world peace. 

But I do know where peace begins. Peace begins with respect for each other. Peace begins when we accept that we are intended by God to share with each other. 

It is easier to sell fear and mistrust. It is easier to label others and  load those labels with broad generalizations. Those labels rarely survive scrutiny and debate, which makes it useful to retreat behind stringent laws and limited criticism. 

The law of God is intended to be an invitation to see creation as God does, recognizing the potential for good, and wanting what is best for all of creation. At the heart of forgiveness, is love for neighbor. 

How in the world would Jesus’ admonitions lead us to win the war against our enemies? In truth, victory over others is the opposite of what is being preached. We only defeat our enemies in the kingdom of God by making them our friends. Friendship cannot grow when we indulge our passion for labels, and restricting others, while refusing to see our own weaknesses and sins. 

So today I set before you; the anxieties of the world, driven by an urgent need to feel safe, and a stark contrast with a gospel of love and prayers for the ones who persecute you. We have our hands full, you and I, trying to discern God’s will for us in this day and age. Here we are, trying to grow in wisdom and maturity in the faith, only to be confronted by apparent contradictions between the kingdom of God and the ways of nation states in a violent world. 

It helps to know, Moses addressed the Hebrew children when they were in Exile, with no place to call their own. Leaving the fields with fruit for the strangers had genuine appeal to a people in Exile for 40 years. 

It helps to know that Jesus preached this message while living in an occupied territory. It helps to know, that God - through Jesus and all of his prophets - understands that the powers of the world often pose a direct threat to the security of our way of life. Jesus fully understands the contrast that faces us, and stands with us in our distress. Amen. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Objectify

Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Objectify 

Deuteronomy 30:15-20   
Matthew 5:21-37 

I am a person who believes that what brings out the best in us is nearly always a function of our relationship with others. This is so much the case, that I really think it is hard for us to recognize our own sinfulness if we try to live too isolated, too remote from our families and friends. 

This is not the time to explore that idea further, but I can make a case that we will reach the day of judgment in community, alongside the folks we have chosen as our associates. We may well find ourselves living forever next to the person in the church that most makes us crazy in this world. Appearing in judgment as part of a community we are credited with the generosity of those around us, and diminished by the selfishness and foolishness that we are willing to permit. We become responsible for who are within our community, today, tomorrow and forever. But that is a discussion for another time. 

The gospel of Matthew takes a long time to tell the story of the Sermon on the Mount. I recommend you go home and read the entirety of the sermon; chapters 5, 6 and 7 through verse 28, in order to appreciate the context of what Jesus is doing here. 

Where the beatitudes expressed the positive rewards for living a life of virtue, today we seem to be hearing the more legalistic specifics, if you sin you will be punished. Let me encourage you to take the wider perspective. Jesus as pastor, is sitting on a broad grassy hill, likely with a wide view of the fresh water Sea of Galilee. In this pastoral setting he offers encouragement, much like Moses did on the far side of the Jordan River at the end of the Exile. 

“I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” “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.” Moses cautioned the Hebrew children that the way to full life is to cling close to the commands of God, and value their place within the community of the faithful. 

In a similar way, Jesus is trying to hold up an interpretation of living well within the family of the faithful. If our minds have tried to hear these admonitions as rules and penalties, we expose our failure to listen with our hearts first. 

The law says do not kill. That is a good and valid law. In the ebb and flow of life in the wider community, it is useful and important to have just such a law, along with the specifications of punishment that communicate just how important that law is to the community. When Jesus says that if you are angry at your brother or sister, or insult your brother or sister, you are liable to judgment. The intent is to touch our hearts, and sanctify - or make holy - our family life. 

The meaning of this kind of caution, is to clarify the sense of family and community. It puts a clear and necessary focus on our own responsibility to each other and for each other. He starts out with comparison to the commandment thou shalt not kill, In order to get our attention.

Jesus goes on to say thou shalt not commit adultery.  He is  speaking to a community where men have all of the legal protections and opportunities, and women had no protection under the law or culture. This admonition speaks to the requirement of personal responsibility for the actions that we take and in the commitments that we make.

In fact Jesus goes on to make it perfectly clear that this admonition against adultery, is rooted in rejection of any objectification of any other person. Feeling lust in your heart for a person that is not in an intimate relationship with you, makes them an object of your desire and not a partner in your joy of living.

