Sermon: God’s Spirit Blows Where It Wishes

Sunday 12 March 2017
The Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

MafaNicodemus“The spirit blows wherever it wishes, and you hear its voice, but you don’t know where it comes from or where goes to. It’s the same with all who have been born of spirit.”

There is a lot of wordplay in the passage from the Gospel of John this morning. Some of it makes sense easily in English. For example, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, but Jesus, we already know, is the light of the world. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus for enlightenment. That’s pretty easy to understand.

But there are other bits of wordplay in this passage that only make sense in Greek. For example, the passage I just quoted, verse 8. In the New Revised Standard Version, it reads “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I know what it means to say that the wind blows where it chooses and that despite being able to hear it’s sound, it’s hard to tell where it’s going or where it’s coming from. That makes sense. But what does it have to do with being born of the Spirit? There isn’t anything else about the wind in this entire passage. It just seems random.

The Common English Bible translates it differently. “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” What happened to the wind? Now God’s Spirit is blowing? What does that even mean? How can God’s Spirit blow? How can we hear the sound of God’s Spirit?
The problem is that John is relying on wordplay that simply doesn’t make sense in English. The Greek word is πνευμα. It gives us the English words pneumatic and pneumonia. But what does walking pneumonia have to do with a pneumatic drill? Very little in English, but quite a lot in Greek. Πνευμα has several different English definitions. It can mean air, like the air that is used to power a pneumatic drill. It can mean wind, like the wind that blows wherever it wishes; you can hear it, but you can’t tell where it comes from. It can mean breath, the part of you that is sick when you have pneumonia. It can also mean spirit, like the Spirit of God, or an evil spirit, or a spiritual experience.

And it can mean all these things simultaneously. For us, spirit, breath and wind seem like rather different concepts. But in both Greek and Hebrew, they are the same. There is very little difference in meaning between the breath of life and the Spirit of God, very little difference in meaning between an evil spirit and a violent wind. So saying that God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes and saying that the wind blows wherever it wishes is really the same.


Nicodemus comes to Jesus, the light of the world, at night. He is a Pharisee and a leader among the Judean people, so we might expect that he will be an opponent of Jesus. But the first thing he says is that everyone can tell that Jesus comes from God, because no one would have the power to do the miraculous signs that Jesus does if they weren’t from God.

It’s Jesus who initiates the conflict in this story. As soon as Nicodemus is finished praising him, Jesus tells him “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” There are too pieces of wordplay going on here. The first has to do with knowing and seeing. These are related words in Greek, too. Nicodemus says that he knows Jesus is from God, literally that he has seen that Jesus is from God. But Jesus retorts that no one can see God’s kingdom unless they are born anew. Jesus is either saying that Nicodemus is incapably of knowing anything about Jesus because he hasn’t been born again, or he is saying that if Nicodemus knows anything about Jesus, its because he has been born from above. But the first option, the insult toward Nicodemus, is more likely.

You may have already noticed the other bit of wordplay. Again we have one Greek word that means more than one thing in English. Ἄνωθεν can mean either again or from above. Some people think that the confusion in this story is that Jesus is talking about being born from above while Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks that he’s talking about being born again. Most likely, though Jesus means both being born again and being born from above.

This is when Jesus starts talking about flesh and spirit. This line of thinking has led to a lot of bad theology over the years. We usually think that flesh is basically synonymous with the body. And so if the flesh is bad or unimportant, that must mean that everything having to do with the body is bad or unimportant. But that’s really a misunderstanding of the terms. Σαρξ, flesh, just means meat. It’s dead. A body contains flesh, but it is not the same as flesh. Even more important, the body isn’t made only of flesh, it is also made of spirit. Without both flesh and spirit, without both flesh and breath, a body is dead. Jesus isn’t denying the body here, but he is talking about two different parts of the body: the flesh and the spirit.

Jesus makes the argument that only flesh can give birth to flesh and only spirit can give birth to spirit. In order to understand spiritual things, one must have spirit, and in order to have spirit, one must be born from spirit, that is, one must be born from above, born again.
This verse has gotten quite a lot of attention over the years. Entire doctrines have sprung up over what it means to be born again. Certain American Christians identify themselves as born again Christians. I remember in the first Presidential election I was old enough to vote in, both major candidates made a point of saying that they were born again Christians. I remember because I was a Christian, I had been a Christian all my life, but I wasn’t very familiar with that language. It wasn’t the sort of thing that Christians I knew often said. They didn’t talk about being born again.

What most people mean today when they talk about being born again is a particular type of religious experience. It’s usually imagined as something that happens only once but has a continuing effect. People don’t say “I was born again,” they say, “I am born again.” People remember the story of when they were born again, the date of when they were born again. It is usually described as a drastic, life-changing event that completely changes a person.

No doubt many people have dramatic, life-changing religious experiences. But sometimes the language of being born again gets used not to build up the Christian community, but to exclude people from it. If I have a had a dramatic religious experience, then I can look down my nose at Christians who haven’t had such a dramatic experience. I can marginalize them. I can even say that they aren’t real Christians. That’s how the language of being born again has often been used: to exclude people. It becomes yet another hurdle that Christians have to cross in order to be accepted as legitimate Christians. Being baptized isn’t enough, you have to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior using a very specific set of words. Accepting Jesus as your savior isn’t enough, you have to be born again. It’s just another way of saying, “I’m a real Christian, but you’re not a real Christian.”

