Rev. Heather J. Blais
The gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is always taken from a brief section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins by offering the crowd a general principle: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Jesus then goes on to explore three particular applications of this principle: giving money, praying, and fasting. At first glance, the general idea is that when you make a financial gift, pray, or fast, to do so quietly and humbly. Yet when has Jesus ever been so binary in his approach? Rather, Jesus tends to ask us open ended questions, forcing us to go deeper if we dare remain present to his questions.
I think underneath this general principle Jesus is offering us an unasked question: What motivates our actions?
Jesus is inviting us to stop and examine our actions. To ask ourselves: Why am I doing this?
As followers of Jesus, the core of our motivation must always be Love. Love of the stranger, love of our enemy, love of neighbor, love of community, love of family, love of friends, love and care of self. Because as the great prophet Michael Currey once said, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.”
Yet the work of objective self examination is hard. It requires that we take time and space to simply be with God.
This is one reason that Jake Braithwaites, of the Jesuit Society of Jesus, recently wrote a blog titled, A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.
“I’m really interested in the way technology has warped our relationships with our true selves. I’m talking about the selves that show up when we’re all alone, in front of God, no masks. Because we’re liable to be “on” at all times, we rarely take a moment to be still. We’re loathe to take a moment to know God and to let God know us.”
We all know from personal experience that life seems to be getting busier and busier, if not in our own lives, in the lives of those around us.
Braithwaites acknowledges the cost to this pace of life.
He writes: “In the midst of a lot of life-giving things, I had barely a moment to rest, to slow down, to be still. And I felt it. When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester; exhaustion I’d ignored; difficult moments I’d refused to process. Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?”
Things began to shift for Braithwaites during a work trip abroad, where he convinced his boss to let him stay a few days longer. During his time away, he began to take long walks, and that is where the shifting started for him.
He writes, “I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods. Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”
Braithwaites goes on to suggest we try something radically different this Lent. Maybe instead of adding this or taking away that we instead simply do nothing. What would it look like if for the next forty days you carved out space and time to simply do nothing?
What if it turns out that doing nothing, simply being with God and noticing that God is with you, was the most important thing you could do for yourself, those you love, the Church, and the world? Would that be enough to grant you permission to take that time? What might begin to shift in you if you have space and time with God? How might it shift the motivations behind your actions? This Lent, I invite you to simply be. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
You may have noticed that the theme of the lessons we’ve heard this morning is mountain top experiences. Biblical storytellers and their listeners clearly loved mountaintop stories. This morning we heard about -
On the last Sunday in Epiphany every year we hear Transfiguration story.
It acts as transition moment - connecting us to both past and future:
The transfiguration experience takes place at a very difficult time for disciples:
Matthew tells us it occurred “six days later”. Six days before this, according to Matthew’s chronology, a set of confusing, troubling interactions occurred:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus’ prophecy didn’t fit Peter’s understanding of things, and Peter objected, earning a rebuke from Jesus, who called Peter “Satan”, telling Peter to “get behind” him, calling Peter a “stumbling block”.
And then six days later, he took them up the mountain.
The Sinai revelation to Moses took place as people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, were most uncertain about where they were headed.
Transfiguration happened at a moment when disciples needed reassurance amidst their confusion and fear of the future.
In both cases, the mountaintop experience offered them a feeling, a vision they could hold onto, to sustain them in challenging times that lay ahead. As they faced Gethsemane and Good Friday, Peter, James, & John knew they had seen the face of God in Jesus, and that in Jesus, God was well-pleased.
Life is probably always uncertain, but the moment that we’re living in probably always feels the most troubling, and certainly there is lots to trouble us in these days of 2020.
It seems to me that three instructions included in Transfiguration story can speak to us in these moments of uncertainty:
To all these different fears, both then and now, the Gospel reply is the same: because God is God of the past, present, and future, we need not fear. This is not the same as saying that we will have no problems, or that with God we will avoid harm and hardship. Jesus’ and the disciples ARE heading toward Jerusalem, after all. The moment of joy and understanding that Peter would love to preserve by building shelters and remaining on the mountaintop will pass, just as our moments of knowing that we have caught fleeting glimpses of God also pass away.
The command not to be afraid reminds us that God did not create us for death but for resurrection, and so also God does not want us to be afraid, but rather, to move forward – even and especially in uncertain times – moving forward with courage and confidence.
