Archive for the ‘Matthew’ Category

MATTHEW 5:38-48

February 19, 2017

“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  Are we wrong, then, to resist an evildoer?  In truth, many of us resist one evildoer or another relentlessly.  How can that be okay, given today’s clear instruction from Jesus: “do not resist an evildoer”?

If we look at this reading in isolation it’s hard to see how we can go on actively resisting and not feel we are turning our backs on God’s word.  But today’s reading is only part of the Sermon on the Mount.  We would expect the whole Sermon to hang together to make a point and show us what Jesus is driving at.  In fact, it does; and that helps us make sense of Jesus’ words about not resisting an evil-doer.

The Sermon started with the nine beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit..  Blessed are those who mourn….  and so on.  Blessed translates a Greek word that means not just happy, but extraordinarily happy, or extremely fortunate.  Perhaps you remember reading in Greek mythology of the Isles of the Blessed, which was an earthly paradise.  The word we translate as blessed points to a state of being that is beyond the ordinary — you might say supernaturally happy.

The Sermon goes on to speak about fulfillment.  Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  Jesus uses the word fulfill a lot.  For example, in John’s gospel he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled.”  In other words, we find joy from the law and the prophets, and yet we can go beyond the law and the prophets to an even greater joy.   Whether Jesus is talking about being blessed or being fulfilled, he is talking about going beyond normal experience.  An extra measure of joy seems to be available to us, and that is what Jesus is pointing us toward.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is talking about a two-step process.  First comes formation; second comes transformation.  First comes the law and the prophets; that is, guidance for living our normal, daily life.  They exist to shape our actions, intentions, attitudes, values, and beliefs.  But what are they shaping us to become?  What are they guiding us toward?

Transformation.  Transformation is hard to talk about, because it has to be experienced.  Formation has to be taught; transformation can only be caught.

Let me insert an image that might be helpful.  In the study of dreams a house can often symbolize the self.  I’d like you to imagine a house — not the one you live in, but one you create in your imagination.  Now imagine yourself in it.  All of a sudden you notice a door that you hadn’t known was there.  When you open it you discover a vast room, warm and inviting, beautifully furnished.  You are overjoyed and you realize that that hidden room had always been there, but you hadn’t been aware of it.

This image is meant to make sense of Jesus’ words in today’s reading.  He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That same word can equally well be translated “complete.”  Be complete he is saying, don’t stop with just ordinary happiness; press on toward the Isles of the Blessed.  Be complete he is saying; don’t stop with formation, with the law and the prophets; press on to fulfillment, to transformation.  Be complete; don’t live only in the house you are familiar with; open the door and live also in that vast and glorious hidden room.  There is so much more to you than you realize.

I know that many of us, have discovered that “beyond” that Jesus is pointing us to.  You suddenly, and for no reason, find yourself deeply at peace, happy beyond measure, content with things just as they are, tranquil in a vast spaciousness.  It may last only a few minutes, or much longer, but when we return to normal life we remember that we did have that experience.  We would probably have it more often if we did as Jesus did: simply spending time in stillness, just soaking in God’s presence.

Sadly, certain things we do can make it hard for us to receive that “beyond” element into our lives.  In order to describe these things, I want to make a distinction between reacting and responding.  Jesus spoke about not resisting.  Resisting can take two forms.  Reactions are fundamentally negative; responding is fundamentally positive.

Because reactions move against something, they create counter-reactions; they polarize.  Reactions open a gap between me and the person I am reacting to; they lead to violence.

Responding feels entirely different.  Responding unifies, while reacting divides.  Responding accepts while reacting tries to control.  Responding forgives, while reacting condemns.  Reacting says, “My way or the highway;” responding doesn’t give ultimatums.

In today’s reading I believe Jesus is trying to steer his disciples — us — away from reacting.  He knows it engenders anger and shuts us down inside.  I cannot believe he would steer us away from responding though.  He himself responded vehemently to the injustices and hypocrisy of his day.  When he said not to resist the evildoer, he must have meant do not react-to.  Do not react to the evil doer, but do resist by means of responding, as he himself did.  Responding is a shorthand way of saying love your enemy.

Remember Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  He didn’t say this to make us pious; he said it so that we could experience that blessedness, fulfillment, completeness — the inner spaciousness that is ours.

I want to close by bringing all this theory into the real world.  I want to suggests how we can — not react — but respond to an enemy.  This strategy comes from Thomas Merton; and I found it both shocking and potentially helpful.

