Sunday, February 23, 2020

Just Listen

Have you ever been awestruck?  Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you didn’t have words?
The other day an extremely quiet snow filled morning had this effect on me.

But have you ever met a celebrity?  Or witnessed someone meeting a person of fame and just stumbling over what to say or how to respond? Often we kind of revert backto a giddy kid and say something stupid…well at least I have…

MaryAnn McKibben Dana tells of going to a conference once and seeing this statement written on the wall. The statement is; “when the system doesn't know what to do, it does what it knows when a system doesn't know what to do, it does what it knows.”  Now what this is talking about is a technical term for any group of people.  When a corporation doesn’t know what to do it will do what it knows…when a family doesn’t know what to do it will do what it knows and that can be whittled down to when a person doesn’t know what to do they will do what they know.

“when we don't know what to do. When we are faced with uncertainty, when we have a number of good options, but no clear way of deciding or when we are fearful about the future or about change, we will revert to what we know, what is comfortable and familiar. Sometimes that's a good thing to orient ourselves somewhere familiar, but we need to be aware that that's what we're doing because sometimes it's not a good thing to follow the old pattern.”[1]

It is hard to break old habits and/or sometimes it’s just easier to do what we know as the saying goes; why try to reinvent the wheel or if it isn’t broke don’t fix it.  We are creatures of habit.

The “transfiguration story stands as a transition between the Sundays of Epiphany, with the progressive revelation of the power and presence of the good news of God's kin-dom in this Jesus, and the season of Lent, with its progressive focus on the journey of Jesus to suffering and the cross. This is where this story will take us.”[2]

In today’s Gospel The disciples are led up the mountain and then they experience something just beyond comprehension. This story is rich in imagery there is a high mountain there are clouds there is Moses and Elijah.  So much going on it is mind boggling. We hear this story every year on this day and yet, and yet, no one seems to know what to do with it.

Commentators want to dive into the old testament symbolism, others want to point out that Peter is still a clumsy thick-headed man who just doesn’t get it, and still more want to project some headier than conceivable mysticism on top of it all. Let me just say this…ugh it is exhausting.

So, let’s start simply, gently with the story.

Jesus took Peter, James and John they go to the mountain top.  Most likely Mount Hermon. Just six days before Jesus had spoken to them of his death and resurrection and now he takes these three up to the mountain where he is transfigured.

“Peter and the disciples have just witnessed something completely other worldly. It's so strange. This transfiguration business that even the explanations seemed downright bizarre. We have this comparison to laundry. Jesus has the whitest whites, what is the secret? Or we have descriptions that seem right out of the TV show glee, Jesus is dazzling.

Peter Surveys this scene, mouth agape and is terrified because he doesn't know what to say. He doesn't know what to do, but does that stop him from speaking? Certainly not. Let's build dwellings he blurts out because when a person doesn't know what to do, a person does what he knows and building dwellings. Pitching tents is part of Peter's vocabulary as a Jew. It was part of his story. Remember that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years pitching their tents as they went and the Ark of the Covenant which housed with the Ten Commandments, was placed in a special tent called a tabernacle. In the time of Solomon that tent became a more grand and permanent structure. The festival of Sukkot is a Jewish holiday in which people build small dwellings for worship, even eating and sleeping in them. Sometimes when something amazing happens, when God makes an appearance, if you're a Jew currently, chances are you're going to want to build a tent.”[3]

With that in mind I cannot help but wonder what we would do.  Cynically we may question what was in the water we just drank?  What kind of Hallucination is this?  More likely we would be scared, awestruck, and beat a path down the mountain side as quickly as possible and choose not to discuss it or, even admit that we saw anything.

