Palm Sunday isn’t about the parade, procession, a prophecy fulfilled, or the palms. It’s about the search for the ongoing answer to the question Jesus first posed to the disciples in Matthew 16, “Whom do you say that I am?” At the core of the Palm Sunday events, we find the disciples, crowds, temple leaders, and Roman elites all asking the last question from today’s gospel lesson, “Who is this guy on the donkey?” Is he just a teacher from Galilee, or is he something more? There are lots of excited people gathered in the streets. At first glance, the event looks like some popular revolt or protest. (Some things never change, look at the news from Israel even today.)
Few people recognize him. Is he the rabbi from Nazareth? Who is the man at the center of this ill-formed parade? What is his name? Do they call him Jesus? Whom does he claim to be? Is he an anointed one or a teacher, a prophet, all three, or something else? Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15) The crowd asks, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:10-11)
This is what Palm Sunday is about. Palm Sunday is a question of identity. It’s the quest for the historical Jesus, the theological Jesus, the economic Jesus, the sociological Jesus, the Jewish Jesus, the Christian Jesus; it’s everything we’ve tried to see Jesus as and understand him to be for the past two thousand years simplified by these two questions from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus wants to know whom we think he is, and others want to know our understanding of Jesus’ identity. So who is Jesus for us, and who is for the world?
Is Jesus more than just your savior? Is he just a guy on a donkey you see in a crowd from a distance? Like spotting Santa Claus across a sea of people at a chilly December Christmas parade? You know Jesus and what he does, but does he impact your life?
Who is Jesus to you? On Palm Sunday, we see Jesus from a distance, say we believe, and go about our business and move on. That’s the reality of Holy Week for the masses. Is this the extent of our relationship with Jesus? We claim it’s personal, but I believe many of us have never given Jesus’ question in Matthew 16 much thought. We know whom the church says Jesus is, but who do we think Jesus is, and how does that impact how we live our lives and relate to our other people?
As we approach Palm Sunday, how might we answer the Matthew 16 question more precisely than the Joe Friday “just the facts” version found in Matthew 21?
I say Jesus is my friend. To quote Snoopy, I need all the friends I can get. So, I say he is my friend.
I say Jesus is someone who brings out the best in me. When I’m in the presence of the resurrection, my whole perspective changes. I see death as a lie. I see Jesus’ message of hope, life, and love as something which can heal my brokenness at my most profound level.
I say Jesus is the person who does what I cannot do for myself. Jesus saves me. I cannot save myself. I do not accept the pull oneself up by your bootstrap’s myth of American exceptionalism and that we are all self-made people who make it by our initiative. I also need Jesus. I can do nothing without Christ. Christ is my savior. In my weakness, I rely on his strength. There is no shame in admitting my faults. Why? Because Jesus, my friend Jesus loves me and makes me a better person than I would be without him. When I look at the world through his eyes, I can see. Without him by my side and in my life, I am blind to suffering, oppression, evil, and sin.
Palm Sunday isn’t really about the parade or the palms. Instead, it’s a gut check. Palm Sunday is about Jesus’ identity. Before we go to the cross, we all have to ask ourselves, who do you say Jesus is?
Lent isn’t quite over. For some of us, it feels like Ash Wednesday was only yesterday. Yet, for others, Lent may seem like the most protracted liturgical slog in history. We want it to be over. When will Holy Week be here? I’m calling for patience. A Holy Lent can still be found, even in these waning days. If we stop, take stock, find the energy for one more deep breath, and look around, we might realize how far we’ve come and the potential for changing our lives in Holy Week. We cannot take these last few days of Lent for granted. How do we make the most of the time remaining? Instead of practicing further acts of self-denial, we can make an act of pilgrimage. We can resolve to live more like Jesus. We can follow in Jesus’ footsteps as we round the dusty corners toward the Mount of Olives and prepare for Lent’s conclusion. We can be more like Jesus.
Find and confront your local Pharisees. Do your best to challenge the religious status quo. Start using parables and rabbinic wisdom like John Wick wields Japanese jujitsu to knock down the religiously inspired hypocrisy, bigotry, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
Spend time with sinners. Seek them out wherever you can find them. Share the expansive love of God with people the church would prefer to exclude.
Bring God outside the Temple (Church). Whether you’re in the checkout line, the gas station, on a walk, or anywhere other than the church: bring God, a smile, and a willingness to listen to others with you. That’s what Jesus did.
Have your character and conduct attacked by other religious people. Jesus was always on someone’s poop roster.
Know the value of a small group, Christian community, friendship, and fellowship. When the chips are down, those people are going to be the ones who pull you through.
