Lent 1(A): Isn’t There an Easier Way?

Lent 1(A): Isn’t There an Easier Way?

Matthew 4:1-11

By: Ryan Young

I tend to avoid teaching on stories in which the devil is a main character because his character tends to suck all of the oxygen out of the room; the devil is all anyone wants to talk about, and more often than not, those discussions quickly spiral out of control. Ask anyone who is in or has recently been through the ordination process of the United Methodist Church about “Theology & Doctrine question #2” and watch them take a deep, uncomfortable breath. As a ministry candidate and a member of a theology and doctrine peer group I have witnessed the second question, “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in the world?” trip up more people than any other. It is unique in its ability to give ministerial candidates nightmares. It has an amazing ability to get candidates lost in the weeds of their own thought and can quickly give way to the despair and existential dread that comes with questioning the theological education that they are almost surely still in debt for. Biblical literalists will almost certainly back themselves into the corner of dualism by trying to use the devil to explain evil, and more theologically progressive candidates will often be taken to task for their lack of thought on supernatural evil.

However, I like this scripture because I think it speaks to an extremely human problem. I don’t mean the problem of temptation, although that is certainly in this pericope and has been written about extensively; what I see when I read this story is the inexhaustible desire to know why things are the way they are. I particularly enjoy the way that Tennyson writes about this desire in ‘Ulysses,’

“…And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

But if poetry isn’t your bailiwick, spend an afternoon with a parent of a kindergartner. They will ask “why” more in a single afternoon than you have asked in the past year. As a friend of mine recently said of his child, “I am extremely happy that she wants to learn everything about everything; I just wish she didn’t want to learn it from me!”

The scripture in focus is uniquely situated for the “why” question as it takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Directly after Jesus is baptized and the Spirit descends upon him, claiming him as God’s beloved Son, that same Spirit leads him into the wilderness to face three temptations. The questions that these temptations bring up speak a great deal to Jesus’ commitment to God’s purposes and perhaps a little to our own desires for an easier way.

In the first temptation, the tempter asks Jesus to turn stones to bread. As the preceding verse had noted Jesus’ hunger after his forty day fast, it would seem that the temptation is to use his miraculous power to feed himself. However, I’m not sure that this is the case. In 14:13-21 and 15:29-39 we have two stories in which Christ performs feeding miracles for five and four thousand people, and in a story that is even more odd, 21:18-22 tells about Jesus using his power to curse a fig tree that didn’t provide him with anything to eat. The argument which I find convincing centers around Matthew’s rendering the singular “loaf” present in Luke to “loaves.” Thus, Jesus was being tempted to live into his messianic calling, not by merely feeding himself, but by using his power to alleviate the hunger of the whole world. And why wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t ending hunger have instantly signaled his identity to the world?

In the second temptation, Jesus is taken to the busiest section of Jerusalem and asked to throw himself off so that the crowds could witness the angels serve him. To me, this is the most compelling temptation. It is not as if angels hadn’t protected Jesus before as his family fled from Herod the Great’s genocide to Egypt, moreover the angels would come and tend to his needs in verse 11. So why couldn’t Jesus use his position over them to make people see that he was indeed the messiah? Why wouldn’t Jesus want the most exposure and notoriety possible to spread his message? Wouldn’t it make sense: the more eyes that were on the Son of God the better?

The third temptation is the most obviously dubious. Jesus is offered control of all the kingdoms of the world, to bring about his kingdom immediately by becoming an earthly ruler. However, to gain this he would have to accept evil’s reign over the world and abandon the true God. Jesus’ rebuke to the tempter, “Away from me, Satan!” is echoed later in his ministry (16:21-28) as he rebukes Peter who is horrified at Jesus’ foretelling of his own death and forbids him from continuing on that path. Thus here we begin to see the “why” questions that were more obvious in the other temptations. Why did God choose to bring about the redemption of the world in this way? Surely there were more efficacious ways? Why did Jesus’ ministry end in suffering, death, and resurrection?

I find the temptation narrative to be one of the most human in the Bible, as it speaks to the universal questions about why things are the way that they are. When I was growing up, one of my mother’s favorite films was the 1973 masterpiece, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” During the crucifixion scene at the film’s conclusion, Jesus has a vision of Judas, played by Carl Anderson, who descends from heaven looking resplendent in angelic disco attire, complete with white fringe wings, to question Jesus’ motives and actions during his ministry. He sings,

“Every time I look at you I don’t understand

Why you let the things you did get so out of hand

You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.

