Leave your gift

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Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Julia_DSCF1149.JPG By J. Lane (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Salting the fire of the new creation

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Watching for the Morning of February 5, 2017

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

References to light and darkness rattle through the readings for Sunday, but the heart of the Gospel reading is about fire: the fire of the earthen oven in the courtyard of the cluster of simple peasant homes that uses a salt slab as a catalyst for the burning of the dung patties the youngest girls in the extended family are assigned to make. When the slab has lost its value (not it’s taste) as a catalytic agent, it is taken out and used as a stepping stone for those days when rains turn the pathways to mud.

We are that necessary element to the oven without which no bread gets baked. We are the light shining in the peasant house without which no one can see, for there are no windows to lighten the room. Jesus is talking to rural villagers, not the Jerusalem elite. He is talking to those who are poor, mourning and hungering for the world to be set right. He is talking to refugees in the camps when doors are shut. He is talking to mothers and children scratching out their existence in the rubble of wars. He is talking to those in fear of uniforms unrestrained by any law. He is talking to those who know hunger and thirst. “You are the salt that burns bright the fire of God. You are the light that is set on a stand.”

Jesus must have seemed a little nuts.

Yet here is this compelling word of grace that among the broken dawns the reign of God. Among the wounded arises the day of God’s healing. Among the grieving rises the songs of joy. For the anointed has come dispensing the gifts of God’s reign. And among these people shines the fire and light of the dawning redemption of all the earth.

So Sunday we hear that great prophetic speech from the book of Isaiah declaring that the religious observance God wants to see is not a great public fast but for us “to loose the bonds of injustice,” and “let the oppressed go free,” to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and clothe the naked. “Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” And the psalmist sings of the righteous (the just, those faithful to God and others): “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.” And Paul writes of the wisdom of God that is so different from the wisdom of this age – an age that is passing away – the wisdom hidden in Christ crucified, the wisdom revealed through the Spirit: The mystery that the broken one is the risen one in whom all things are raised from the valley of the shadow of death into the realm of imperishable life.

The light shines. And we are the wick set upon a stand and the slab of salt that sustains the fire of the new creation.

The Prayer for February 5, 2017

Gracious God,
you have appointed your people to be in the world
as the fire and light of your justice and mercy.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit,
and shape our lives by your Word,
that through lives of faith, hope and love
we may bear witness to your reign;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 5, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – In the hardscrabble life after the return from Exile, God confronts the complaint of the people that God has not answered their prayers by challenging the goal of those prayers. They have sought advantage for themselves rather than to live God’s justice and mercy.

Psalmody: Psalm 112:1-10
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” – A description of the righteous who rest securely in God and the blessing they bring to the world, giving freely to the poor and conducting “their affairs with justice.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
“We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” –
Paul’s message to the Corinthians was not dressed in the skills of rhetoric and human wisdom, but “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Yet there is a wisdom in this message: the wisdom revealed by the Spirit regarding God’s work and purpose in the world.

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Comparing his followers with salt and light, Jesus summons the community of Israel (and his disciples) back to their calling as the medium through which God brings blessing/healing to the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASalt_from_Timbuktu.jpg By Robin Elaine (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where ladies are dressed

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1 Corinthians 1:18-31

27“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

Paul is not confirming the power of ignorance. It is not a diatribe against learning. Paul, himself, is well schooled and knowledgeable. This is a challenge of the “wisdom of the world”: the everyday realities accepted by all as “the way things are” – and the way God wants them. These are the realities of the ancient world where a few elite families hold positions of power and prestige granted by the emperor or passed down through the ages by a noble family line. Inherited wealth. Inherited power. Inherited privilege. The “wisdom of the world” is the world of Downton Abbey where ladies are dressed by maids and servants stand at attention while the family dines and the upper class doctor is believed over the village physician. This is the world where Rome rules by decree and those granted Roman citizenship are subject to a different law than the rest (so Peter is brutally crucified but Paul, the citizen, is granted a quick and clean beheading). This is the world that has always been and the gods confirm.

But this strange God of Abraham and Isaac chose Jacob, the younger, over Esau the elder. This strange God summoned the murderer, Moses, at the burning bush and chose a people in bondage. And when the time came, God didn’t choose the palace but the peasant home. God didn’t choose finery but a manger. God didn’t choose the priestly cast but the construction trade. God didn’t choose the literate students of the city rulers but fishermen and a tax collector.