“Sadly, Peter has been beaten up in sermons on this text for centuries. Clueless Peter, who wants to put God in a box, stupid peter who wants to stay up on the mountain forever! Where it doesn't say that he wants to stay up on the mountain forever! In fact, as anyone who's been on a mountain knows, you can't stay long. The weather changes fast and you are vulnerable up there. Peter isn’t saying, let's move in. Peter is responding liturgically, worshipfully out of the story that he knows best. His own story as a good an observant Jew. When we don't know what to do, we do what we know. But God, is a god who disrupts what we know. As quickly as Jesus is transfigured before them, God drops in a cloud just as quickly and says, OK, never mind. Stop looking at the scene. This isn't about dazzling visions. What I want you to do is listen, listen to him. Don't build, don't talk, don't do anything. Just listen when you don't know what to do.”[4]

Just Listen.  OK. (Silence)…. Just as I was writing this, at this very spot, a thought came to me…We are Children of God, right? How many here have children, human or otherwise?  How well do they listen?  How well do they follow every instruction?

Just think on that for a moment. we are children of God…How often has God told us to listen? “’let he who has ears’ appears in the bible 7 times. How well do we listen?  Do we even know how to listen? Spiritual practices are the best way to listen to God, and yet, often we do not take the time, or make the effort to engage in a spiritual life.  For many Sunday is enough!

Marcus Borg, observes that there is a lack of spiritual practice. “The notion that God is a reality who can be known (and not simply believed in) has become quite foreign in the modern world and in much modern theology. Often there is even uncertainty about the reality of God. In skeptical form, it leads to a vison of Christianity as primarily “ethics.” In most generic form, the Christian way of life becomes “being Good,” “being Nice,” “loving people.” In the strong form, it can become a passion for justice. But whether in generic or strong form, living the Christian life is seen basically as being about behavior in the world. But Christian practice, historically, is about our relationship to both God, and neighbor, about both Spirit, and behavior, about both God, and the world.”[5]

Now Borg does go on to point out that there is a renewal in north America to recover practice as the center of Christian life.   He explains what he means by practice

“By practice I mean all things that Christians do together and individually as a way of paying attention to God.  They include being part of a Christian community, as church, a taking part in its life together as a community. They include worship, Christian formation, collective deeds of hospitality and compassion, and being nourished by Christian community. They include devotional disciplines, especially prayer and spending time with the Bible. And they include loving what God loves through the practice of compassion and justice in the world.”[6]

As the Federated church of Marlborough, we are really Good at the latter part, I mean even denominationally our current campaign speaks to that.  The Three Great Loves; a just world for all. This is the denomination’s opportunity to express how our Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation work together to address the inequities in our current world.

Yet without Spiritual practices, without a way to listen to God, without a way to stop, breathe, and Listen, we would never know what, exactly, we are called to address.  Without spiritual practices, we would never have the energy to address our callings.  Without spiritual practices this …this service would never come together.

So how do we listen to Jesus today?  How do we listen to God? We hear and see examples of how to be in the world through the Gospels.  We know of ways to communicate and listen to God through praying the psalms.  We have seen examples of monks and nuns who through their daily practice, the everyday, and the mundane can be lifted into, and become a spiritual practice. There is lectio Divina a practice of reading and listening to the scripture contemplatively. Of course, there is the contemplative practice itself.

Thomas Merton believes that “Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete.

Yet contemplation is not vision because it sees "without seeing" and knows "without knowing." It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by "unknowing." Or, better, we know beyond all knowing or "unknowing."[7]

Ok that is a little heady, spiritual, and out there. Let’s take  Thomas Merton’s words and put in God it may be a bit clearer … “Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of [God]. It knows [God], obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason…”

I believe this is what happened to Peter, James, and John.  The realty of Jesus’ absolute divinity is seen, and the voice of God is heard. They experienced this reality of God in the world, in a brief, and most sacred moment.  No wonder Peter was flustered.

C. Clifton Black professor of biblical theology at Princeton observes  that the transfiguration and

“the voice from heaven orders Jesus’ disciples. This command recollects Moses’ directive: Israel should heed a prophet whom the LORD God would raise up (Deuteronomy 18:15). In Jesus, God has done this; Israel’s successors should respond appropriately. To what should Jesus’ disciples pay attention?”[8]

 Presumably, everything in that Jesus says and does. Treat people fairly and compassionately. Do not run from a challenge to your faith.  Keep on the path even though it may seem hard or even impossible.  Remember we have to go through a lot of Good Fridays to get to Aaster Sunday!
Perhaps we should just stop and Listen. “this is my Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” This Lenten season what if one took on the Gospel readings as a contemplative practice.  Lectio Divina, it is a good way to start a contemplative practice.  It is a good way to listen to God through Christ and see what is just being said to you.

“Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word.

Traditionally, Lectio Divina has four separate steps: read; meditate; pray; contemplate. First a passage of Scripture is read, then its meaning is reflected upon. This is followed by prayer and contemplation on the Word of God.

The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages but viewing them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, given Jesus' statement in John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you", an analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. In Lectio Divina, however, the practitioner "enters" and shares the peace of Christ rather than "dissecting" it. In some Christian teachings, this form of meditative prayer leads to an increased knowledge of Christ.”[9]

In Lectio Divina many people believe the first step is to read the scripture but actually the first step is to still oneself.  A group I use to go to always started with be still and know that I am God.  Lighting a candle, one begins “be still and know that I am God” and then there is stillness. Be still and know that I am. And there is stillness…Be still and know…and there is still ness be still and there is stillness…be… (offer quiet time)   after the time of silence the passage is read and we listen but not with our ears but with our hearts. There are moments of silence as it is read about three times often by a different reader every time and perhaps a different translation every time so one can hear it the way each one needs too. This becomes less a practice of reading and more of listening to the inner message of the Scripture delivered through the Holy Spirit.

In between each reading is the time when one meditates or ponders the scripture. The scripture is held lightly and gently considered from various angles. Again, the emphasis is not on analysis of the passage but to keep the mind open and allow the Holy Spirit to inspire a meaning for it.

Another part or the 3rd movement of lectio is prayer. “In the Christian tradition, prayer is understood as dialogue with God, that is, as loving conversation with God who has invited us into an embrace. The constitution Dei verbum which endorsed Lectio Divina for the general public, as well as in monastic settings, quoted Saint Ambrose on the importance of prayer in conjunction with Scripture reading and stated: And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for "we speak to God when we pray; we hear God when we read the divine saying.”[10]

The fourth movement is the contemplation or holding silence and experience God’s love I always say it is like lowering your spirit into a warm quite bath of God’s spirit.

With Ash Wednesday we enter the season of lent it is a good time to seek out and develop some spiritual practices.  Also, if you do not have one you may want to seek out and try a spiritual director at this time a spiritual companion to walk with you on this spiritual journey. All this so that we may Listen to Jesus and prepare to meet the resurrected Christ in all his radiant Glory.

[5] The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg page 188
[6] Borg, 189
[7] Thomas Merton  The new seeds of contemplation, pages 1-2
[8] ]

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Let Us Go Furthur!

This week’s reading sounds harsh, very hard, but it goes hand in hand with the gospel reading of two weeks ago with the congratulations and last week’s reading which was you are the salt of the earth, you are the city on the hill, you are the light of the world, this week is the law says this but ….All of these are still that sermon on the mount Jesus has been seated in the same place preaching for 3 weeks now ….

We are still seated at Jesus’ feet listening in on what he is saying to his disciples.

Then of all things Jesus starts talking about salt. Salt??  Not Just salt but he speaks of salt losing its flavor.

“let me tell you why you are here. You’re to be the salt-seasoning that brings out God-Flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.” (The message Mathew 5:13)

Salt does not lose its flavor.!

“Common salt comprises a very stable, simple chemical compound called sodium chloride, which has a salty flavor. As table salt, it typically also contains minor amounts of additives to keep it free-flowing.  As it is so chemically stable, sodium chloride will not lose its saltiness, even after being stored dry for many years. However, there are ways in which salt may appear to lose its saltiness.

Historically, salt has been obtained from crude sources such as salt marshes, and minerals such as rock salt. This contains the stable sodium chloride plus other components. Sodium chloride is readily water-soluble, so if this crude salt were exposed to condensation or rain water, the sodium chloride could be dissolved and removed, and the salt could in effect lose its saltiness. 
Also, the salty flavor is detected by our sense of taste. If there were a physiological change in the functioning of our taste buds, salt consumed may no longer taste the same, but this would not be due to any inherent change in the salt itself.

