Questions and Reflections

February 2017

Six Days Later

Our First Reading was Exodus 24:12-18.

What did Moses do during his first six days on the mountain? Before my bible study this week with other local Lutheran pastors, I never noticed this detail before. In our text from Exodus today, the Israelites are camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After escaping slavery in Egypt, they are learning how to live together. God is in the center of the community, covering Mt. Sinai in a cloud. God summoned Moses so Moses heads up the mountain. For six days, Moses is up there before God calls for him. So what does a person do when they're waiting for God?

This text is full of allusions to other stories from scripture. In the story of Genesis, God worked for six days before resting on the seventh. During Noah's great flood, the ark finally lands on a mountaintop as the water recedes from a rainstorm that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. People of the faith like Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob met God on various mountaintops and usually built on the spot where they saw God. And in earlier parts of the Exodus story, God is a cloud providing shade from the sun during the day and God is a cloud of fire providing light at night. In one short text, we see God as a creator, protector, savior, judge, and all-powerful presence. But we also meet a God who sometimes makes us wait.

The text doesn't tell us what Moses was doing while he was waiting for God. He knew he was in God's presence. The cloud gave that away. Yet, even Moses had to deal with God being silent. I imagine Moses took care of himself during those six days. He cooked his meals, slept outdoors, and kept himself busy. Moses kept living his life while waiting for God to finally speak. And I imagine we know what Moses waiting game feels like. We will hear in church today words of hope, promise, and hear how Jesus is here, right now, for us to eat and drink. Yet we might wonder why we can't hear God speaking. I wish I had an answer for your why. But I don't. Instead, we all have a story where even Moses had to wait. He had to keep living while he waiting for God to speak. But God's silence does not mean God isn't present. When we can't hear God, God is still there. And God's presence means God will speak and that, someday, we will finally hear. 


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Be Perfect: Wait. What?

Our gospel reading is Matthew 5:38-48.

There's a song in the Broadway musical Hamilton where King George III of England sings about George Washington stepping down as President of the United States. King George is shocked he would give up power. He's also surprised John Adams will become the second President of the United States. At the very end of the song, King George tells President John Adams, "Good luck!" The feeling he sings out  is the same feeling I get reading Jesus' Sermon on the Mound. Jesus is asking a lot from us. 

Before we get to the details of this passage from Matthew, we should see what Jesus does. Jesus takes the law, the traditions, scripture, and word of promise given to the Jewish people, and interprets it for his time. This is what rabbis (teachers) do. When the five books of Moses was written, the Roman Empire didn't exist. But in Jesus' time, the Romans had ultimate authority in Israel. There was an ongoing debate about what loving the neighbor looks like for people living under occupation. When the enemy is in power , what are we (the community) supposed to do?

Jesus' response is to be perfect. And here's what that perfection looks like. In Jesus' day, being struck on the right cheek is a backhanded slap from someone's left hand. This was done when a person in power (king, slave master, wealthy person) wanted to put someone else in their place. Most people had two sets of clothing, an outer coat and an inner cloak which was the clothes worn next to the body. Someone could sue for your coat but there were rules about someone literally taking the clothes off your back. A Roman soldier could force anyone to carry their stuff for one mile but usually ignored that one mile limit. And when someone begs us for money, we usually want to make sure they only spend money in the way we think is best. In each of these instances, there are laws and traditions that define what limits exist in each case. Jesus tells his disciples to ignore those limits and, instead, resist the acts of violence inflicted on them.   

Jesus isn't using this passage to demand his followers to put up with being beaten, attacked, or abused. He is not justifying abuse or harm. Instead, he's inviting his disciples to change our response to evil. When a person in power backslapped someone, their violent act is defining the person they struck as someone beneath them. By turning the cheek, the disciples are told to not meet violence with violence. But they are also told not to just accept it either. The disciples are not just people. They are made in God's image. Who we are isn't limited or defined by what people (or the empire) says. When people in power define others, they are committing a form of violence. Jesus is telling his disciples to break the cycle of violence. The community is to move beyond looking at each other through legal limits. Instead, they're called to see themselves and their enemies as made in the image of God. "In loving our enemies, we the reflect nature of God, whose love extends to all" (Karen Sapio, Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, page 115). We don't get to limit how God sees people. And we're to see everyone as God sees them too. 


