What, Me Worry?
Now, I’d later learn the unofficial term of what I was about to do is called Bible Roulette - this is where one challenges God to prove God’s self by opening the bible and randomly slamming one’s finger down on verse. That verse, of course, will be the answer you’re looking for.
In between short sips of air and the voice screaming “How will I put shoes on their feet?” I attacked the Bible next to my bed and smashed my finger down on the page. And this is what I read. “Why do you worry about clothing?”
That was all it took. God won. I didn’t have the fight in me anymore. As I surrendered and let go of my fear, that tight grip on my heart was released. All my worries seem to just melt away.
One of the most repeated phrases in the entire bible is “Do not be afraid,” or a variation like “Do not fear,” or “Do not worry.” I’ve been told that this phrase is repeated in the Bible 365 times. In these few verses alone, Jesus says four times.
Between the wars and threats of wars, a lingering pandemic, and a fragile economy It’s hard not have a little worry and fear rattling around inside your head. You might not worry what you’re going to eat or wear, but many of us are afraid of what others think or worry what they say behind our backs.
Parents will always worry about their children. And children will worry about their parents. You might worry about getting a promotion, while someone else is fearing losing their job. It wasn’t that long ago when there was worry and fear about having enough toilet paper for everyone.
According to Jesus, focusing our energy on that stuff won’t add another second to your life. It won’t give you any more sleep. Or less grey hairs. Instead, we’d do well to follow the advice of Alfred E. Neuman, the iconic spokesman for Mad Magazine who famously quipped: "What, me worry?"
His sage advice was always the opposite of what my teachers were telling me at school. For some reason they wanted us to worry. Worry about our grades, worry about our future, and definitely worry about being judged by God. It’s as if they wanted us to be full of fear, instead of being filled with faith.
watch service here
Looking at the birds flying around, and the grass blowing in the breeze, Jesus shifts our attention off of us, and directs it back to God. And God’s faithful abondance.
He reminds his disciples that just as animals and flowers are made by God’s divine hand, so too are each one of them. If God takes care of the least of these in creation, then surely that includes every human being too.
God’s kingdom is about abundance, not scarcity. During my panic attack I had lost sight of this powerful truth. I suspect these new disciples had too. Granted, they had a good reason to be worried and afraid. After all, they quit their jobs and left the security of their family and community to follow Jesus.
We too might have legitimate reasons to fear where Jesus is leading us. I certainly did. But what good does it do? How does it help us become a community formed and fashioned for God’s kingdom?
Here’s what we need to remember: God is faithful to a fault.
Jesus looks at the world around him, and essentially tells the twelve to empty themselves of their fears and worries so they can be filled with the abundance of God’s provision and care. “Live in God’s faithfulness and you’ll be alright.”
This is God’s Kingdom. God is still in control.
If we believe God is an intimated, caring, and a trustworthy parent who provides all that we need, then it’s possible for us to become a community that shares the same intimacy, care, and trust with others.
As Jesus will spend the rest of his ministry demonstrating, God gives us all that we need to enter every space as a living manifestation of God’s loving abundance.
As Jesus shows us, God’s perfect love helps us become perfect at loving each other.
Because God is more faithful, we can be faithful to one another.
Because God is more merciful, we can always show mercy. Because God is more than gracious, we can always be gracious.
We can love God, love others, and serve both because God is forever faithful. God’s will always prevail…even if and when we fail.
Looking at Anamesa, that space between heaven and earth, Jesus reminds us that every living thing is under God’s care. And God will not leave us without resources or support. Just as God has not abandoned the forest and oceans, God will not abandon you or me. Once we wrap our head and heart around this reality, worry or fear will lose all its power over us.
When we come to embrace God’s faithfulness and goodness, then we can go out into the world as “a living witness to the character of God’s loving abundance and care for creation.”
So you see, Alfred E. Neumann was right. “What, me worry?” All is okay and we’ll be okay too. Or to quote Richard Rohr, “Stop fretting and fearing and enjoy divine union now.”
As we make our pilgrimage through Lent to Easter, we might face challenges and circumstances that could cause a panic attack or two. But I’ve learned, time and time again, that we can face life’s uncertainties and contingencies knowing God is ever faithful and ever present; creating new life out of our pain and suffering. And even out of death.
As we walk towards the Good Friday cross, and the darkness that follows, may we never lose site of the Easter light that broke through the darkness - where God proved to the world what God is capable and willing to do to for all of creation.
The One who looks out for the transient life of grass with such beauty and care, is also looking out for you and me.
Instead of worrying about what you will eat, or drink or wear let’s use our time and energy being a people whose faith is in grounded in God’s faithfulness; whose love mirrors God’s love; and whose focus is on the Kingdom of God and righteousness.
If we trust Jesus at his word, then all these things will be given unto you.
Adapted from Seriously, Don't Worry About It by Ian Macdonald on 08.22.2021
Between the Applause
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Given the lessons from the last couple of weeks, today’s text should come as a relief. As Amy Richter points out, “If you want to get strange looks, read your Bible in public, pray aloud in a restaurant, or talk about what Jesus means to you to the person next to you while you’re waiting for a bus.”