First he says that to love others we must first love ourselves.  But how do we find something in ourselves really to love?  It is impossible unless we find the likeness of Christ in ourselves.

Next he says that we have a limited idea of Christ; and that keeps up from finding Christ in ourselves.  The limitation is that we look for Christ in our own idealized image of ourselves — us at our best.

Finally he says, and I quote: “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves — on the contrary, He has identified Himself with what we resent in ourselves, for He has taken upon Himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins.  We cannot find peace in ourselves if, in rejecting our misery and thrusting it away from us, we thrust away Christ Who loves in us not our human glory but our ignobility.”

This answers the question: how can I resist and not react to someone I fear and loath?  Merton says: first disabuse yourself of the idea that Christ is found in the good people, the good qualities.  No!  He took upon himself just the opposite.  That is the great insight of the crucifixion.  He identified with all we find abhorrent in ourselves.  Do you want to draw close to God?  To Jesus?  Then start to love all those aspects of yourself that embarrass you or shame you — your hidden (or not so hidden) weaknesses and addictions.  Then seek that same Christ in others.  Christ will be most powerfully present in your enemies!  From that place of tender, loving acceptance you can respond, not react.  You can speak to your enemy with power and passion about what you see happening and what its tragic consequences will be.  Like Jesus, you’ll be “perfect”!

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Matthew 5:13-20

February 10, 2017

On the surface this Gospel seems to mirror the very situation we find ourselves in today.  Surely most of us are troubled by the divisiveness that wracks our country.  Nowadays, us-against-them crops up everywhere you look.  The Gospel today also shows us a division — a familiar one: Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees.  Let’s take a look below the surface of this reading, and discover some surprising guidance.

Jesus grew up in the Jewish faith; it formed him through and through.  He railed against the scribes and Pharisees, not because he rejected his faith, not even because he rejected them, but because, for them, religion went no further than the law and the prophets — you could say it stopped with the externals of religion, head stuff.

Obviously some people took Jesus’ polemics against the scribes and Pharisees as a repudiation of the law and the prophets; hence Jesus’ outspoken defense of the law and the prophets, as we just heard.  The law and the prophets, he was saying, make a starting place, an essential starting place, but not the goal.

So Jesus chastises the scribes and the Pharisees time and again.  He is fierce, even scathing, but out of what we might call today tough love.  Jesus could see that they were in as much need of spiritual salvage as any of the people — maybe more — and his heart went out to them; but privilege blinded them to their need.  You’ve heard it said that the church’s job is to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.  Jesus could best express his love for the scribes and Pharisees by afflicting them.

What is the real issue, then, between Jesus and the Jewish leadership?  Jesus said in today’s episode, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  That one word, fulfill, holds the key to understanding the real issue.  Jesus uses the word fulfill a lot.  For example, in John’s gospel he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled.”  Imagine if you built a sail boat.  You have it all right and tight, strong keel, sturdy rudder, but it still needs a sail.  The law and the prophets are that beautiful sea-worthy boat.  The joy is the wind in the sail.

Getting this right is so important!  In this passage Jesus is talking about a two-step process.  First comes formation; second comes transformation.  First comes the law and the prophets; that is, what can be taught.  They shape our actions, intentions, attitudes, values, and beliefs.  Even more basic: they make us aware that right and wrong exist, and that there are consequences to our choices.  We cannot ignore the law and the prophets or we’ll be non-starters on the journey of life.

Second, transformation.  It cannot be taught.  Transformation is hard to talk about, because it has to be experienced.  To return to the analogy of the boat, transformation is the wind in the sail — it has to be caught.  Transformation leads to a sense of flying free in a wide open sea.  It deals with the internals, with the heart and soul.  Formation, we could say, deals with the realm of duality — I see the differences between you and me.  Transformation deals with the realm of unity — I sense how, at bottom, you and I are one.  Formation allows you to see what is wrong about what I am doing or saying.  Transformation  allows you to call me out, without giving me the sense that I am being judged, rejected, or am in some sense inferior.  You do it with compassion.

What was that life-changing attraction that drew disciples, and even crowds, to Jesus?  Wasn’t it the way he appeared to fly free in the wind?  His unfettered joy?  The sense they had that he was unreservedly alive in the present moment?  For myself, when I’m in the presence of someone I have judged and found wanting, I feel squeezed inside, anything but free.  I even feel knots when I think of those people.  In short, I’ve run aground in a moral swamp.  Jesus didn’t let himself go there.

