2-20-17 - Up the Mountain

Next Sunday we come to the end of Epiphany, the season of light. And every year in our gospel reading we go out with the ultimate light show – Jesus being transfigured on a mountain, to the amazement of three of his closest disciples.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Six days later? What happened six days ago? A conversation in which Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Let’s remember that – it just may be a clue to what Jesus was doing up there on the mountain. Another clue is the mountain itself. It was a mountain to which Moses was called to go and spend 40 days and 40 nights with God, getting the commandments – and when he came down, his face was shining so brightly, he had to cover it to avoid blinding the people. And it was a mountain on which Elijah was told to come out of a cave and see God pass by, not in a whirlwind, nor an earthquake, nor fire, but in a sound of sheer silence.

In our sacred scriptures, mountains are places where God reveals God’s self to human beings. It appears that this mountain is no different – for there,Jesus is transfigured – his face changes, shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.

When do you remember last having a sense of God’s presence, a glimpse, a word, a feeling?
Can you remember and claim that? Write it down?

And when did you last go to a place apart, on retreat, alone or maybe with just a few friends?
Did you sense the presence of God then? Often, when I have taken the time to go apart, God has shown up in mighty ways – not right away, but after a time. At the right time. I have just returned from two days in a monastery; there was no light show for me, but some quiet “coincidences,” reminding me that God was with me on my path.

Going away can facilitate our spiritual encounters because the quotidian rhythms and tasks of our lives can dull our spiritual senses. If you’ve never been on retreat, consider planning one. The Spirit also shows up in our daily "apart" times, as we get quiet and open our spirits. Just sit with as much stillness as you can and pray, “Lord, I want to know you’re here with me. Show me…”

And then let it go. You might find a thought or a word popping into your head that doesn’t seem like one you’d have thought on your own; you might have a physical sensation of presence; you might get a picture. You might sense nothing – just give thanks that God is answering whether or not you feel it.

We don’t all get Jesus turning radiant bright in front of us – thank God! We have been promised that he is always with us. That’s gift enough.

2-17-17 - Perfection

We end the week with a kicker: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I don’t know if Jesus is kidding or indulging in hyperbole – or perhaps gently nudging his followers both into aspiration and reality. He’s asked them (and us) to yield to people trying to control us, to open ourselves to people trying to hurt us, to give to people trying to take from us, and to love people who hate us. And, in case we want to feel better about how we measure up by comparing ourselves to others, he says that’s too easy – even tax collectors and “gentiles” know how to love their own kind. No, he says, if you want to compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself to your Father in heaven – don’t stop till you’re perfect.

Okay, so maybe our yardstick is too easy, but isn’t his a little … impossible? How on earth can we be perfect as God is perfect? Well, a raw egg doesn’t get soft-boiled in a moment, right? It takes 7 minutes to achieve perfect consistency (to me…). We become perfect one moment, one decision, one day at a time, in God's love and power.

I discern a through-line in these teachings of Jesus, all of which concern how we interact with other people, especially ones who cause us trouble: to always look out for the humanity, the individuality of others. I was once talking with someone who works with Seeds of Peace, an organization that began by bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together for summer camps. When campers came face to face with the “Other” and found they were children like themselves, barriers began to break down. As U2 sings in, Invisible, “There is no them, there is no them, there’s only us… there’s only you, there’s only me.”

We can cultivate the spirit Jesus asks of his followers one person at a time. Jesus would not have asked it of us, were he not planning to equip us.

I have heard grace explained this way: Because of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross, and because we are united with Christ, when the Father looks at us it is Christ's righteousness He sees, projected onto us. In Christ, then, we are already perfect. We spend this life living into what that means, bringing that spiritual reality into the reality of the here and now.

So in prayer today let's ask God to show us who it is God sees when looking at us. Let’s try to catch a glimpse of the perfection that is already ours, even as we slowly realize it.

Thankfully, our good news is revealed in parts, and elsewhere Jesus remarks, “With humans it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” Even being perfect.

Especially being perfect. In the fullness of time and relationship, so our promise goes, all is being perfected. Even us. Imagine that.

2-16-17 - Extreme Fitness

“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And I think, Sure. If we do everything else Jesus said, we won't have any. We will love everyone equally, no matter what they do for or against us.

“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.”

This is one of the hardest of Jesus’ challenging teachings. Or is it? It comes with its own E-Z-Bake instructions – “Pray for those who persecute you.” We can do that, no matter how much we fear or loathe someone. We can always pray for them. And that often results in a big change of perspective. Enemies have become allies through that kind of prayer, because when we pray for someone we re-humanize them.

“Enemy” is a label, and labels tell only part of the truth. The person who may in real life be our personal or national enemy is also a son or daughter, a friend to someone, good at some things and lousy at others – in other words, a flesh and blood person. And Paul reminds us that our fight is “not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this dark world.” Even when that flesh and blood person intends very real flesh-and-blood harm.

