Sunday, February 23, 2014

on being perfect (Theva)

On Being Perfect!
Matthew 5:38-48
We have been reflecting on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount for the last several weeks. For today I want to explore the following questions: Why is it called the sermon on the mountain? What is the sermon on the plains? For Matthew his message is predominantly directed at the Jewish readers. For a Jewish person mountain is a location of great religious significance. It was on the mountain called Mount Sinai;Moses received the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Remember the words of today’s Psalm 119 “LEAD ME IN YOUR PATH OF YOUR COMMANDEMENTS”. “HELP ME FIND DELIGHT IN YOUR COMMANDMENTS”. Abraham took his son Isaac to offer him as a burnt sacrifice to God on a mountain called Morriah. Then we have mount Carmel, mount Olive and the Mount Zion on which Jerusalem was built. In the context of Matthew and the mountain, let me share with you another Psalm” I WILL LIFT UP MY EYES TO THE HILLS FROM WHERE WILL MY HELP COME? MY HELP COMES FROM THE LORD WHO MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH. Psalm121.Here the Psalmist is challenging every Jewish believer to know the ground to which they belonged. Tillich the theologian defined God as the ground of our being. So the Psalm 121 is a reminder for them to know the rock from which they were hewn and the quarry from which they were dug. These are phrases of Prophet Isaiah. I am not really surprised as to why Matthew is locating Jesus’s sermon on a mountain. How about the plains? I am of the opinion that Luke’s favourite people were the commoners, the outcast, the gentiles and the people of the margin. I think it is so convenient for such people to gather and listen to a talk by Jesus on a plain ground rather than climbing up and down the mountains. In the power point pictures for today both locations are captured by the artists. One is the Matthew’s version of the Sermon on a mountain side and the other is the Lukan version on the plains. One more thing: we are also told by some biblical scholars the Lukan version is more of a seminar for the disciples.
        And now I want to share with you a word about the context. We need to look at Galilee two thousand years ago, a land filled with the ostracised and marginalised, the drunkards and the prostitutes. Not so much of the land of milk and honey but of lepers and the lame, the deaf and the blind and they were roaming around the lake all the time. This part of the world was referred to as the Galilee of the nations. It meant that in Galilee there were gentiles from all over the world. This section of Israel was also a battlefield where the Roman Army and the Zealots were at war. In brief it was here the Galileans were witnessing death and destruction on a daily basis. If I remove this sermon out of this context will be something like the annual state of the union address in Washington in which we hear the same old same old stuff year after year. And then to give a caption that our union is stronger than ever. Or perhaps it will sound like a religious lecture in a crystal cathedral which is often far removed from the hustle and bustle of our daily struggles and the global problems of Syria and Ukraine. The context is important and here it is characterized by murder and violence, and defined by suspicion and fear rather than freedom and trust. A context in which violence was the order of the day and Jesus appears in the midst of it and says boldly: Blessed are you when you suffer, blessed are you when you are persecuted, blessed are you when you thirst for justice. Blessed are you if you can be the light of the world. How can I be a light of the world if I cannot burn even a little bit of myself in order to brighten the path to my neighbour? This is not the image of the 21st century electronic age folks. Jesus is referring here to the wax and the wicks of light, of melting and burning or the oil lamps of his days. Blessed are you if you can be the salt of the earth. How can I be the salt without dissolving myself to enrich the life of my neighbour? It is in this particular context Jesus says boldly: LOVE YOR ENEMIES. Friends! We know that Hinduism directs us to the understanding of God as truth and the meaning of brotherhood and sisterhood are to be found in the teachings of Islam. Buddhism however takes us to the depth of compassion and Judaism is wrapped up in commandments, the laws and the prophets teachings summed up. How about Christianity? It is a religion of love. No wonder wrote Charles Wesley: LOVE DIVINE ALL LOVES EXCELLING.JOY OF HEAVEN TO EARTH COME DOWN.   terrific! I will take six of those. Jesus said in our scripture today “you have heard it was said, love your neighbour and hate your enemies, but I say to you now, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
        The text I chose for you today is the very last verse of the 5th chapter of Matthew. Be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect. What is perfection? It is at times a scary word, depending on who is using it and when it is being used. People often say they make a perfect couple; it was a perfect wedding. You have done a perfect job. You preached a perfect sermon. What do these expressions mean? Well the dictionaries both the Webster and the Oxford, define perfection as precise, accurate, exact and free from faults and defects. There is another meaning: Perfection is a state of being. And one thing more: perfection is a highest degree of excellence. John Wesley said in religious terms, perfection is the work of sanctifying grace. Let me simplify it. He said perfection is never a finished job. We are on the way to perfection. We have a mandate from Jesus, to love God and to love our fellow beings. And Wesley said it is a life time endeavour. However Jesus said in Matthew 5: BE PERFECT. How can I be perfect for my daily struggle is always whether to be or not to be? The Psalmist says BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD. The only way to be on the way to perfection is to learn to be. The most difficult thing for us is to be. To be or not to be is our daily struggle. Be kind to one another. Be of good cheer. One of the books Theologian Paul Tillich wrote long ago is”The courage to be”. Jesus said “if you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruits. Be! Be Still! And Be Perfect.
       Now I would lie to conclude this message probably the way Jesus concluded it with his disciples. After his long spiritual discourse, Jesus asked his disciples: Do you have anything to add? Simon Peter asked” Do we have to write this down? Andrew asked are we supposed to memorize this. James asked: Will we have a test on this? Bartholomew asked: Do we have to turn this in? John asked: Do all disciples have to learn this? Mathew asked: when do we get out of here? Judas asked: what does this have to do with real life? There were also some Pharisees present in the seminar and one of them asked Jesus his lesson plans and inquired of Jesus his terminal objectives in the cognitive domain.
Jesus wept.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