And Nicodemus becomes the model of all of those who are not real believers. He may have come to Jesus, but he couldn’t accept Jesus as the light; he stayed in darkness. Jesus was offering the spirit, but Nicodemus, as a man of the flesh, could not understand or accept it. Jesus is powerful to those who are born again, but Nicodemus could never take the leap of faith to believe and be born again.
There is often a heavy dose of anti-semitism mixed in with this interpretation. Nicodemus can’t understand or accept Jesus because he is a Jew. And he represents all Jews, who are confronted with Jesus but are too dense, too fleshy to understand Jesus’s spiritual message.


I don’t think that’s what’s going on in this passage, though. Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a true seeker. He recognizes that Jesus is from God. That’s the first thing he says to Jesus. He knows that God’s spirit is with Jesus, because no one would be able to do the sorts of things Jesus does without the power of God’s spirit.

And Jesus continues to push Nicodemus further. He makes Nicodemus think more deeply about his faith. And perhaps Nicodemus doesn’t figure all of it out the first time. Perhaps he struggles to understand. But at least he keeps asking questions. He keeps on engaging with Jesus. He comes in darkness, not able to fully understand. But he keeps moving forward. Four chapters later, when the religious authorities are upset with Jesus and claim that no one with education would ever follow Jesus, Nicodemus stands up for him. He identifies himself as a follower, demands that Jesus get a fair hearing before he is condemned, and is derided by the other religious elites for doing so. And at the end of the story, after Jesus is crucified, it is Nicodemus who shows up with Joseph of Arimathea to take care of Jesus’s body.

Nicodemus is not hopelessly ignorant, as many interpreters have claimed. He is a disciple. He seems to understand Jesus’s strange ways as well as anyone else does. After all, even Jesus’s closest disciples always seem to be misunderstanding him. He may come to Jesus in the ignorance of night, but he leaves Jesus with a spark of light. He stays devoted to Jesus, even though he may not always understand. He keeps on coming back, keeps on asking his questions, keeps on struggling with the mystery of faith.


And that is not unlike many of us. Some of us have had those flashy religious experiences, those dramatic conversion moments, but not all of us. Many of us have experienced a much more gradual journey of faith. Some of us have an unwavering sense of confidence, but not all of us. Many of us continue to have questions about matters of faith. Many of us continue to wrestle with the mysteries of who God is and how God works in the world.

As Jesus says, for those who have been born from above, it is like the wind, that blows wherever it will. Perhaps we can hear it, but we can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going.
And that is certainly true. Even for the most faithful Christians, even for the most enlightened among us, much of the time we don’t understand completely what God is doing in the world. No, we are constantly surprised by the ways God chooses to work among us. We cannot predict it ahead of time. We can’t always explain it even after it has happened. God’s ways are mysterious. God does things we don’t expect. God leads us on paths that we wouldn’t have predicted. God uses people that we would never have imagined. God shows up in places we never would have bargained for. God is mysterious. God’s spirit blows wherever it wishes, and we can’t always tell where it is headed or where it came from.

But when we are in the spirit, sometimes we can at least hear it in the moment. Sometimes when God acts in the world, we can recognize it for what it is. Sometimes we are just perceptive enough to notice that what we are experiencing is a God thing.

And often, that is enough. Often our incomplete understanding is enough to allow us to follow. Often our blurred vision is enough to help us see the spirit’s movement when it happens. Often our flawed perceptions are enough to help us do our part for God when the moment comes.
It was enough for Nicodemus. When the religious authorities dismissed the idea that anyone of understanding would follow Jesus, Nicodemus raised his hand in protest. After Jesus died, Nicodemus was there to do his part. He was perhaps an imperfect believer. But that is what we all are: imperfect believers who sometimes stumble around in the darkness, imperfect believers who have incomplete understandings of how God moves among us, imperfect believers who don’t always get it the first time, but who keep coming back, keep asking our questions, keep struggling with the mysteries of faith.

We don’t have to be perfect in order to follow Jesus. We don’t have to be perfect, because God is perfect, and sometimes God’s perfection lives in and through us. Even when we are imperfect believers, we can have the assurance that God continues to move, God continues to surprise us, God continues to work in us in spite of ourselves. God can work in people like Nicodemus. God can work in people like you and like me. Thanks be to God.

Notes-N-News

Good Morning!

Pastor David’s Weekly Reflection  John 3:16     Who first taught you this well-known verse? What has it meant to you over the years?

++           Lent Study has begun! Sunday mornings at 8am and Wednesday evenings at 6:30pm, following a 6:00 soup supper. Study focuses on spiritual practices. Pastor David is using the Animate Practices by Spark House.

++           Coffee & Compassion meets Thursday March 16th 10am in our fellowship hall. Led by Gigi Siekkinen.

++           A special charge conference will be held Sunday, March 19th at 10:00 am to approve Gigi Siekkinen for candidacy for ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church. All members of the congregation are eligible to vote. Rev. Eilidh Lowery will preside. –Pastor David

++           FISH Food Bank Duty      Mon March 20th, Wed 22nd, and Friday 24th.

++           Spirit of Grace Women’s Retreat      Friday evening, March 31 and Saturday April 1st at church (not an overnight!)

The book for study is Rediscovering the Book of Faith. Pastor Jonette Blakney will be leading our studies. She is from Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Stevenson, WA.  Learn how, why, when and where the Old and New Testaments were created; explore how the Bible was put together; and examine the impact of the Reformation on our encounter with scripture. Enjoy dinner Friday night, breakfast and lunch on Saturday, study and quiet time, as well as fellowship and fun! (Schedule is posted on the bulletin board). All this for only $10.00 to cover the cost of the book and supplies. Please let Jennifer in the church office know by Wed March 15th if you plan to attend so we know how many books to order. What is nice about this retreat is that you can come to all, or just some, or even one part of the weekend retreat!  If you need a ride to the retreat, please call Jennifer in the office and we will try to accommodate you.

