26 February 2017

Get Up! Fear Not!

Transfiguration of the Lord -

There are moments when everything comes into focus, when everything becomes perfectly clear.  There are moments of searing insight and brilliance, moments that change everything. I once was blind, but now I see—and see, and see, and see and nothing, no one will ever again look the same.

We thought we knew who Jesus was.  We thought we had him figured out.  However, here on this holy mountain we come to see who he really is. The sight of his transfiguration transfigures our figurations of him, transfigures our assumptions, transfigures our eyes and thoughts, our ears and our hearts. Matthew tells us that the core of his being shone through the radiance of his face, “his face shone like the sun,” and he became dazzling, like a flame, with the intensity of pure, white, blinding light.  Peter, James, and John watch in disbelief.  Soon they see Moses (representing the Law or Torah) and then Elijah (representing the prophets) appearing and the three of them begin to talk.  Peter tells Jesus that he’s grateful to witness such a sight and, in a spirit of hospitality, offers to provide a dwelling for them, booths or tents or something.  He doesn’t make much sense.  Even Peter probably didn’t understand what he was saying.  It doesn’t matter, because while Peter was still speaking, Mathew tells us—while Peter was still speaking—a “bright cloud overshadowed them,” and a voice was heard, “This is my Son, my Beloved; with him I am well pleased: listen to him!”

It’s the force of the voice and the weight of its revelation that threw them down to the ground, overcome by terror and fear. But Jesus approached them—was he still shining?—leaned down and touched them, touched them—in their fear!—and said, “Get up!  Get up and do not be afraid.”

I love this story! And I love to preach it! I never get tired of it.  It is so intense and mystical and numinous and experiential and holy and wondrous.  The entire story shines and in the light of its telling we discover layer upon layer of meaning.  Twenty-seven years ago, it was James Loder (1931-2001) professor at Princeton Seminary, my mentor and friend, who first drew my attention to the importance of this text.[1]  I asked Jim to give the charge at my ordination, back in 1990.  Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration was his text.  It was a personal, powerful, intense challenge—a charge—to me at the start of my ministry, which is never far from my awareness.  Two weeks after my ordination, I left for Scotland to serve as assistant minister at St. Leonard’s Parish Church, in St. Andrews, Scotland.  I remember walking into that old sanctuary, with its soft light and beautiful stained-glass windows.  I remember looking up at the great west window and, to my complete astonishment, discovering that it was a depiction of the Transfiguration. Again and again, I return to this text and love to discover artists who through paintings and icons and sketches try to “capture” this scene, artists both ancient and modern.

We have three imperatives here. One from God: “Listen to him,” meaning Jesus. And, then, from Jesus, these two encouraging, compassionate commands: “Get up.” Followed by: “Do not be afraid.”  Most of the times that I read, taught, or preach on this text, I’m drawn to God’s command, “Listen to him.”  Primarily because that was Jim Loder’s charge to me at my ordination, “Listen to him!”  I can still hear Jim saying to me, “Listen to him!”  “Listen to him!”   Reading the text this week, however, something else hit me.  On Thursday Mornings at Bible study, after we read the text for the morning, I usually ask the class, “So, what struck you in the text?”  As Presbyterians, we believe that scripture is alive and active (see Isaiah 55:10-11).  God animates the words and transforms them into Word and this God’s Word, being active and purposeful, moves, touches, strikes—us.  So I ask, how did the Word strike your heart, move your spirit, speak to you? It’s always fascinating to discover how the Spirit moves through a text and speaks to us. This week, what struck me were these words: “Get up and do not be afraid.”