Now why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?

If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation,

Israel in four BC had no mass communication.”

Perhaps Jesus didn’t miraculously end hunger because that is the calling of his followers—Matthew 25:35-40 seems pretty clear on that. Perhaps Jesus didn’t perform amazing death-defying miracles because his ministry was not a spectator sport, but a deeply relational invitation to something meaningful. Perhaps Jesus didn’t become an earthly ruler because you cannot legislate the Kingdom of God into existence. The temptation narrative brings up questions that I can only guess at. What it does make abundantly clear is that Jesus calls us into something that is both incredibly meaningful and incredibly difficult. There is no via expedius; and may God be praised for that.

 

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Ryan Young

Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael and their dog Zooey.

Ash Wednesday: Treasure Isn’t Just for Pirates and Dragons!

Ash Wednesday: Treasure Isn’t Just for Pirates and Dragons!

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

By: Casey K. Cross

In the past, when I have read this passage, I have struggled. I struggle with it because there’s a lot of talk about treasure and when I think about treasure, I can’t help but imagine pirates.

I’m pretty sure that when Jesus was teaching on this subject, he wasn’t imagining a famous ride at a theme park or the near-billion US dollar grossing movie franchise we all know so well today.

Because I’ve always loved reading sci-fi and fantasy, I also can’t help but imagine dragons when I think about treasure.

In both illustrations, treasure feeds greed, isolation, and ultimately death. Though we can be certain that Jesus wasn’t referring to either of these two examples, we do know that the beauty of the incarnation showed us Jesus’ complete understanding of what it is to be human. Jesus understood that if we were to seek after treasure left to our own devices, we would end up just like the pirates and dragons—greedy, isolated, and dead.

Human behavior is such that seeking after treasure seems an obvious outcome of our survival as hunters and gatherers. We see this hunger and search for treasure documented throughout history in a variety of ways. Here are just a few:

MTV Cribs: 50 Cent’s Sneaker Collection: 

Hoarders: The Collector’s Collector: 

Top Ten Movie Treasure Hunters: 

Jay Leno’s Car Collection: 

While we can chuckle at some of these examples, the truth is we all search for treasure. Although there are some treasures that are more popular than others, treasure is not necessarily universal. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

So what is the treasure that Jesus is speaking of in this passage? While Jesus completely understood what it was to be human, he also saw things from a divine perspective. This perspective found treasure where most would see trash. This perspective describes a treasure beyond our control and ownership.

The treasure that is stored up in heaven is not calculated by the worthiness of our deeds, the number of followers we acquire on social media, the net worth of our investments, or how popular we were in high school. Instead, Jesus promises a reward unmatched by the treasures we most often seek after and calculated by a very clear code of conduct that would shake up the rules of behavior that are most popularly lived by today.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The focus here is on intention and purity of purpose. Our stewardship is not for special recognition but for service and mission. Our words of faith and praise are not just entertaining click-bait or feel-good memes. Our spiritual practices are more than performance art on the street corner.

Jesus’ focus on this passage is also not about hoarding secrets; nor is it about individualized spirituality. Instead, it is an encouragement for believers to pay attention to what Father Richard Rohr so eloquently speaks of as our “inner authority” (see https://cac.org/inner-authority-2017-01-22/ for more). It is in this quiet place, the hidden and secret spaces of our hearts, where we learn to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, and it is here that God truly sees us. As we practice our faith in these ways, we meet ourselves as God created us to be—God’s image reflected in our faces and lives.

Though rewards are often used as external motivators for preferred behavior, Jesus is not sharing this with his followers so they blindly do whatever he says. Jesus is showing us, in language we might understand, that there is a purpose for the way we behave in the world, and it’s not what we think. Jesus is saying that there is a reward for what we do but it is not the treasure we imagine. This treasure is so much more than a pirate’s treasure chest or dragon’s hoard. This treasure is, in fact, a gift and by the grace of God, it is for everyone.

 

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Casey K. Cross

Casey K. Cross is currently serving as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. She can be found in the kitchen with her husband, walking her black lab, Lola, listening to music, drinking coffee, reading too many books at once, and sitting around, thinking about stuff that might eventually get written about on her blog: http://caseykcross.wordpress.com.

