Month: February 2017

What ever happened to the Center?

A few weeks ago, someone I follow on Twitter made a comment about how we have reached a place where we just can’t afford to be civil anymore in our discourse.

I can’t help but wonder where the center has gone, because I find myself slipping deeper and deeper into my own end of the spectrum because it seems to be the only way to get anything accomplished.

When I last lived on the west coast (about 2o years ago) I considered myself a moderate with some liberal leanings.  Then we moved to an area of the country where the spectrum shifted around us and I found that, while my views on religion, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity hadn’t changed, and I still considered myself a moderate (centrist) that I was now being called a flaming liberal and a socialist.

All that did was push me deeper into the spectrum. And I think that all the name calling that’s happening now is doing the same thing across our culture, across the entire spectrum.

And i wonder what ever happened to the center?  What happened to a place where we could meet and have honest to God dialogue?

Maybe it was just a dream. But it sure would be cool if we could sit down with one another, and listen to what each one has to say, be open to their experience and maybe be changed a little because of that.

via Daily Prompt: Center


Thoughts on the Transfiguration

The challenge of preaching sometimes is taking a text that was explicitly theological for the early gospel writers and finding the “relevant 21st century take-home nugget” that’s present in the narrative.  For the Church the Feast of the Transfiguration stands as the book end to the Feast of the Epiphany—making a pointed transition to the season of Jesus’ life that moves quickly to the Cross. On one side you have the Transfiguration closing out the season of Epiphany as that last shining revelation of God through Jesus, and on the other side you have the Transfiguration as that last mountaintop moment of, and with, Jesus before he leads the Church into the valley of Lent—the Church’s season of repentance, of re-orienting our lives to be more like Jesus, of walking through his last week of suffering and death. This is the moment where, with Peter, James and John, we see Jesus as the clear embodiment of the Law and the teaching of the Prophets—we see the glory of God in the human being fully alive before we make our descent to the valley and learn even more.

But that’s not why the evangelists told these stories.  The gospels aren’t arranged to organize the calendar of the church—the gospels give us the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  And this event was important for three of the four evangelists to include in some way, maybe because it tells the Church exactly who Jesus is—the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. Maybe because it puts him on a mountain—where most of the God revealing moments of the Scriptures happen. Maybe it’s there because Moses predicted a prophet that was going to come after him and Elijah’s return was meant to signal the presence of that prophet—the Messiah.

Or maybe it’s there because—in addition to being a very Divine moment of Jesus the Christ—it is a very human moment for him, too.  Peter, James and John are his inner circle; they are three of the first four disciples called by Jesus; they are the ones he probably trusts more than anybody else. They are loyal; they are feisty in their faith—Peter is quick to name Jesus as the Messiah and just as quick to rebuke Jesus’ notion that, as the Messiah, he must suffer and die.  So it’s no real surprise that Jesus picks these three to go up the mountain with him.

It’s a very human moment for Jesus because in this moment of Divine revelation—he is showing them a part of his identity they couldn’t possibly understand.  There is a vulnerability to the moment of coming out, if you will; and like most moments where we allow our friends insight into the truest parts of ourselves, there is also holiness.  And maybe that’s one of the things that Jesus gives to us, gives the community of faith, in this moment: holiness in vulnerability. Maybe he is modeling for the Church his vision of a community that is vulnerable with one another, a community where we are allowed to be our authentic selves without fear of being rejected.

It would almost be a return to the state of the first two humans in the garden before the fall.  The authors of Genesis tell us that they were naked and unashamed—that they stood before one another in a completely vulnerable state and they were not ashamed of the things that made them different, they weren’t ashamed of themselves; and it was, even if not directly said by the storytellers of Genesis, holy.