I wonder if John thought no one would ask this question. Did he think his readers, whether in the late 1st century when he composed his gospel or in the early 21st century as we reread it on the 5th Sunday of Lent, would be so amazed by the miracle of Lazarus’ resuscitation that we wouldn’t notice that it’s tragic for a man to die once; it’s downright troubling to make him die twice.
Lazarus was dead; that much was true. He had been in the tomb for four days when Jesus and the disciples arrived in Bethany. The dead man’s sisters, Mary and Martha, were also close friends of Jesus. In Lazarus’ last hours, they sent word to Jesus, begging him to come and heal their brother. Jesus hesitated. For reasons they could not grasp, Jesus waited until Lazarus died before he came to Lazarus’ side. By this time, the man was dead, and the sister’s grief was raw. Rightly or wrongly, they blamed Jesus. His presence could have made a difference. Jesus could have saved Lazarus’ life. In these moments, John allows us a glimpse of Jesus’ raw, unfiltered humanity. We read the shortest and most poignant verse in the New Testament, “Jesus wept.” Jesus, we know, is conflicted. Here is an opportunity to show God’s power. Yet, his close friend had to die for the world to witness that power. Mary and Martha were overcome with grief. Jesus blamed himself for Lazarus’ death despite understanding the “plan.” Amidst his hurting friends and disciples, not to mention his pain, the grand plan seemed like the least of his worries.
We know what happened next. The stone was removed, and he called Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus didn’t have a near-death experience. Lazarus had a death experience. He was dead for four days. That’s almost a full workweek. He’s checked in, got his white robe, been through orientation, and enjoying the all-you-can-eat brunch when suddenly he’s summoned to the manager’s office and told he’s returning to Earth. Remember 1st century Palestine, a place with no indoor plumbing, a life expectancy of 37, massive poverty, slavery, and Roman oppression. God, you must be kidding. Lazarus asks, “If I go back, that means I’ll have to die again one day and do this all over again?” “Yes,” says God. “That stinks,” says Lazarus. “No,” God says. “You’ll stink to high heaven when you leave the tomb in a moment. God has a wicked sense of humor.
Lazarus died twice. Dying isn’t fun, especially if you’ve watched a loved one in a hospice journey from life to death. Lazarus got to do it twice. I’m not sure that’s the miracle we think it is. Long after Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and ascended, Lazarus hung around Bethany with his sisters living to die again. We all know we’re going to die. It could be today or tomorrow. It could be decades from now. Lazarus had been there, done it, and got the t-shirt. Imagine having been to heaven and tolerating daily life. It would be intolerable. I can picture people coming to Lazarus, peppering him with questions: “What was it like?” “Were the streets paved with gold?” “Did you see my grandmother?” I see him at some point, growing tired of talking about heaven, waiting for his return trip, and wishing Jesus had left him on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
We do a disservice to the gospel when we overlook Lazarus. He’s the original guy who was Left Behind. This is as much his story as it is Jesus’. He’s not just a foil for making a miraculous point. He’s a human being, like all of us. So as Jesus weeps, don’t forget to tell Lazarus’ story.
I’m fond of William Shakespeare. I quote him often. I think he’s the greatest master of the English language. So, if we think he’s boring, I don’t think we hear him correctly. He took an unwieldy English language and turned it into art. He made it funny, multi-dimensional, and come alive. He made it rhyme in ways that are incredibly difficult to do. Have you ever tried to write in iambic pentameter? It is challenging. Moreover, he invented new ways of communicating. He took the “play,” something the Greeks perfected, trimmed it down, and made them exciting and watchable. In this process he created the soliloquy. Do you remember the soliloquy from English class?
It’s a speech, a talk that a single character gives to let you know what’s on their mind. It’s kind of an inner monologue combined with a speech. The audience and a character hiding off stage secretly listen to the character giving the soliloquy. I’ll give you two quick examples, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
Juliet and Romeo are starting to fall in love. They met at a masked ball. Romeo wants to express his love. So he goes and hides under her balcony. She gives her soliloquy. He pops up and says, “I’m right here.”
Hamlet is a much darker play. Neither, however, have a happy ending. His daddy (the king is dead) and his uncle has married his mother. He’s an unhappy kid anyway but this makes things worse. In Act 3, scene 1, he’s walking around holding a skull asking, “To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings of outrageous fortune.”
The first time you see it, it’s incredibly moving. Then, whether they are in period clothes or a more modern production, you pick up on Hamlet’s angst and anger. But after the third or fourth time, it starts to get old. You want him to get on with the story. The redneck in me starts to come out. I want to shout at the stage, “Get on with it. Now what?” Stop moping about with the skull and make a decision. You know your uncle did it.