++         Attention gardeners! The FISH and Spirit of Grace Food Bank Garden is presently seeking volunteers to work in the food bank garden this 2017 season. Located behind the FISH Food Bank on Tucker Rd, we grow our own variety of food justice by producing nearly 2000 lbs of fresh, organic produce for clients at the FISH Food Bank each year. No experience necessary, just bring a pair of gloves (we have extras if you need them!) and be ready to spend some time with the soil. Family friendly and open to all ages, the garden is a great place to learn about vegetables and enjoy all that the growing season has to offer. We will start planting in March and will have lots of opportunities throughout the summer. Contact Susan Randolph at surandolph22@gmail.com for more info. Thanks!
—Susan Randolph         Volunteer Coordinator, FISH Food Bank Garden

 

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Into the Wilderness

Sunday 5 March 2017
The First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

14CuaresmaA1
Once again we come to the season of Lent. Once again we follow Jesus into the wilderness.  Once again we walk alongside him for forty days and forty nights. Once again with him we fast and pray.

The wilderness is not an unfamiliar place in the stories of the bible. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before they came to the promised land. David fled into the wilderness to hide from King Saul. Elijah ran in despair into the wilderness, only to have a mystical experience of the living God. John baptized and preached in the wilderness. And now Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

But what is this wilderness? And what is its significance to the story of Jesus, or to our stories today?

Some English translations of the Bible tell us that Jesus went into the desert, but wilderness is probably a better word to use. We’re not talking about a barren, sand drenched landscape from Lawrence of Arabia. The wilderness includes any area that is outside of human control, any land that is uncultivated, unfenced, and is open to the forces of nature.

The wilderness is certainly inhospitable. It is usually dry, with little vegetation. There are wild animals to contend with. It is also a hiding place for fugitives, so going into the wilderness one risks danger of attack. Dying of thirst or starvation are real possibilities.

The wilderness represents the forces of chaos. It cannot be controlled by humanity. It acts according to its own laws and timetables. It is a place of danger, a place of desolation, a place of unpredictability. It is sometimes described as being inhabited by demons and other supernatural creatures. And it is sometimes considered to be in opposition to God, a chaotic force that God has to continually beat back and hem in in order to maintain order in the world.

On the other hand, the wilderness can be a place to meet God. The newly-freed Hebrew slaves fled Egypt and met God on Mt. Sinai, in the wilderness, where Moses received the law, and they were fed from God’s hand in the wilderness with manna: bread from heaven. The prophets were often going into the wilderness and meeting God, like when Elijah heard God in the “still, small voice.” And many people came to hear John the Baptist preach in the wilderness, and were convicted and repented of their sin.

The wilderness is a place of fear, of danger, of loneliness, of desolation. But it is also a place of possibility, a place of discernment, and a place to meet God.

And that is the wilderness that Jesus enters. Forty days. Forty nights. Fasting and praying. And then the devil comes to test him, to tempt him. To see if he really is the Son of God, if he really is ready to be the Savior, if he really has what it takes to be the Messiah.

Matthew tells us that it was a three-part test. First, the test of bread. The devil encourages Jesus to ease his own physical hunger by turning stones into bread. You can do it, can’t you? Aren’t you the Son of God?

But Jesus doesn’t give in. He knows that he isn’t the Son of God in order to fulfill himself. He is the Son of God in order to fulfill God’s will and in order to bring God’s salvation to humanity. And he proves himself as a good son by using God’s own words from scripture, “People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

The second test: the test of fame. Throw yourself down from the temple. If you really are the Son of God, then the angels will come and catch you, and everyone will know who you are. Everyone will recognize you as the Son of God. Because, you are the Son of God, aren’t you? Or are you afraid they won’t catch you?

But Jesus doesn’t fall for it. He knows that being the Son of God isn’t about showing off, it isn’t about making a flashy spectacle of himself. No, being the Son of God is about bringing people to God, it’s about being a humble, suffering servant. And he proves himself to be a faithful Son by using his Father’s words from scripture, “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.”

Well, now the devil is in trouble. He’s tried appealing to Jesus’s physical needs, but Jesus doesn’t give in. He’s tried appealing to Jesus’ ego, but Jesus doesn’t fall for it. And he’s tried calling Jesus a chicken. If you really were the Son of God, you could do it. What are you afraid of? But Jesus does not fail.

So the devil tries one last test: the test of power. Look, Jesus: I am the prince of this world. I have authority over all of the nations. You know that it’s true. But look, I will give my authority to you. You can have control over all of the nations of the world. Isn’t that what you want? Just think of all the good you could do. And all that you have to do in return is acknowledge me as your benefactor. That’s all.

But Jesus will not give in. He knows that being the Son of God is not about flexing his own political muscles, and it is not about accumulating power for himself. Being the Son of God is about working for God’s kingdom, about bringing people into the fold of God. And he proves himself to be a loyal Son by using his Father’s own words in scripture: “Satan, get lost! Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

That’s what the wilderness was like for Jesus. It was about proving himself worthy and ready to do the work of the Son of God. And he proved himself wonderfully.

But what does the wilderness look like for us? What is it like for you and for me? What dangers and temptations lie in wait for us? And what is it that God is calling us to?