In this transcendent moment, something about Jesus is revealed to Peter, James, and John—that he chose his inner circle reveals as much of his humanity as being with Moses and Elijah reveals his Divinity. But nobody gets to stay on the mountain.  Moses had to come down from Sinai to give Israel Torah; Elijah had to come down from Horeb to deal with Ahab and Jezebel. Jesus, and with him Peter, James and John, must descend from this high and holy place to do the work that is to come.

Last year, to celebrate my birthday and Jennifer’s and my wedding anniversary, Jennifer, Aaron and I planned a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto.  Out visit to Tokyo had one singular purpose: climbing Mount Fuji, whose summit is 3,776 meters (12,388 ft).  We took the Yoshida route, which starts at the 5th Station and rests at an altitude of 2,300 meters.  Guide books and signs say that climbers can make the ascent on the Yoshida trail in 5-7 hours.  Our goal wasn’t to make the summit on the first day, only to make it to our hut which was at the top of the 8th station so we could eat, rest and then make the summit early in the morning.  Our wake up call (if what we did could actually be called sleeping) came at about 2 a.m. and we wrapped ourselves as warmly as we could and stepped out into the river of humanity walking in the dark, head lamps strapped to our foreheads, trying really hard to not get blown off the mountain trail by the 30+ knot winds. It hurt; it took pretty much everything all of us had, but we made it to the summit in time to watch the sunrise. As we stood in the hut at 12,400 feet, watching the sun emerge from the clouds as Kimigayo (the Japanese National Anthem) blasted over the speakers, I wept for the beauty of the moment. And while I’m pretty certain a portion of my sanity slipped away and stayed on top of Fuji-san, that glimpse of glory will always rank pretty high in my life’s memories.

But then we had to come down from the mountain; we took a different trail for the descent and it took us a good 4-5 hours to get down (maybe longer, because none of us managed to hold onto the giddiness we felt at the summit) and arrive at the Fujinomiya station and boarded our bus to the train station.  I have never been so sore in my entire life. Two days after the ascent a level of pain set in to my quadriceps unlike anything i have ever felt, and the next day my calves locked up—totally different muscles used for going up the mountain and for going down the mountain.  I had no idea.  You learn a lot climbing a mountain—but climbing the mountain is only half the journey and as you come down from those sunrises and glimpses of glory, you learn even more.

Maybe that’s why Jesus tells Peter James and John not to say anything about what they’ve seen; they aren’t done learning; they haven’t seen the hard work that’s still left to do. One pastor says, “God prepares people in the transcendent encounters of our lives to endure the world below…the world that has the ability to break us and yet is never beyond God’s redemption.” (Maryetta Madeline Anschutz, Feasting on the Word, Year A: Volume 1).

The next time Jesus takes Peter, James and John into a vulnerable place is the night he is betrayed and arrested. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus draws as close to God in prayer as perhaps he ever will. This is what our transcendent moments prepare us to endure: Walking the way of the cross ourselves, or being with others as they endure suffering.  But Peter, James and John would not have known this if they had built the booths and stayed there.  We wouldn’t know this if being the Church was all about climbing mountains to memorialize the holy and transcendent moments of others.  We only know this when we, in our own transfigured way, come down from the mountain and embrace the life of vulnerability and sacrifice.

Embracing vulnerability and sacrifice as isn’t easy work, and it’s rarely tidy work, but it is important work, even if it isn’t always fulfilling.

A few stories about living into vulnerability before we wrap up today:

On Sunday, in the greeting line after morning worship I was welcoming a first time guest at our congregation and when she introduced herself she really just put it all out there, “Hi it’s nice to meet you my name is Gwen* and I’m HIV Positive.” Okay, it was a bit of what many folks would consider to be an overshare, but it wasn’t going to deter me to making her and her children feel welcome in the church.  So I told her it was nice to have her with us and that I looked forward to chatting some more over coffee in the fellowship hall.  Gwen had three children, lovely mixed race babies who really filled me with joy whenever they came forward for the children’s message

Over the coming weeks and months some members of the church began struggling with the reality of Gwen’s situation and the reality of having children in the nursery and in Sunday school who had a Daddy who was in prison.  At board meeting we would discuss “What do we teach our kids to say when they talk about their Daddy and Prison? They’ve never dealt with that, they don’t know what to say and neither do I.” Tell them they just need to love those kids like they would anyone else.