In our polarized world, the idea of “the enemy” is alive and well and ever fanned by strident fundraising emails and social media posts. Christ-followers are called to a higher standard. That means that, horrified and disgusted as I am at, say, people who flout the law, or prey on the vulnerable, or gun down teenagers for playing loud music, I am not supposed to see them as the enemy. I am to see them as people in the grip of evil – and thus to pray for them.

And more: I am supposed to find a way to love them. Not what they represent, not what they do, but the human being underneath all the lies and distortions. Ouch.

Jesus says it’s too easy to love the ones we find easy to love. “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?”

So let’s go for it today: Think of a person or kind of person you consider an enemy or close to it. Let’s play the “hold them in the light of Christ in your imagination” game. Ask God to bless that person, and to show you a glimpse of the humanity you’re having trouble seeing. If it’s difficult, imagine sitting next to Jesus and bringing that person into the room, to sit between you on a couch or something. What do you feel or say? Sit with it a while.

We who walk with Jesus need to develop our capacity to love. Those muscles don’t get much of a workout with people we naturally care for. Let's consider this command “extreme fitness” training – if we can love those whom we truly loathe, we will have learned to love in a way that God can use. And believe me, God will use us.

2-15-17 - The Extra Mile

What was Jesus up to? It’s one thing to preach radical submission to the will of God; quite another to command submission to other people: “…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

For anyone who’s been forced to do anything, the instruction to go further, to give even more, to satisfy every demand – it’s challenging, to say the least. Troubling, baffling. Having recently read the description of one man’s experience as a POW at the mercy of the Japanese during the Bataan Death March, it is hard to find grace in those words.

And what about what comes next: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Anyone who’s ever lived in a city with many people begging will question that wisdom.

A natural response to these instructions is, “But when does it stop? Am I supposed to go forever at someone else’s whims? Give till I have nothing left?” Well... Jesus kind of did…
But where does that leave us? Here’s a thought:

What if our response to this seemingly unreasonable command is not to throw up our hands and say, “What about me?” What if our response is to put ourselves in the shoes of the person demanding something of us? Not to lose ourselves – to gain ourselves. To take mastery by choosing to yield. When we train ourselves to be other-directed, our giving becomes motivated by compassion for the other, even if that other is trying to control or manipulate us.

There’s more than one way to choose not to be a victim. We can resist. Or comply – by our own choice, even against our own benefit, because we want healing for the other person. I don't think Jesus was talking about situations of pathology or abuse. And yet, I suspect this is what Jesus was getting at: to value the other above yourself. It's the choice we see him make repeatedly, power in weakness.

How do we pray into today’s reading? Like yesterday, bring to mind anyone whom you feel is forcing you to do more than you want to – at work, at church, at home, in a relationship. Ask God to show you something about what motivates that person to try to control others. Maybe see the woundedness that drives the behavior. Then pray for them, and ask God to guide your response. Maybe you go an extra mile, maybe you don’t – respond with the Spirit’s guidance, not on your own.

Similarly, pray about your giving and your lending. Elsewhere Jesus says, when you lend, do it without expectation of return. So then it’s a gift, and a blessing. Who are you being called to bless at this time? Can you find joy in that gift?

The expression,“If it were easy, everyone would be doing it…” comes to mind right about now. The Way of Jesus is not easy, and often counter-intuitive. It has also been for many the Way to true life, the kind of life he said we’d gain when we are willing to lay our prerogatives aside and live for him. Aren't we lucky to have so many people to practice with?

2-14-17 - The Giveaway

This Valentine’s Day, Jesus invites us to imagine a kind of love that gives it all away – the kind of love he taught and lived – and died of. This self-giving love extends to our stuff as well as our hearts: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Okay, so we’re not supposed to fight back when attacked, and we’re just supposed to roll over when taken for all we’re worth? Did Jesus mean us, or just his first century followers?

How are we to interpret this teaching in our materially laden lives? It’s easy enough to say, “Inventory your closet and get rid of everything you don’t really need. How many sweaters do you own? How many pairs of shoes? How many coats?” I defend my overstuffed closet because I shop less, leaving more monetary resources for charity, right? Works for me…

Let’s go deeper, though. What does it mean to us to not protect our “stuff,” even our bank accounts and insurance policies? Jesus was inviting his followers into a radical dependence upon God’s provision, something he repeatedly demonstrated for them in multiplying scarce resources. I believe Jesus also invites us to sit more loosely to our material goods, to enjoy bounty when we have it, and trust in God's “enough” when we feel short.

Some of the poorest people in the continental United States live in South Dakota, on Lakota Indian reservations. And at most major life occasions – weddings, funerals, pow-wows – a family will host a give-away. They give away whatever they must to ensure that everyone there gets something, all the way from hand-made star quilts to plastic leftover containers. They’re not giving it away because they have so much. They’re giving it away because they value hospitality, generosity, and community more than having enough, as wonderful as that would be.

I think many of us make an unspoken agreement with God – “I will give voluntarily to charities of my choice, and you won’t ask me to part with more than I want to give." We might ask in prayer today whether God signed on to that agreement. Are we willing to let the Spirit guide our relationship with our goods? The more we can do that, the more we let the Spirit guide our doing good.

