February 26, 2017 The Rev. Barbara Elliott
This past May, I found myself on a paddle-rafting trip at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The view and the presence of the Colorado River took my breath away as I realized I was actually living in God’s imagination! When I was 12 years old, I had a similar experience in the Boundary Waters where I had the ‘aha’ that I was surrounded by –and part of—God’s creation. In both of these experiences, I found myself gasping as I came to terms with the amazing creation God has made.
You have also probably encountered something in God's creation that caused you to gasp, as well—and these experiences are indelibly etched in our souls’ memories. When was a time that you had an experience like this? A ‘mountain-top’ experience? These life experiences change our lives dramatically—we learn again how the world is framed in ways we hadn’t understood before. We come to know deeply about the fullness of God’s creation.
This is what happened for these disciples in today’s Gospel too: As we read, Jesus went to the mountain-top with James, John and Peter, where Jesus’ appearance changed, Moses and Elijah (e.g., the Law and the Prophets) joined Jesus, and God spoke to them, saying: “This is my beloved son; listen to him.”
For the Disciples, I imagine this experience took their breath away. They were discovering that life in the presence of the Holy One brings constant surprises. Specifically, these events are called “the Transfiguration.” When this happened, the Disciples could no longer doubt that Jesus was doing God’s work! They knew that Jesus was divine, indeed, that Jesus was God’s son.
The energy of this mountain-top experience was preparation for the Disciples to get through what was to come in Jerusalem. But first they needed to get down from the mountain. As we read in today’s Gospel, they were afraid and needed Jesus to regain his humanity in order to move ahead. So Jesus touched them and told them to “Get up and do not be afraid.” They could then trust their friend, and the awe they had gained grew to sustain them in the days ahead.
Like the Disciples, the light that we experience in our the mountaintop adventures stays with us, too. That light becomes the energy we need to handle what lies ahead in our lives, too. This light stays with us, providing the energy and hope we need to sustain our spirits.
Jesus’ Transfiguration story marks a transition in our church journey through the Seasons. Do you recognize these? You may have had them at your house, too—this is a palm from last year’s Palm Sunday. This is a palm frond we waved as we remembered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the donkey. The palms waved then—last year—become part of this year’s church story. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when we begin Lent. We are going to create some of the ashes we will use this year now… We will use these ashes in our rituals on Wednesday.
Now we move forward into Lent, the time when we revisit Jesus’ experiences as he approached and arrived in Jerusalem. Lent invites us to consider how we might really live Jesus’ teaching that we love one another. This year, given our country’s chaotic circumstances, our Lenten invitation has both a personal and a community focus. I know my challenge these next weeks is become clearer for myself on how my Christian faith informs both my love of others, and my ways to express my resistance of the values and activities that can undermine that love. I want to learn how my faith can help me stand for what I believe and respond with love, not hate. I want to live the deep truths that can empower my hope.
How about you—what is it you hope to learn? Where are the ‘growing edges’ for you this Lent? You may be heading into Lent not having had an epiphany - that is, you’re not sure how God is working in your life. Don’t panic. Jesus’ inner circle of friends didn’t understand right away either and needed Jesus to reassure them. Like the disciples, we each need to work these things out during Lent. We pray that God will shed light in our lives, to transfigure it, that we can see how to move forward….and then we will be patient.
The message today as we prepare for whatever is coming in our own lives, is that God’s energy and light is with us and sustains us through the hardest times. This is real and happens every day. Recently I sat at the hospital with a couple who had just learned the worst news of their lives. I watched as the patient reached out to assure his wife, the healthy one, that they would get through it together, with God’s help. I was privileged to be watching the love and light that sustained them in this sacred space.
That IS what the Transfiguration is all about. It marks a transition in our insight from recognizing Jesus as God’s Son, to the season of thinking in a new way about how we can stand on our faith when life gets harder, to better love God and each other.
February 19, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“You have heard it said. . . But I say to you. . .”Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus’ hearers had heard this decree because it is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In other words, it’s in the Bible. An eye for an eye because it established a proportional response when one was offended or harmed.
It put a limit on revenge and retaliation. If someone stole one of your sheep, you could take one of theirs. One, but you couldn’t take their whole flock. If someone killed someone in your family, you could kill one of theirs but not his whole family. An eye for an eye established proportional retaliation intended to prevent unlimited cycles of violence. This was the world that Jesus was born into, and Jesus said, “No.” Jesus said no retaliation, no revenge, not even proportional; an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
Turn the other cheek. A blow to the right cheek indicated a demeaning, shaming act of a superior toward an inferior. A blow to personal honor, it caused more insult than injury. To turn the other cheek is to offer the left one, this would require the aggressor to use his fist to strike you. By doing so, by turning the other cheek, you rob the aggressor of the power to humiliate and shame. Jesus is speaking about the power of not retaliating. He’s holding that up, the power of non-violent resistance.
If anyone wants your coat, give them your cloak as well. In Jesus’ world, people wore two garments, a tunic as a first layer next to the skin and a heavier cloak over that. To give them both was to end up naked and nakedness was considered the ultimate humiliation. To take both tunic and cloak and force such humiliation shows the greed of the one making the demand, it brings shame upon them for being greedy.