So, why were they afraid? Wouldn’t you be? I would be full of fear, holy fear—awe. Time and again, the natural human response to an encounter with the glory of God, to be overcome or overshadowed by God’s presence, is fear. Yes, we can call it holy fear or awe, if it makes us feel better, but there’s still an element of fear about it, a feeling of trepidation.  Such an experience is, perhaps, more like ego-shock, an encounter, an awareness of someone completely Other, an overwhelming Other before whose presence we know we have no right to stand, and so we fall down, fall down under this “weight of glory,” as C. S. Lewis (1889-1963) beautifully described it. We fall down on our knees and cover our faces before the Holy of Holies.[2]

So, yes, there’s a rational reason for us to be afraid.  When God moves in our lives, it can be an awe-full, fearful thing.  This is probably why we often resist God or prayer or worship or being silent or listening to our hearts.  We can run.  We can remain busy, be distracted, but there’s really no place to hide.  As the psalmist acknowledged, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). 

All of this is fearful because facing God inevitably costs us something; that is, it requires something of us, namely control over our lives. When Christ is the center our lives, our egos, preferring the center, are knocked off dead center; they are displaced.  And, we have to admit, that when you get mixed up with this God you discover there’s more going around you and in you, even beyond you in the world, more than you can begin to possibly imagine, more than what meets the eye—which is why our sight always requires transfiguring in order to really see.  And, all of this is fearful because this God might actually show up in our lives, make an appearance; ask you to do something that’s simply too big for you to do; or summon you to become someone you know you can’t be on your own; call you to change your ways; or ask you to go somewhere you would rather not go, which doesn’t appear safe; to embark on a journey that you probably prefer not to take. To encounter God means that our lives will be changed; they will be different—and not only different, better! 

Again, all of this requires change.  Transformation.  The Greek word, which we translated, “transfiguration,” is a form of the verb metamorphoo, as in metamorphosis.  So we can say that Jesus was metamorphosized.  If we’re not changed by the encounter or the experience—if we’re not being changed by the encounter or the experience—then it’s probably safe to say we’re not encountering the Holy.  My friend Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said, “Once you wise up, you can’t dummy down.” Change is inevitable. And after encountering the presence of God in the face of Jesus Christ, how can you ever go back to normalcy? What is normal after that?

If we’re honest, being normal, along with being safe or secure have little, if anything, to do with being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you normal.”  We all know this, right?  The account of the Transfiguration, the lectionary reading for the last Sunday before the start of Lent, is offered here intentionally to remind us what it means to be a disciple, a student in the school of Jesus, a follower of Jesus Christ.  In Matthew, the Transfiguration is situated at the center of his gospel, echoing the words that Jesus heard at his baptism (Matthew 3:17), and foreshadowing what Jesus will experience in his resurrection as the beloved Son of God.  The story comes on the heels of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28)—as Peter, James, and John came to see six days later.  So, yes, there’s good reason to be fearful about all of this talk about discipleship and crosses and tasting death.

Get Up!  Do not fear!  Fear, holy fear, awe is part of the experience, but fear is never the ultimate reality for the disciple.  Time and again throughout scripture, God calls us to live beyond fear—and here’s the tricky part. Being a disciple is difficult; it isn’t easy.  It requires courage.  In Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant, poignant, profound novel, Gilead, the main character, the Reverend John Ames, at the end of his ministry and his life, reflects on the nature of God and what’s required of us in the life of faith.  John Ames says, “…the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”[3]  Courage is required—courage to see, to look at, to acknowledge the radiance of God in the face of Jesus Christ—and not deny it—and then live from all of its life-changing ramifications.

How do we get the courage to step out and live as if God is really God, that Christ is Lord of our lives?  How do we find the courage to listen to him?  How do we have the courage to see the world and our lives within it as belonging not to ourselves, but to him, so that our lives might be used by Christ for the glory of God—which is what our souls desire and long for more than anything else?  How?  In a speech given in 1922 at St. Andrews University, J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), of Peter Pan fame, said to a generation of youth disillusioned after the Great War, “Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes.”[4] 

Do we have the courage to listen, to really be disciples, to go where he leads?  
Probably not.  Actually, no, we don’t.  Courage to be a disciple?  Not really. Not all the time.  And certainly not on our own we don’t.  If we have to rely on our own inner resources to try to dredge up courage to follow, wouldn’t this, then, be just a kind of “works righteousness,” of trying to earn our salvation through our own merits, of following God and trying to be God’s people, but really acting as if God has nothing to do with any of it?  If we think it’s all about us and not God, what we have to do, wouldn’t this be a kind of atheism, of acting as if God isn’t even there?  To rely only on our selves—that’s a terrifying way to live a life.