I can’t preach the “give it all away” gospel – which I do believe Jesus was saying – because I can’t live it - yet. I am a work in progress. That doesn’t free me from continuing to live into Jesus’ invitation to freedom from need and radical generosity. Here’s a prayer I can start with:

Reflect once a week or once a month on all that I have more than enough of – home, clothes, funds, furniture, insurance, money… and give thanks. That might take awhile!
And then ask Jesus to show me who might be asking for some of what I have…  and imagine in prayer handing that over to someone who needs it. See how that feels in prayer, and then maybe take it into action.

Then we can ask Jesus to give us the joy of blessing someone who needs something we have more than enough of. And trust in the “enough” of the One who gave it all away for us.

2-13-17 - Offering the Other Cheek

In the part of Jesus’ training talk we explored last week, he was expanding on existing commandments. In what comes next, he goes beyond existing law, proposing interpretations so radical, I imagine at least some of his listeners said, “Is this guy nuts? I’m outta here…” So have said some of Jesus’ would-be followers in every generation when confronted by the dissonance between what Jesus taught and how “the world works.”

Jesus was introducing his followers to life in a realm wholly other than this present world. It’s as though he is explaining how things work in, say, Indonesia, what laws you need to know to live there. This “kingdom” life of God he was preparing them for is both contiguous with the sense-known world, and is its own realm, perceivable by faith. We can decide whether or not we want to go – but if we want to follow Jesus, that’s where we’re going, and we need to learn the ways of that place, the Realm of God.

And in that realm, he says, we don’t fight back. 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”

How are we to live in this world if we just accept attacks and don’t respond? What about self-defense? What about victims of abuse? I don’t hear Jesus saying you can’t defend yourself or those you love. But I do hear him ruling out retaliation, which is hard enough for us on a human level. I sense his invitation to go deeper in conflicted situations, to respond in a counter-intuitive way, meeting aggression not with force, but with manoeuvers that use the attacker’s force, the way certain martial arts moves work. Or the classic, opening a door someone’s trying to force open, so they fall into the room. Jesus’ battle with Satan can be viewed in that light…

I believe Jesus sets us a higher goal: the transformation of our attackers. As frightening as that prospect may be, we have stories in our own time of quite extraordinary courage resulting in even more amazing outcomes. I was reminded of the story of Ashley Smith, the Georgia woman taken captive by a fugitive on trial for rape. Despite the risk, she managed to reach his humanity by being human herself, making him eggs, reading to him from The Purpose-Driven Life, sharing her own story of transformation and healing with him. (Here is a transcript of Smith’s whole story – truly amazing )

I pray none of us is faced with circumstances that dramatic or criminal, though we may encounter attack as we stand up for what we believe. Whenever we are hurt, we face the choice whether or not to retaliate. Are there some times when you have? Are there times when you were aware of making a different choice? Are you faced with that choice in any circumstances in your life today, to hit back or to absorb and transform?

One way we can live into this command to not resist evildoers, is to ask the Holy Spirit to be right there with us when we feel attacked. In the Spirit’s power we might even see those who oppose us with compassion, even pray for their wholeness. And who knows what marvels God might work from such a prayer, as turning the other cheek brings about a turn of heart.

2-10-17 - Chosen for Fruitfulness

When Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine to tell his disciples about staying connected to him and to each other, he isn’t just talking about the vine. He is also talking about grapes, and how a healthy system can produce much fruit. He tells them he has chosen them for a purpose:

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”

Chosen. Let's dwell on that word for a moment; let's claim that identity. Jesus has just said, “I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends…”

His followers received a big status upgrade here, and we’re grafted into their apostleship as Christ-followers ourselves. At those times when we might question our value or our reach, we can remember, “Oh yeah, I was chosen by Jesus, who calls me friend.” How might carrying that knowledge change the way we move and interact with the world?

And appointed. Jesus says he appointed us to bear fruit that will last. Our identity comes with a purpose, a purpose which the Holy Spirit helps us fulfill. What do you think your life's purpose is? Some think it’s to care for their family, or make a good living, or stand for justice… What is yours?

Does it change anything to be reminded that Jesus has a purpose for you beyond what you may have for yourself? And that it is simply to bear fruit? That means participating in God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew wholeness to all of creation – whenever and however the opportunity arises to do that. When we are about the ministry of justice and compassion, exercising healing and peace-making in the power of the Holy Spirit, there will be fruit, and it is fruit that will last, whether or not we get to see the full outcome. We need to hang on to that promise in times when it may feel like 2 steps forward, 3 steps back. If we’re moving with God in the power of the Spirit, the fruit will last.

The most visible fruit, Jesus suggest, is our love for one another. He might have meant just love among his disciples, whom he was addressing on that, his last night in this life. We could limit it to love among Christians, which is challenging enough in these times.

But what if we were fruitful in loving everyone? Or at least rejoicing that God can love everyone? That alone could change the course of the whole world.