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Remember: A commentary on Matthew 5

Jesus is doing something peculiar and unexpected in today's reading from Matthew 5:21-37. Jesus is still on the mountain with his disciples gathered around him. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus' first public act that is described in detail is a very long sermon. Part of Jesus' identity, according to Matthew, is being a teacher (aka Rabbi). Part of our identity as disciples is being a student. Jesus is teaching. We are learning. So Jesus begins to interpret the teachings (the law) that was passed down to the Israelites through scripture and story. And Jesus' interpretation centers on a phrase he repeats over and over again: "You have heard it said...but I say to you..."

The word "I" is interesting  here. In these passages, Jesus does not name any authority to support his interpretation of these teachings. He does not name another rabbi, prophet, tradition, or school of thought. Jesus simply says "I." Jesus, in his first public act described by Matthew, is claiming the kind of authority usually reserved for prophets or the messiah. He is doing something unexpected here. 

And Jesus uses his authority to make these teachings feel very heavy and even harsh. The responsibilities he gives his disciples seem impossible to fulfill. Like last week where he asks his disciples to be more righteous than anyone, he's now asking their internal thoughts to be as pure as their external actions that these teachings focus on. Jesus is taking these teachings center on relationships and telling his disciples to internalize them. Being a follower of Jesus means doing our part to make all our relationships life-giving for the people around us.

What Jesus asks is not easy. And the church has a history of taking these verses and punishing those who seem to fall short. But Jesus isn't asking the disciples to condemn others in these verses. He's asking them to claim ownership on their relationships and do all they can to help others thrive. It's on us to try and reconcile. It's on us to not let our prejudices, lust, or passions interfere with helping the person next to us thrive. And it's on us to make our most intimate relationships life-giving (and sometimes divorce is the most life-giving thing we can do). This can sometimes feel impossible. And this kind of reconciliation is very, very hard. But Jesus also invites us to remember that, with him, life-giving relationships are possible because we are salt; we are light; and Jesus uses his authority to make us into the people God wants us to be. 


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You Are: A commentary on Matthew 5

In our gospel reading today (Matthew 5:13-20), we're still in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Last week, we heard the first twelve verses from that sermon. Today, we're hearing the next 8. For Matthew, being a follower of Jesus Christ means we are students. Being with God involves regular learning, study, and education. Jesus, as he begins this sermon, is with his disciples. They are gathered around him and Jesus begins to teach. Jesus should teach because he is a rabbi and that's what teachers do. The disciples, as followers, are called to learn and grow from what their teacher tells them. Being a disciple is more than just doing what we're told. As a student, the more we learn, the more we are changed. As we study with God through scripture, worship, and prayer, we are transformed. Jesus isn't just giving his disciples knowledge. Through their learning and education, the disciples are being changed into who God wants them to be. 

But, according to Matthew, learning about God is not enough. In verse 20, we hear that our "righteousness" needs to exceed the righteousness of "the scribes and the Pharisees." As Christians, we're used to belittling the scribes and Pharisees. We paint these two groups as people who just don't "get it." We claim that their religious devotion and education blinded them to what God was doing in Jesus. If they stopped trying to learn about God and just see God, they would have recognized Jesus. 

But these arguments are not Matthew's arguments. Matthew isn't against learning because that's one of the ways we live as followers of Jesus. In Jesus' day, education was something very few had access too. The scribes and Pharisees were as educated as someone could get. They could read, write, and study God's word fro themselves. Their communities took care of them while they studied and learned. If anyone in Jesus' world had the time, energy, and resources to learn about God, it was the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus' demand to his followers in verse 20 is a heavy one. They are to know God more than anyone. How can they? Because, as disciples, God changes who they are. They are not only disciples. They are salt and light. They are more than who they were before and they called to live that identity out in all that they say and do.


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