Some of you may be thinking of Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Not hold her or him in aversion?  Not judge them?  Not put a chasm between her or him and me?  How is that possible?  Look at Jesus.  He knew that we can only speak out in protest effectively if we are speaking from a place of compassion — from a place where we feel no division between us and them.  If, in Jesus, we see God in human form, then he could not reject the one who does wrong — not put up a barrier, not hold that person in aversion.  He could only feel his oneness with them.  So he is showing us that most difficult of all achievements: how to be critical of others without rejecting them, without judging them; without allowing a gap to open up between us and them.  Only from that position could he speak truth to power… with power.

At this point some of you are saying, “Where is the good news in that?  Where is the promised comfort?  If I’m supposed to have compassion for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton — and harder still, not separate myself from them — I simply can’t do it!”  Fair enough; we’re all students in the school of love, not graduates.

But think of this.  Suppose Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees in such a way that they heard loathing and contempt.  In other words he went beyond chastising their willful ignorance and their failed leadership.  He actually deplored them.  If Jesus, God in human form, can separate himself from other human beings on the basis of their bad behavior, what about us?  How perfect are we?  Not only that, but he would be giving us permission, by his example, to do the same.  He’d be an enabler — enabling us to tie ourselves up in knots, give away our freedom — the very thing he accused the scribes and Pharisees of doing to their people.

So for us who are comfortable, this Gospel reading afflicts us.  It afflicts us by condemning our behavior, to the extent that we judge others and find them wanting.  And for us who are afflicted, this Gospel reading comforts us.  It comforts us with the assurance that no matter how aground we may be in a moral swamp, Jesus will be right there beside us, never drawing away.  And for us who are desperate to bring about change, this Gospel reading says we can never be more effective than when our words — critical though they be — come from a place of full-hearted compassion.

I’ll sum this up by closing with a story.  In Woodstock the Episcopal priest teamed up with the rabbi of the synagogue to team teach a class they designed called “Common Origin, Separate Paths.”  They billed it as not seeking what we have in common, but exploring our differences.  In the first few classes discussion felt formal, even stiff; for both sides knew how prejudice against Jews, rooted the New Testament, had given rise to nearly 2,000 years of bitter persecution.  But the teachers modeled respect for each other, and openness to whatever was said.  Gradually trust built up; we began to trust that we could express our true opinions and beliefs; that we could differ point blank, and still be members of the same community of spiritual seekers.  In the end, the experience transformed most, if not all, of us.  Our own faiths were vastly enriched, and equally, we saw for the first time how infinitely rich was the others’ tradition.  In terms of today’s Gospel, we had become the salt of the earth and lamps on a lamp stand.  We differed, yes, irrevocably; but we overcame our separation.  In fact, we discovered our basic oneness, and we added greatly to the flavor and savor of our separate religions.

MATTHEW 22:15-22

October 19, 2014

Today’s Gospel offers us a cornucopia of things to learn.  Here are three quick ones.  First, Jesus can spot hypocrisy, no matter how much flattery surrounds it.  Second, you cannot trap God or put God in a corner; God is always free to move as God pleases.  Third, Jesus can turn any event, however unpleasant, into a teaching opportunity, as he does here.

One other learning might go by unnoticed, and it would be false.  The Evangelist suggests that the Pharisees were Jesus’ enemies.  Not so.  Jesus and the Pharisees saw eye to eye on many points, and Jesus respected their adherence to their faith.  Matthew wrote his Gospel many decades later, when tensions had arisen between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who followed the Pharisees.  Matthew retrojected the animosity he felt toward the Pharisees into the account he gave of Jesus and his times.  The result over succeeding centuries has been tragic for Jews, of course, but also Christians.

That being said, I want to turn now to what may be Jesus most profound teaching.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Let us ask three questions.  First, how do we give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s?  Second, how do we give to God the things that are God’s?  Third, is there a connecting link?  In other words, do we have two separate compartments inside ourselves, secular and sacred?

Here is a story we can refer to as we consider those three questions.  A Catholic nun, Mary C. Boys, tells this story about a photograph she took when she was attending a conference in Cape Town, South Africa.  She writes,  “The photo’s context is political: the wretched system of apartheid was in effect; Nelson Mandela was still in prison; the government had declared a state of emergency; troops patrolled the streets; danger was in the air.  Supporting the violent status quo, an unknown hand, no doubt white, had used thick black paint to scrawl this graffiti: HANG MANDELA!  But wait – someone else, probably with a darker hand, had come along and penciled the word ‘on’ between the two painted words.”