Jesus’s words are a bit ironic don’t you think, seeing that just a few weeks ago we kicked off Lent by smearing ashes on our forehead and going out in public. Right after that we get Jesus telling his disciples to let their “light shine before others.”
And in Isaiah doesn’t God explicitly say, “I don’t want you sitting around in sackcloth and ashes looking miserable. I want you to get up and do something good. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Give to the poor. Change the world. That’s the kind of religious offering I’m looking for.”
God clearly wants our faith to be seen. So perhaps, in light of the Academy Awards Show tonight, we should look at this particular section of Matthew’s gospel as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t let our religious practices become an Oscar worthy performance. The world isn’t your stage. It’s God’s.”
In other words, don’t play or pander some self-righteous show to reap the praise of others. Instead, “Let your light shine so others can come to see God’s glory.” Our obedience to Christ shouldn’t make good social theater. It should be about building up God’s kingdom here and now.
A few years ago, I was critical of a group of evangelical leaders went to the White House and before the cameras, they laid hands and prayed over someone who many argued was the antithesis of everything Jesus stood for. It was a self-righteous, theatrical performance at its best. They went on to justify their shameless pandering touting how it earned them favor with the President.
In my self-righteous anger, I called them out by name asking, “Where is Christ in your Christianity?” At the time it felt like the right thing to do. But where was Christ in my own Christianity, pointing out the faults of others without looking first at myself?
Was I any different, speaking out in front of this camera to win the applause and approval of whoever was watching? Self-righteousness is bad theater that’s not only bad to watch, but bad for the Kingdom of God.
While praying, fasting, or giving alms are important to our spiritual growth, they can endanger the relationship we have with God if our heart is in the wrong place. Jesus warns us of hypocritical displays of piety and moral rectitude because he knows how easy it is for us to make ourselves the center of attention.
I remember sitting in a church where someone stood up, pulled a bunch of $100 bills from his wallet, and instead of putting them in the offering plate, he waved them around and challenged others to match or beat his gift.
Amy Ritcher writes, “The hypocrite acts for others. Some play the role and may not even realize it’s only an act.”
It was just a few years ago, a football coach sued the school district to allow him to publicly pray with his team out on the field. I believe deep down in his heart he was just trying to honor God, but the backlash and bad press it caused didn’t do much to promote God’s glory.
Jesus wants us to be mindful of the motive behind our fasting and feasting, our praying and giving. Are we doing it for our spiritual growth, to be closer to God? Or to get praise and recognition?
Jesus will call his disciples to walk a narrow path, one we will all walk on the pilgrimage of life. On one hand, we must let our light shine in the many ways we show God’s love, mercy and grace to one another.
On the other, we must be mindful that our motivation behind our acts isn’t self-rewarding or hypocritical. For Jesus, that’s what perverts discipleship.
“Turning our outward gestures into currency for enhancing one’s reputation,” writes Marilyn McCord Adams, “betrays our deepest loyalty by breaking the first and greatest commandment: to love God with all we have.”
Between the applause, we must take the time to pause. And following the advice of St. Benedict, we must go inside ourselves and listen with the ear of the heart. It is the heart that Jesus is talking about. This is the secret space where only we can go. Jesus sends us there not to be praised or applauded but to be in divine union with God.
Lent is a time we go inward, into the wilderness of our own being, to take inventory of our true selves, our real motives, and intentions.
While it’s always good and worthy to do nice things for others, if it’s done while secretly resenting them for it then what good is that gesture? Do we really believe God doesn’t see through the disguise? Before we can go out and let our light shine, we first must connect with the divine light within ourselves where prayer, sacrifice, and charity are first conceived.
In his Message translation, Eugene Peterson said like this, “Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.”
Jesus sends us inward, to our heart, the very place where God dwells in us. It’s here, we are made in the image of God who comes to be in a relation with us. More than a warning, Jesus is awakening our hearts so we will embrace a life of faith where a relationship with God is the greatest reward.
This is why Jesus doesn’t want hypocrites. He wants disciples, people who can usher in the Kingdom of God making real relationships, in real time.
Jesus doesn’t need more church goers. He needs more church doers. People who truly love God, love others and serve both - even when no one is looking.
Jesus doesn’t call actors to stand in the spotlight. He calls you and me to be a new community who will shine so brightly that others can’t help but see God’s glory illuminating.
There is no need to make a performance out of it. As Jesus will tell his disciples in the following verses God knows them and knows how valuable they are. God knows you, and your self-worth too. Through life, death and resurrection of Christ, God has paid the greatest price to have a relationship with us.
Jesus is our reminder of God’s great love for us. So, let us keep our eye on him. Knowing all that we do, we do in his name for the glory of God. Therefore, let us store this treasure not on earth, but in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.
Adams, Marilyn McCord. Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Richter, Amy. What Audience? March 5, 2014 (accessed on March 12, 2023)
Many argue perfection is an unrealistic goal. Or unattainable at best. As someone once said, “If we were able to achieve perfection, they what would we do for an encore?