It looks like folly to the privileged – but this is not about rejecting knowledge. It is about the nature of God’s kingdom where honor doesn’t go to the fine houses at the top of the hill by the temple, but to those poor and meek who live the justice and mercy God desires.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asks Nathanael when he is urgently summoned by Philip. “Of course not,” we all know. But, surprise, what is honored in God’s sight is not happening in Jerusalem; it is happening in Nazareth and Capernaum Sychar and wherever bread is shared and outcasts welcomed and tears shed for the world to be made new.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaler_der_Grabkammer_des_Zeserker%C3%AAsonb_001.jpg By Maler der Grabkammer des Zeserkerêsonb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What does the LORD require?

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Watching for the Morning of January 29, 2017

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday takes us to the Sermon on the Mount and the familiar words of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the merciful.” They are great and powerful declarations about what is honored in God’s sight.

We sometimes miss the meaning of these potent declarations. They sound gentle and kind to us – at least until we get to the one about persecutions – but these are thunderclaps, imperial proclamations reversing the values of all the kingdoms that have come before.

Words like ‘meek’ and ‘blessed’ convey something different in a modern western society than in the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus is not talking about those who are fortunate in life, but those who are honored in God’s sight. Honor belongs to those at the bottom of the heap, not those who have climbed to the top. Honor belongs to those who embody God’s mercy and faithfulness, not those who lead the parade. Those working in the soup kitchens of the District of Columbia this last week are the nobility of God’s kingdom, not those ushered about in limousines.

So Sunday we listen as the prophet Micah utters those famous words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And the psalmist will sing that those who are welcome in God’s presence are not the ritually clean but those who live faithfully towards their fellow human beings. And Paul sets out his opening gambit in the first letter to the Corinthians talking about the folly of “the wisdom of the world” versus the wisdom of the folly of God.

And then we will hear the beatitudes. They are not the “be-happy-attitudes”; they are the broad sweeping scythe that cuts down all that is exalted in the empires of this world and raises up those of generous heart and kind spirit, who weep at the walls and weapons we build, who hunger for a world of mercy and peace. Their prayers will be answered. Their prayers are being answered, even now, as Jesus speaks.

The Prayer for January 29, 2017

Lord of Life,
by your word and deed you overturn the values of our world,
declaring honorable what is often despised:
the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Help us to hear your Word,
and in hearing to trust,
and in trusting to live as you call us to live;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 29, 2017

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Through the prophet, God brings charges against his people, summoning the surrounding hills to hear God’s case and render judgment. God has done great things for this people and asked for justice and mercy, but the people have been faithless.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” – The poet describes the one who is worthy to enter the temple precinct in terms of faithfulness to others rather than ritual purity. Where we expect to her about ‘clean hands’, we hear instead about justice and mercy.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” –
The values of ‘the world’, the things honored and treasured by a humanity that has lost its harmony with God, are shown to be foolish and empty by God’s revelation of himself in Christ crucified.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the first of five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of what is honorable in God’s sight and declares God’s favor.

The comments from this and previous years on this Sunday of the church year can be found under the list of Sundays or by clicking here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVolunteers_of_America_Soup_Kitchen_in_Washington%2C_D.C..gif By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hungering for a just world


Matthew 5

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Paolo Pagani (1655 –1716), God the Father blessing and two children sharing a bread. Photo credit: Laurom

6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Again and again in scripture God is revealed as a god who feeds the hungry. Psalm 107 declares, “He satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.” Psalm 146 proclaims the God of Jacob who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free.” When Isaiah 40 says, “He gives power to the faint,” in that wonderful passage about mounting up “with wings like eagles,” the Greek translates it as “he gives strength to the hungry.” Again and again the Hebrew word rendered ‘faint’ refers to the faintness caused by hunger.

God is a god who feeds the hungry, who delivers those in bondage, who is the defender of widows and orphans. When Matthew records Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” it cannot be separated from the underlying notion of God’s care for the poor and vulnerable. The hungry are blessed not because they are hungry, but because there is a God who comes to the aid of those who hunger and who will bring all creation to a shared table.

It is this idea that connects Jesus’ promise in Luke, Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” with the longer declaration here in Matthew. Hunger for righteousness is hunger for a just world – God’s just world – where bread is shared.

In the scripture, righteousness does not consist of a passing grade on a moral exam; it is not the observance of a list of rules and regulations; it is faithfulness to God and to one another. The Greek and Hebrew words that are usually translated as ‘righteousness’ refer to that fidelity to one another that fulfills all social obligations. It is why the word can be translated as both righteousness and justice, for their meanings merge. The ‘righteous’ keep faith with God and with one another. They remember and live the obligations to justice and mercy, to love of neighbor and love of God.

So the hungry will be filled – the hungry who, because they are hungry, hunger for a just world. And this hunger for a just world, this hunger for a world governed by the Spirit of God, this hunger for a world governed by justice and mercy is honored in God’s sight.