Now let’s try to imagine our own selves on that street in Cape Town.  Envision that heavy-handed black message: HANG  MANDELA.  That image conjures up thoughts and those thoughts arouse feelings of anger, hatred, judgment, fear, and so on.  Now envision that same image with the little word, “on” inserted: HANG on MANDELA!!  Seeing that, feelings of hope, courage, faith, possibility, purpose, trust, even love course through us.

So first question: how do we give to the emperor?  Well, who is the emperor?  Wouldn’t the emperor stand for the controlling forces of that whole political and economic system in which we live?  We give to the emperor in a tangible way by paying our taxes and in general by following the law.  But we also give to the emperor in a less tangible way.  We give over our minds.   We become embroiled in political conflicts.   They stir up thoughts that arouse anger, contempt, loathing or blame.  We let the media stir us up, sparking feelings of danger and threat — from Ebola, for instance.  At the end of the day we need a stiff drink and we twitch in our sleep from all the conflicts we are aware of, or even involved in.

Second question: how do we give to God?  One, we give to God by centering ourselves in the present moment — not becoming puppets to the thoughts and feelings that the emperor throws at us, but becoming aware of our bodies, our breathing, our blood coursing through us and our connection to all of creation.  Two, we give to God by giving thanks — as the Prayer Books says, “always and everywhere give thanks.”  Three, and above all, we give to God simply by being conscious of God’s presence.  Think of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace of God’s burning love.  That is just as much our truth — we are completely immersed in God’s intense love, a love that can never die down or burn out.  Our tragedy is this: too often we let the forces of the emperor screen us from that awareness.

Are these two separate compartments in us?  Secular and sacred?  Are we like computers with a binary switch: it’s either one or zero?  Or are the secular and the sacred somehow linked in us?  Think of the graffiti, HANG MANDELA.  Omit the “on” and we’re solidly in the Emperor’s world.  Pencil “on” in the middle, and we are in God’s world, but not necessarily separated from the Emperor’s world.  Too often people who are drawn to the sacred isolate themselves from the secular.

The answer is to create our own, inner graffiti: HANG ON SUSAN.  Hang on to your awareness of your body and the present moment.  Hang on to your awareness of your connection to all creation.  Hang on to your awareness that you are burning with life in the fire of God’s furnace where the fuel is only love.  The answer is to write that graffiti again and again on the wall of my mind.

Gradually that awareness will take over.  I’ll go through my day, and I’ll give to the emperor right enough.  I’ll give myself to healing the wounded, taking a stand for justice and integrity; modeling peace and forgiveness.  I’ll give to the emperor on my terms.  And at the end of the day?  No twitching.  No tension.  No stiff drink.

This will be our story.  We’ll be a lot like Jesus.  First, we’ll be quick to spot the hypocrisy of the emperor’s world and it won’t seduce us.  Second, we won’t be trapped or put in a corner, by any longing for the things of the emperor’s world.  Third, we can turn any event, however unpleasant, into a teaching opportunity for ourselves, simply by giving thanks.

We’ll become a lot like Jesus who befriended the people who tried to trap him.  In return, he gave them a beautiful teaching, one that would open for them the gate to eternal life.  We can live like Jesus in the Emperor’s world.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 3, 2014

August 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31, Matthew 14:13-21

Do you ever puzzle over why more people don’t come to church — not just Trinity Church, but any church?  I do.  Here’s one hypothesis, based on my own experience.  My introduction to religion came from my Presbyterian grandfather, who read to me from a book you may have known too: Hurlburt’s Story of the Bible for Young and Old.  As a small child I learned about the Garden of Eden, Noah’s ark, the crossing of the Red Sea, the valley of dry bones, and so forth.  At that age, packing two of every kind of animal into a boat seemed no more amazing to me than seeing a chick hatch or an airplane fly.  They were wonderful stories.

When I got older I saw how ridiculous those stories are — no better than fairy tales, certainly nothing to base a religion upon, much less a life.  As do many people, I turned in other directions to find meaning, joy and excitement in my life.  It was years before I took another look at the Bible.