message from the mountain (Theva)

A Message from the Mountain!
Matthew 5: 21- 37
Our preacher who preached here last Sunday is a retired United Methodist pastor and so am I. He told us a story of a minister in his first appointment who preached the same sermon for the first three Sundays. I want to begin with a similar story. On his new appointment this preacher preached for 20 minutes on his first Sunday and 30 in his second Sunday and took 40 minutes to complete his sermon on his third Sunday. That was enough for the Staff Parish Relations Committee to summon him for a little chat. To their relief he had a ready explanation. “The Saturday before the first sermon, I had my teeth pulled and my mouth was still terribly sore. But, by the time a week had gone by, I’d gotten used to my new dentures”. Here the minister paused, and blushed deeply. ”And for last Sunday…. Well, I am afraid that I picked up my wife’s set of teeth by mistake!”
          Dear friends! You have been listening to some sermons on the Sermon on the Mount for the last few weeks. This sermon is made up of ethical discourses, moral principles; code of conduct and in brief some very valuable lessons for life. This sermon revolutionized the thinking of many people, including Gandhi and Martin Luther king Jr.  We know that Gandhi never became a Christian and belonged to a church however he lived his life by these words of Jesus. Why? Because Jesus not only preached these words from a mount, but he lived out those words every minute of the day and night. He demonstrated to the world by this sermon that our moral authority is not from Herod or Caesar, or from the high priest or the Sanhedrin, but from God alone. This sermon taught Gandhi the basis of radical faith. This sermon taught him the essence for non-violent living. This sermon gave him the courage for his involvement in the freedom struggle for India. We are dealing today with topics like anger and murder, love, lust and divorce, forgiveness, reconciliation and swearing. I know that Jesus has a message for us today. Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount will inspire us to get closer a bit to Jesus.
       People in Jesus ‘time thought they were chosen people and they had a special blessing from God and could expect special favors as well. With long prayers and fasting, by attending the synagogue on a regular basis and observing the laws flawlessly, they thought they earned the merit of private heaven. With their outward religious practices and almsgiving and of keeping the Sabbath holy, they thought they were entitled for good health and great wealth and smashing success and worldly fame.   Jesus On this mountain, preached, hope to the hopeless, comfort to those in pains and to those in the margin, power. Pastor Margaret reminded us a few weeks ago the words of Prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your God”. Let me say to you today that Jesus echoes the same words of Micah who lived 800 years before his time. If you thirst for justice and find joy in your acts of kindness and reflect humility in your life style, you have already become children of God.  Matthew 5, 6, and 7, is called the Sermon on the Mount and we also have a sermon on the plain in Luke chapter 6. I will speak next Sunday as to why Matthew and Luke are changing these locations.  Jesus was a Jew and his religious text during childhood was the Pentateuch the first five books of the Old Testament. He lived by the guide lines of the Ten Commandments. And now he says that we must be able to rise above and beyond the dos and the don’ts of these guidelines. He is challenging us to learn to live recklessly for God. In the reckless living for God we must learn to turn the other cheek. We must be willing to go for the second mile. We should be ready to lose our life and then gain it back. Who is this Jesus? The more I reflect on his life I see him as a transparent and simple human being. In him there is as an embodiment of divine wisdom. He doesn’t let the praises of people lose his humanness. He doesn’t let the blames and accusations of politicians and religious leaders crush him. Friends! To know Jesus is to know the truth. To follow Jesus today is to live a life of just peace.
        In the story of a woman caught in adultery, she was brought to be stoned to death.  Jesus asked those who accused this woman; let the one who has not committed any sin throw the first stone. There was no one around her at that point. All the men are now vanished. And to the woman who was standing there accused of adultery Jesus uttered with compassion “GO SIN NO MORE”. If you are angry with your brother or sister Jesus said you must make up with them as early as possible. He didn’t know about  anger management seminars those days. Jesus said don’t swear at all for you don’t know how to live up to the promises you have made. You know only how to say with your lips, truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and then quickly turn and twist the real truth to lies to your advantage. Promises and pledges are easy to make but fulfilling them is a stupendous task. All the topics in Matthew 5 deal with relationships, trust and faithfulness. The causes for all our problems whether murder or divorce, adultery or swearing are caused by strife and jealousy envy and dissensions factions and slandering one another. What is the solution? Paul talked about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians.
        Jesus is calling us to put on a new identity. Jesus is asking us to live counter culturally. The media today is bombarding with commercials after commercials, drawing our attention to an unfounded myth that those who die with many toys win. We just gathered a few weeks ago to watch the super bowl as though we were having a memorial day or the President’s day national celebration. In a world people die in thousands due to starvation and 70 million American people are without health care, we just spent 2.5 million dollars for every 20 seconds of commercials during the super bowl.
          Friends! Are we better off today than 25 years ago? In our space age, with modern technology and advanced medicine, we have more violence, more wars, more guns, more hatred, more suspicion, more pain, more unfaithfulness, more insomnia, more boredom, more depression and more psychotherapists. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is challenging us to radicalize our existing culture. Friends! What we are the world is. Bill Coffin in his book: The courage to live, says “there are people and things in this world, and people are to be loved and things are to be used”. When was the last time we looked at someone and said “we love you” and “we care about you”. An Indian sage and a Nobel Prize winner by the name Rabindranath Tagore said “IN LOVE ALL OF LIFE’S CONTRADICTIONS DISSOLVE AND DISAPPEAR. ONLY IN LOVE DUALITY AND UNITY ARE NOT IN CONFLICT”. Jesus said 2000 years ago, I will give you a new commandment. Love one another. And in this new commandment he summarized all the laws {for the Jewish people had 613 of them} and all the prophetic words together. Why am I