Listen to him. Be raised up. Do not fear. It’s important to remember that these words are said about and by Jesus as he refuses to linger on the mountain top but comes back down again into the realities of the world – our world – as he makes his way to Jerusalem. There he will be tried, condemned, and crucified, for the world has no place for the encouragement and hope he offers. But the story does not end with the courage of one man defying the world. It continues with the promise that God raised this Jesus from the dead so that all of us might have hope that there is more to this life than we can see, that God will be with us every step of our way, and that love and life are stronger than hate and death. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
I am one of those people who love order. I make my bed every morning. I love grammar and was one of those freakish kids in Middle School who actually enjoyed learning how to diagram sentences (not that I could do it now.) I gravitate toward knitting patterns that involve very symmetrical cables and ridges.
For those of us who love order, and I think there are many of us, we like having the rules that tells us what to do. We prefer to have a recipe to follow, directing us to moral behavior in life’s tricky situations, rather than having to weigh up complicated factors and reach our own determinations.
This is the dilemma that we find Jesus addressing in this morning’s gospel from the Sermon on the Mount. But before we look at the particulars, let’s remind ourselves what we know about the Sermon on the Mount in general.
It’s surely one of great passages in the New Testament. It may or may not have actually been a single sermon, and may or may not have taken place on a mountain.
Mark, the earliest of the four New Testament gospels, doesn’t include the Sermon on the Mount material, while Luke does, but Luke has Jesus preaching it on a plain, at a different point in Jesus’ ministry. Many New Testament scholars believe that in the early days of the Church there was a written collection of Jesus’ teachings in circulation (though it’s now presumably lost to us), and that Matthew and Luke excerpted passages from to include in the gospel narratives that they were constructing to share the “good news” with other believers.
The sermon begins with the Beatitudes – Jesus’ assurance of blessedness, of being God’s beloved children – and then continues with the “salt and light” passage that Heather reflected on last week, reminding us that at our core, we carry within us the saltiness and light of God’s love, to be carried into and shared with the world.
One of my seminary professors described the Sermon on the Mount as “the Constitution for the Kingdom of God”. Jesus began his ministry with the declaration that the Kingdom had come very close, and in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us exactly what God’s realm in this world will look like.
The gist of Jesus’ teaching is that living God’s will, living in right relationship with God, is about living from a heart that is attuned to God, rather than living by specific standards.
In the particular context and community to whom he is preaching, Jesus explains how to live in relation to Jewish Law that he and his disciples have been taught.
The passage actually begins in reading we heard last week:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
So it’s important to remember what the Law meant to Jesus’ disciples: Jews – then and now – understood the Law of Moses, found in the Commandments and statutes received at Sinai, and recorded in Torah, to be a precious gift from God to Israel. We heard this in today’s first reading, in Moses’ final sermon to Israel before they entered the Promised Land:
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, and walking in his ways…, then … the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
Jesus’ community understood “The Law” as the terms of Israel’s Covenant with God: through their commitment to G’s will, lived out as commitment to the terms of the Law, their own redemption and redemption of world would take place.
Jesus did not understand his own teaching to be an alternative to or replacement of Law of Moses, but rather, a fulfillment, perhaps a clarification, of what Israel had already received.
The section we read today (and it continues on beyond what we’ve heard) is known as the “Antitheses” – (which is a pretty misleading term, because Jesus was not talking about “opposites”) - Jesus repeatedly instructs his hearers that “You have heard that it was said”, explaining obligation under Law of Moses, then follows with “but I say to you”, reinterpreting that obligation.
And this is where it gets hard, especially for those of us who really like having rules to follow. Jesus teaches that Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s Realm – life lived together in right relationship with God – is less about specifics of what we do, than about maintaining an inner world of respect and mutual care in our relationships with others:
Jesus calls us to help bring the Realm of God into realization - here, and now. Jesus reminds us that our relationship with God is made right to the degree that we not only treat others with respect and compassion, but also view others as God views them.
No question about it – it’s a crazy tall order. Setting our hearts as God’s heart is set is much, much harder than following recipes and rules. For myself, feeling charitably toward the needy of the world is easy, and I’m glad to use my resources to help them where I’m able.
