Monday, February 24, 2020

We Have Seen the Glory


Matthew 17:1-9
Transfiguration
February 23, 2020

Like most kids when I was young,
I hated going to the dentist.
When you’re older you can
sometimes learn to deal with
but kids, I don’t think ever do.

But as I was in the dentist chair,
I was able to get through the whole thing
because I knew that after I was done,
I would get a trip to the treasure chest.

Oh, the treasure chest!
It was this giant  - we’ll it was giant at the time –
wooden treasure chest. Maybe it was plastic.
And it was filled, filled with prizes:
little toys, bubble gum, candy, balloons, high bounce balls,
everything of my fantasies when I was a little kid.

Just knowing that the treasure chest was there
made it tolerable to have a strange man
shove his hands in my mouth and cause me pain.

I could get through the pain and discomfort
because I knew that something good was coming up.
I had a vision of something better to come.

That’s what visions are for.
They get us out of our fear and pain,
out of the panic of right now,
and they give us a vision of a better future.
  
Visions can be powerful things.
 Not only do they help us get through the bad times,
they drive us to create what we imagine and see.
A vision. Hope of what is to come.

This is Transfiguration Sunday,
We  hear the story of how Jesus
brought his three closest disciples
onto the mountaintop to pray.
And when they get there, they see a vision.

Now they had been with him a while now.
We’re already in chapter 17 here
They had seen and heard some amazing things,
They had also seen and heard some scary and terrible things.

And immediately before this trip up the mountain,
Jesus tells his disciples the scariest thing of all.
He tells them that he will go to Jerusalem and undergo
great suffering and be killed.
The disciples were surely anxious and full of dread.
Maybe they were wondering whether they did the wrong
thing leaving their nets behind and following Jesus.
Maybe they should have just stayed home.

Peter, James, and John were probably
steeped in these concerns while they’re all up there praying.
But then they see their friend, Jesus –
The one whose ministry they were just doubting –
transformed, changed, dazzling white, glorified and perfect.
and standing with their two most beloved prophets:
Elijah and Moses.

This is not just a miracle for the sake of a miracle.
It is a vision. A vision of hope for the disciples to keep with them
in their back pockets as they go on their way
and follow Jesus to the end.

We know that beyond this chapter,
the story is not so wonderful.
They don’t stay on top of the mountain,
they go back down the mountain.
They meet demons and evil spirits.
And they do go to Jerusalem, and there they find
doubt, pain, denial, abandonment, great suffering, and death.

But the leaders have this vision with them.
A vision of Jesus, Jesus resurrected.
A vision of hope for them to travel with.
Something that tells them that the trouble will all be worth it.
No matter how dark it gets, God’s will get the last word.

God has not left us alone in this world.
God gives us visions to help us on the road
As Christians, we don’t have visions of toys in a treasure box.
We have visions of justice, end to war, end to poverty.
We have visions of eternity, where all people are gathered
together, where everyone knows and experience God’s love.

And we see glimpses of those things :
in our worship, in our music and prayer,
in our children when they understand and serve and help
When we serve and help others,
when we feed people in the food pantry,
when we build houses,
when we gather together to help other people,
we can see a glimpse of that vision.
A glimpse of the glory of God.
And it keeps us going through the tough times.

Whenever I hear about Transfiguration,
and the disciples’ trip up to the mountaintop,
I always remember this Martin Luther King Jr. speech.
It’s been called “I’ve been to the mountain top”
that he gave before striking sanitation workers in Memphis:

https://youtu.be/e49VEpWg61M   (click the link to see it)

I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.  And I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

This speech is all the more poignant because
it was given on April 3rd, 1968.
the next day he was shot and killed.
Even though he knew there was still
so much work to be done,
Even though he seemed to know he would be killed,
He had a vision, he knew that God would prevail.

Like James and Peter and John, he had been to the mountain top.
He had seen a vision of God’s glory.
That gave him confidence that his
hopes would be reality one day.
Even in the face of death,
it gave him the courage not to give up.