Is it possible for a person to be perfect? Can we actually have a perfect life, and live in a perfect world?
You might not think so, but Jesus might beg to differ. This is what he has to say in Matthew 5:38-48
One has to wonder what was going through his mind when Jesus said, “Be perfect as God is perfect”? Never mind all the other crazy things he says before it. Love your enemies, do nice things to those who hate you, bless the ones who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
In what world does any of this make sense?
In the last of his series of antithesis, Jesus is at his ornery best. He’s offering advice that makes no sense if he is not who Matthew claims him to be – the Messiah, the One who makes all things new.
That’s what Jesus is doing here, making all things new, beginning with this new community of Twelve imperfect followers.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is teaching them what God’s kingdom is all about. He uses a series of well-known laws to help expand their thinking and to shape the character of this community so they can become the people Jesus needs them to be - a new kind of people formed and fashioned for the kingdom of God.
Jesus shows them a way to live perfectly in sync with God and others in a new kind of community where offenders are dealt forgiveness; where hatred is greeted with kindness; and where everyone’s needs are met.
According to Jesus, perfection isn’t about being the perfect spouse or student any more than it’s having the perfect theology or practicing the perfect ritual. For him, perfection is summed up in one perfect word - love.
Brian McLaren writes, “Of the many radical things said and done by Jesus, his unflinching emphasis on love was most radical of all. Love was his prime directive—love for God, for self, for neighbor, for stranger, for alien, for outsider, for outcast, and even for enemy, as he himself modeled.”
So, is it possible to be a perfect person with a perfect life and live in a perfect world? Jesus says yes. And it all begins with love.
Love is the key to exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Love is the way to see and participate in God’s kingdom here and now.
As Jesus himself proved time and time again, love is the way God becomes visible and tangible - in us, through us, and all around us.
Therefore, the way to be perfect as God is perfect, is to love as God first loved us. Imperfect as we are.
Sadly, this is not how the world understands perfection, is it? If it were, the plastic surgery industry wouldn’t be a $55-billion empire.
You might not be in the market for a perfect nose, but I’m sure we have all experienced internal, self-critical thoughts. You might be doing it now while scrolling through Facebook.
I know I have had those moments of jealousy and envy seeing pictures of someone’s so called “perfect house” or “perfect honeymoon.” How crazy is it that we make other people’s social media content the bar by which we define our self-worth?
Curtis Farr writes, “It can be tempting, even for the most well-adjusted among us, to compete with others to enhance our sense of self-worth. In sensing a lack of self-worth, we might try to improve ourselves, striving for a misguided notion of perfection.”
When Jesus tells us to be perfect by the way we love, he’s not telling us to compare our love to how others love us. He’s telling us to compare our love to God’s love for us. Jesus goes from place-to-place mirroring God’s compassion, mercy and grace in every space he enters.
In every word he speaks and every deed he does Jesus constantly and consistently gives us a glimpse into the heart of God. A heart that does not compare or keep score. A heart that causes the sun to rise and rain to fall on everyone. A heart that is perfect because it has perfected love.
Jesus is our tangible proof that out of great love for us, God comes to us and suffers our worst, then rises up to forgive us.
Jesus ushers in a new kind of world, with new paradigms, that turns everything we thought we knew on its head because he raises the bar and expands our understanding of perfect love. Love that isn’t contingent on what we do. But on what God does.
Because God showers us with abundant grace, mercy, love, and protection Jesus knows we can do the same for the other. He entrusts his ministry with to a community of imperfect people knowing everyone has the potential to be gracious, forgiving, hospitable, and generous to a fault.
Jesus doesn’t see this as an impossible ideal because he knows we’re not the ones doing the heavy lifting. God is. As Jesus will go on to demonstrate, “To be perfect as God is perfect” means allowing God’s love to flow in and out of us. Our love, this love, is God’s love that is first given to us.
Imagine a world where everyone just allowed God’s love to flow into everyone they met. Think about what our communities would be like if sharing God’s love was the objective of every corporate vision, or a part of every law written? There would be no more poverty or war. No one would lack food or health care. We wouldn’t be terrified of sending our kids to school.
Some think Jesus is an idealist. And that we who follow him are stuck in some altruistic fantasy. I will admit, his teachings seem out there. They are different. And difficult to hear. Never mind how hard they can seem to live out faithfully in this world. But Jesus came to make things new, and that means getting rid of the old. Change is never easy.
Again, we’re not the one’s doing the heavy lifting. God is. It’s God’s love that flows through us to change the course of our future.
Jesus tells us that anyone who knows God’s love can now love their enemies. Anyone who has experienced God's forgiveness can now forgive others. Anyone who has received God's generosity can now give back to those who have little or nothing.
These things are not impossible to do if we are willing to actually follow the One who is the perfect embodiment of God’s love.
Like the great Stanley Hauerwas realized, Jesus was more than just a great person who did some pretty remarkable things. Jesus is truly divine “because of his ability to birth the kingdom of God in every given moment.”