Last Epiphany: Don’t Go Chasing Mountain Tops!

Last Epiphany: Don’t Go Chasing Mountain Tops

Matthew 17: 1-9

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

I am a university chaplain, and in my line of work, I get the special opportunity to act as a spiritual companion for young adults. Many of these young adults are Christians seeking a deeper understanding of their faith. They tell me of experiences of the closeness of God, or of the nearness of Jesus. They have spiritual highs after coming back to school from a summer at a Christian camp, or after a weekend retreat. They speak of the overwhelming feeling of God’s presence during Christian concerts, or in special fellowships. But they despair when that high fades and they are left back where they started, struggling to hold on to the nearness of God in the midst of a busy college life.

 

We call these highs “mountain top” experiences—moments when we are pulled out of ordinary life and transfigured in faith. Many of us have had them—I have, while riding along on a busy and winding mountain road in Guatemala. I felt as though I was an empty cup being filled by God’s warm grace. It was so powerful I have held onto that moment when doubts or stress creep in.

 

In the reading for today, Peter and James went to the mountain top with Jesus and had an experience of God. They saw Jesus physically transfigured before them, but the effect was to convert their own faith. Transfigure means to convert or alter, often (but not always) in order to glorify. Our mountain top experiences alter us toward deeper relationship with God—one that allows us to have a change of heart to glorify God.

 

But we can’t live on the mountain. This is a hard truth my students have to face. They can’t stay forever at summer camp or on retreat—just as I couldn’t make the bus stop so I could settle into life on the side of the road in Guatemala. We can’t build dwellings and stay. We must take that experience down into the world. In verse 7, Jesus tells Peter and James, “Get up and do not be afraid.” There is much to fear with a mountain top experience. What does it mean to have such an intense experience of Christ? What does it mean to hear God speak a word of faith? And, what does all of it mean for your life off the mountain?

 

It’s easy to become a person who seeks to stay on the mountain. We can chase the emotional high of the mountain top experience of closeness and assurance of God. We can count only the moments when we feel God’s awesome presence and discount all the quiet moments of service, of faithful reflection, or of deep contemplation. But that is not what God desires of us. God does not desire us to build dwellings, to honor that mountain top as sacred and stay there, trapped by our wonder and awe. God desires that we go down the mountain and into the world. God desires that we are transformed—transfigured—by our experience, and that we share it with all of God’s people.
Jesus led James and Peter back down the mountain and into the waiting crowds. We don’t know how long the “high” of the experience lasted. We don’t know exactly how their prayer life was changed when they came back to the valley. But we do know they didn’t chase the mountain top. Instead they shared their faith and love with the world. We too must not chase the mountain top; we too must share the grace of the experience with the world around us.

 

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The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied History and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Master of Divinity from Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

7th Sunday after Epiphany: WWJD?

7th Sunday after Epiphany: WWJD?

Matthew 5:38-48

By: Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

Alright, Millennial pastors, I’m talking to you for a minute. Do you remember those cool bracelets we used to wear that said “WWJD?” They came in so many colors that many Christians collected them. There was also an ongoing debate over which way the imposing question was to face on one’s wrist. Did you face it so that you were asking yourself every day “What Would Jesus Do?” or was it meant to be an evangelical tool to ask others that saw it to consider their own actions in light of what Jesus would do. While I remember this treasure of evangelical culture, I have fewer memories of what it meant to actually discern what Jesus would do in each moment. That part was much more difficult. After all, my biggest life stressors were school, love, parents, and part-time sandwich shop work—and the Bible didn’t talk about my specific problems as much as I wished at the time it would have.

Matthew 5 is a glimpse though, of what Jesus would do. The problem is that for readers in the 21st century, it’s still not very clear what Jesus would have us do. In fact, it kind of seems like Jesus wouldn’t do anything at all. It seems like Jesus would let a person slap him twice instead of just once and wind up naked when someone takes his clothes. This seeming inaction by Jesus sets some Christians on edge. Those who argue against pacifism say that we can’t afford to just sit back and take it like Jesus would. In that case, WWJD is understood as naive idealism that does not actually have a word for us in the 21st century amidst higher tech and more efficient forms of violence and oppression.