In the midst of their fear, Jesus went over to his disciples, his friends, and in their fear and trepidation, he reached out, reached down to them and said, “Get up!” Literally, in Greek, “Be raised!”  “Be raised!”  “Get up and do not be afraid.”  Fear not.  Get up and follow, free from paralyzing fear, because the Beloved One, Love Incarnate, has touched you and assures you that you can. Get up and follow, beyond the tight confines of fear because his grace summons you to do so. And the one who commands also equips us with the courage to follow. Get up and do not be afraid because it’s the Lord who tells us so—and he can be trusted.

We can’t afford to remain stuck in our fears.  Why?  Because there’s work to be done.  You can’t live up on that mountaintop.  You can’t get lost in lofty spiritual experiences.  You’ve got to get back to work.  The dazzling vision will subside. You have to go down the mountain, get back to work, back to family, back to your children, back to your neighbors, back to responsibility, back to being a disciple, get back to “normal”—the new normal.  Once you have seen you cannot unsee.  And what you now see is God’s ongoing work of saving and redeeming, transfiguring and transforming human lives.  There’s an entire world that needs saving and loving!  You know what God desires of you, you already know what God desires for you—you really do.  You know God’s will.  You’ve known God’s plan from the start.  It’s about God’s justice, it’s about naming evil and fighting against it, it’s the Kingdom-vision of God, of love and compassion and mercy and healing and welcome, the very things that Jesus came to embody and realize in you and me. 

God said, “Listen to him.”  And Jesus says to us, “Get up!  Don’t be afraid!” And he says to us, “Now, let’s go.  You and me.  There’s work to be done!”

Transfiguration Icon (12th century), Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai.

West Window, St. Leonard's Parish Church, St. Leonard's, St. Andrews, Scotland

[1] On the theology of James E. Loder, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon preached at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 8 June 1942, published in The Weight of Glory (HarperOne, 2001).
[3] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004), 245.
[4] J. M. Barrie, Courage.  The Rectorial Address delivered at St. Andrew’s University, May 3, 1922. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 40.

19 February 2017

Loving the Enemy

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s been said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”  That’s how G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) put it in his essay “What’s Wrong With the World.” Chesterton was an English poet, philosopher, and dramatist, Roman Catholic lay theologian, literary and art critic, best known for his Father Brown murder mysteries.  “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.”

Chesterton could easily have been talking about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8), perhaps 5:38-48, in particular.  These words are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and ministry.  They are classic Jesus.  We could say these verses sound, so,…well…Christian.  We all know Jesus said them; they are associated with his followers.  Christians and non-Christians, alike, know what Jesus said about “turning the other cheek,” or “going the next mile.”  You don’t have to be a Christian to know that Jesus said to his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Mt 5:43).  Yes, we know what Jesus said. And we also know just how blasted difficult it is to follow him.  The Christian life is difficult and, maybe, that’s why it has been left untried.  Christian ideas and practices have been on the scene for more than 2,000 years and the Church has yet to really practice what we preach. 

All of the teachings in this section of the sermon are challenging.  Perhaps the most demanding, revolutionary, and radical teaching is what Jesus had to say about loving the enemy.  Friends—this is unbelievably difficult to put into practice, human nature being what it is.  It’s important for me to go slowly here, because I don’t want you to get the impression that I’ve “mastered” this teaching, because I haven’t. 