On the other hand, having charity toward the powerful who I see as abusing their power, recognizing THEM as God’s beloved children, is very difficult. Overcoming my prejudices about those who claim to follow Jesus but hold very different views than I do of what that means is extraordinarily hard, and I can’t claim that I’ve made much progress with it.
Part of our work in following Jesus is to think hard about our relationships. For those relationships that are healthy and balanced and sustaining, we can give God thanks.
For those relationships that are not where they ought to be – that are strained, that involve hurt, or anger, or distrust or resentments – whether on own own side, or the other’s, or both, we must consider what we can do to move them toward healing and wholeness, and lift them to God that God might help us do so.
How do we experience the closeness of God’s Realm and help bring it into being? By aligning our hearts to the heart of God.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
A few weeks ago, we remembered Jesus’ baptism and the truth we affirm at baptism. Which is that no matter what other labels might be assigned to us, none matters more than our identity as a beloved child of God. Simply put, each and every one of us, whether we like it or not is a beloved child of God. I imagine we are all pretty self-aware of our own imperfections, which is maybe why this truth is so beautiful and humbling. It might be difficult to swallow; to accept our belovedness in spite of our brokenness. Yet in the eyes of our God it is an unchangeable truth.
Which is all well and good, until Jesus starts giving his Sermon on the Mount. Where he has the audacity to tell us not only what we are to God, but who we are to one another and the world. Jesus tells us:
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
At this moment we are not just being told that we are loved; now we are being told our lives have a meaning and a purpose. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13).
Salt is pretty important--it preserves, enhances, and flavors food. Similarly, light has a way of making a path clear for the one who holds the lamp and anyone nearby. Our salt and light is about being the unconditional love of God in the world.
If we lose our saltiness and light, if we forget we are beloved, how can we possibly fully convey the unconditional love of our God?
Sometimes, the stuff happening in our lives makes it hard to be the salt and light.
How can we be the light when we feel anger pulsating through our bodies?
How can we be the salt when our depression prevents us from being with people?
How are we supposed to be the salt and the light, when we feel rather like broken glass scattered all over the floor?
Sometimes it is not so much the stuff in our own lives, but the events in the wider community and world that make it difficult to be the salt and light. How can we be the light when there aren’t any safe spaces for a homeless couple to spend the night? How can we be the salt when our nation holds Latina women in a half time show to higher standards than the president?
I imagine this teaching makes at least a few of us squirm. Because Jesus is telling us to stay in touch with the truth at the core of our belovedness. When we know we are beloved, we will help spread that salt and light. We will want to help others feel the unconditional love and hope of God. In other words, knowing we are beloved will change the way we live our lives in the world. Whereas if we forget our saltiness or hide our light under a bushel basket, we are losing touch with the fact that we are beloved.
This teaching that Jesus is trying to convey to the crowd and to us, is the ultimate beauty of the parental love we receive from God. Just as we will always be beloved, we will always be the salt and the light at our core. There are days, or maybe weeks and years, when we are disconnected from the fullness of this truth--yet the truth endures.
Nadia Boltz-Weber in her book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, describes a moment when she was so angry on a Sunday morning, that she had to ask a kind, caring, and pregnant parishioner to pray for her before she could go and lead worship. It was the saltiness, the unconditional love, of this pregnant woman, as she prayed for Nadia, that helped her reconnect with her own saltiness.
Do you ever feel like you’ve lost your saltiness? One way to reconnect with our own saltiness is to share our hurts and troubles with one another. Whether it’s over a cup of coffee in the safety and warmth of a friend’s home, or at the healing prayer stations that are available on second Sundays after worship. Unburden yourself and be prayed for. It may just reconnect you with your own saltiness.
Last week, a couple of folks from James and Andrew shared that when they encounter grumpy and difficult people, they determine to make those people smile and laugh. Not necessarily in that one particular moment, this is a long haul endeavor. Taking this path, is a conscious choice on their part to be the light to others. And when they finally do make the grumpy person smile or laugh, they have helped that person reconnect with their own light.
Do you ever feel like you’ve lost touch with your light? What might it be like to be determined to make another smile or laugh, or to go out of your way to be kind to someone? Often in helping others to see the light within themselves, we reconnect with God’s light within us.
Jesus is turning our world upside down and right side up again because God wants us to understand that each and every person is beloved, salty, and full of light.
You are a beloved child of God.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
And nothing can change that. Amen.
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