And it shall be filled.

The gentle (“meek”, part 2)


Matthew 5

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Stained glass window of the Sermon on the Mount. Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation (Baltimore, Maryland). By ΙΣΧΣΝΙΚΑ-888

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I wrote yesterday of the promise that the humbled shall receive from God’s hand what has been taken from them. I talked about Psalm 37 and the use of the word “meek” to refer to the poor and oppressed. But there is more in this declaration than just the promise of God’s vindication of those whose lands have been stolen. The Greek word does mean gentle. It is used in ancient Greek of mild horses, tamed animals, and gentle souls.

This word translated ‘meek’ shows up two other times in Matthew’s Gospel: in Matthew 11:

28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

and in Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah 9:9:

4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

It is hard to separate the two dimensions of meaning: gentleness and poor. Jesus is the master who knows life’s adversities and so his demands upon his servants are gracious. He has been wounded and can treat the wounded with care. He knows our brokenness and receives us kindly. It’s a different Lord than the conquering hero who has never known defeat and rewards only success.

We live in a competitive world. I don’t know if parents let their children play “king-of-the-hill” anymore. Perhaps my mother wouldn’t either if she had known what we were doing on the dirt pile in the construction site behind our street. But the parade of trophies for soccer and dance and band, and the bumper stickers advertising a child’s success, are kind of the same thing. Who’s up? Who’s ahead? Especially now, we seem to live in a culture of self-promotion, tweeting our successes and adventures. We rank football teams and eligible bachelor/bachelorettes and fortune 500 companies and we measure who has the most ‘friends’ or ‘followers’.

Into this world of our constant scramble up the dirt pile, Jesus speaks of a gentleness that doesn’t push others down but lifts them up – a gentleness that forgives seventy-seven times, a meekness willing to serve, a humbleness that bends to wash feet, a love that lays down its life.

Such a gentleness is honored in the sight of God.

The humbled (“meek” part 1)


Matthew 5

File:Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights march on Washington D.C. in 1963.jpg

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, at a civil rights march on Washington, D.C.

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I heard once, when I was in high school, that the word meek was used of a warhorse trained for battle who was not frightened by the chaos and cries of the clash of armies. I haven’t been able to verify such a use of the Greek word, however much it appealed to an adolescent boy in search of a masculine Christianity.

What the word is routinely used for in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the sacred scriptures of the first believers) is those who are humbled by oppression and poverty. And the sentiment expressed by Jesus that those who have had their lands stolen from them shall receive them back again is not new to Jesus. Psalm 37 advises the faithful to “trust in the LORD and do good,” “commit [their] way to the LORD,” “refrain from anger and forsake wrath,” for “yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more,” and “the meek shall inherit the land.”

It advises against the angry vindictiveness that leads to a cycle of revenge: “Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him.”

The psalm declares that God will execute justice, that God will defend the poor, that God will cut off the wicked and “the righteous shall inherit the land.” (v.29)

“Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land.” (v. 34)

It sounds like the psalmist is counseling what we would call ‘quietism.” At least for us, in our culture, the word ‘meek’ suggests those who do not fight back against oppression – those who make great doormats.

I didn’t want to hear that as a teen. I still don’t. I wanted to fight injustice. I hated the insensitivity, the self-absorption, the self-righteousness of power. It wasn’t enough for me to hear that God will set things right in the end.

But there are times and places and peoples where those simple words are words of great hope and power: “God will set it right.” “God will set it right.”

Such a promise doesn’t make me weak; it makes me strong. God will make it right. The corruption and abuse of power will not endure. The world does not belong to those with money and great lawyers. The world does not belong to those who control congress and the media. The world does not belong to those with guns. The world does not belong to the hackers and hijackers. The world belongs to God and God will make it right.

The meek, the oppressed, the beat down, the humbled and humiliated will inherit the earth. Not just the family farm. Not just the land of Israel. They are the inheritors of the whole creation, raised from sloth and slime into glorious freedom of the children of God.

The injustice I oppose now will fall. Perhaps not today. Perhaps not tomorrow. But it will fall. The greed I oppose now will fall. The tyranny I oppose now will fall. Violence will not reign. It is not a word about the sweet by and by – it is a word about creation’s destiny. Our destiny is in God. And God has shown himself to be one who set slaves free, who is the avenger of widows and orphans, who commands the sharing of bread and freeing of servants and the protection of the natural world, who returns the humbled to their land.

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

A clash of worlds


Matthew 5

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Angel. Symbol of Matthew the Evangelist, miniature from Morosov-Gospel, early 15th century.