The historical context of Jesus’s response to violence, however, paints a different picture. Scholars suggest that for someone to slap another on the right cheek, it would have likely been a backhanded slap reserved for people considered to be of lower status. So when Jesus challenges his audience to turn the other cheek, he is encouraging a subversive act that equalizes the status of the two people. Giving a person who took a coat a person’s cloak, too, would likely embarrass the person who took the coat because without a cloak, the subversive act is standing nearly naked in a culture in which modesty is important. Walking an extra mile breaks the rule that Roman soldiers had which limited their ability to demand someone carry their pack to a single mile. So the early edicts of this passage are not about inaction at all, but instead, Jesus is modeling strategic resistance to oppression that demands action.

During the second part of this passage, Jesus continues to push his audience by admitting the revolutionary nature of these demands. Here, Jesus ensures that his message is political, meaning more than the self, and not just personal. He doesn’t suggest simply that if your brother punches you in the leg, you self-righteously give him your other leg to punch, knowing that in the end you both are on the same team anyway. It is easy, after all, to love those that you’re already in community with. Jesus explicitly explains that his challenge is not limited to the realm of family and friends, but that it includes enemies and those we do not want to have a connection with. This is what makes it political—its import in social relationships.

While Jesus’s specific advice does not easily translate to 21st century living, his call to act strategically and intentionally does. His model of culturally-informed direct action has influenced Christian social justice leaders and continues to inspire those who seek social justice today. Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Denver’s young chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network for faith and community organizations that seek to come together to collect political power that is broad-based rather than issue-specific. The IAF model asserts that the power created by institutions working together in a community is far greater and fuller of lasting potential than groups of individuals that gather for the purpose of simply addressing one single issue, as in the latter case, the group would likely disband after its objectives were met. There is a clear privileging of the belief that what people and groups do together for the long run is better than what they can do in isolation at singular moments. This group has prioritized strategy over emotion, committing together to collect power and use it to transform injustice and oppression.

When I consider the second half of Matthew 5 in light of my participation with IAF, I see a call for smart, strategic action in the face of injustice. I see a vision of Jesus that calls me to live like this not just in my interpersonal relationships, but in my engagement with my so-called enemies, or in my current context, those that hold power on the national and global stage that are threatening the lives, security, and well-being of marginalized folks.

I also see a vision that seems too difficult to manage on my own. Even though Jesus points out that even the tax collectors love those who love them, it’s not always easy to love our friends and family. So when Jesus insists that we also love our enemies, this burden seems too much. It is almost salt in the wound that Jesus ends his call with, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I know I cannot be perfect. Yet perhaps Jesus isn’t simply ending his call with a shaming tactic, but with an encouragement that the hard work his challenge takes is worth it. We are actually called to live differently than the world around us because we are called to live as God would. WWJD?

 

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Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram has a PhD from Iliff School of Theology and is approved for ordination pending call in the United Church of Christ. She currently resides in Denver, Colorado, where she is an adjunct faculty member at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver.

6th Sunday after Epiphany: Finding the Right Tension

6th Sunday after Epiphany: Finding the Right Tension

Matthew 5:21-37

By: The Rev. David Clifford

I vaguely recall reading somewhere that one key to public speaking is to look for the audience members that are most engaged. It is easier, the article (or maybe person telling me this) suggested, for our minds to find those people less engaged and thus influence the self-doubt that can arise with the act of speaking in public. I find this to be true for myself. I am a very personal, introverted, and shy individual. Yet, I am also a pastor that speaks to over one hundred people every week.

Given that I am a millennial (as are each of the authors for Modern Metanoia), I have not been preaching all that long really. However, I have had the occasion of being in the middle of a sermon and starting to notice the glazed over eyes of a few parishioners (even some that seem asleep). I am encouraged by the length of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew’s Gospel. This Sermon on the Mount extends for three chapters (5-7) at the beginning of his ministry.

I am also aware of the tension that can arise in proclaiming the good news of the Lord. This tension not only occurs based on the length or style of the preacher, but can sometimes arise from the content of what is said. In fact, just recently Andy Stanley, evangelical senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, received some backlash from people attacking his view of Scripture based solely on one part of one sermon in a series. While I may disagree with Stanley on his view of the inerrancy of Scripture, I can empathize with him about the tensions that can arise from the words we discern God luring us to say to the body of Christ.