Everything Jesus did mirrored God's vision of God's world where genuine and unconditional love reigns.
It might sound idealistic, but I believe this is something every one of us is capable of doing. If you think I’m crazy, remember this. The Bible never says Jesus was a perfect son to Mary and Joe. It never tells us if he was a good brother, or even a decent carpenter.Yet all four gospels tell us Jesus was the perfect personification of God because he lived his life as the living, breathing incarnation of God’s love.
If we are going to be a part of his Body, this community we call church, then we too must allow God’s love to come to life in us, right here and right now. It’s not impossible or as hard as you might think.
When we love our neighbors like God loves us, when we put the needs of others before our own, when we set aside our anger and forgo retaliation to give peace a chance God’s love is perfected in us and through us. Whenever and wherever we allow God’s love to flow perfectly like this, then our communities will begin to look a lot more like the world God created for us.
Whether or not we are perfect people with perfect hair and skin and bodies, we can be a perfect community when we choose to actually become people who love God, love others, and serve both.
This is the way of Jesus. The way that reflects God’s love for all of creation. And it is the way, the only way, we can become perfect as God is perfect.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Farr, Curtis. Flawless. February 19, 20217. (Accessed on March 3, 2023).
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2006).
McLaren, Brian D. The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (New York: Convergent Books, 2016).
Between The Storm
You probably heard about the great storm hit the west coast. The news described it as “A once in a lifetime” kind of storm, that many weren’t ready to handle. Though we desperately needed the rain and snow, never did we think it would all come in one, consecutive 27-hour downpour.
With such rain comes mudslides, flooded streets, and downed trees. Over in the park by my house, ducks enjoyed the newly formed pond that was once a playground. By that new aquatic playground, two massive mature trees were uprooted and sat sideways like slumbering giants.
It was a serious blow to those who found rest in their shade. And to the many of us who just loved their majestic beauty.
(On a side note: these trees which were over to 75 feet tall, feel in such a way that nothing else was harmed in the process. The exercise equipment, the new fence around the tennis courts, the basketball hoops, and even the memorial bench that all shared this space were all spared.)
The great impressionist Paul Cézanne said, “Life is art. Art is life. I never separate it.” He was one of my favorites. But that aside, if a piece of bark can be made into a work of art it seems to reason that so too can any tragedy or challenge we face.
As painful as it is to see these beautiful trees gone, I know that death is not the end. It is the beginning of something new and beautiful. Unfortunately, the pain of that loss can be so overwhelming that it blinds us. It makes us wait through the pain to see what will come from it.
Life is just active waiting, a time we enter into a space and engage with it. Sometimes we just get overwhelmed in feeling it. Other times we just struggle to face whatever it brings up. Sometimes we make progress and grow through it. Sometimes we throw our hands up and walk away.
This might be easier to do with plants than it is with people. But it is one in the same. Life comes. Then life goes. How we fill the space between - the void left in their wake - is our great challenge.
We often think of Lent as a time to deprive the spirit. But I believe it's really about feasting and filling that space with something new and better. As we struggle along this pilgrimage through Lent or through life, may we never forget to dream about the possibilities that our struggles produce.
The world is your canvas. Dream big. And make it bigger.
In hindsight, I know there were parts of me that needed to die so I could be resurrected. Or at least reshaped into who God needed me to be.
I think this is something that happens to anyone who goes on a spiritual pilgrimage or seeks a deeper meaning of life. Our old selves must die, in order for our new selves to become what they can.
Jesus was a perfect example of this. By his life, death, and resurrection, we know the way as we make our way towards the very heart of God.
For the season of Lenten, we’re going to abandon the lectionary and keep our focus on the Sermon on the Mount. This is the longest, and in my opinion, the best teaching Jesus gives. If this is all we had of him, it would suffice. It provides us with all that we need to live faithfully and righteously with God.
In these three chapters of Matthews gospel, Jesus awakens the sacred scriptures in a way that will shape the character of his disciples. The sermon on the mount is a perfect example of how Jesus stretches our understanding of scripture and what he meant when he said, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
Jesus also expands our understanding of how to do fulfill the law. How to live our life that he said must “surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees” if we want to begin to understand what the kingdom of God is all about.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment...
This section of the Sermon has traditionally been called the “Antitheses.” Scholars called it that because Jesus seems to be making a comparison between two different schools of thought “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you”.
The problem with calling this “Antitheses” is that the name itself suggests Jesus is contradicting the law or telling us to do the opposite of what it says. That’s simply not true to Jesus’ character. He’s not contradicting but expanding the law - making it more applicable to every aspect of life.
Jesus says: “You know the command ‘Do not murder.’ Seems simple. But then he expands it saying, “I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with another, is guilty of murder.” Talk about cranking it up to 11!
Let’s be real, the chances of any one of us becoming a murderer is slim. But getting pissed-off to the point that you hate someone…well that’s almost a sure bet. Jesus does not see a difference between the two. Both kill relationships, which can keep us from becoming the kind of people who live their life in God’s kingdom.