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them

The Gospel of Matthew is brilliantly constructed. Themes we find at the beginning are paralleled by events at the end. All Jerusalem is in turmoil when the magi appear inquiring about a new king, and all Jerusalem is in tumult when the new king finally arrives on a donkey and her colt. The beatitudes spoken as Jesus’ first words in the Sermon on the Mount declaring what is honorable in God’s sight are paralleled by the woes spoken at the end about all that is shameful in God’s sight. With the declaration “you snakes” in 23:33, there are eight makarisms and eight “shame-on-you”s – plus the snake reference mirrors the words of John the Baptist.)

Jesus is the faithful son who goes down to Egypt and returns, who does not break faith when tempted by Satan, who cares for the poor and loves the neighbor, who embodies the just and merciful reign of God, and faithfully proclaims the word of God. In contrast is the city of Jerusalem who “kill[s] the prophets and stone those sent to [them].”

The murder attempted in Matthew 2 will succeed in Matthew 27. The leadership of the nation chooses a murderer over the faithful son. Jesus is what God’s people fail to be.

Against this great backdrop we come back, this Sunday, to the beatitudes. These are not beautiful words of spiritual poetry; they are the overture of a great drama, the clash between the way of God and the way of human empires, the clash between God and the gods of this world. Here Jesus declares what is honorable in the sight of God. And he speaks the promise that these honored of God and spurned by the world will inherit all things.

Caesar claims to be the savior of humankind, but brings death. Jesus is the savior who brings life. The Pax Romana, the imperial peace of Augustus, is a tyranny at the point of a sword; the peace of God is Immanuel, God with us, before whom Magi kneel offering royal treasures.

Choose your lord,” says Matthew. Choose whom you will serve. Choose whom you will follow: the soldiers who fall down like dead men, or the dead man who lives.

And here again we see the rich construction of Matthew’s Gospel: this Jesus, risen, vindicated by God, who was promised in the beginning of the Gospel to be Immanuel, God with us, at the end of the Gospel sends his followers into the world declaring with his final words: “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

The strange journey

Sunday Evening

Matthew 5

File:Pair of Candlesticks LACMA M.62.46.41a-b.jpg44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The teaching of Jesus is pretty clear: everyone is to be seen and treated as a member of your own family.  What is not so clear is its application.  What does it mean to love an Osama bin Laden?  Was Dietrich Bonheoffer correct when he participated in the plot to kill Hitler?  You can certainly make the argument that love of neighbor trumps the love of Hitler and calls for a necessary violence, but what about this command to love your enemies?

The argument that love of neighbor trumps love of enemy is the same argument that justifies violence in the protection of one’s family.  Though we must admit this is often just a mask for protecting what matters to me – my stuff, my people.

What would it look like, face to face with a burglar, to love him?  What does love require?  What does it mean to regard him or her as a brother or sister?

I would not let my child steal from another.  It is certainly not in my child’s best interest to allow such behavior.  To stand by, to not stop her, would not be an act of love toward her.  If I would not let a family member do such a thing, I should not let any others do so.  There are parents who report their children to the police because they know their child must be held accountable.  Yet, in Les Miserables, when Valjean has been captured running from the bishop’s home with the bishop’s treasured silver, and thrown down at the Bishop’s feet by the policeman Javert with the unlikely story that the silver was a gift, the Bishop says, “My friend, you left in such a hurry you forgot the candlesticks.”  It is an act of generosity and grace that transforms Valjean’s life.

The path Jesus lays out for us, the path of creative and radical response to the brokenness of the world in hopes of healing, is not black and white.  It’s not a simple list of rules.  It is a much more complicated journey of compassion and wisdom, creativity and courage – like giving up your cloak and going home naked or insisting your adversary treat you with honor by striking your left cheek.  It is a journey shaped by a vision of the world made whole – the world made perfect – the world reconciled and transformed.  It is a journey shaped by nothing less that God’s own Spirit.

Such a journey can easily be sidetracked by our ability to deceive ourselves and rationalize our desires if it is not governed by a serious attention to the voice of God that comes down to us through the law and prophets – and by participation in a community of faith listening together to that Word.  Rules are so much simpler.  But if rules were enough, Moses would have been enough.  We need also the story of the cross (the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep) the resurrection (God’s vindication of Jesus) and the ascension (that this Jesus, crucified and risen, is the governing truth of all existence, the bread and water of life, the light and life of the world).

The Bishop understands the power of love, the sacrificial gift, and the creative response to life’s brokenness.  Javert couldn’t grasp such a world of radical and reckless grace.  But it is the true journey to wholeness.