As we make our wilderness journey together in these forty days and forty nights of Lent, let us keep our ears and our eyes open to the messages that surround us. Let us keep our ears and our eyes open. Some of those messages will tempt us, will try to draw us away from God’s path, will try to distract us from God’s mission for us. Those voices are so prevalent in our culture.

If you are a child of God, don’t you deserve to treat yourself? Don’t you deserve to pamper yourself? Why don’t you buy this product? Why don’t you wear this clothing? Why don’t you drink this beverage? Why don’t you invest in this stock? You deserve it. It will make you happy. Why don’t you, if you are a child of God?

If you are a child of God, why don’t you hate your neighbor. After all, you are better than them, aren’t you? You are chosen by God.  You are blessed, aren’t you? You live in the most powerful, the most affluent nation in the world. It’s because God has chosen you. Shouldn’t you take advantage of that blessing? Shouldn’t you get your way in the world? Shouldn’t you let the rest of world know that you are the chosen ones, if you are a child of God?

If you are a child of God, why don’t you take pride in your salvation? After all, you are the ones who will receive the eternal reward. You are the one’s who will receive the promises of Christ, aren’t you?  It’s not those other people. It’s not those other religions, not those other cultures, not those people that don’t look like you and don’t speak your language. Why not let them know that you are the elect, if you really are a child of God?

If you are a child of God, why don’t you just sit back and relax? After all, Jesus has done everything for you and ensured your salvation. Shouldn’t you just enjoy it? Shouldn’t you just wait idly for your promised reward, if you are a child of God?

But there are other voices in the wilderness, voices that lead us on into God’s path. Voices that say, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Voices that say, “I have come to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, healing to the sick, to set the prisoners free and preach good news to the poor.” Voices that say, “Whatever you have done for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.”

So as we take this wilderness journey, let us be careful which voices we listen to. Because we know that being a child of God is not about buying every new thing that promises to make us happy. Being a child of God is not about flaunting our power, it’s not about basking in our privilege. And being a child of God is not about sitting idly by waiting for our glory in the sky by and by.

No, being a child of God is about lifting each other up and sharing one another’s burdens. Being a child of God is about loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us. Being a child of God is about feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, clothing the naked, and setting the oppressed free.

As we walk this wilderness road together, let us remember that. Let us remember who we are, and whose we are. We are God’s children, and we belong to God. So let us live lives worthy and fitting of those who is blest to be called beloved children of God, following the one who came to share our burdens in order to set us free, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Notes-N-News

Good morning!

Pastor David’s Weekly Reflection
Matthew 4:1-2
Which spiritual disciplines are you focusing on during this Lenten season? Why?

++           Tonight at 9:00 p.m. on PBS (OPB) watch the Rick Steves Special “Luther and the Reformation”, an examination of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This program repeats Sunday April 16th 7-8pm.

++           Women’s Spirituality meets this Saturday, March 4th in the fellowship hall.

++           Spirit of Grace Women’s Retreat coming soon. Save the dates – March 31 and April 1 here at our church.   Learn how, why, when and where the Old and New Testaments were created; explore how the Bible was put together; and examine the impact of the Reformation on our encounter with scripture.  More retreat details soon.      –Jan Dutton

++        There will be a Wednesday Night Soup Supper each week to accompany Pastor David’s Lenten studies. The first is March 8th at 6.00p.m. There will be a sign up sheet on the bulletin board.                     –Jill McBee

++        The Lenten study this year will focus on spiritual practices. Pastor David will be using Animate Practices by Spark House.

It is offered Sunday mornings at 8:00 am beginning March 5th and on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 (following a 6:00 soup supper) beginning March 8th.

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Cloud Covered the Mountain

Sunday 26 February 2017
Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18Matthew 17:1-9

4.2.7

4.2.7

On this Sunday, every year, we celebrate the festival known as the Transfiguration of the Lord. It is the day we remember Jesus, up on the mountain with his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, surrounded by a divine cloud, visited by Moses and Elijah, transformed in appearance. This Sunday, though, I’d like to focus on one of our other readings in order to get a better perspective on Jesus’ transfiguration.

When one text in the bible harkens back to another text in the bible, we call that intertextuality. The story of the transfiguration depends on a great amount of intertextuality. One of its intertexts is the story we read today from the book of Exodus  And exploring that story from Exodus is going to give us a much better understanding of the transfiguration story, that is partly based upon it.

Exodus, as you may know, recounts the story of Moses leading God’s people, the Hebrews, out of slavery in Egypt and toward their new home in the promised land. This particular part of the story happens after the people have been freed and left Egypt. God has led them to a great mountain, where God’s presence dwells powerfully.

As you may know, Sinai is where God granted the holy law to God’s holy people. We know that Moses went up on the mountain and received the ten commandments. When he came down later, the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf and Moses broke the stone tablets of the law.

If you try to read the account in Exodus, though, it’s a lot more complicated than that. The whole encounter starts in chapter 19. By chapter 20, God is speaking the words of the law. God keeps on talking all the way into chapter 24. Then we get to the bit we read today, which is followed by more instructions from God. Moses doesn’t come down off the mountain to find the golden calf until chapter 32. Over the course of those 12-chapters-worth of commandments, it’s hard to keep track of who is on the mountain, who is off the mountain, or where on the mountain various people are.

At the beginning of our chapter, chapter 24, Moses goes at least part way up the mountain along with Aaron and several elders. We are told that all of these elders saw God, even though just a few verses before it was claimed that they would not be allowed to see God. Then, we are told that Moses and Joshua went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets. Did they just go farther up the mountain? We don’t know. All of the commandments have already been spoken. Did everyone hear them? It’s not clear.