I know I have told this story before, but the year I decided it was time to take Lent to the next level, a friend dared me to give up the 10 commandments. Although he was joking, that night I secretly resolved to fast from one of them: thou shall not murder.
Since I was pretty sure I could go 40 days without intentionally killing someone, I decided to expand my interpretation to see where I could take it in both my personal and professional life. You see, as a creative director I had the power to kill people’s ideas and concepts, their visions, and dreams. As a result, this made it easy to also kill a person’s spirit, joys, and passions. Pushing the limits of my fast forced me to really pay attention to my actions; what I said and did.
Thankfully, this was also that year I learned Lent was not just about fasting, but it was also about feasting as well. What’s the antithesis of killing? Giving life. As I intently focused on what not to do, my thinking naturally began to shift towards what to do. Before I knew it, I was thinking about lifting people up instead of tearing them down. As a result, I began to be transformed from the inside out.
Jesus did not come to change the law. He came to change us, so we could fulfill the law in a way that God intended. Scripture is the seed Jesus plants deep into our core where it can take root, and become a part of who we are, instead of some ancient rules to follow.
Joe Pagano notes, "Jesus knows that we can pretend to be righteous but still treat others as if they were dead." Jesus invites us to go within ourselves, to look at our heart where our actions and deeds germinate so "we can have the chance to look at others - not with anger but with love."
Love is the key to exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Love is the way of the Kingdom of God. If we follow Jesus closely, we will see that true righteousness comes from practicing love, mercy, and justice - especially to the vulnerable.
This is why Jesus turns up the volume in everything he does. He’s trying to wake us up so we will step up. His words and deeds push the boundaries and expand the way we interpret the law only so we can understand how "the greater righteousness is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies."
Jesus steps it up on murder because he knows how simple words can kill.
He raises the bar on adultery and lust because he knows how easy it is for a heart to be corrupted.
He pushes the limits on taking oaths because he knows how tempting it is to manipulate words so we can get our way.
He expands our thinking on reconciliation because he knows the practice of retaliation only keeps the vicious cycle going.
Lent is the season for us to look inward, to reflect on how we can become grace-filled people through the ways we outwardly practice compassion and mercy - at the level by which God shows it to us.
Lent is a spiritual practice. One that takes a lot of practice. No one is LeBron James overnight. Not even LeBron James. Achieving the skill level of a pro-baller, is a day-by-day activity. In the same way, to grow into our Christlikeness requires active engagement.
We must have constant focus on what God is calling us to do. This might require creating the kind of good habits that can transform us from within.
The Apostle Paul makes this plea. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.”
Jesus calls us to follow the commandments righteously not simply religiously.
He’s not asking us to become the world’s moral rule keepers. He’s inviting us to take them, above and beyond their basic intention, so that our hearts and minds will exceed above and beyond what is good, acceptable, and perfect to God.
Jesus calls us to live and be moved by the spirit of the law so our hearts and minds can become the type of people God needs us to be - people formed and fashioned for a kingdom life.
As we make our way through the pilgrimage of Lent, moving towards the cross and through the Easter tomb, let us step it up and take these sacred words into Anamesa, using them as guides to lead us through the space between heaven and earth.
May the words of Christ forever stretch our imagination and be our encouragement for the formation and transformation of our character so that we might truly become the kind of people who actually love God, love others, and serve both.
Pagano, Joseph S. Intensifying the Law. February 16, 2014 (accessed on February 24, 2023)
Stassen, Glen H. and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
Thought for the day
I liked this from Rohr today. Simple. Profound. Doable.
“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:15).
“It is a theologically packed statement. What does the word “repent” mean? First of all, it doesn’t mean to beat ourselves up or to feel bad about ourselves. “Repent” (or metanoia in Greek) means to turn around, to change. The first word that comes out of Jesus’ mouth is change—be willing to change.
“People who are not willing to change are not willing to turn away from themselves. What we’re in love with usually is not God. We’re in love with our way of thinking, our way of explaining, our way of doing. One of the greatest ways to protect ourselves from God, and to protect ourselves from truth and grace, is simply to buy into some kind of cheap conventionalism and call it tradition.
“But the great traditions always call people on a journey of faith to keep changing. There’s no other way this human personality can open up to all that God is asking of us. There’s no way we can open up to all we have to learn, all we have to experience, unless we’re willing to let go of the idols of yesterday and the idols of today. The best protection from the next word of God is the last word of God. We take what we heard from God last year and we build a whole system around it, and then we sit there for the rest of our lives.”
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Four Gospels (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 1987).
In the bible, mountains set the stage for crucial events. Noah lands his ark on Mount Ararat. Abraham almost kills Isaac on Mount Moriah. Moses brings down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. Of course, it was on the mountain that Jesus gave his inaugural sermon. And where the disciples watched in awe as he ascended back to heaven.