 so anxious? Why am I so afraid? Why am I so down hearted? Perhaps I have not yet figured out as to what is really important in my life. My closing story is from a book by Elie Wiesel,”SOULS ON FIRE” When we die and get to heaven and meet our God, God is not going to say to us “Why didn’t you become a messiah?’ or “why didn’t you discover the cure for cancer?” the only thing that God would ask all of us at that precious and sacred moment is;” WHY DIDN”T YOU BECOME YOU?’ Normal anxiety and every day worry are all part of life. We should be able to face them without feeling guilty. Sickness and death are part of life and we should be able to accept them with vulnerability. Jesus said that in this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world. Be of good cheer. 

Sunday, February 02, 2014


Faith is….active 020214                                                                                                                                                             Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; Matt 5:1-12
It’s been one of those weeks that should produce a perfect storm, where all elements come together just right to create the perfect sermon. The Micah text—do justice, love mercy, walk humbly- plus a friend’s sharing her awful experience of our justice system, and a judge’s lack of mercy, plus our daily reading from the Rule of Benedict is currently on humility, plus our Heart Listening group watching the documentary “I am” plus the Beatitudes, blessing those who grieve….surely a perfect storm.  
But they were all rattling around in the head and not cooperating at all….indeed an overabundance.  So I’m just going to let them rattle around in your heads and hearts as well by just sharing some thoughts that have come to me.
Imagine first the scene from the Micah text.   The setting is a court room.  God is prosecuting, the nation is the defendant, accused of forgetting God and going their own way instead of God’s way.  In previous chapters the social evils of the day have been listed, and now the prosecution is summing up:
How have I deserved this asks God. Have you forgotten what I have done for you? I brought you out of slavery, I sent you Moses and Aaron and Miriam….don’t you remember all my saving acts?
Imagine the silence after this plea.   The nation knows it’s true.    Then one lone voice cries out into the silence,
What can we do?  We could bring sacrifices better than ever before, finest animals and barrels of oil.  Will that do? asks the defence.    Then Micah the prophet stands up, puts his arm around this pleader, and gently says, you know what God wants, don’t you?  Three simple rules: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
Or as in psalm 15, do what is right, speak the truth, walk blamelessly.
Do justice……blessed are those of my people who hunger and thirst after what’s right, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake
Love kindness…..blessed are those of my people who are merciful, blessed are those who mourn for they shall receive comfort
Walk humbly….blessed are those of my people who are meek (notice not the weak, but Meek), blessed are the pure in heart
Jesus’ first century beatitudes describe how life is in the community of his followers, and his words are shot through with Micah’s words from 5 centuries before.  They call to us, 20 centuries later, and ask us,  as God’s people – as a congregation, a denomination, even as a nation “under God”, do we
do justice
Love kindness
Walk humbly
In a day when $4m buys a 30 second commercial at the superbowl….when Rochester is in the top twenty of poverty ratings…..when individualism, competition and winning are high values and community, cooperation and sharing are low values….do we
Do justice
Love kindness
Walk humbly?
Just what part of that don’t we understand?   In the documentary I am, GK Chesterton responds to the question, what is wrong with the world? By writing, I am.
It doesn’t have to be big or dramatic or earth-shaking….do justice in your work place… mercy and love kindness at school…..walk humbly at the grocery store….
…bless the poor in spirit by lifting them up…..bless the grieving with your comforting presence….work for justice and right instead of leaving it to someone else…welcome as sisters and brothers those who make peace……offer kindness to those who need it.
May it be that when asked what’s RIGHT with the world, God’s people might all learn to say, I am.