God gives us visions.
Visions of hope in our times of trial.
Visions of love, justice, peace,
hungry people fed,  housing for everyone,  no more racism,
No more tears, no more, sickness, no more violence, no more sorrow.
Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

God Cares


February 16, 2020
Matthew 5:21-37

Ugh, it’s so hard being a Lutheran!

Jesus is continuing with the sermon on the mount.
Sermon on the Mount
Joseph Matar
I bet that the crowds 
around him that day were feeling
a little uncomfortable at this point.

Actually with all the eye 
plucking and hand cutting,
it should make any good person uncomfortable,
which I think it was supposed to do, so bravo, Jesus.

You notice that even biblical literalists
do not take these words literally.
There are Christians that mess with snakes in worship,
and think that women shouldn’t talk in church,
but I don’t think I’ve heard of any group
cutting off their hands and plucking out their eyes.
This is apparently universally recognized as a hyperbole.

And thank goodness it is,
because we’ve all been convicted by what Jesus is saying, haven’t we?
Who hasn’t looked at someone with lust in their heart?
Who hasn’t been angry at a brother or sister?
Who hasn’t broken a relationship or hurt another person?
Who hasn’t made a promise and not kept it?
None of us. We should all feel uncomfortable.

And that’s where Lutherans usually leave it right?
We’re all convicted by the law and we should
be punished eternally, but thankfully,
Jesus died on the cross, so we’re going to heaven, amen.
Let’s get communion, have coffee and go home, right?
  
And that might be satisfying for the moment,
And it is certainly a gift that we Lutherans 
want to find in every reading, and it’s much easier for me to write about.
but in the end it’s unsatisfying.
It basically erases everything that Jesus says.
Jesus says, I say to you all this -
But don’t worry about it because I’m going to die on the cross.

I think that this sermon if Jesus is tougher than all that,
But I still think it is a gift.
In these succession of laws there is a gospel.
Jesus was giving a great gift for those people listening.
And you can find it by looking at what all of these things
have in common.
In all of these rules, there is nothing in here about how we do religion.
They’re all about how we treat each other.
The gift is that God cares about how we treat each other.

The Pharisees and other religious leaders,
who were supposed to be speaking for God,
had a lot of rules for the people to follow.
But all the rules were about the religion and
the correct way to do personal devotion.
They made God seem like he was only interested in whether
the people worshiped him right.

Whether  you showed up to the temple, whether you sacrificed right,
whether you washed your hands right, whether you ate the right
things at the right time with the right people,
and especially whether you put the right amount of money
into the temple offering.
It seemed like God didn’t care much about much else
just whether you hit the right religious marks.

And this was part of the other religions  
that surrounded the Jewish people too.
They were very focused on fulfilling the right rituals,
in order to appease the gods so they wouldn’t get angry.

And the gods themselves were doing all sorts of nasty,
sneaky things to one another and terrible things to humans too.
The stories of Gods seemed like a reality show,
the Real Housewives of Mt. Olympus.

This seems to be the tendency of all religions.
To focus only on Sunday and forget about the rest of the week.

But Jesus was telling the crowds that Yahweh -
the God of Abraham and Sarah -  
wasn’t like what they were used to or what the
religious leaders were selling them.

Jesus was saying that God cared about
what they did and how they lived and how they
treated one another, God cared about their whole life,
not just their religious life.

Now this wasn’t a new thing. It’s all over the Jewish scriptures.
But it’s easy to for us humans to forget and ignore.
It’s much easier for the religious leaders to tell people
just to show up and give cash,
and it’s easier for the people to do just that and say it’s done.

But Jesus says that isn’t really God’s concern.
He says, if you are just giving your offerings to God in the temple,
and not tending to your relationships -
forget about your offering and tend to you relationships first.
Your relationships with one another is primary,
it comes before your giving your offering.
  
And the part in here about divorce
Jesus is not trying to shame people who have struggled
in their relationships and couldn’t make it work.
And Jesus wasn’t trying to force people – usually women -
into staying in abusive and damaging marriages.

Jesus is raising the stakes for people who were
just doing the legal minimum to fulfill the law
 and not worrying about how it affected other people.