That’s how I feel when I read Psalm 23. It is a soliloquy of sorts. We know it as well as we know these tiny pieces of Shakespeare. We want it sung, read, and printed at our funeral. It’s published and hung on our walls. It’s on Bible bookmarks. We quote this scripture. But what do we do about it? Is our knowledge only superficial and ephemeral? After the 1000th time saying it, repeating it, and looking at it, what will we do about it? Now what? The Lord is your shepherd. Now what? What are you going to do about it? So what? How is that going to change how you live your life? How will these comforting words push you out of your comfort zone?
It is one thing to say the Lord is your shepherd. But how do you live as if the Lord is your shepherd? We say the Lord is our shepherd. Often, we lead ourselves around the pasture because we think we know better than the man with the staff. We want to go here. We want to go there. Is the theme of your life being shepherded by God? I’m not saying being a sheep. Are you willing to be shepherded?
He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Now what? Are you willing to be led by God? Are you ready to be led anywhere and everywhere by God? Humans are inclined to lead themselves into conflict, violence, arguments, and trouble. Are we willing to be led by God into places of restoration, stillness, and healing? Are we willing to admit that we have problems that need to be healed? Are we willing to accept that we are broken, and without times of restoration, we will fall apart? Without consenting to be led, we will die in the pasture? Are we willing to be led or die of thirst? Or do we think we know better?
He leads me through the right paths for his name’s sake. Now what? Are we willing to be led by his name and not our name? Are we willing to be identified by the name of Christ and not our family name and have our identities subsumed entirely and totally by that of the shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth? The right path is a path that is a path that centered on the identity, purpose, and passion of Jesus Christ-not us. We are at our best selves when our names and paths are aligned with the path and name of Jesus. Where do we find this? We go back to the Beatitudes.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil. Now what? Are we going to let fear control us or let faith guide us? Are we going to talk faith or walk faith? It’s easy to fear evil when we’re trying to lead the shepherd when we’re trying to go first. When we think we’re in charge. However, if the shepherd leads, fear diminishes exponentially. It’s not that our worries are non-existent or life is perfect, but we can function, despite our fears.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Now what? Your force me to recognize the humanity in my adversaries. You force me to face my fears and my foes. You move me to a place where I can consider making peace. A shared meal is the best place to find reconciliation, forgiveness, love, justice, grace, and mercy. If you want to reconcile with an enemy, share a meal. Now what? God provides. God provides for everyone. God provides opportunities for healing between you and your enemies. Notice they aren’t God’s enemies. They are my (your enemies). That’s now, what. That’s putting it into practice. That’s an unimaginable blessing. You might even say your cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Now what? Does that mean everything is going to work out fine? No, far from it. It means if we let God go first if we consent to be led, there will be an order, a purpose to our lives that would not be there otherwise. What kind of person do you want to be? What is your purpose in life? Are goodness and life central answers to both of those questions? Are you able to say: I want to BE a good person? I want to BE a person of mercy. How does that happen? We stop giving orders to the shepherd. We stop giving lip service to the Psalm and give life service to the actions behind the words of the Psalm. We take the next step, the now what step.
This is what, I believe, the second half of the sixth verse means, if we take the next step, we will dwell (live) with God for the duration of our lives. We find purpose and meaning. God will be at the center, and we can align our “who we want to be” and our “now what’s” outward from there. Being led by the shepherd becomes who we are; being shepherded is our way of life.
So how do you make the 23rd Psalm you can live today, not just something they’ll read at your funeral? Give this a try. Embrace this 23rd Psalm as a way of life, not a comfort blanket. You are not a sheep. Sheep are dumb. You are made in the image of God. Remember these points:
I am willing to be shepherded
I will be open to life’s abundance. I will reject scarcity.
I will acknowledge my need to be restored, that I am broken and need healing.
I realize fear is a choice, I am not abandoned, and God precedes me.
I accept that God wants me to restore relationships with my enemies. Therefore, eat with your friends, and share table fellowship with your enemies. Break bread together.
I will order my life with a God-centered purpose, a central meaning, and a life theme, which will be God. This will help us determine who we want to be and should be, inspire others, create a legacy, and deal with adversity. Life will not be perfect, but it will have meaning.
May you speak the language of silence today, May you hear the sounds between words, May you embrace the quiet hours of the night, May you seek empty stillness before sunsets, May your faith in listening be stronger than your desire to speak, May the rhythm of our breathing reflect the hopeful phrasing of our words. May the silence nourish your soul and feed forgiveness.