In summary, salt, i.e. sodium chloride, is a very stable material which retains its properties when stored dry.”[1]  So salt is salt is salt more or less to each of us it tastes a bit different some need more some need less to enhance flavor of food but salt cannot lose its flavor!

C. Andrew Doyle writes;

“What I also found interesting is that salt did, in the religious tradition of Jesus' day, become unclean and was to be thrown away.  When it was ritually pure it was used in the temple to season incense and it was even added to the offerings.)  So... salt was a big deal in the life of Israel and in the life of emerging societies that depended upon it as a preservative.  The basic image nevertheless is a powerful one...salt without its saltiness really isn't any good to anyone.”[2]

I find this all moving me in a bit different interpretation.  In cooking we need a certain amount of salt for flavor. Our bodies need salt but a regulated amount too much or too little and well…

As much as sodium has been demonized in the American diet—mostly because we consume far too much1 —it actually plays as vital a role in the functioning of our bodies.
Sodium (like calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and potassium) is an electrolyte, meaning that it creates an electrically charged ion when dissolved in fluids like blood. Our bodies need electrolytes they facilitate nerve impulses and regulate body functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, brain activity, and blood pressure.

For its part, sodium helps maintain the fluid balance in and around cells (including the volume of fluid in the blood) and helps regulate nerve and muscle function.

High sodium levels in your blood—above 145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L)—can affect the fluid balance and contribute to high blood pressure. By contrast, low sodium levels (below 135 mEq/L) not only decrease blood pressure but interfere with the activity of nerve cells and the muscles of the heart and digestive tract.”[3]

I am wondering if I would be so off tract to say that we need to keep a healthy balance of a spiritual life and a life out in the world so that we can be the salt of godliness that this world needs?

“Jesus evokes the utility of salt but also the limits of its usefulness. Salt that has lost its salty essence is no longer salt. It is no longer fit for its previous uses so it is tossed onto the path to be trod underfoot. This image strikes me as both evident but also a bit disquieting. After all, the Sermon on the Mount is not a reflection on cooking ingredients but on the shape of God’s high calling upon our lives. How is righteousness like salt exactly? And who or what exactly is that salt that has lost its saltiness?”[4]

“Jesus then also gives a very practical understanding about light and how people don't go around wasting perfectly good (and expensive - as candles were a luxury) light. Interestingly, candles are mostly associate with worship.  Jesus may be speaking about a lamp here which is probably more likely and more relevant to his hearers' ears.”[5]

Today we often think of the city on the hill all alight much like our big cities where the glare is so strong one cannot even see the sky.  Jesus’ image, that his hearers would understand, would be a night dark as could be, lit by stars and or moon and, while one is still faraway, a gentle inviting glow from the city.

Can you hear this as a middle of the road way?  Jesus is saying we need to be a gentle, loving expression of God here on earth.  We are called not to be over powering but we are also called not to be silent.
Nicolas King explains it this way;

“As Christians we can get our mission wrong in two ways. Either we can see our task as lecturing the rest of the world on their errors; or we can think no one will listen and keep quietly to ourselves. These two images of salt and light offer a middle way. We still have to be gentle, merciful peacemakers (so the more arrogant of the two horns of the dilemma is excluded); But we have nevertheless important function of adding ‘bite’ and illumination to the world (so we can’t retreat behind the barricades into a false humility). That does not mean the world will be impressed by us, however, so Jesus warns us to expect ‘persecution’. Not, on the other hand, is there any sign here that Jesus is condemning the ‘world’: That’s just the way it is.

            Those who think that it’s not respectful to laugh in church ought to look again at the joke about putting light under a bucket, and also learn the lesson: we have no cause to be shy about the Gospel message.”[6]

Both of these images begin to shape Jesus' expectations of us...that we not remain disciples, but that we become apostles. That we not simply follow Jesus but that we are meant to go out and be an example to others.  We are to change lives by reflecting the life of Jesus. Sometimes I think we get into trouble by trying to reflect other things...but Jesus is saying, "Be salt as I am salt in the world. Be light as I am light in the world." 

Jesus is saying there are very faithful good people.  They live faithful and good lives.  They work hard to be good to color in the lines if you will. They do what they feel is required of them and try do it as best they can.