At the time, women did not have any options
to support themselves without a man.
But men were dismissing their wives and leaving them
and their offspring destitute for arbitrary and petty reasons
and not losing any sleep over it.
They would just say, well,
“the law says I can just get a certificate, God must be satisfied”.

But Jesus says, No.  God is not satisfied with that.
He says, even if you’re divorced, you’re responsible
for your family, don’t think you’re off the hook.

God is all up in our business and our personal stuff.
God wants to get into our hearts and minds and our lives.
And that is the good news here. God cares.

God cares about our lives
God cares about our relationships.
God cares about our little squabbles with our neighbor.
About our strained Thanksgiving dinners with our parents.
About our marriages and our divorces
about the way we treat one another.

So don’t just refrain from murder,
                don’t hold on to your anger.
Don’t just not commit adultery,
                don’t hold on to your lust for another person.
Don’t’ just follow the law on divorce,
                care for the ones you promised to care for.
Don’t just swear the right oath,
                let your words be honest and trustworthy.

Jesus is saying our relationships with one another.
is the best offering that we can give God.
Not the money we put into the coffers.
No wonder the Chief Priests  and the elders wanted to kill him.

We have been saved by God’s grace.
That is for sure, and we don’t have to worry about
any of this to receive God’s unconditional love.

But if we’re interested, God has a job for us to do
and it starts with one healed relationship at a time.

We are the light of the world.
We are the salt of the earth.
We are the blessed.
Ours is the Kingdom of God to create here on this earth.

It would actually be a lot easier to just
have a God who just wanted a regular offering left on an altar.
But this is good news, not easy news.

Our God is the God of everything,
the creator of mountains and forests and vast oceans
the one that whole governments and economies rise and fall before.
But our God also cares about our relationships, about your relationship
with that one other person, that no one else even knows
or cares about.

We are saved by God’s love.
And God’s love helps us to love others.

Monday, February 10, 2020

You Are Light and Salt

February 9, 2020
Matthew 5:13-20
Sermon on the Mount
Joseph Matar

Oh, being Lutheran and reading Matthew.
It’s not that easy. Especially where we get to a line like the last one we read today which says “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Lutherans like to understand that heaven is a gift of God. This should all feel like a gift instead of a task list. But when we look at it in one way, the way of the scribes and the Pharisees, it is a daunting task list.

We are always reminded that Matthew was not a Lutheran
and did not feel the need to make our Lutheran Confessions
teachers happy. But being steeped in Lutheranism as we are,
it is a habit to look for the gift hidden within this task list.
And we don’t have to look to hard here to find it.

Jesus doesn’t say, “become salt”, or “become light”.
in his sermon on the mount.
He says to the people, “you are light”. “You are salt”.
This is happening. Just be who God made you to be,
and your righteousness will not be in doubt.

This was a new way for the people to look at the law and the prophets. 
Like a lot of religious leaders throughout the ages,
the Pharisees and scribes were out there with rule lists,
checking  them off and  trying to see if people followed
the laws they liked: Did they wash properly before eating,
did they pray at the right time, did they make the sacrifice right?
   
When they looked at the people, they asked,
“Did they do what you were supposed to do?”
“Did they do ABC correctly?”
Well, most people had no time to do AB and C
because they were spending all their time surviving, like most people.

On a clergy social media group,
we were looking at pictures of old membership rolls,
and they showed how some were released from
their churches membership.
And someone said that in her church’s history,
a man was excommunicated from his church
because he “cussed at his mule”.

But we can do this to each other with or without religion.
They would be good if they did A B or C.
I need to do A B or C before I can be good.
We are hyper-critical of others and of ourselves.
This is how we keep ourselves down.
This is how we keep other people down.
This is how we keep societies down.
By filling ourselves with doubt and shame.
And unrealistic goals and by always focusing on our foibles.

But Jesus doesn’t look at these people with contempt or judgement.
Maybe for the first time, these people were
hearing someone that is not tearing them down and telling
them where they were wrong.
Jesus didn’t say, look, you have to follow these laws or
do these self-help books and follow the
7 habits of highly successful Christians
and then you will be salt and light.