Coming at it from a more mature outlook, I saw that the Bible has what would seem to be an impossible task.  It has to tell people about God and draw them into a loving relationship with God.  What makes it impossible?  That one book needs to speak to little children and sages, brilliant minds and dull, prosperous people and poor, dying and living.  What other book has ever done that?  No wonder we say the Bible is inspired!

How is it done?  Take the reading we just heard from Genesis.  It’s a terrific drama isn’t it?  Any child would be fascinated.  Yet it also stands as a foundation of Judaism.  How so?  You recall that after Jacob spent the night struggling against the angel, he became known as Israel, meaning one who wrestles with God.   The story conveys a powerful message; namely, God rewards those who wrestle with God.  And how do we wrestle with God?  One way is to wrestle with the stories.  It’s a time-honored spiritual practice.  Stories like these are meant to deliver spiritual truths that cannot be learned by direct telling.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is an example.  Sarah was 90 years old when God visited them and promised that Sarah would bear a son.  We could let the story drop there and say to ourselves that with God nothing is impossible.  That would be a true interpretation, but it didn’t call for much wrestling.  Suppose we don’t let go at that, but keep wrestling with the story.  Might it yield a deeper truth: that is, we are never too old or too weak to bring forth new life?  The baby can be a metaphor.

I recall the story of an old and very ill monk.  His head ached so fiercely that he really could not get up off of the cot in his cell; but every day he saw visitors.  People came to him from all over, asking for his guidance and asking for his prayers.  Many left his cell — we could put it this way — born again.  New-borns can take an infinite number of forms.  Because we wrestled this truth out of a story, a sacred story, we do not merely believe, but we actually feel that we, too, can give birth to new life.  It empowers us.

What about the story of the feeding of the 5,000?  I’m sure it has turned a few people away from Christianity.  Some (and I was one of them) simply don’t believe it, and say religion is for the simple minded.  For others it’s simply a wonder, like Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not.  They say to themselves, “It seems improbable, but so is the story of the man who, as Ripley tells us, could bounce down a flight of stairs on his head.”  The response is a shrug: so what?  What makes a story sacred, is not whether it is factual or not, but whether it has power to transform us.  Stories with that kind of power are called true stories.

Efforts have been made to make the story of the feeding of the 5,000  sound factual.  For instance, some have suggested that all the people had brought some bread, which they had kept in their robes out of the sun.  When lunch time came no one wanted to take out her or his bread, thinking they couldn’t share with so many.  Then the disciples came around offering all they had, and it broke the dam.  All the others brought forth their bread.  That’s a logical explanation, but there’s little to transform us in that story!

Of course, it could have been a miracle, as described.  It is certainly within the power of God to do that.  But again, so what?  How different is that from something we could read about in Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not?  As a people of faith, descended from Israel, the God Wrestler, we need to hold on to that story of the feeding of the 5,000, in all its strangeness, until it blesses us.

Here is one approach.  Remember that this Gospel account was written after the Last Supper, after the institution of the Eucharist.  We cannot hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000 apart from that other story: the feeding of the twelve.  What was Jesus doing at the Last Supper?  He was meeting the very deepest need of humankind — the need to belong.  That need springs straight from the soul, whose basic nature is relationship.

We can have all the world has to offer — status, achievements, possessions — yet without a sense of belonging it all seems empty or pointless.  This is especially true today.  As one person put it, “Technology pretends to unite us, yet more often than not all it delivers are simulated relationships.”  Babies die, even if all their physical needs are met, yet their need to belong is not met.  Of course, all of us do belong, always; nothing can take that away from us.  What we lack is an awareness that we belong, not only to each other, but to God.

This makes bread a supremely important symbol.  ‘Companionship,’ as you know, means breaking bread together — pan being the Latin word for bread.  To invite someone to share a meal is to say in effect, “You belong.”  So on the night before he died, Jesus took a loaf of bread, symbolizing himself — symbolizing all of humanity.  He broke it, meaning that he would die — meaning, too, that humanity itself is fragmented.  He passed out the broken pieces for those present to eat; and he told them that whenever they repeated that action they should do so “in re-membrance of me.”  It is a powerful way of enacting the core truth: you are one; you belong; you are part of God’s body.  In the vast tapestry of eternity yours, too, is an essential thread.