In any case, at this point in the story, we are told that Moses and Joshua go up the mountain to receive the tablets. Presumably the elders stay at some point farther down the mountain. Then we are told again that Moses goes up the mountain, this time with no mention of Joshua. It’s all very confusing.

Clouds begin to cover the mountain. We had been told the same thing at least two times before, but again, clouds cover the mountain. God’s presence, which is usually described as looking like fire, is also on the mountain. Is Joshua up there with him? Maybe. He seems to come back down the mountain with Moses eight chapters later, but he doesn’t do much in the intervening time.

Moses has gone up to get the stone tablets that God has inscribed with the law. But he doesn’t get them right away. He just stays up there in God’s presence for six days and we aren’t told what happens. On the seventh day, a voice comes out of the cloud and calls to Moses. Then we are told for a third time in these very few verses that Moses goes up the mountain.

So, to review our tiny section of chapter 24, Moses goes up the mountain with the elders. They see God, and they have a meal. Then a cloud comes upon the mountain, and Moses goes up the mountain with Joshua and enters the cloud. He waits for six days. On the seventh day, God calls from the cloud and Moses goes up the mountain. He stays there for forty days and forty nights.

The point I’m trying to get across is that this narrative doesn’t make much sense. Everything is jumbled. We could work really hard unravel the complexity of all of the strange details, but really, this section of Exodus just defies understanding.

And perhaps that is understandable. After all, this passage is trying to describe a direct experience of God. It’s no wonder that it’s hard to make sense of. It’s no wonder that everything seems confused and confusing. This is the most important event in the Hebrew Bible. This is when God makes a covenant with God’s people. This is when God grants the law and the instructions that have guided the lives of billions of people. That kind of an experience cannot be explained or contained by a simple narrative. It’s no wonder, when it comes to such an indescribable event, that the biblical writers have a hard time describing it.

A couple of millennia later, Jesus leads some of his disciples up onto a high mountain. “Six days later,” the passage begins, reminiscent of the six days Moses waited. He brings with him his inner circle: Peter, James, and John. It gives bit of the sense of the layering that we got on Mt. Sinai, with the people on the plain, the elders a little higher up, and Moses with his most trusted advisor up a bit farther. Presumably, something similar happens here, with the people and crowds below, the disciples up a little closer, and Jesus and his three closest disciples farther up the mountain. His face begins to shine. It’s not unlike Moses, whose face would shine after he had conferred with God in the tabernacle. His clothes turn dazzlingly white. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear alongside Jesus.  Of course, we are not surprised that Moses is there.

The three disciples are a bit dumbstruck. They know that this is the sort of thing that hasn’t happened since the time of Moses. They know the stories of Moses on the mountain, in the presence of God, receiving instructions directly from God. They know that this is no ordinary mountain and that they are having no ordinary experience.

Peter, who is the only one who can manage to speak, suggests that he could build three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. During the festival of Sukkoth, Jews build little shelters and live in them for a week to remember the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness. So, Peter offering to build these shelters means that he expects another Sinai. He knows that this is some kind of direct experience of God. He expects that God is going to give a new law, just like God gave to Moses on the mountain at Sinai.

While Peter is still talking, all of his suspicions are confirmed. Suddenly a bright cloud appears on the mountain, the glorious presence of God, just like it appeared on Sinai centuries before. And then a booming voice speaks from the cloud, the voice of God, just like it spoke from the cloud on Sinai.

This divine voice has a message about Jesus. “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” In other words, Jesus is the expected Messiah. He can speak directly to God, like Moses did. And he is a new lawgiver, a new Moses. Listen to him. Listen to his instruction, just as the people listened to the instruction of Moses long ago. And of course, this reminds us of the mountain top experience that we have been hearing in the gospel readings for the last month—the Sermon on the Mount—when Jesus takes on the role of lawgiver, just like Moses did centuries before.

Nearly every word of Matthew’s story of the transfiguration harkens back to the story of Moses on the mountain. And the story of the transfiguration is just as confusing as the story of Moses. Things appear and never disappear. But it’s the sort of thing that we should expect of a story about a direct experience of God. Those sorts of experiences never make sense to the rational mind; they can never be explained in mere words.

This story of the Transfiguration, taken on its own, is impressive. It reveals the divine identity of Jesus. It shows him in his glory. But when we read it along side the story of Moses at Sinai, it becomes much more rich. Suddenly the lights and the smoke and the special effects take on a new meaning. Jesus, and the covenant that he represents, is tied intimately to Moses and the covenant that he represents. Jesus is a new thing, but he is also tied to the old. He takes the covenant offered to God’s chosen people, and he expands it. He offers gentiles a chance to become part of God’s family. But he does not abolish Moses or the old covenant. He does not abolish it, he simply expands it, and he offers us the chance to be a part of the special relationship that God has already established with the Jews.

Jesus makes a new covenant. In it, God promises to be our God, to accept us as God’s people, to forgive us, lead us, bless us, listen to us, guide us, change us, redeem us. And we promise to be God’s people, to seek God in our prayers, in our praise, in our searching the scriptures, in our interactions with neighbors, in the way we use our money, in the ways we offer our service, in the choices we make, in the ones we love.

In Jesus, God makes a new covenant with us, a covenant that is founded on the older covenant with Moses. And in it, we find the foundations for the other covenants in our lives. The covenant God has with us informs the sacred covenant between spouse and spouse, the sacred covenant a parent has with a child, the sacred covenant we share within this congregation, the sacred covenant we share with those in our community, the sacred covenant we share with all of God’s children, no matter where they come from, what language they speak, or how they worship.