This is a radical teaching for his time. I remember the first time this admonition came to my attention. Jimmy Carter was running for president. In an extensive interview - done in Playboy Magazine of all things, he admitted that in the past he had lusted in his heart for other women.

I laughed out loud when I first read this. In that day and age Playboy Magazine was understood to be the primary vehicle for objectification of women. I did not know this kind of language at the time, and failed to see it as sin. There were some claims made to the value of the articles in Playboy, but no contrary claims were made to the objectification of women. All these many years later, I still remember the insight provided by President Carter. 

To move this thought beyond the context of sexuality, we can read this as an admonition to resist the sin of labeling segments of the population. I was so struck by the prevalent attitude in Israel that ALL Arabs are terrorists, and this is why the Palestinians cannot be trusted or dealt with in an honorable way. People who profess this, may even have Arab friends and colleagues, without realizing the contradiction they make between their expressed beliefs and their living.  

Among the prominent moves of our own new national government administration, are specific ways of labelling groups of people, and loading those labels with the trappings of fear. These are the kinds of activities that cause me to become more articulate and more vocal in resistance. 

We have wandered around in the scripture, and reflected on the advice that Moses offered the chosen people upon entering the Promised Land, and find at the core of these instructions personal responsibility within the context of the faith community. 

These teachings are not celebrated in the nightly news. These kinds of teachings best exist within the context of a faith community. This is the kind of teaching that clarifies our role about being a light in the darkness. This greater sense of responsibility and attention to each person, spells out what makes our relationship together as the people of God important. It is important to us as individuals, and important to our families, and a critical ingredient to building the wider community. 

You see, when we are a mature voice and connected to the community, we make the community better. This is also true in our families. We may withdraw at some point because of pain and mistreatment, but we cannot make things better until we bring our best selves back into the mix. We become a resource and give the others permission to try to do better, and be more caring. 

The salt and light of the gospel is lost if it sits in the book on the altar all week, with no one here. The book may be perfectly lovely, but the word of God left unspoken in the world, does not reflect the will of God. 

The percentage of Christians in the West Bank of Israel is now under 2%, and yet they are responsible for the biggest hospitals, health care clinics and cultural centers. In a world that has become enamored by diagnostics and demographics, we have yet to develop a scale sensitive enough to measure the influence of mature, respected, and engaged people of faith. 

When you speak words of love and reconciliation in the community, the community becomes immeasurably better. The power of God’s spirit touches even those who may not acknowledge God in the way that we do. That’s all right. God is loving them and working on them to live lives of righteousness, whether they find their way to church or not. 

Membership in our faith community is a tool to better living, it is not the goal of better living. There are many wonderful people who never found a way to be at home in a faith community. That is a testimony to the power of God’s love. 

So let us be ready to testify. Let us honor the individuals who we are associated with, allowing their faithfulness to lift ours, and permitting them to lean on our faith when times are hard. The call to the gospel is to be true to the commands of God, not just because there is a rule with punishment for failure, but because the rule guides us towards a close and rewarding relationship with our good and just God. 

Jesus and Moses combine this morning to remind us, the strength of our church community depends on the accountability of individuals living up to the commands of God, and letting the light of the good news - shine through them for the good of all of God’s children. Amen. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

We Will Leave the Light On for You

We Will Leave the Light On for You  

Isaiah 58:1-12    
Matthew 5:13-16 

The gospel sets the stage for our reflection this morning. Because we were reading the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that call us Salt, I chose to keep the Praise Song for one more week. 

While reading in preparation for this sermon I found a perspective on this passage that had escaped me before. If indeed we are salt, what does that mean? 

When used effectively, salt brings out the best natural flavor in the food. If salt tries to take the center stage, demand too much attention, the flavor of the food is ruined, and it usually gets thrown out. Salt is best, when it quietly does what it can do best, and then steps aside. 

In the same way, what light you have, ought to enable folks to see there way through the darkness, and be effective as they make their own way. Staring at the light only burns your eyes and makes you blind. The light, properly deployed, allows the reality to be exposed so that the good and faithful are able to make an appropriate response. 