However we explain the feeding of the 5,000, this we cannot doubt: in that event Jesus was teaching his disciples to pass on to others what he was passing on to them — on the surface it was bread, but deeper than that, it was the sure and certain knowledge that they belong.  At the Last Supper Jesus would create a ritual to embody that teaching and carry it forward to all time.  We belong to each other; we belong to all of humankind; we belong to God.  And he wasn’t just telling them in so many words, he enacted it, he made them experience and feel its truth.

So I remain puzzled.  Why don’t more people come to church?  A recent article in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that, since the 1980’s, the number of lonely Americans has doubled to 40%.  The need is there, stronger than ever.

Perhaps Trinity Saugerties, taking to heart the deeper truth of Sarah’s story, will give birth to a new ministry, possibly a ministry to the lonely.  What form might that take?  We must wrestle with God, and keep wrestling, until God blesses us with a vision for our future.

Matthew 11:2-11, Isaiah 35:1-10

December 16, 2013

Imagine bringing someone who has lived all their life at the equator to our area. In this season. The person looks around, sees dead trees, leafless bushes, grey and brown all around with a scant touch of evergreen. You tell them, “Come spring, this will all be alive and full of color.” Your visitor looks dubious. But in fact, beneath the surface, this dead-seeming landscape of ours is pounding with life.

That is the prophet Isaiah’s message as well. He points to a landscape that appears at least as dead as ours in winter. His dead landscape, of course, is not due to a lack of warmth, but to a lack of water. He tells the people, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” Isaiah was speaking to a people who felt as dead as the landscape. They were living in exile, uprooted — cut off from what gave their lives meaning and joy. But believe me, says Isaiah, your lifeless-seeming desert, is surging with new life just waiting to burst forth.

This, also, is the story of Advent, the first season of the church year. You could say that the cycle of the seasons mirrors the cycle of our spiritual lives. In the Advent season nature appears to be dead. We’ve all known times like that — times when we are anxious about many things. Times when our lives are not carpeted with crocuses. Advent promises us that like seeds in frozen soil, joy and singing do lie within us, and their time will come to sprout and grow. Call it crocus time.

Advent can also have a deeper meaning. Consider how Jesus challenged the crowd in today’s Gospel. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Wind-tossed weeds? No. Celebrities? No. They went, he said, because they had heard about a prophet; in other words, someone who might feed their great, inner need. What was that need? It is our need as well. It is the need to belong. When that need is not met life can feel bleak indeed.

According to Matthew’s version of the Gospel, John did not know Jesus personally. Just the same, he did prepare the ground for Jesus. He did this the way prophets do; that is, he reoriented the people’s thinking. The people suffered from a common misperception. Salvation, they believed, would come from without, from outside of themselves — from a religious or political leader or from some special event at which they would be present, a sacrifice, perhaps. John pointed them to look within, to their own souls, the only possible soil for salvation.

As long as we look to something outside of ourselves for our salvation, we’ll look in vain, and life will seem bleak and we’ll hide that bleakness from ourselves with busyness and other distractions. But Jesus came after John and took John’s teaching one step further. John had prepared the ground, so to speak; then Jesus promised that under that ground lay seeds of new life waiting to sprout and grow. That new life, of course, is God’s life, eternal life.

Jesus, himself, had undergone that transformation. He had opened the womb of his soul. He had said yes; quicken, O God, that life that lies dormant within me. His inner landscape gradually turned, as seasons do, as if from winter to spring. And that new life that he felt swelling up within him would not, could not be interrupted by death. This was salvation — discovering the divine life of God within himself. This then became Jesus’ mission, to help us all discover and nourish that Life within ourselves.

This helps interpret what Jesus added about John: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” He was contrasting those who have not yet heard of the promise of spring, or who refuse to act on it, with those who have.

Let me give you an example of the difference. When it comes to generosity, giving can take place on three levels. At the first level, we give with hesitation. What if the thing I am giving I will need later? Hesitant as it may be, though, giving at this level does bring a sense of happiness and freedom.

At the second level we give with a sense of sharing, as if to a sibling. We do not hesitate; giving is easy at this level. And as we give a spirit of joy and friendship and openness grows in us.

At the third level we give spontaneously and immediately of the best we have, simply because we take such delight in the well-bring and happiness of others. At the same time we experience great abundance within ourselves and our joy continues to grow.

Those whom Jesus called “born of women” can give at the first two levels of generosity; but the third level can only be reached by those who have discovered and nourished the divine life within them.