In the transfiguration, we see and remember the covenant God has with all people. We see and remember the covenant we share with each other. And we are called to live as children of the covenant, who worship God as our God and who seek always to be God’s people, formed by the love God has shared with us, and moved always to share that same love with everyone we meet. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: A New Lawgiver

Sunday 12 February 2017
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

sermon-on-the-mountFor a third week, now, we have been reading from the section of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the best known and best loved pieces of scripture in the entire bible. Many consider it to be the very heart of the gospel message, the canon within the canon, the text by which all other texts are judged. The text that begins, “Beloved are the poor in spirit,” is itself a text much beloved.

And yet, it is a text that can be very confusing. It confounds many of the assumptions that we have about the bible. It disrupts many of the beliefs we have about the New Testament. It confuses many of the things we think we understand about Jesus.

Though many of us have been taught that Jesus came to free us from the law, to set aside the outdated rules of the Old Testament, the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount declares quite the opposite. In Matthew 5:17, he says, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.”

In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus proceeds to go through several of the Old Testament laws and comment on them. “You have heard that it was said,” he begins, and then quotes one of the old laws. And then he follows up with, “But I say to you,” and he gives a new law. If we think that Jesus preaches a new existence free from the old law, then we might expect Jesus to take the old law and soften it up a bit. We might expect Jesus to do away with some of the more archaic aspects of the law.

But to our surprise, Jesus does quite the opposite. For every law that Jesus quotes, he gives a harsher, more restrictive law in its place. The old law said don’t murder. Jesus’s new law says expressing anger is the same as murder. The old law said don’t commit adultery. Jesus’s new law says that looking with a lustful eye is the same as committing adultery. The old law allowed for divorce. Jesus’s new law does not. The old law said that anyone who swears an oath should keep it. Jesus’s new law says that no human should ever presume even to swear an oath. And while the old law only threatened death for those who do not obey, Jesus’s new law threatens the fires of hell.

If we were expecting a law-breaking, carefree Jesus, then we will be very much surprised.  Instead, we get a new lawgiver. We get a new Moses. Jesus comes down from the mountain, just as Moses did, and gives a new law, just as Moses did. And the law that Jesus gives is even more difficult to accept than the law of Moses. It is even more strict and unrelenting.

This sermon disrupts the way we usually think about Jesus, but it also disrupts the way many of us think about the bible. This passage from today is the proof that, whatever people may claim about the bible, no one actually reads it literally. Many people claim that the bible is the exact and precise word of God and there is no need for any interpretation because it says just exactly what God means it to say. But this passage is the proof that no one actually believes that. Because, of course, if we did actually believe that, then there wouldn’t be a single Christian in the world walking around with two hands and two eyes. Jesus says very clearly and unambiguously, “If your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.” Surely there is not one Christian in the entire world who has never sinned with their eye—looking on something they don’t have and wanting it for themselves—the sin of covetousness and greed. And yet I have never met any Christian who has plucked out their own eye, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the fires of hell. And surely there is not one Christian in the whole world who has not sinned with their hand—raising it against another in anger, or taking what belongs to another, or failing to reach it out in service and charity to one in need. And yet I have never met a single Christian who has chopped off their own hand, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the eternal punishment. We may think we read the bible literally, but none of us actually do.

And perhaps we are not meant to. After all, none of the apostles cut off his own hand that day on the mountain. None of the disciples plucked out her own eye. So what are we supposed to get out of this very strange sermon?

I think some of it has to do with the way we judge others and the way we have a tendency to think of ourselves as somehow qualitatively better than others. After all, we are Christians, aren’t we? We are blessed by God. We do our best to follow God’s laws. Surely that counts for something. Surely that makes us better than the unwashed masses who never have a care for anything that is good or right or just or Godly.

Surely I am better than a murderer, aren’t I? And yet Jesus says that anyone who lashes out it in anger is liable to the same divine punishment as the murderer. And there is not one of us who has never burned with unrighteous anger. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than a murderer.

But surely I am better than an adulterer, aren’t I? I have kept my marriage vows. And yet Jesus says that anyone who looks on another with a lustful eye is liable to the same punishment as the adulterer. And, as Jimmy Carter so truthfully pointed out, there is not one of us who has not committed adultery in our heart many times. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than an adulterer.

He seems to be saying something similar about divorce. If I get a divorce because I have found someone I think I love more, and if I refrain from physical union until after the divorce is final, that technicality does not excuse me from adultery. That’s the overall message of this section: we can’t think that we have avoided judgment simply because we have found some loophole in the law. We can’t think that we are better than the people around us simply because we have committed less visible sins than they.

Despite any outward appearances to the contrary, we are all sinners. We all carry around our enduring guilts, our secret shames. That is something that every human being has in common. We have all fallen short of the glory of God.

What Jesus’s words do is to hold together two contrary notions at the same time. Jesus’s words challenge us to do better, to strive for lives of perfect holiness. But at exactly the same time, Jesus’s words remind us that whatever level of holiness we may live, it cannot be the ground for boasting. Jesus calls us simultaneously to perfect obedience and to perfect humility, neither letting our obedience puff us up until we lose humility nor letting our humility break us down until we see no point in striving for obedience.

Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. If I strive for holiness, there are several different traps I might fall into. I might be so proud of my holiness that I think I am better than other people. I might hold myself to such an impossibly high standard that I constantly feel incapable and unworthy. I might fixate on a few kinds of holiness so that I miss many other important things I should be doing. I might use the standard of holiness only as a means of judging and condemning other people, while never holding the same standard up to myself. I might be so concerned with doing what is right that I forget about God’s grace, grace for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much pressure on myself and my own abilities to do what is right that I forget that true holiness comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me. Those are ways that striving for Godliness can end up running off the rails.