I find myself wondering if Jesus experienced such tension from his own sermons. We have countless examples of the tension Jesus faced because of his actions of healing, sharing meals, and living life with those whom society wanted to ignore. However, we are only told at the end of his Sermon on the Mount that “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority” (Matthew 7:28-29 NRSV).

One fear that can come with preaching and proclaiming the good news is the fear that each little word will be dissected and judged; the fear that one wrong sentence can be the end of a career, or worse, the end of a ministry. This is part of the tension in proclaiming God’s Word. While I sometimes worry about and experience such a tension as part of my own life in ministry, if I am completely honest I must also admit that when I read today’s gospel lesson I find myself doing such a thing to Jesus.

I find myself in tension not just with Jesus’ words but with Jesus as he stands on that mountainside delivering what is probably the most read sermon in history. Who among us hasn’t gotten angry and uttered words of contempt to someone or about someone? Who among us hasn’t looked lustfully at someone? With the divorce rate at approximately 50%, many of us and many of those we preach to on Sunday mornings have been divorced or are married to someone who is divorced. Jesus points us to fires of hell.

As a preacher, I am not a big fan of hell, fire, and brimstone. It doesn’t sit well with my own theological understanding and experience of God. However, it would appear that Jesus (at least in today’s lectionary) is using this very technique. There is tension here for me. This is not the Jesus I was taught about growing up in the church. This is not the Jesus I sing about loving me. This is not the Jesus I experience in the midst of God’s Kingdom and Family. In fact, many biblical scholars speak of this language as hyperbole and that Jesus is merely attempting to make a point. However, the fact remains that tension continues to exist. Just as tension continues to exist in our world despite Jesus’ teachings of peace and reconciliation.

I am an amateur guitar player and recently received a new guitar for Christmas. I was reminded of the importance of tension. When you receive a new guitar, the first thing you must do is tune it. This requires you to tighten the strings to the proper tension. Each time I tune my guitar, I have this fear that the string cannot withstand the tension. I had an experience once in tightening a string that had outlived its life only to have the string snap in two and leave a nasty cut on my hand. I am reminded of this experience each time I tighten a string while tuning my guitar. And yet, I continue to tune my guitar and create tension in the strings because it is through this tension that the music (sometimes beautiful, sometimes not) rings out.

The same is true for our scripture lesson: the beauty of God’s grace and Kingdom is that through the tensions, we are saved and enter into the Realm. Jesus tells us in his sermon that we must “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24 ESV). This is true of our relationship with Jesus as well. We must tune our hearts to Christ; finding the perfect tension that will create the note that God would have us play in the Kingdom and body of Christ.

The reality of Jesus’ life and ministry is that he cared for and supported those he would preach this sermon to. While the crowds were astounded at his teaching at the end of the sermon, the very next thing Jesus did was to heal the man with leprosy. There is good news in the tension for those that we preach this scripture to. We must only find the proper tension. There is also good news for each of us that are called to preach and proclaim God’s Word to God’s people.

The words we say are not nearly as important as the lives we live. Words are important, don’t get me wrong. And we should strive to make every attempt to say the words God would have for God’s people: words of grace, mercy, and love. However, Jesus’s live and ministry show us that the ways in which we interact with those around us is much more important. After all, this is what Jesus’ sermon is all about: creating right relationships with those around so that we may bring about the Kingdom of God.

Proclaim God’s Word and vision for the world, despite the tension and (most importantly) be an example of how to live in a such a world. This is the message of Jesus. As Christians we can hear about it, experience it, and be an example of it in both word and deed; if we merely spend time to struggle with our own tensions and find the proper note.

 

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN, where he graduated in 2014 with degrees of both Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling. David currently serves as Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, TX, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading and lives with his wife and three children.

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Point to the Truth

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Point to the Truth

Matthew 5:13-20

By: The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer

Oh, this week’s text is fraught with temptation for the Epiphany-weary preacher. With Christmas finally fading from view (thank the little-baby-Jesus) and Ash Wednesday lurking in the early bits of March, this text offers the preacher the tantalizing possibility of splitting the pericope for an easy tagline. Most commentaries will tell you to divide and conquer this text: pick the seasoning, pick the light, or pick the law and the righteousness, and preach from there. It’ll be tempting. But my encouragement is to resist.