So does Jesus’ admonition to go the extra mile. Soldiers could force citizens to carry their things for up to one mile in the ancient world. To force more than a mile could get the soldier into trouble. Walking the extra mile is an act of protest meant to show that the citizen is an equal to the soldier – non-violently resisting the soldier’s assumption of his superiority.
Jesus holds up non-violent resistance again with the most challenging and perhaps greatest of all of his teachings, “Love your enemies.” Every message, every impulse, every reaction in Jesus’ world, and in our world today, says hate your enemies, hurt them, kill them even. But Jesus says, “No, love them.”
It is important to remember that the love Jesus is commanding us to have is not a feeling, it’s not affection, or warmth of heart; it is an act of the will. It is willing the good for the other, as difficult as that might be, which is why Jesus links this love with praying for them. Praying for one’s enemies is attempting to see them from God’s point of view.
To see even an enemy as a beloved child of God turns the world upside down. All of those actions, not taking an eye for an eye, turning the other cheek, giving coat as well as cloak, walking the extra mile, loving one’s enemy, turn the world upside down. Far from being signs of weakness or meekness or humiliation they are the most powerful things a Christian can do. To stand up to violence and humiliation and hate with non-violent resistance, to stand up to them with love, to love even those who harm us.
Love is the only thing that can transform our world and our lives because love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is stronger than violence, stronger than greed, humiliation and hate.
Let us pray: Creator God, help us to see ourselves and others as you see us, as beloved. Help us to love, even our enemies. Help us to know that your law of love calls us beyond earthly laws and the converting of this world into your promised land, into the kingdom of justice, love and peace. Amen.
February 5, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“Bring forth the Kingdom of mercy, Bring forth the Kingdom of peace;
Bring fourth the Kingdom of justice, Bring forth the City of God!”
Bring forth the kingdom, that’s what Jesus was telling the great crowd that had gathered to hear him teach. We call it The Sermon on the Mount. Great crowds were following Jesus, all the people - Jews and Gentiles, male and female, rich and poor, healthy and sick, young and old. All sorts and conditions of people hungry to hear what Jesus had to say, and in today’s passage they are told “you are the salt,” “you are the light.” Season and shine. Bring forth the Kingdom.
You may not recognize the name Asma Jami, but you may have heard her story. About a year ago, Asma, an American Muslim, was having dinner at an Applebees Restaurant in Coon Rapids. She and her family were speaking Swahili as they enjoyed their dinner, when suddenly a woman at a nearby table shouted, “Speak American or get out of the country!” Speak American, yikes.
Asma, a practicing Muslim dressed in the traditional head covering, calmly explained that she is a U.S citizen, her children were born here, and that they with her parents chose to speak Swahili. Before she could finish the angry woman picked up a beer mug and smashed Asma in the face. She needed 17 stitches and will have permanent scars. In court she told how she was too frightened to leave her house for a long time after the attack. She considered moving from Minnesota.
The attacker was arrested, convicted, and sentenced. In court Asma made this statement to her attacker: “My religion teaches me to forgive so I can get on with my life. If I hold a grudge, if I hold the hate you hold towards me against you, it’s not going to serve me well. So, in front of everybody here, I do forgive you and I hope that you choose love over hate . . . Having hate just eats at you, it’s not good. I hope you find what you’re looking for at the end of your journey. I know you’ve had just as long of a year as I’ve had . . . I don’t have any ill feelings toward you. I just want you to understand at the end of all this that we are all the same. It doesn’t matter what’s on my head, it doesn’t matter the color of my skin – we are all the same human beings, we are fighting for the same rights. I am an American citizen and would fight for it today as much as you would. So I just want you to understand you hit somebody you didn’t know anything about . . . So I hope you learn at the end of all this we are all the same, there’s no difference between me and you.”
Asma was free to choose, she could have responded to violence with violence, to hate by hating back, to being deeply wronged by holding a grudge, but she chose to forgive. Forgiveness is the salt and the light that Jesus challenges us to be. Pointing out that we are all the same, we are all beloved Children of God is the salt and light that Jesus challenges us to proclaim. Confronting racism with love is the salt and light our country and our world desperately need today.
In today’s passage from Isaiah the people are not seeing results from their religious practice. “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” “O, God, we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They are saying, “You should be blessing us, O God, look at how religious we are.” And God says, being religious isn’t about engaging in spiritual practices in order to earn blessings from God. Being religious is about loosening the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, finding shelter for the homeless and clothing for the naked.
Letting your light shine for others, not puffing yourself up by bragging about how often you fast and how humble you are. Be salt, be light. Put your faith into practice. Our hopes for justice need to become our work for justice. Our prayers for peace and unity in the world must be lived in our home and in our community.
Our profession of faith in God must be translated into how we live our lives and treat our neighbor. Forgiving as Asma Jami forgave her attacker. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive. . .” If we do not practice our faith by striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being, loving even our enemy we are flavorless salt, a light hidden under a bushel basket. When that happens, when good people treat faith in God as a ticket to heaven rather than a means of transforming the earth, the darkness of violence and injustice has more room to grow.
Let us be light. Let us be salt. Let us bring forth the Kingdom. Amen.