Jesus says, You are the light of the world!
You are the salt of the earth!
Just be what God created you to be.
Now we all understand the value of light.
We’ve all been in a dark place where we can’t see
Light is helpful and brightens everything,
it helps us see, helps things to grow.

But salt may not be as obvious to us.
It’s just a spice that can give us high blood pressure.
But salt was very useful and was a necessity
to people in Jesus time, it was used to flavor food,
but it was also used to preserve food for
times when food couldn’t be found.
It was used to treat wounds, it was used as  cure for things.
Now we can get a pound of salt in the grocery
store for about 99 cents now, but then
salt was not as easy to come by,
it was valuable, like many spices.
Salt was useful, valuable, and it preserved life.

Jesus is saying that by being God’s children
We are bringing light and life to this
dark and scary world.
You are the light of the world
You are the salt of the earth.

And God knows, the whole world
needs some light and salt right now.
It seems like ideologies are tearing us apart  in this world.
This week in particular showed how
heated and divided our country is.

We are divided from our neighbors.
And It doesn’t feel right.
Republican vs.  democrat, Republican vs. Republican,
Democrat vs. Democrat, Liberal Vs. Conservative,
millennial vs.  baby boomers.
Bacon and eggs vs. Avocado toast.
  
We can’t seem to have a conversation
about anything substantial without devolving
into insults and anger.
Hate and fear are swallowing us up.
An article I read said there is more division
in our country than at any time since the Civil War.

And as we enter into this election year, you can see
it’s all just going to get worse rather than better.

It might seem like as Christians we should be doing
something extraordinary, something big.

But with the fervor of the day blaring so loud,
just doing the minimal basics of Christian life
can be very light and life giving.

Simply not getting hysterical, talking to people we disagree
with and not yelling at them, not resorting to vitriol,
not taking personal jabs at people, could be a huge testament.
And this is a reminder to myself, just as much to anyone else.
We all get caught up in the moment sometimes.

Simply not letting hate consume us and drive our actions
May not seem like anything special.
But with the voices of anger and hate rising
from other Christians and other Christian leaders,
our voices of compassion and tolerance
can speak volumes about the gospel that we know,
we are the light of the world,
we are the salt of the earth.
  
We know how this sermon on the Mount ends.
Jesus tells them:
other people say love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those
who persecute you.”

We know this one it is part of us.
If we never did anything else, but we just did this,
that would be earth changing.
It would be a light to the world.
Just showing the world the example of Christian love
that Christ taught us, can be a miracle.

Just like Jesus preaching to that crowd
in that sermon on the mount two thousand years ago.
He is not asking them to do follow a bunch of old rules.
He’s not asking them to be super heroes.
He tells them they are salt, they are light.
Just don’t lose your flavor, just don’t hide that light.
That will be a miracle. You will exceed in your righteousness.

To keep me going in these difficult times,
I have to remember that God is doing something.
God has a vision in sight and what we see is part of God’s process.
God is breaking our hearts open more and more
in order to repair them again in his image.
God is letting us tear things down in order to build them up again.
I believe that God is working toward God’s vision.
I’m not sure what it is at this point,
but I do have faith that God is doing something wonderful
with the messes we’ve made.
God will get things done in this world.
We will have justice, we will have righteousness,
we will have love and peace and tolerance.
We will have resurrection and new life.

And I do believe that we are a part of God’s plan.

As followers of Jesus, we are not just law followers,
we are law fulfillers.
God would not create us, just so we can fail
some petty tests of righteousness,
and some litmus tests of virtue or purity.
God made us to be part of God’s glorious
kingdom and God’s glorious plan or redemption
for the whole world.

We are the salt of the earth.
We are the light of the world.
God’s work will be done,
and we will be a part of it.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Baptism - Reaching


Matthew 28:16-20
Baptism Theme
February 2, 2020

We have been talking about baptism.
How baptism washes us with God’s love
and forgiveness, how it changes us,
how it makes us a part of a community
And today we hear about Jesus command to baptize others.