Can you hear an issue here? There was a Christian rock band back in the 80’s I love their music.  They have a song called my room…

“I live in my room, it's warm here in my room
World is spinning, spinning like a big top
I have got a secret, I will slip it
Under the door, slip it to this wicked wicked world

I read in my room, memorize in my room
I am removing myself, I am moving quietly
Those without the secret, keep on knocking
At the door, disturbance from this wicked wicked world”[7]

Being a really Good person, being a good spiritual person is well and good but ,if it is all about you…focused on you, well you are putting the light under a bushel, aren’t you? 

And then in the midst of this Jesus shifts. Jesus turns to the law; “do not suppose for one minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures – either God’s law or the Prophets. I am not here to demolish the law but complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s law will be alive and working.” ( Mathew 5:17-18 the message)

Often people interpret these saying of murder, anger, lust, divorce as new laws but they are expansions and, if we listen carefully ,we can hear something, something pure and simple about God’s law. Not man’s interpretation of the law but God’s law. It goes further.

God’s law goes beyond don’t do this, don’t do that. God’s law, the law of love says we are called to go beyond.  It may not be murder but words in anger or hate can eat away at our soul just as killing someone can. To add to that, in this day and age, we know words kill.

If you are holding a grudge or you know someone is mad at you go and try to make amends and or ask for forgiveness. That is all one can do. Well, then we also have to forgive ourselves. Often it is our own heart that holds us back from being fully present to God.

One commentator puts it this way…

“So, Jesus teaches, it is insufficient to avoid murdering someone; certain kinds of anger and insult can themselves be a form of violence to eschew. We might note how the power and privilege of some can affect death on our neighbors, whether intended or not. The prohibition of taking someone’s life has always extended to include a prohibition against dealing in death in less explicit but no less destructive ways.

But then Jesus raises the stakes here even more. Reconciliation is a prerequisite for coming before God at the altar. That is, what if broken relationships among neighbors, family, and friends are not just social obstacles among us but a barometer for our relationship to God too? What if the obverse of murder is not just avoiding killing but reparative reconciliation? That is, the command not to murder extends even beyond the taking of life. The rejection of the deterioration of someone’s character is essential in embodying the command not to murder.”[8]

What he is saying here is that this is all about relationship and not just among family and friends but how do we interact with each other and the other on a daily basis.  To we begin and continue to interact from the point of Love or do we diminish, insult, and exclude.?

Oh then Jesus tackles divorce and adultery… Remember in that day and age and until most recently men had all the power.  Men had all the control…and even though this is the perspective that Jesus approaches his extension of the law… Jesus makes it the responsibility of the gazer not the one who is gazed upon…It is not the woman who is guilty of being the temptress, but it is the man’s responsibility to not objectify.

“Again, what matters most here is not behavior but relationality. An objectifying gaze is an obstacle to authentic community precisely because such a gaze treats the other not as a child of God, a bearer of God’s image, but as a mere object.
Thus, the call to avoid adultery is, to be sure, a way to extol the preservation of commitments we have made in romantic relationships but also a commitment to the flourishing of all those other kin we meet in non-romantic contexts. We owe it to one another to treat and see our neighbors as if they are the bearers of the image of God, for indeed that is who we all are.”[9]

In the end Jesus is calling us, calling us to live into Love this includes but not limited to paying attention to the world around us…Listening empathetically to people of the #METOO movement, hear the cry for justice in the Black lives matter movement, understand that no human being is illegal and that there is no Planet B 

That song I mentioned earlier by Daniel Amos last verse says this…

“I sleep in my room, it's dark now in my room
Time is ticking, ticking on the big clock
It's raining outside, heaven's tears
Are falling down, falling on this wicked wicked world”[10]

We are called to step out of rooms…to step out of our sanctuaries and seek to be Gods love in this world. When we live in love, we are light, we are salt ,we are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. When we live in Love we find the courage and the ability to go further in Love.

Let us continue to work to bring a just world for all in the name of God’s love and the Love of Christ. Amen.


[6] King, Nicholas. The Bible: a Study Bible Freshly Translated by Nicholas King. Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 2013.