Mountains are hard to ignore. They call out to us - inviting us to come and be a part of their splendid glory. Which brings us to today’s reading, where Jesus takes three lucky disciples to share this unforgettable mountain-top experience. Read Mathew 17:1-9 here
...While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Today, churches around the world are celebrating Transfiguration Sunday, which marks the end of Epiphany; a season that speaks to the many different ways God reveals Jesus’ true identity to the world. Epiphany often begins at the Jordan River, with John the Baptist. But it always ends on this mountain with Elijah and Moses.
At both events, God’s voice thunders from the sky declaring, “This is my Son the beloved.” But on this last Sunday of Epiphany, God kicks off Lent giving us this direct command, “Listen to him.”
Last week I said Jesus is the living embodiment of Torah, bringing God’s love for humanity to life in the flesh. By focusing on things like justice, mercy, and faith, Jesus bridged the gap between our world and God’s. If we listen carefully to God’s Word, watching and learning from him, we will not only have a way across this divide, but we can also be the way for others to follow.
God says, “Listen to him.” An imperative that’s an invitation to join Jesus’ mission and ministry. As well as a blueprint on how to do it.
The great mystics throughout time have taught us there are many paths up the mountain to meet God. Like life, those paths may be rough or smooth, steep, or gentle, boring or colorful, tiring or exhilarating. Yet, they’re all on the same spiritual mountain, and ultimately, they all converge at the very top where the Divine meets us in our humanity.
Maybe God is telling us to listen to what Jesus has to say, because Jesus knows the way, or a secret shortcut. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the truth, the light, and the way” (John 14:6).
But that single sentence has been fraught with controversy around what he meant, what he was declaring. Is he the only way? Or an exclusive way for some to know and not others? Or one of many ways?
I know what I believe, and that is in each gospel account of this story Jesus is called God’s beloved Son. I take that to mean there is an intimacy shared between them.
God knows Jesus and Jesus knows God. And in knowing God so well, Jesus knows what God wants from all of us. That alone should be reason enough to listen to what he has to say and allow him to guide us up and down the mountainside of life.
As it is with any journey, life can be tricky to navigate. It’s often filled with all kinds of challenges and difficult obstacles. But here’s the thing, when we climb up the mountain with Christ, God climbs with us.
Through Christ, God comes to be with us in our messiness. And shows us the way through it. So, “Listen to him.”
This is important to remember because we all face our mountains. Mountains of fear, doubt, insecurity, worry, and so on.
If I have learned anything on my spiritual pilgrimages, and getting lost in the wilderness of Lent, it’s that God is bigger than any mountain, stronger than any struggle, more powerful than any demon I will face. There is nothing in life that can overpower God. The only real obstacle that ever gets in my way…is me.
When our focus is on Jesus, and what he says and does, then we’re not wasting time worrying about the things that try to knock us off path.
His faith, his strength, his direction keeps us focus on what he does…loving God, loving others, and serving both. This is way of living Torah, the way of living into our own incarnation of God’s love no matter what mountains we face.
Now, I have a cousin who was born and raised on an island in Canada. After reading “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Diane made a brave decision to face her fears and conquer that grand mountain Ernest Hemingway so famously wrote about.
Now here’s the thing. Up until this point, she had never left Prince Edward Island …muchless flown on an airplane. She had never climbed anything beyond a tree or a treadmill. And the only thing she knew about Africa was what she had read in books. But that didn’t stop her. Something was tugging on her heart. It was too big to ignore.
Diane knew the only way she’d discover what was calling out to her, would be to listen to it. That meant she’d have to face her anxieties, take the 24-hour flight, and conquer that mountain.
Standing at the base of Kilimanjaro, Diane felt her heart pound anxiously. But instead of being afraid, she held on faithfully to the words of comfort that Jesus spoke when he said, “Anyone who believe in me will never die.”
She listened; believing his words to be true. She held on to that verse all the way to the top.
In the snow, on the summit of Kilimanjaro, Diane knew her life would never be the same. God had awoken something new in her. Her fears lost all their power. Her anxieties were non-existent.
Like Peter, James and John who climbed the mountain with Christ, Diane was trans-figured; reshaped and renewed by the Spirit of God in Christ. All because she “listened to him.”
Whether they’re born out of violent tectonic shifts or have spewed up from toxic relationships, mountains are a the bridge between heaven and earth. A place where Jesus invites us to walk with him - up and down - to find our true self, who we are meant to be.
Jesus calls out and says, “Follow me.” God says, “Listen to him.” All while the Holy Spirit silently reshapes and renews us with each step we take.
This does not mean we won’t face trials and tribulations, or that there won’t be some kind of force knocking us around, trying to derail us from our path.
We all will, at some point on this journey, hit that moment when we’re just too tired, or feel too weak to climb any more. Still, God says, “Listen to him” and not the voice inside you that says, “I can’t” or “I give up.”
Keep your ear tuned to the One who says, “Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy, my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
When we are faced with what seems like the impossible or impassable, we must listen to Jesus who tells - through his words and deeds - that “all things are possible with God.” The Apostle Paul said like this, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13)
We end the season of Epiphany going up the mountain with Christ. We begin Lent coming down with the one who gives us strength. It’s down here where our fears will face our faith. It might feel as if you’re being tested or challenged unfairly.