So, what does Jesus say?  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5:43).  This teaching, like many others in the sermon, is designed to get us to think about God in a different way and, therefore, live in a new way.  Some of these sayings are known as the Great Antitheses.  For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  You have heard that it was said…where?  This saying is found in Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE), the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which established justice as quid pro quo.  It’s also found in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:19-20, although here an “eye for an eye” meant “only an eye.”  In other words if you take out my eye, I can’t take from you two eyes and two arms.  The law was means to restrict compensation.  If you hurt me, I get to hurt you equally hard.  That’s fair play.  This is how most people understand justice, both in the Church and outside it—but it’s actually, theologically, biblically wrong to think of justice this way.  “But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the evildoer…’” (Mt. 5:38-39).  Jesus tells us that his followers have to move past the endless, vicious cycle of “getting even.”  Gandhi (1869-1948) understood this.  He said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  Perhaps that’s why Gandhi admired Christ so much.  As for Christians, well, …not so much.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  We need to stop here.  Yes, Leviticus 19:18, part of the Jewish Law (Torah) reads, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But the Hebrew scriptures say nothing about hating one’s enemies.  So, is Jesus misquoting scripture?  No.  Religious pious types often tried to figure out the minimum requirements of the faith.  These religious literalists claimed that scripture said we are to love our neighbor.  Since scripture was silent about loving one’s enemy, that meant it was okay to hate one’s enemy.  I’m free to do whatever I want to a non-neighbor.  The scripture doesn’t say that I can’t hate my enemy.  I’m obliged to love the person next door, but I don’t have to love someone in another town or country, or of a different ethnicity, race, or religion.

Then Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” In other words, Jesus increases the demands of God’s Law!  Jesus has higher expectations for his people. You can’t get out of loving only your neighbor.  If you’re going to be my follower, Jesus says, then you are called to love your non-neighbor and you’re expected to love even your enemy. Jesus increases the weight of responsibility upon us; he doesn’t lessen it.

You’re probably asking, “Okay, how do I do this? How do I love my enemies?”  Maybe you don’t have enemies.  Maybe you do.  Maybe there’s someone you utterly hate and despise, someone you can’t stand to be around, someone you hate so much because of their hate toward you, because of what they did to you or continue to do to you.  Are you being persecuted?  Perhaps you don’t have people like that in your life.  Then, what about people who make you uncomfortable, who frustrate you, who disgust you, who make you anxious? What about them?  What is your responsibility, as a Christian, toward them?

Jesus says, “You shall love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Love, Jesus says.  This is the first time the word “love” is found in Matthew’s gospel.  Love.  Really, Jesus?  Love?  It can’t be that simple.  Perhaps I can love my neighbor—although, sometimes even my neighbors are tough to love, but I try—but my enemies?  That’s asking too much.  That’s unrealistic, Jesus.  Maybe for some.  Maybe for your saints.  Not for me.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) who said, “Love is the only force that can transform an enemy into a friend.” King had lots of enemies.  He had good reasons to hate. Yet, as a servant of Christ, his only response was love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.” These are difficult words.  Dr. King preached many-a-sermon on this text.  As he knew, embodying the text is entirely something else.  He never gave up his vision of Christian non-violence, active resistance.

~  ~  ~  ~

We’ve been reflecting upon interpersonal relationships—which are tough enough.  But, does Jesus’ teaching apply to geo-political affairs?  Aside from the question of whether it is appropriate for a Christian to engage in acts of war, at a minimum, we can still pray for our enemy.  But even that, for some, is asking too much.  So, then, what does that say about one’s commitment to Jesus and his teachings and the responsibility of the Church?  When I first arrived at Catonsville Presbyterian Church in 1999, I heard the story of the time, during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Lorne Bostwick, the associate pastor here, prayed for Saddam Hussein in worship during the Prayers of the People.  Some stormed out, furious.  Some ripped up their offering checks and threw them in the offering plate.  The story surfaced again here, in 2002, as the United States invaded Iraq.  Praying for Hussein was too much for some.  Are there limits to all of this Jesus stuff?