Resist your desire to preach on salt. On its history and origins. On its various uses as a spice and vitamin, as currency, as a way to keep semi-trucks from skidding off of icy winter highways. As fascinating a meditation as you can craft on that crystalline flavorizer, your community doesn’t need a message about salt right now. Resist.

And further, resist your desire to preach on light. I know, I know. It could be beautiful. You could finally do that great object lesson with the lava lamp and the basket. And who doesn’t want more lava lamps in worship? But your community doesn’t need a message about light right now. Resist.

And oh, please, do not preach on righteousness. Because I don’t care how much you try, those messages always wind up sounding like a humble-brag or a slow and painful barrage of guilt, not unlike repeated Nerf bat blows to the head and neck. And your community doesn’t need a message about righteousness right now. Resist.

Because what your community needs right now is to hear about all of it: the beauty and the mystery of the metaphors right up alongside the call to righteous action. Just as Matthew’s community did.

Matthew didn’t have an easy job. There was tension to navigate with a legalistic Judaic school of thought at the time. And internally, there was friction. Matthew sought to show that Jesus’ teachings were authoritative because his life was an illustration and fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets. Most commentaries agree on Matthew’s literary pluck in crafting Jesus’ five discourses in the book as a nod to the five books of the Torah, and it’s no secret that Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses. (He’s preaching this sermon from a mount for good reason.) But beyond writing of Jesus as the Rabbi Supreme, Matthew also needed to inspire; to spark the imaginations of his community to become curious about how mere interpretation of the Law and prophets was not the same as embodying them. Matthew’s boldness is in his insistence that Jesus was the Torah, the Instruction…and then in insisting that his community’s task was to do the same. Pretty badass, but it’s a vision that must be cast finesse, and the Sermon on the Mount does so brilliantly: it first outlines reward, then a vision for practice.

As we break it up for the lectionary, last week we got the Beatitudes, outlining the alternative rewards that a community seeking to embody Torah might expect to receive and endure. It’s always smart to start with the rewards. Next week, we’ll get the compare and contrast essay: You’ve heard the law is like this, but here’s how it really is when it’s lived out. And this week? Well, this week, we have this strange transition between the two.

Verses 13-16 (Salt ‘n’ Light, as I affectionately call it) are not pure Matthew, but placing them as a transition piece is a unique move. It’s important to note that these are metaphors, not parables and not allusions or allegories which are easily representative and thus more easily interpreted. Metaphors are an entirely different beast. They stretch. They move. They are elastic with time. As I sit here preparing for an ice storm to hit St. Louis, my ideas of salt have different connotations than Matthew’s Jesus likely intended. And with my electricity humming as I write in the evening, light probably means something different to me as well. And that’s OK. Because these images are metaphor. They are malleable in their interpretation. We could spend time fleshing them out, characterizing and making them more solid, more relatable. But I don’t think we should. I think we should resist. Mostly, because that’s what Matthew did.

Instead, he shifts the tone and gives some direct talk on Jesus’ mission, correcting any misinterpretation that may have happened along the way. “Don’t misunderstand me,” Jesus says. “I’m here to be righteous. But I’m also here to tell you that there’s a new righteousness in town.” Ah! Can’t you just imagine the disciples high-fiving each other during this speech?

But the radical assertion Jesus makes in this passage is the same assertion Matthew is making with his Gospel: that righteousness is not about knowing the Law and being able to stand in its presence. Rather, righteousness is knowing the Law and living the Law…and then having others learn the Law by observing it as it is embodied. The gift that Jesus gives the disciples, Matthew gives to his community, and we have the honor (and the challenge) of giving it to ours: that instruction is taught through action, not simple instruction. Jesus points out that the Pharisees’ error is that they learn and then interpret and then teach through interpretation. The question Jesus raises is why righteousness needs interpretation at all. Salt needs no interpretation. Nor does light. Nor does righteousness that is learned by living example.

Salt cannot help being salty. Light cannot help but shine. They are set apart, unique, endowed with a clear and certain purpose and identity. In these metaphors, Jesus offers the disciples a way to understand their unique and unchangeable identities as people of God, which cannot be transmuted.

And righteousness is not just to be learned. It is to be learned and lived, and in living it, it is taught. Jesus embodies this. And in this passage, Jesus offers the disciples a way to understand how his unique task is both revolutionary and required. Matthew’s community needed to hear both of these messages. Your community does, too.