One doesn’t have to walk far in this space between heaven and earth to know there will always be loose rocks that cause you to slip. And pebbles that will trip you up. There will be rifts and chasms to navigate around. And steep cliffs and dark caves avoid.
But through it all, I hope you remember this: When we climb with Christ, God climbs with us; casting aside the roadblocks that seek to throw us off our pilgrimage path.
With Christ is in us and around us, the challenges we face can’t break us. Instead, they strengthen us. They let us know who we are, and what we are called to do.
The bruises and scars we accumulate on this journey become a human witness to God’s divine glory, here and now. They remind us of the endless possibilities, the mountains of joy, peace, love, and grace that are always there for us.
Instead of seeing it as struggle or task, perhaps we need to reframe Lent as an invitation to climb to new heights with Christ who shows us the way to transform our humanity into divinity. God tells us to “Listen to him.”
Because when we do, we will discover who we are destined to be - God’s beloved sons and daughters, transfigured in God’s glory to shine the light of Christ, now and into forever.
Between Words and Ways
Instead of dividing the bible in two parts, we’d be better off embracing the whole as a collection of sacred stories that shape our understanding and relationship with God and others. With that said, if we don’t take what’s been written in it seriously, there’s a good chance we’ll never truly know God, our neighbors, or who we are in the space between them.
So yes, we are a Bible-based church in that we use scripture to strengthen our faith. But we don’t just blindly accept it as historical doctrine. We wrestle and struggle with its content because we believe that’s how we grow closer to God and create stronger communities.
We may not take it literally, but take these words seriously, believing this collection of wisdom is a living, breathing map of life. One that guides us to become more righteous, not more religious. Let’s consider what Jesus had to say here in Matthew's Gospel.
I think most world religions could agree Jesus is an ideal model of someone who honors his religious tradition. Yet, he often opposes and ignores certain parts of Jewish scripture - the stuff that’s punitive, exclusive, and dogmatic. (Rohr)
Instead, Jesus spends his time focusing on the texts that bend toward inclusivity, mercy, and justice – the things, that according to the prophets, are the weightier matters to God. So, if Jesus isn’t a biblical literalist, what is he?
A favorite scholar of mine, Amy-Jill Levine, loves to say, “If Jesus came back today, he wouldn’t be found in the church.” I don’t think she’s insinuating that the Christian church has become void of Christ, although some might argue differently.
Instead, Levine is reminding us that Jesus was Jewish and will always be Jewish. His home is in the synagogues where most of our rites and rituals have also come from. Jesus was neither Catholic or Protestant. He was one of those people from the left side of the book.
Somewhere between Passover and Easter, Christianity snuck in the back door and claimed authority over our Jewish kin. This wasn’t a power grab based on the mystery of the resurrection, or Jesus’ miracles and healings.
According to Barbara Brown Taylor, a line was drawn over the authority of Jesus’ teaching, “which sounded more like God to some of his listeners than what they were hearing from God’s authorized spokespersons.”
She continues, “From the Sermon on the Mount to his teaching in the temple, Jesus said things that made people swoon – both with fervor and with disbelief – because he taught things contrary to Torah.”
Most scholars agree that Jesus only contradicted the oral interpretations of the Pharisees, not the written ones.
Whether or not that is true, his teaching with authority caused people to choose sides. You either “remain loyal to the word of God, through Moses, or believe that God was speaking a new and improved word through Jesus.”
As Matthew’s gospel points out, Jesus made it very clear he didn’t come to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill it. You see, “Jesus’ argument wasn’t with Torah, but with those who did not follow Torah.” (Taylor)
He was committed to the practice of righteousness. And challenged his followers to do the same. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Let that one sink in for a moment.
Jesus isn’t telling us to break from Judaism. He’s calling us “to become the most righteous Jews the world has ever seen.” We can’t do this by disregarding Torah or not abiding by what’s written in it. If we look to him as our Way, then we too must live out Torah his way.
Which makes me wonder why Christianity often dismisses or disregards it - calling it an “old” testament as if it is no longer relevant?
Sure, some of us make our kids memorize the 10 commandments, but how often do we take them seriously? Or the other 650 laws God gave us to help us live in a community of peace with one another? What about the ways God laid out a beautiful plan that cares for the poor, supports the widows and orphans, protects the aliens, and tends to the needs of the prisoner?
Are these parts of the Bible no longer applicable? I’m pretty sure my Jewish neighbors would disagree. “For them, as it has always been since those laws were handed down, Torah is the incarnation of God’s love for humankind. And an invitation to become holy, as God is holy.” (Taylor)
The words of Torah are the way of Jesus, the reason this church made it our goal to love God, love others and serve both.
Whether Jesus was divine or human, or both human and divine, is not the point. He is, as John boldly proclaimed, the Word of God - a title given to him because he lived out God’s word perfectly in the world.
He is the embodiment of Torah, bringing God’s love to life in the flesh. He, and only he, can claim authority because he lived Torah authentically and with authority. By this Jesus bridged the gap between our world and God’s – focusing on the bigger, weightier matters of life like justice, mercy, and faith.