And humility is just as tricky. If I am striving for humility, I might end up just not trying, just doing nothing because nothing matters. I might end up constantly beating myself down, trying to make myself lower and lower, so that I don’t reach humility, instead I reach humiliation, self-loathing, and crippling depression. I might end up achieving a fair level of humility, until I come across someone who is boastful, and I end up thinking, I am so much more humble than he is. I might hold myself to such a strict standard of humility that I can’t honestly assess my own strengths, and I don’t ever end up using my talents for God. I might put so much pressure on myself to be humble that I forget about God’s grace, grace both for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much responsibility on myself to be humble that I forget that true humility comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me.

It may sound like just more rules, just more regulations, just more law. Why is Jesus making it harder for us? Why is Jesus stacking up more things that we have to do in order to be worthy of God? It may seem like just more law.

But in fact, it is more grace. By making the rules more strict, Jesus is making sure that none of us have the delusion that we can actually follow them all ourselves. We are in need of God’s grace. It’s not just the Class-A sinners that need God’s grace. We all need God’s grace. And there is plenty of God’s grace to go around. That is the first step: to realize that I am not perfect, and I can never make myself perfect, no matter how hard I try. I make mistakes. I am a sinner. I am in need of God’s grace. And God has plenty of grace to go around.

But it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with me recognizing that I am a sinner and asking for God’s grace. The strictness of the rules remind us that there is still a goal. And once I have accepted God’s justifying grace, God’s forgiveness, then I can begin to be open to God’s sanctifying grace, the Spirit’s continuing work in my life to make me holy. I can begin to let the Holy Spirit work within me, once I have accepted God’s grace. And God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with my neighbors, even though they too are sinners. God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with myself, even though I am a sinner. God’s Spirit can begin to work in my life, so that my actions move closer to the mark, so that I more fully embody the life that God wants me to lead, the self that God wants me to be. But I am not making myself acceptable to God. No, God’s grace makes me acceptable, and God’s grace molds me into fuller realization of that perfect goal. I work with God, and I allow God to work in me, but I can never do it on my own in order to please God. God’s grace forgives me, and God’s grace moves me on toward greater holiness, greater humility.

It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t travel in a straight line. There are times when I can really feel in sync with God, when I can really feel that God is working in me, that God is leading me  to avoid evil and do good. And there are other times when I stumble and fall into sin. There are other times when I try to take control and end up fouling everything up. There are other times when I stubbornly resist God. There are other times when I simply fumble around, trying desperately to find any sense of God at all.

It takes time. It takes active, patient endurance. It takes acceptance of myself and who I am. Not perfect, but a beloved child a God. A child in need of grace. A child of a God who has plenty of grace to share.

Sermon: The Good of Salt and Light

Sunday 5 February 2017
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:13-20

12OrdinarioA5Salad, silt, sausage, salary, salami, soldier, sauce, saline, saucer, salsa. They all have something in common. They all are derived etymologically from the same word: sal or salt. The Romans used salt to counteract the bitter taste of leaf vegetables, giving us the word salad. Silt looks a lot like salt, and salt can be found in it. Sausage is meat made by salting, and salami is a particularly salty kind of sausage. Roman legionaries were sometimes paid in salt, that is, they received a salary. The one who is paid in salt is a soldier. Saline is, of course, salt water. Sauces and salsas are flavored with salt, and they could well be served in a saucer. All of these seemingly disparate words are in fact cognates in English; they all derive their meaning originally from salt.

When we think of salt today, we think of a bad thing. Salt is something that we try to avoid. Salt leads to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and hearth failure. Foods advertise that they have low sodium, because everyone knows that sodium, salt, is bad for you. It may taste good, but it’s bad for you.

So, when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” what is that supposed to mean? Do Christians cause heart disease and strokes? Are we best avoided because we are bad for people’s health? Are we something that tastes good even if we’re bad for you? Is religion a guilty pleasure?

We live in a world that has ready and easy access to salt. We can buy it by the pound at any grocery store. It’s cheap enough that we can use it as a craft supply and not worry about throwing it out. And salt ends up in abundance in our food, even if we don’t want it there, in all kinds of packaged and processed foods.

Our conception of salt is completely unlike the way that people in Jesus’s time understood salt. For them, salt was a necessity and an unmitigated good. It was also expensive and hard to get your hands on.

Salt is essential to the metabolism of humans and other mammals. Muscles and nerves cannot function without salt. Animals that don’t get enough salt will start eating dirt, rocks, and wood to get it, and will lick the sweat off other animals. Salt-deprived chickens produce fewer and smaller eggs. Calves that are given salt supplements grow twice as quickly as those that aren’t. Salt is one of the five things that humans can taste. Early settlements and civilizations were typically located near salt supplies.

In addition to it’s basic metabolic function, salt is the world’s oldest food preservative. It was used to preserve meat long before the first human writing. Salt has driven trade all over the world. The first Roman colony was built near a salt mine, and the first Roman road was built to transport salt. Caravans cross the Sahara desert to deliver salt. Wars have been fought over salt. At times, salt has been traded at twice the value by weight as gold. Salt has been used as money. Salt can be used to condition water, to make better soaps, and to clean pipes and faucets. And of course, we remember at this time of year that salt can be used to deice roads and sidewalks.