Why is this so? It has to do with belonging. When the life of God is flourishing within us we see with new eyes. It’s like when I was a child in the 1940’s. If my mother went to a shoe store, I would dart over to the x-ray machine to wiggle my toes and watch my bones move. That may not have been such a good idea, but the idea I want to lodge with you is that of actually seeing life inside of life.

When we see normally, we look in a mirror and see a face peering back at us, perhaps not as young or beautiful as we would wish. We look into eyes that acknowledge a past, not as honest or generous as it could have been, not as successful. Contrast that with how we look when we see with God’s eyes. We see right through surface realities to the precious person within. We see a person who goes through life blessing others – often all unknowingly. We see a person who is neither dependent on others nor independent of others, but interdependent on all sides. Above all, we see someone who belongs, whom nothing can separate from the web of eternal life.

I’d like to leave you with the image of a vast and intricate jig saw puzzle. This is God’s jig saw puzzle, so vast that it contains all of creation. Each of us is a piece, but we need to see with God’s eyes to really feel that truth. The truth is that each one of us is essential to the overall picture. Remember Jesus story about the shepherd who left the 99 sheep in the wilderness and went searching for the one who was lost? Have you ever neared the completion of a jig saw puzzle and realized a piece was missing? You tear the house apart looking for it. Well, this image of the jig saw puzzle only takes us so far, because God never fails to find a missing piece, and never fails to fit it into the whole, glorious design.

Those who actually see with God’s eyes, the way Jesus did, cannot help but give at the third level of giving – immediately and spontaneously because of the delight they take in the well-being and happiness of others — for who is the Other if not myself?

Remember in Advent: the ground has to warm up before the new life can spring forth; God is the sun of our inner awakening. Let us spend time basking in the presence of God.

Matthew 21:33-46, Isaiah 5:1-7

October 6, 2011

Let’s imagine we are in a Bible study group.  We might begin by recalling what we know of landlord tenant law.  This provides that a land owner may allow another person, called the tenant, to use the owner’s land as if it were their own.  In exchange for this privilege, the tenant agrees to pay the owner of the land some fraction of what the land produces; for instance, 10%.  We might also recall that in this case the landowner not only gave the tenants the use of his land, the owner also, most generously, put in some capital improvements, so that the tenants would have a head start in making a go of their enterprise.  For instance, he owner erected a fence to keep out predators; the owner put in a wine press to make it easier to squeeze the grapes; and the owner even built a watch tower so the tenants could oversee their entire operation. (more…)

Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15

September 19, 2011

A friend sent me this quotation.  Someone else wrote it to him.  “I was a Roman Catholic boy.  I married a Presbyterian/Baptist girl who tried to be a Roman Catholic, but the vaccination didn’t take.  Right now I don’t know what I am.  Doctrine, rigidity, superstitions have gotten in my way.”  This is what I want to preach on this morning, because I have heard something like that many times.  It is the main reason people turn away from religion — doctrine, rigidity, and superstitions. (more…)

Matthew 18:21-35

September 11, 2011

Don’t you find it amazing that on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 the Gospel reading should be about forgiveness?  The list of offenses we have to forgive scarcely ends.  We could name the horror of the massive killing, the terror and grief inflicted, the sense of vulnerability and distrust we now live with, the searing confrontation with evil, the loss of direction for us as a nation, the catastrophic destruction, the on-going health issues, the loss of our innocence, for some, even the loss of faith.  If Jesus calls seventy-seven the upper limit of the number of times we should forgive, we can get well above this with 9/11. (more…)

Matthew 16:13-20

August 21, 2011

This was a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel.  It was a turning point in Jesus’ journey with his disciples.  It was a turning point in the lives of the disciples.  Possibly it will be a turning point in our own lives.

Picture the Jordan River Valley.  The river rises in the north on the slopes of Mt. Hermon and flows south to the Dead Sea.  Jesus has been heading north, teaching his followers as they went along, forming them spiritually.  They climb the slopes of Mt. Hermon to Caesarea Philippi.  From there they can scan the valley, and trace the way they have come.  I picture them sitting on a rocky outcropping, gazing out at the view, reflecting on their journey. (more…)

Matthew 14:22-33

August 8, 2011

Some readers dismiss this Gospel story.  Either they do not believe Peter walked on water, or they don’t believe they, themselves, ever could.  Such faith is beyond their reach, they think, beyond even striving for, so what’s the point?  Well, there is a point, and to get at it I want to tell you another story. (more…)