In a different situation at a different time I was working with a young man who had once been in a professional skating circuit.  He managed to ruin his knees while skating and lived in chronic pain.  He was out of work and had no insurance so he medicated with alcohol.  We began talking one day because we share affinity for a particular music group and in the midst of that conversation he opened up about his pain, and his shame at being intoxicated all the time, and his appreciation that “a man of God” wouldn’t reject him for his problems.

If we go into the valley to embrace the Jesus Way of vulnerability and sacrifice, we’ll see and hear and meet folks who may challenge our assumptions about who we’re called to surround ourselves with. When we create the space for one another to reveal what’s happening on the inside, we learn what reconciliation, and maybe what Church is really all about.

May God give us grace to walk valleys with those who wander in shadows, and may our lives bring just a little sweetness, just a little light.

*Name has been changed.

7th Sunday after the Epiphany

A game was released in 1973 called Perfection. The object of the game is to put all the pieces into the matching holes on the board (which is pushed down) before the time limit runs out. When the time runs out, the board springs up, causing many if not all of the pieces to fly out. In the most common version of the game there are 25 pieces to be placed in a 5 x 5 grid within 60 seconds (Wikipedia “Perfection (board game)”)

The commercials for the game showed a manic child rushing to get as many pieces in place before the time runs out or the timer is stopped.  Of course, the advertisement wants you to think that the goal is impossible to meet, and shows children making the “Oh no!” face as the board pops.  Why? Because perfection is unachievable, or at least very difficult to attain.

We are conditioned at a young age to believe this. We can’t be perfect. Unless you are the 1972 Miami Dolphins, you don’t get to have a perfect season. You can’t be perfect—“nobody’s perfect.”

Which means we either cringe when we hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” or we don our trusty selective hearing ear plugs and pretend we never heard him say it.  We cringe because we’re either uncomfortable with our own state of imperfection, or we’re uncomfortable that Jesus would set us up for failure by even suggesting such a thing. Or we ignore it because surely Jesus is just using hyperbole to get our attention, so maybe then we’ll try just a little bit harder to be kind.

But I think this bears reflection upon.  This whole passage is set up by the phrase “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” and then is punctuated by “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But maybe Jesus, being a good rabbi, is just in dialogue with and referencing Leviticus 19:2 which commands Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Holiness, the way it is used in Leviticus, and perfection, the way Jesus talks about it in Matthew aren’t interchangeable words. Holy in Hebrew is “Kadosh” and implies differentiation, set apart, or set aside for a specific purpose.  Matthew’s word for perfect, in the Greek, is “teleios” which means complete in all its parts, full grown, or full age, completeness of character.  They aren’t interchangeable but they do meld together fairly well in a conceptual way.

Leviticus 18 begins with this: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing do one shall live: I am the Lord.” (Lev 18:1-5) Leviticus 19 continues with this in mind.  The ordinances given to Israel, the means of holiness given to them, are meant to show that they are different from the nations.

It is the intentional leaving of edges in the fields at harvest, the gleanings left behind, the small amount of grapes left behind that demonstrate holiness—differentiation.  It is dealing ethically in their business practices that makes them holy—different from those who dwell in Egypt and from those who dwell in Canaan. It is in treating those with whom we live in community with the same dignity and respect that we desire—loving our neighbor as ourself—that demonstrates holiness.

What is telling about this notion of holiness is that it is so alien to us that is makes for very compelling television. Take Extreme Makeover: Home Edition where families in dire straights due to health issues and/or financial burdens are “adopted” by friends, family, or members of the community and given something they would never be able to get on their own.  Almost always ends with views in tears—or as one of my friends from seminary calls it, “an ugly cry.” Why do we ugly cry at the end of shows like this? Because our hearts are wired to want people to live with dignity.