The week’s lectionary passage takes us to the familiar home of John 3:1-17. It’s hard to resist the homiletical allure of preaching John 3:16, yet like the perennial texts we face at Christmas and Easter, is there anything new to be said about these most well-known verses of the four gospels?
If there’s anything about this passage that I find unavoidable, it’s the emphasis on God’s love. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. Unfortunately, we often gloss over those words and read them as a prologue to the more important, “that he gave us his only begotten son.” They are the key to understanding verses 16 and 17, perhaps the whole pericope.
I don’t want to move on so quickly because we might miss something about the relationship between love and creation. Secondly, with this gift of love and creation comes a great responsibility that goes far beyond “belief” in the son who was sent “to us.” To understand our role in our relationship with God, we need verse 17. If we believe in the son who was gifted to us, we are accepting the terms of the gift, that the gift came not to condemn and further the same love of humanity that prompted the gift in the first place. That’s why the pericope doesn’t stop with verse 16.
Other religious traditions, particularly in the ancient world, show God (or gods) engaging in brutal and violent creation stories. In the ancient Sumerian religion, the goddess Tiamat was ripped in half to create sea and sky. We know of the traditional tales of the Greco-Roman pantheon that showed the gods’ contempt for each other and human beings. Gods in the ancient world hated people. Yet, in Genesis, we’re told humans were created as a little less than angels. In these familiar words from John, the early Christian community is reminded that the God of Israel loves the world. God does not hate humanity. We are not God’s playthings. God does not treat us like chess pieces on a board, moving us around according to a plan only God knows. God loves us. We are God’s partners and friends. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved by God?
God loves us. God gives us a son because he loves us. Because God loves us and gives us a son, he says it’s out of a desire not to condemn humanity but to love humanity. What is keeping us from getting the point? God loves us. Why can’t we love others unconditionally as God does? Why can’t we love others without condemning and judging? Doesn’t believing in God’s son make this kind of unconditional love possible? I believe it does. God created us out of love, not hate. Shouldn’t this free us from hate? How can we claim to love God’s son if we have hate in our hearts? If hate is in our hearts, the John 3:16 process stops, and the love God first shared in giving us Jesus stops with us. If love is there, we keep passing John 3:16 on, and that creative “For God so loved the world” process never ends.
Every year, the first Sunday of Lent centers on one story: the temptation of Jesus, by the devil, over forty days in the desert immediately following his baptism. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that retell this head-to-head story. Mark and John don’t include it at all. For some reason, they left it on the cutting room floor. Of the two versions, my favorite is Matthew’s. Matthew gives us greater detail, dialogue, and imagery. I have always had an affinity for the Matthew passage. When I was in seminary, I was assigned this text. But instead of preaching it from the traditional perspective, the way most churches and preachers do it every year, I was given the more challenging task of retelling the story from the devil’s perspective. How would this story look and sound if you told it from the other character’s eyes? That exercise made me a better preacher and is one reason I look forward to the first Sunday of Lent every year.
The main thing I learned about the devil (specifically Matthew’s perspective on the devil) in preparing that original sermon was this: if the devil was going to tempt Jesus or us, he wasn’t going to be anything like the caricatures of evil or Satan we’ve become accustomed to seeing; images that were invented in the Middle Ages and became popular in renaissance art. You know the ones I’m talking about, the pointed horns, the red leathery skin, the pitchfork, the wispy tail. Whoever heard of a red devil anyway? This was back in the dark ages, before Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the greatest minds in history, discovered all devils were blue.
To be genuinely tempting, the devil would need to be quite ordinary, a little charming, unassuming, friendly, a little witty, someone you’d like to go to dinner with, maybe that neighbor with the big TV who’ll invite you over to watch the NCAA tournament, someone with whom you can relax. That’s who the devil is. The devil is cool, calm, and collected. You never see the devil coming, and when the devil asks you to make a moral choice or by the time temptation is placed before you, it doesn’t seem like temptation. It will seem like the right, normal, even natural thing to do. After all, this is your friend, that guy, your buddy; why would your regular next-door neighbor friend with all the same interests, kids in the same school, and a nice two-car garage lead you astray? The devil couldn’t look like one of us, could he? Could the devil be a mirror image of us? The devil is a narcissist whose greatest desire is to be loved and adored, but ultimately, he wants to fit in: seem typical, like us, and even ordinary. The devil seeks to seem normal; blending in and appearing average is his grand goal. Who is afraid of the average? Average flies under the radar. The average is undetected. This is what makes the devil so diabolical. The devil is in the details.