The Great Commission
Robert Kemble
The story we hear today 
happens on the day of Jesus resurrection.
His disciples are stunned and 
shocked by the last three days.
They are grasping a new reality.
It says when they see Jesus, 
they worship him.
But some doubted.
We can probably sympathize 
with them since
we all struggle at times to understand the work of God in Christ.
It is good that Matthew is 
not afraid to relate this to us.
It must have seemed like the end of everything they’d hoped for.

But what they saw as an ending is just the beginning.
The beginning of their life -- not just knowing Christ –
but with Christ, in Christ, as the body of Christ
as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
Jesus tells them to go,
 “Go make disciples of all nations.
Baptizing in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit.”

Now, over the years, some have taken this command
that to mean that we should convert every person
to our religion and our culture by force if necessary.
It has been seen as a command to dominate and overcome
and use Jesus gift as a method of colonization and occupation.
  
Of course, that is not what Jesus meant.
But unfortunately, humans have made a hobby of  taking
Jesus words and using them for their own means.

What I hear Jesus saying to us is this:
that all nations , all people of the earth
deserve to know the Love Of God.
Jesus is telling us to help all people of every country
live in the security that they are loved by a merciful God.

I remember the first time I read the fourth article of the
Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran Theology, which reads:
“We are not justified by their own strength,
merits, or works, but are justified freely for Christ’s sake
It was explained to me that God didn’t love us 
because of what we did or didn’t do, but God loved us because God loved us.
I remember hearing that and thinking, 
“People should be told about this. I would like to have a job telling people about this!
Wouldn’t that be great!” Duh, it’s called a pastor.

But you don’t need to be a pastor to share Gods love
with other people. 
We can all tell someone about God’s love and forgiveness for them. 
We show it to others with our
actions, our caring, our service.
We can teach our children about it.
We can welcome people and include them in our lives
and even if we don’t baptize them in our fonts,
they can still be baptized in God’s love.

There was a woman in my previous congregation
who was Jewish, and her husband was Lutheran,
he joined the church and her teenage children were baptized,
but she didn’t feel like she wanted to deny her heritage
so she was not baptized. But she attended regularly
and she was welcomed and loved by the congregation.

She became involved in so many aspects
of service and leadership in the church.
God’s love was shared with her, and she shared it with others.
She was never baptized, but still, she was baptized with God’s love.

Another friend has a church and they reach out to
neighborhood children. Most of them are Somalian
immigrants and happen to be Muslim.
Those in the ministry knows that no one will become Christian
or attend their church, but the church shares
God’s love with them all the same.
Those children have been washed in God’s love.
And they share that love with others.

And at our food pantry every week.
We share food and the love of God with everyone
regardless of their religion or faith or beliefs.
They are baptized in God’s love.

And of course, some people have God’s love
shared with them and decide to become a follower
of Jesus and come to the font and answer the call
to serve the Gospel of Jesus too. And that is wonderful too.

Christ’s purpose is to reconcile all of creation.
Every nation and race and every person deserves to
feel and understand God’s love for them.
To be reconciled to God, no matter what race, or religion.
God so loves the world and everyone should know that.
  
And what is good for the world, is also good for the church again.
Jesus Great Commission also tells us to go
and meet and know other people, strangers,
people that are different from us, people
we don’t know, people that speak different languages,
and welcome them as part of our communities.
The Great Commission asks to stretch our boundaries
the baptism of all nations in God’s love asks those
who are spreading it to expand our love for others.

When we welcome others outside our experience,
we are changed.
When Philip welcomed the Ethiopian Eunuch,
his understanding of the breadth of God’s love changed.
When Peter baptized Corneilus, the Gentile and his family,
his understanding of God’s love was changed 
and the church was expanded to include others.

Every time we enlarge our embrace
to encompass God’s wide and never ending embrace,
we understand the depth of God’s love even more.
We are changed, we are  converted,
we are baptized again and again.

Baptism is water and the word of God.
Water is cleansing and gentle and it’s
also powerful and not easily held back.
Water seeps and flows through barriers.

The love of Chris is always ready to reach out
and always ready to draw in.
The love of Christ is always ready to
to wash away the old and usher in the new.
And that love that will be with us always
until the end of the age.