Undercover Boss does a similar thing but bosses go incognito as entry level employees to experience what their lower lever workers experience.  Most of the time there is a compelling story of hardship with one employee (because it makes for good television) and the boss is moved to, in one form or another, restore some lost dignity to the individual or to their family, wrapping up the show with another healthy session of ugly crying.

These things make for compelling television because it’s so alien to how we have come to know what life is like. There are haves and have nots—and have nots might actually become haves if they would trust try a little bit harder.  But these shows move us in our splankna (our body’s center of compassion) because we realize that some times, many times, the have nots are trying pretty damn hard to get by and if we would just leave some of the edges of our fields unharvested, if we would leave a few grapes behind—because they are our kin, and we are our brothers and sisters keeper—then we’re all just a little better off—and we’d be moving in the direction of living as a people who are holy like the Lord our God is holy.

Like G-d calls Israel to be Holy, Jesus calls his followers to be perfect, which may sound a bit like we’re watching Emeril Legasse cook: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall be holy like the Lord your God is holy…but I’m gonna kick it up a notch for you!’” And Jesus tackles subjects like retaliation, lawsuits, and forced marches; he takes on charity and lending. And then, knowing it will stoke the guilt fueled, sweaty queasiness, he tells us that we should treat our enemies like our we do our neighbors (the one’s we’re told to love like ourselves) because somehow—and there are days that I just don’t understand how—G-d manages to let most of us see another sunrise, regardless of the quality of our character.

Each one of these is worthy of a sermon all by themselves—but right there at the end Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Even the Gentiles manage to do that! Be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect!”

The Law is given to Israel as they are moving from Egypt to the Promised Land; the commands to be unlike the Egyptians and the Canaanites are meant to demonstrate how Israel is different, how they are un-like the rest of the Nations.  Jesus’ teachings point out to his disciples—a people who may be forgetting what it’s like to be free because they’ve been living under Roman occupation for such a long time—he’s pointing out how they are called to be un-like everyone else—how they are not like tax collectors (a group of people it was easy to hate because of their sin) and how they are not like the Gentiles—the Nations—the Romans occupying their land. Jesus says, “It’s easy to be kind to people who are kind to you; it’s easy to be nice when folks are nice—that’s not being different, that’s not being holy.  Be kind to people who hate your guts—that’s different; that’s holy.”

John Lewis being interviewed by Krista Tippet in January 2015:

“Well, I think in our culture, I think sometimes people are afraid to say I love you. But we’re afraid to say, especially in public life, many elected officials or worldly elected officials, are afraid to talk about love. Maybe people tend to think something is so emotional about it. Maybe it’s a sign of weakness. And we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to be strong, but love is strong. Love is powerful.

The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest form of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometime and say things like, “Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ’em.”

The call to be perfect, the call to be holy, as G-d our Father is perfect and the Lord our God is holy—these aren’t theoretical things and they aren’t goals we’re never meant to achieve.

John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement talked about a thing called Christian perfection, that was rooted in the Eastern Orthodox Church’s understanding of theosis.  Theosis is the transformative process by which the Christian—through living out the teachings of the church and participation in the Sacraments of the Church—becomes more and more like Christ.  It is a lifelong goal of sanctification.  Christian Perfection is allowing ourselves to be overcome with the desire to love God and love our neighbor, such that those are our only thoughts.  In the Eastern Church and in Wesley’s understanding of perfection, both are achievable as we act in synergy with the Spirit of God.

The short of it is this—the Law wasn’t written to set us up to fail; the sermon on the mount wasn’t taught to present us with impossible ways of living just so we would throw ourselves into the wide open arms of grace.  Truthfully, G-d loves us exactly the way we are—but we are never meant to stay that way. We are meant to be, we are created to be, holy.