What are the details of Jesus’ temptations? You just heard them: turn stones into bread, throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship me to gain all the power in the world. The specifics may be different, but the temptations are essentially the same: when it comes down to it, the only person you can depend on is yourself. You can’t rely on God, others, your faith, or anything other than yourself.
Remember what I said about the devil fitting in and looking like us, even being the mirror image of ourselves? We are our own worst enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, we have met the enemy, which is us. Each of these three temptations is the same. You don’t need God. You only need you. When you get to the heart of the matter, is that not the essence of every temptation we face as human beings? We can do it ourselves. Why trust God? Why listen to God? Why have faith in anything beyond ourselves? Why not take matters into our hands? After all, we have no idea what the future may hold, and we’re hungry now! The scriptures say the angels will catch us now, put God to the test now! We want to control our destiny now! Give into the devil’s offers of power and control now! Jesus can fill his stomach.
Jesus knows the scriptures say what they say. He knows he can rule the world. But here’s the dirty little secret about Christianity: self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not the Christian way. The secret to passing these temptations, Jesus teaches us, is that even though we can, and doesn’t mean that we should. Even though we can turn stone into bread, test God’s promises in scripture, or take the devil up on his offer to run our affairs, it doesn’t mean we should. Even though we can do many things, it doesn’t mean we should.
That’s the greatest trick the devil is always trying to pull; he makes what you think you ought to do sound reasonable, regular, logical, and the right thing to do. But, of course, you’re hungry, so why not feed yourself? He even cherry-picks scripture to make his point. Of course, the Bible says God will send his angels; it’s right there in the Bible, so why not put God to the test and show the world that the Bible is the true word of God. Throw yourself from the temple, and his angels will lift you; it will testify to the veracity of God’s word. Of course, you have the right to rule the world; you’re Jesus Christ; what could be wrong with that, worship me, and you’d still be in charge and calling the shots. He makes it all sound normal, natural, logical, and even scripturally sound. That’s how you know you’re being tempted when the wrong thing feels like the righteous, holy, Biblical, and normal thing to do.
The real temptations aren’t drinking, gambling, or looking at porn online. No, the essence of temptation has always been buying into the devil’s big lie that we can do everything ourselves; we don’t need God (or each other) in our lives. Have we bought into that lie? Do we believe the devil is telling the truth? Do we believe his lies that we can depend on our self-sufficiency? I can’t answer that question for us (or you). Only you know whom you’re listening to and whom you believe. Do you trust the man from Nazareth or this person asking you to make what sounds like a perfectly reasonable choice but compromises your morality on every possible level?
The devil wants us to sing a variation of his favorite song: “My Way/Your Way.”
What does it mean to be transfigured? That’s part of being human. We want to describe the indescribable. It is the word Matthew chooses for double duty: to describe an indescribable experience and to capture the importance of this theological moment on the mountain. Transfiguration is a two-way process, especially in this text. Jesus is transformed, and the disciples are transformed by what they witness. Everyone is changed by what happens on the mountain in one way or another. No one will ever be the same. Jesus is different; his purpose is set wholly toward the events that will lead to his death. The three disciples now see Jesus, no pun intended, in a different light. It’s more than they comprehend. They can’t grasp the whole picture but realize there is so much more to Jesus than they ever thought possible. They can’t put it into words. As the passage says, Jesus doesn’t even want them to try. Keep this quiet, he says. It’s more than most people can bear on a good day. Jesus indicates that the meaning of the transfiguration (what occurred on that mountain) won’t be fully understood until after the events of Easter.
So where do we plug in? Are we playing a semantics game? If we return to my first question, what’s the difference between transfiguration and transformation? Why does the Bible use the word transfiguration? How do we, on one end of the transfiguration process, understand what happens when we come to terms with who Jesus is, what he’s all about, and what’s expected of us when we’re let in on the big plan? How does that change us and our level of commitment to the team?
First of all, transformation is transfiguration light. Transformation is more of a surface-level change. You can transform by simply getting a haircut and changing clothes. Transformation is ephemeral. Transformation might involve learning a new language. Finally, transformations are more temporary or can be undone. Transformations, in short, are not permanent.
Transfigurations, on the other hand, indicate systemic change. When you alter something at a root level, you are transfigured. If you’ve been transfigured, it is not easily undone, redone, or able to return to whatever status quo you inhabited before the transfiguration. Transfiguration is not surface-level change. Instead of a haircut and a shoe shine, you are working on your heart and soul. Fundamentally, your perspective and identity are altered, and you come away looking at the world in a different light. So this is not an exercise in semantic hair-splitting. Transfiguration is a big deal for all involved. Jesus wants us with him to see what he sees, to be on the same page that he’s on, as up to speed as he is, and understand as much as we can know about God’s plan for humanity. In short, Jesus wants us to be transfigured by his actions.