Salt and salt taxes have played a role in major world social movements. Records from 1785 say that ten thousand men were arrested every year in England for smuggling salt in defiance of the salt tax. A few years later, English livestock started to die from lack of salt, and in the face of riots, Parliament was forced to repeal the salt tax. A royal salt tax was one of the main issues of the French Revolution of 1789.

Mahatma Gandhi’s first major act of civil disobedience in British-controlled India was defiance against the salt tax. He led Indians in a 24-day march to Dandi where he made salt from sea water in defiance of the British salt monopoly. This was the beginning of the Satyagraha movement that eventually won Indian independence. Gandhi was jailed for his leadership of the Salt March, along with more than 80,000 other Indians who were jailed in the Salt Satyagraha.

You are the salt of the earth. It doesn’t mean that we are a health risk, and it doesn’t mean that we are tasty. Being salt means being life-giving, having preservative and cleansing qualities, being valuable beyond measure. Being salt of the earth means bring life to the earth.

Jesus goes on to say that if salt loses its saltiness, it becomes worthless. It can’t be used for anything. Now, technically speaking, it is impossible for salt to lose it’s saltiness. Sodium Chloride is a stable element; it can’t lose it’s saltiness. But, Jesus may have been referring to impure forms of salt, if stored improperly, that could lose some of their salt to water.

What is interesting, though is how Jesus refers to salt losing it’s saltiness. He says, if salt is μωρανθῇ, if salt becomes moronic, if it becomes stupid, foolish, or speechless, then how can it be restored? It can’t. It becomes worthless and useless.

Salt may not be able to lose it’s saltiness, but what happens when we lose our saltiness? What happens when our faith becomes foolish or speechless? What happens when we get carried away with things that don’t matter, things that distract us from our true callings? What happens when we argue over petty things? What happens when we fail to open our mouths in witness? What happens when our message fails to address the concerns and happenings of the real world? What happens when we lose the will to engage with what is going on around, or when we lose the courage to speak out against injustice? What happens when we lose our saltiness?

Jesus uses a second metaphor to describe his followers. Not only are they the salt of the earth, they are the light of the world. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, it is put on a lamp stand and provides light to everyone in the room.

Light provides illumination, it provides clarity. Without light, we cannot see. We cannot tell where we are going or what dangers might be in our path. We cannot tell the difference between colors, or appreciate the beauty of the created world. Of all of the senses, sight is perhaps the one we rely upon most. We often equate sight with understanding. In the cartoons, when someone gets an idea or figures something out for the first time, we can tell because a lightbulb switches on next to their head. If I want to say that I understand something, I can simply say, “I see.” It was the same in ancient Greek. The word that means “I know” is actually an ancient form of the word for seeing: it literally means “I have seen.”

And light, like salt, is something that is not good on its own. If light is hidden, it isn’t good for anything. Light is only good if it is put somewhere where it can shine. Light is only good if it illuminates things for people to see. Salt, also, is not any particular good on it’s own. It is only good if it is consumed to facilitate metabolism, or used to preserve or season food, or spread to melt ice. It is only good if it is used.

Being a Christian is not about being good in myself. It is not about focusing on my interior life to the exclusion of everything else. It is not about being satisfied with myself and my learning, or my purity, or my holiness. Learning, purity, and holiness can be good things, but not if they are not shared, not if they are not put to use. Being a Christian is not a solitary venture. Being a Christian is always about our relationship with others, both those inside and those outside the Christian community.

Jesus says that a city on a hill cannot be hid. Its light will reveal it even from far away. The phrase was famously used by President Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly spoke about America as a shining city on a hill. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase in reference to America. John Winthrop first used it in 1630 aboard to ship Arbello to tell the future Massachusetts Bay Colonists that the eyes of the world would be watching them. Their experiment would either show the world an example of Christian charity or it would show the world the colonists’ failure to achieve Christian charity and unity. President John F. Kennedy used it in the days leading up to his inauguration in the same way, to say that the eyes of world would be on America to see if we would succeed or fail at the great tasks ahead of us.

But Reagan used the phrase over and over, and he altered the wording a bit. Jesus spoke of a city on a hill that could not be hid. Reagan spoke of a shining city on a hill. And in doing so, he changed the meaning of the phrase. Winthrop and Kennedy were making the point that the world would be scrutinizing America. Reagan meant that the world was being drawn to America. It wasn’t just that America was being watched, or even that America was an example for the rest of the world. Reagan meant that the world’s peoples were being drawn to join America. For him it was a profound statement of America’s diversity, of our ability to welcome people from all nations, races, and religions. He explicitly said that shining city was indifferent to differences in race, religion, or political leanings.

In his farewell address, Reagan said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

That vision of America as a shining city on a hill is a far cry from how America is presenting itself in the world today. Now we are a nation defined by a border wall, a nation whose ports of entry are closed to those we see as different, those whose nationality, or language, or race, or religion do not conform to a certain mold. We are becoming more and more a nation of exclusion and division.

And it is in this context that we must struggle with what it means to be salt for the earth and light for the world. What is the truth we must speak, the saltiness we cannot afford to lose? What is the light we must shine, the situations we cannot allow to go unseen?

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to share God’s radical message of love and inclusion. We have an obligation to shine a light on injustice when we encounter it, an obligation to preserve what is good and just and life-giving in our world. We cannot abdicate our responsibility, hide our light under a basket, or allow our salt to become saltless. You are the light of the world, that is, of the whole world, not just part of it. You are the salt of the earth, that is, of the whole earth, not just a small section. We must be brave. We must be bold. We must share the love of God in every way that we can, taking courage from the one who calls us, the one who gives us light and life, Jesus the Christ.