Too many times Christians, in their desire to avoid offense, or even as a response to abuses they have witnessed in others, fail to be salt or light in their own place and time. This might have been acceptable in a time when “everyone” went to church, and “everyone” was concerned with the greater good. Today, is a new day. The situation of the world and the country has changed. It is no longer appropriate for the saltiness and light of the gospel to be quiet and reserved. 

The challenge we face, is to be our best selves as we encounter policies and positions that we believe are not in keeping with the principles we bring into our day living inspired by the gospel. To be our best selves, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are all children of a good and loving God. We cannot resort to violence or demonizing our opponents. 

It is tricky but not impossible to stand on principle. We can be passionate for the values we affirm, but try to be careful to avoid the “Us and Them,” that de-humanizes those with a different point of view. 

I met a woman during my trip to the Holy Land, who spoke of her experience with the Israeli army. During the time of the first Intifada in 1987, when the Palestinians struck back in protests that became violent against the oppression of Israel, the army entered her home, in search of specific individuals. When the officer who barged into her house paused to wipe his feet at the door, it became clear to her, that this was the son of a mother - just as she is mother to her sons. She said, “I realized at that moment I could talk to this man. He would do what he had to do, but there does not need to be violence in my house.” That realization has informed her work of resistance, now approaching forty years.  

In times of sharp differences of opinion it is necessary to expect more of yourself, and be more aware of your own behavior. I know, it seems unfair to allow others freedom to “shoot from the hip,” and say whatever comes to their mind - while trying to increase our own self-discipline. I want to suggest that this activity can be a clear entry way to spiritual growth and maturity in the faith. 

Our God is the God of all creation. I believe God is actively pursuing each creature to bring them into a wholesome and loving relationship with God and all of God’s creation. 

If that is true, then it would only be appropriate to do our best to see others as children of God. When we disagree, it is a disagreement about ideas or actions ‘outside’ of ourselves. Anytime we are tempted to label, or call someone a name, we need to train our spiritual selves to reframe our thinking, and restrain our tongues. 

We are not giving up the right to speak out against ideas that we find offensive to the call of the gospel. Indeed Isaiah encourages us to; “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” If we would be a lamp on a light stand, we would declare the truth as we know it. 

Isaiah clarifies how actions can be a part of our spiritual life. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” 

You see, we are creatures made for this world. Our bodies, our brains, and even our sense of righteousness cannot be separated from our physical life. Our prayers cannot be on the other side of the wall from our actions, our thoughts cannot be distant from our voices. 

The challenge is for us to grow in maturity. To consider every other living being as a sibling, and want what is best for them, even when what they want does not fit the criteria for what is good - from the perspective of a loving God. We try to see the world first and last with the eyes of God. When we try to understand what motivates the other, we can treat even the opposition with compassion, as we articulate what is behind our own position. 

Trying to be our best selves, trying to be FOR what is good, and dial down simplistic, emotional, reactivity against the children of God who support different ideas, is a call to personal, spiritual growth. 

There are few models in the culture that can name and accept these principles as goals. This makes our time together as a faith community more important than it has ever been in many of our lifetimes. Some of you tried to live through World War II, knowing that shallow name calling may have supported the war effort, but failed the test of the gospel. Those experiences can be useful to us now. 

I toured the Holy Land and discovered the land where so many of the Old and New Testament stories were played out, is divided by walls, guarded by young soldiers, separated by language - the Israelis speak Hebrew, while the Palestinians speak Arabic. The Israeli Press continually and consistently labels all Arabs as terrorists, and the young soldiers are encouraged to see things that way.  

In so many parts of the world, we hope for a better future because the younger generation has wider acceptance of diversity. In Israel today, I am afraid that this is not the case. I am anxious for any country who teaches fear and division to their children, which enhance the barriers to peace and respect for others. 

So let us be at work in this place, building up the case for respect for all of God’s children. We can grow in maturity, and disagree from time to time, without falling in the trap of being disagreeable. We can and should, pray for our nation and the people of the world, rooted in the gospel call. 

Matthew encourages us that we should not keep our faith to ourselves. Our faith convictions must not be reserved for private devotion alone, but must be made plain in the way we live and love. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Invite people you know to turn to the God of Jesus. Feel free to tell them, we’ll leave a light on for you. Amen. 

Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.