Jesus places us in the most critical place and time of our lives. We’re not aware of it, but this is it. This is the most important moment in our lives. Up to this point in our lives (what happens in Holy Week will be more important, but up until now, this is it), nothing we’ve done matches this moment. This is the highlight of our lives. Jesus has placed us in a position and place to have our lives transfigured by God in a way we’ve never thought possible. Short of being resurrected from the dead like Lazarus (or Jesus), we’re about to be a part of the next best thing. We don’t know this, of course. We’re blindly following Jesus up the mountain and doing what he says. Here’s where the rubber meets the road:
Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him up the mountain? (Jesus, you want me to go up a mountain? I’m out of shape. Can’t you get transfigured somewhere accessible, where it’s flat and requires less physical exertion and spiritual commitment from me?)
Do we want to be transfigured? As I said a moment ago, that’s a serious, systemic, profound change. We probably like how we are and are comfortable with our lifestyles and expectations for the world around us. We are set in our ways and like things the way they are. Being transfigured sounds frightening. We heard one of the passages throw around the words “fear and trembling” a moment ago. Isn’t it our instinct to say, “No, thank you, Jesus, I’m cool just as I am? I’ll reserve the right to be transformed on my time and schedule. But I’ll treat being transfigured like I treat a colonoscopy. Something I would rather not do, and I’ll schedule later.”
Jesus is in no mood to negotiate. We didn’t even realize this was a negotiation. Jesus says, “You want to be transfigured. You need to be transfigured. You’re going up the mountain. Grab your climbing sandals; this isn’t optional.”
“But I need to go by the outdoor store and pick up hiking boots, a new Columbia jacket, a backpack, and a fancy sleeping bag,” we say. Jesus says, “Nope.” “We go as we are with our sandals and robes. Trust me.”
This is one of the reasons I remain optimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church. Transfiguration, change, hope, and everything being worked out, in the end, do not depend on us. So Jesus tells these three disciples. If Jesus makes a promise, Jesus keeps his word. Jesus will ensure you get home if he takes you on a trip. If Jesus takes you up the mountain, you will come back alive. We may be climbing up the mountain now, and I trust Jesus is changing us in ways I may not understand now, but he will bring us back down in one piece. Jesus has never let me down yet.
Everyone wants to take their mountain-top experience home. The three disciples wished to hold onto the experience. They knew it was special. If you’ve ever been that close to God, one of those thin moments where heaven and earth come so close you can feel the presence of God, you know how they felt.
What could they do? These were practical, hard-working men. Let’s build these guys a shelter. We’re up on a mountain, it’s the middle of the night, and we’re all going to need something to sleep in. It makes sense, right? You can see the logic of their thinking. However, God is not a noun (a person, place, or thing in the conventional sense.) You can’t hold onto God the way you grab your Bible. It works the other way around. God holds on to you. Our greatest spiritual frustrations come from trying to hold on to God, tame God, and make God fit into boxes (shelters) of our creations. Sometimes we do this out of the best intentions, and sometimes because we’re control freaks. But this is not how God works. God holds on to us. We can’t grab the intangible cosmic reality and the reality at the heart of the cosmos and start giving God orders. We are the ones who fall on our knees and pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
When we understand this, we realize what it means to be transfigured by Jesus Christ.
When no one can read (and by that, I mean that most people are functionally illiterate), the phrase “you have heard it said” takes on a whole new meaning. People had probably heard a lot about what the scriptures said and didn’t say when it came to the law. Some of it, no doubt, was made up. Other parts were interpreted to fit the respective agendas of whoever interpreted the scripture. If the rabbis or teachers looked and sounded convincing, the crowds were liable to believe anything they heard. People, then as they are now, were susceptible to misinformation, disinformation, and believing in anything that sounded vaguely religious, as long as it had a few “thees” and “thous” sprinkled in.
Then comes this upstart young Rabbi out of Galilee, preaching up a storm, calling into question how everyone has heard, understood, and interpreted everything that came before him. He’s setting up a new paradigm for how people in his faith tradition should understand the law, the commandments, and the rules that have guided their people for over a thousand years. Because, as Jesus points out, and later on down the road, one of his most important followers would emphasize even further, a man named Paul, the law (and those whose job it was to make sure people followed it) had become a burden to ordinary people. Instead of freeing them for the worship of God and love of neighbor, they did the exact opposite. Following the law became their God. The law became more important than the God who gave it to them. That’s a problem. So the Sermon on the Mount is about one big idea, how do you reconcile the law (what you find in the Old Testament (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) with Jesus’ views of love, community, and wholeness? In other words, how do we walk and chew gum at the same time?