 ~  ~  ~  ~

If it’s too demanding to love our neighbors and enemies “out there,” wherever “there” might be, what if we turned inward?  Not in a selfish or self-serving way.  Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), the Lebanese-American poet, once wrote, “And God said “Love Your Enemy,” and I obeyed him and loved myself.”  What if the “enemy” that needs to be loved is one’s self?  What if the “enemy” is within, a part of ourselves, the part we have difficulty loving and accepting?  What if we loved the part of us that seems to persecute and judge us?  You know those voices, the voices that say you’re not good enough, not bright enough, not kind enough, not loving enough, not enough of whatever, just never enough.  Personally, I think, much of what we project out upon the world, how we treat our neighbor and enemies—whether it’s with love or condemnation, judging or loathing—originates within us, within the human heart.  How can a Christian begin to love neighbor, as well as enemy, if we are at odds with ourselves, if we can’t even love ourselves, if we hate ourselves, or believe that God hates us?  Didn’t Jesus call us to love our neighbor—and how does the rest of it go?  “As you love yourself”? (Mt. 22:39).

On the morning I finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela, after trekking 500 miles across Spain, I walked the last ten miles in conversation with my friend, Oswald.  We had walked many miles together and shared hours of deep conversation.  He was raised in the church, in Holland.  Today, he is more of a Buddhist, he’s a world-class photographer, and teaches Kundalini yoga in his studio in Barcelona.  It was Sunday morning. We were hoping to arrive in time to go to Mass.  We reflected on what it means, these days, to say that one is Christian.  Oswald said all he heard about growing up was the need to love his neighbor.  He said, “In my church I never heard about the rest of the verse, ‘as you love yourself.’”

 ~  ~  ~  ~

So how can we love our neighbor and our enemy?  How do we have the maturity and courage to pray for those who persecute us?  How do we love the enemy within?  I began the sermon by quoting Chesterton, about the difficulty of the Christian ideal.  It is difficult, that’s true.  But Chesterton gets something wrong.  Jesus is not talking about an ideal.  I can’t image that Jesus was setting up an impossible to reach standard of behavior, only to judge us for not reaching it.  That would be cruel.

What is often missed in this text—and it’s easy to do when we turn Jesus’ teaching into an ethical ideal, something that I or we have to do—is the second half of the verse.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—why?—“so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45).  And what does God do, according to Jesus?  “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45).  God’s children reflect the Holy Parent.  God does not hate the enemy.  God cannot hate, cannot hate God’s enemies—which includes all of us, especially when we are God’s “enemies” or at odds with God’s will for our lives and the world.  God’s grace falls upon all of us, because that’s whom God is and that’s what God does.  And it’s in this sense that God is perfect and calls us to be perfect—perfect, not in an ethical sense, never ever making a mistake, never failing, getting an A+ on every moral test.  A better translation for the Greek here is wholeness or love or holiness, not “perfect”—that’s such a loaded word.  In other words, just as God lives out God’s purpose by being loving, so, too, when we know we are rooted and grounded in God’s love for us, as God’s children, then we are free to live out our purpose, which is to reflect and embody God’s love and wholeness and holiness!  “We respond to other people—even our enemies—with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God responds to the world.”[1]

In the end, it comes down to love.  How do we begin to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?  We start with God, we start with God’s love toward us, and we stay there and sit with this love until we see and feel and know ourselves as the object, the recipient of God’s radical grace, God’s compassion, and God’s mercy.  The more we know what God’s love feels like, the more we experience it, the more we dwell and abide and rest in God’s love—the One who loves us through and through—the more we discover, gradually over time, what is the loving, compassionate, merciful, even difficult thing we must do, because we are God’s children.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the brilliant German theologian, pastor, martyr, wrote a book on the meaning of discipleship, based on the Sermon on the Mount.  We know it in English as The Cost of Discipleship; in German, the title is simply one word Nachfolge, meaning, Follow.  Published in 1937, the book was written (illegally) for seminarians studying at his secret seminary, Finkenwalde, which was eventually shut down by the Gestapo.  Reflecting on Matthew 5:43, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love?  Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy?  Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies?”[2]  

Where, indeed. 

Love simply seeks those who need it most. 

Isn’t that the way God loves us?

Then, that’s the way we can love.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 64.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 164.