Your community has endured the most contentious, painful, traumatic election of their lives. In full technicolor and 24-hour surround sound. They have watched the farewell address of a President who encouraged the nation to talk to those they disagree with, and they have witnessed the inauguration of a President who won the election with the central theme of wall-building. To some in your community this represents defeat. To some in your communities, it’s victory. These are times to be bold. These are also times to teach by example.

Your preaching task isn’t to describe and define what saltiness and light are for us today. The metaphors speak for themselves. But you do need to remind your community that they are called, that they are inherently, deeply, elementally called to be God’s people in the world.

Your task also isn’t to define righteousness. Matthew works hard to show us that Jesus is righteousness. Your task is to remind people that it’s not enough to know righteousness when you see it, whether in legalism or in the life of Jesus. Your task is to point to the fact that Jesus taught his disciples who taught others who taught others about walking in the way that leads to life by actually walking in the way that leads to life. And that it’s not enough that your people simply inherit this teaching. They must find a way to live it. And they must find a way to transmit that teaching through their living.

You don’t have to define what all of this looks like. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to point to the truth that is the truth and has always been the truth. Salt is salt. Light is light. And righteousness is a way of life, not a curriculum.

 

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The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer

The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer currently serves as Pastor for Union United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. She is an activist, writer, and community-builder. You can contact her via email at pastorchelsey@gmail.com.

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Rev. Ben Day

One Sunday while serving as the Curate at an urban Atlanta congregation, I was confronted by the matriarch of our parish community as she exited the nave. “You preach the same sermon every time I come to church,” she said, “try changing it up once in awhile.”

I have never been one to avoid confrontation or to shrink in the face of what I think is unjust criticism, so without missing a beat or stopping to consider what I was about to say, I responded, “Well ma’am I only preach that sermon when I see you come in the door. I will change my sermon when you change your bad attitude.”

The lady turned and glared at me, and then in a moment of pure grace, burst out laughing, as I stood shattered and humiliated by what I had just blurted out.

I would like to think that I have matured a great deal as a person and a pastor since then. But I was reminded of that moment again when I read today’s text recalling Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. The years of seminary coursework on pastoral care, all of the hours spent studying on family systems theory, the interpersonal work of CPE, learning to be a “non-anxious presence…” As I stood in the doorway of the parish, none of those things appeared in my mind or inspired grace to come from my mouth.

The gospel explains that Simeon prepared too. It was revealed to him that he would live to see the Messiah appear during his lifetime. He knew to expect it and be vigilant. But as I read his response in verses 29-32, which is sometimes called the “Song of Simeon,” I wonder whether he might have been a little caught off guard by what he holds in his arms?

We learn that he is led by the spirit to the Temple that day (v.27), but upon meeting the child, he takes him in his arms and offers an elegant but visceral description. Not just a description, but a proclamation. And not just any proclamation either, but also a prophecy. And the holy family is amazed.

The content, though, can’t be that amazing. Simeon is at least in part paraphrasing Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary (Luke 1: 32-33), and Mary proclaims as much as Simeon does in her own song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  But the Holy Parents are “amazed” nonetheless. I am left to believe it must have been a scene to behold–Simeon’s offering of praise. Because what it lacks in original content must have been made up for in tone and style. An elder in the temple confirming all that you have been told, and all that you hoped and believed. A soul bearing description with pure wonder and praise – that would amaze!

Reading the lesson in this light, with a bit of theoretical imagination, I became aware of its subtle but strong connection to my own experience that day, standing in the doorway to the parish nave in Atlanta. Sometimes no amount of preparation or vigilance can prepare us to confront what stares us in the face. Our impulses and emotions are part of the journey of discovering the incarnate presence among us. Moments when we go off script and turn ourselves over to the messiness of our impulsive selves, we can discover new things concerning our relationships to God and one another. For me I discovered grace. For Simeon, I think it was wonder and praise. In a world that seems to market test and choreograph everything, including an increasing amount of its religious activity (see Megachurch culture), I am encouraged. Impulsive messiness matters.

 

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw, Georgia. Married to Amanda, they have a 16mo son, a Border Collie, and a German Shepherd. Life is far from dull or boring in the Day family, or at Christ Church.