The first thing we need to do is recognize that Jesus is on a tear here. He’s getting wound up; he will use metaphors, humor, and vivid illustrations. We see Jesus teaching at his Rabbinic finest. He’s going to make some outlandish examples that are not meant to be taken literally to illustrate these points: you cannot be literalists when it comes to the law, no one can live up to every fine point of the law, it’s impossible to do, even those who claim they can do so. We are all lawbreakers. God is the only law keeper. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Sadducees taught that every law mattered to God and carried the same weight, no matter how trivial that law seemed. In the 18th and 19th chapters of the Book of Leviticus, God prohibits homosexuality, shellfish, and mixed fibers. God draws no distinction between homosexuality, enjoying shrimp, or wearing polyester. God doesn’t do 1st, second, or third-degree commandments. (Remember, there are 613 total commandments in the Old Testament.) In the eyes of those who compiled Leviticus, one sin is as bad as the next. None of us have a high horse to rest upon. Jesus is about to make these examples. Have you ever heard of a church splitting over seafood? It’s in the Bible, right there beside the verses about homosexuality. But we like our shrimp and scallops, and we’re comfortable with double standards, no matter how small. I think this is Jesus’ question this morning. How can we be people of faith and integrity?
He starts each illustration with these words, “You have heard it said.” He knows what gets around. He knows what people prioritize as major laws and minor laws. He knows a great deal of finger-pointing and “at least I’m not doing that, Lord” going on in the crowd. Jesus wants to level the playing field. He starts with a big one from the ten commandments: murder. We can all agree that murder is wrong. You can see their heads nodding in the crowd. Oh yeah, murder is horrible; we would never murder anyone for any reason at all. Then he comes around and hits them with the one-two punch. Well, do you know what’s as bad as murder? According to the law, if you insult and call them a fool, “You will be liable to the hell of fire.” Wow! That went from zero to a hundred in an instant. Then, like the train Kenny Rogers is traveling on with the Gambler, the train got deadly quiet. Wait one minute, Jesus; we’ve all called someone a fool. Driving home from work, down at the docks unloading fish, in an argument with a family or friend person, you’re telling me the punishment for that is hellfire damnation? Maybe I need to rethink my position in this law business because it looks like I’m going to hell from where I’m standing. Jesus says it’s a certainty.
A moment ago, I was good at casting judgment on murderers, but now, just being judgmental and calling someone a fool has landed me in Hell. Jesus has made his first point. If you’re going to enforce all of them and all of them equally, the law, that is, we’re all going to end up in Hell. So maybe we better be careful when we start throwing around terms like “God’s law says” because we might be condemning ourselves. He goes on to make the same argument about debts, but it’s the next one where he casts the net wide and where it ought to make some of us, including me, uncomfortable.
Jesus goes back to the ten commandments. “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery.” Again, I think we’re all on the same page that adultery is wrong. He defines lusting in your heart as adultery. Remember when Jimmy Carter talked about this one? Okay, we can accept that it’s probably not moral, but Jesus equates just thinking about another person in the wrong as bad as adultery itself. Then he takes it one step further. “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” He’s got me there. I’m done, for I’ve committed adultery. I’m a ten commandment violator. Do you want my ordination credentials, or should I mail them in after the service? I’m betting we’ve got some other adultery committers, according to Jesus’ definition, here this morning as well. That’s one of the big ones, one of THE 10 commandments. According to Jesus, I’m living in a state of constant adultery. I’ve no plans to divorce Mary, and she tells me I’m stuck with her.
Is that what Jesus is saying? Does he deny the reality of divorce and broken marriages? Or is he saying no one can live up to the full measure of everything written in this book, and if you tried, it would result in total paralysis? And if you did, you’d be hypocritical by trying to call out the sins of others because you are breaking the ten commandments and consigning yourself to Hell just by getting out of bed in the morning! We’re all breaking the ten commandments in one way or another. So how can we get on our religious high horses and start condemning others for doing the same? This is what Jesus is saying. When you think you’re following God’s word and law, you realize you’re not and will never be able to.
Maybe, Jesus is saying we ought to find a better way to relate to the law rather than forcing (or ignoring that we are) ourselves to live as hypocrites and judge each other when not one of us can measure up to the rules outlined in the Old Testament. Do we want to pretend to be holy hypocrites or loving neighbors? This is the contrast Jesus is trying to make. How do we keep the law from becoming a burden, a means of exclusion, that if we had any integrity at all, we would kick all of us out of the church, shut ourselves down, because none of us are sacred enough to be members of the church if we say, “its God’s word all or nothing.” We’ve all broken God’s word; we will keep breaking God’s word, and Jesus says you don’t have to be held prisoners by the “You’ve heard it said to those of ancient times” way of life.
Jesus is saying remember what I told you a few verses ago, not in ancient times, but right now: blessed are those whom the law would seek to mow over, condemn, judge, forget, deny, exclude, and perpetually ignore. Those are the people I’m trying to reach, the very fools for Christ, those cut off by divorce, broken by grief, death, and loss, and who live in fear for their lives.
How do we live between these two guardrails? Jesus’ beatitudes and the excesses of the law, excesses that can cripple the spiritual life of believers if we let them. The answer, key, or clue, if you like, can be found in the last couple of verses. Jesus is trying to point us in the right direction to help us keep it on the road. Living this way, swearing by the law, and claiming falsely (like you could live by everything in the Old Testament) is just going to age you prematurely, turn your black hair white, or in my case, cause it to fall out.
The stress isn’t worth it; he’s ultimately saying. He does, however, add this, if you want to be right with God and your neighbor, just let your yes be yes, and your no mean no. When you combine that with loving your neighbor as you love yourself, everything else will fall into place. You will gain a sense of perspective that’s not possible if you’re trying to nitpick each other on who’s following every commandment in the Old Testament or realizing you’ll never measure up to each point in the law. Jesus wants us to see the bigger picture, his perspective, and that we’re all doomed without his grace. We need him, not the law, and certainly less of our interpretations of Old Testament laws written for illiterate people living in Israel over 2000 years ago.
If we can’t be happy with him, we won’t ever be satisfied, and there isn’t anything I can do about that.
There is much for United Methodists to address in addition to the primary matter still occupying most of our Methodist time. What else must we discuss, with equal amounts of prophetic force, as we continue into the third decade of the 21st century? How, in an era of dissolution and disaffiliation, where these controversies mark an apparent dilution of our message, ministry, and purpose, do we continue to proclaim the revolutionary teachings of a 1st-century rabbi executed by the Romans (in the most brutal form of capital punishment possible), for speaking on behalf the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed? How do we share the rabbi’s life and teachings when many remain ignorant of Jesus’ life and death? How can we speak to the life-giving reality and hope he addressed when we find ourselves willingly mired in the same systems of death, power, and dominion which take life, oppress people, and stifle the light of the world? Yes, it’s time to step back, take a breath, take a knee, say we are sorry, find a breach, and begin repairing the world today. At the moment, this may be all we can do. This is the least we can do. It is something we must do. God is calling us to multi-task: end capital punishment, stop the normalization of mass gun violence, confront cycles of systemic poverty, upend a health care system that is bankrupting ordinary Americans, and call out racism whenever and wherever we see it.
The movement to free United Methodism from the downward spiral of cultural, social, and religious oblivion is not solely a battle to find space for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in our pulpits and pews. As we begin black history month, we remember the need to work continuously and diligently for the rights of African-Americans, queer African-Americans, and all other persons of color to be heard and seen in congregations across the United States. Diversity, equality, and inclusion are not unachievable ideals, boxes to be checked, or Marxist talking points. They are the very hallmarks of the kingdom of God. It is what I call Critical Grace Theory. Without diversity, equality, and inclusion, there is no Grace, freely given and freely received. Suppose we cease to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, a message rooted in cultural diversity, human equality, and radical inclusion. In that case, we forgo the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We stop being Christians. We become spiritual nomads, willing to worship anyone or anything that uses the trappings of our former faith to provide us with the one thing we think we need more than anything else: security. In our frantic quest for safety, we’ve allowed ourselves to be scared of anyone who isn’t like us. Fear kills God. Fear kills religion. Fear kills the love of neighbor. Fear is killing us. Fear killed Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, authentic Christianity, has never trafficked in fear. Jesus’ message is hope, joy, light, and love. You are not hearing the gospel if you do not hear these words in your church. When you encounter these teachings, you will see diversity, equality, and inclusion practiced on an unimaginable scale in most American congregations. I long for this long denominational winter to end.
I look forward to a spiritual spring, the coming kingdom of God, where God’s love is available to all who seek and desire a relationship with the church and Jesus without any preconditions. Why is this so much to ask?
In the meantime, we are not powerless! You have a voice. Now is the time to start with a conversation and coffee. Make some new friends. Contact your AME, AME Zion, CME, or other African American religious neighbors. Learn some Black history, especially the Black history of your community. Ask questions. Pray with your sisters and brothers in Christ. Remember Isaiah 58: repair the breach and restore the streets.
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