It’s also worth noting that Jesus wrestled with the scriptures like we do. When he had to decide between ritual cleanliness or sharing a table with a known sinner, Jesus chose sharing the table.
When given the choice to heal a person with a withered hand or being obedient to Sabbath law, Jesus chose healing the withered hand. He brought God’s Word to life knowing love will always win.
Jesus can claim authority because he lived intentionally in the space between the spirit and the letter of God’s Word without removing one iota or dot. That’s what it’s all about, fulfilling God’s love and grace in the world; to bring to completion what God began at the beginning of time.
Again Taylor writes, “Jesus did this not by acting it out exactly as it was written on the page, but by acting like the one to whom all scripture pointed. He did it by acting as God’s Son.”
Jesus was, is, and will forever be the incarnation of God’s Word who fulfilled Torah with his life, his flesh and his blood. He promised those who follow him that they too could fulfill Torah as sons and daughters of God. The only way we can claim authority is by living our life like Jesus lived his.
So the best way I can answer the people who ask if we’re a bible-based church is to follow Jesus’ lead. He always invited people to come and see for themselves. And likewise, I answer by saying “Come and see.”
Come and see how we love God, love others, and serve both. Come and see how we follow the one who said, “They will know you belong to me by the way you love one another" (John 13:35).
Come and see how we share the gospel, less with words and more with simple deeds – feeding the hungry; sitting with someone who’s grieving; opening the doors of this holy space where God is always ready to welcome everyone with a hug.
The way I see it, all of scripture calls us to enter Anamesa, that space between us and them, as the living fulfillment of God’s love, mercy, and grace. This means being the salt of the earth, the light of the world just as Jesus was. And continues to do through us.
It’s not so much that Christians need interpreted the whole Bible “in the light of Jesus.” Instead, I think we’d do better to read each page with his light guiding us. If we can see scripture and the world it belongs to through his loving lens, then I believe we will exceed righteousness.
Whenever we do for the least of these who are unable to do for themselves, we make God’s Word come alive, again and again until all has been accomplished.
When we welcome, and love, and honor our neighbors – in the ways God has welcomed, loved and honored us – “then, and only then, will we truly know what the laws, the prophets, and the gospel are all about.”
When we live a life that mirrors Christ then and only then will others come to know what we’re truly all about.
Rohr, Richard. “The Jesus Hermeneutic,” The Mendicant 3, no. 3 (Fall 2013), 1.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Seeds of Heaven. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004) pp. 1-7.
Between Death and Daffodils
I’m taking a break from writing a funeral message for my dear friend’s brother. He passed away completely unexpectedly but peacefully in his sleep. He was just a few months older than me.
I think whenever someone we love dies, we find ourselves thinking about our own mortality. We are finite people living in a finite world. Everything dies. Nothing last forever. But the pain and grief of that loss will make you think otherwise.
My faith holds to the promise that death doesn’t have the final word. God does. How, remains a mystery that I can live with. I just trust, knowing that this world, as finite as it is, is also a world created with life, death and resurrection already built into the equation. We see this in the scientific world all the time.
An acorn that grows into a mighty oak. The oak eventually succumbs to its demise via fire or blight or some disease that causes it to die. In nature, the once mighty oak crumbles to the ground where slowly over time, the wood rots and the microbes become part of the soil. While the tree is dead, it’s not really. It’s biological make-up transforms into something new – new soil enriched and ready to grow another tree.
The summer clouds in the sky form and vaporize all the time, living and dying and living again as the water molecules continue to reshape and reform into other things like rain, humidity, hail, snow and so on. And the rain drops, dying to the sea, to become part of something greater. And even then, as its waves die upon the rocks, parts of it becomes mist that is carried to the heavens to be transformed into clouds again.
We are part of this creation, this scientific body of living, dying, and resurrecting. And that gives me hope. It reminds me that I am like the daffodils in my garden.
Their beautiful, bright, papery petals can only last so long. Eventually the sun or time will take them from me. Their long, green stalks will eventually be cut down, or eaten by our tortoise, or simply return to the soil on their own. But when I least expect it, they will re-emerge from the darkness underground, filling the garden once again with beauty and joy.
And so will each one of us. How, well...I honestly don’t know. But I can live with the mystery that everything that dies will live again.
How Blessed Are We (really)
In Monty Python’s movie Life of Brian, there’s a small but funny scene where a man is standing in the crowd proclaiming, “Blessed are the Greeks,” and “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” The writers might have been joking when they wrote the lines, but still, it tells us something about God’s character. And the power of God’s Word made flesh.
Jesus is this unassuming rabbi blessing people who never expected to be blessed. They don’t expect it because they’re not the kind of people society thinks are worthy of such a great honor. Whether the beatitudes are new to you, or you’ve heard them a hundred times, there’s a good chance you’re thinking, “Sure, they’re beautiful concepts but how realistic are they really?” Or worst, you simply disregard them believing you’re not worthy of such a holy blessing.
Let me take a second to remind you that Jesus blesses us, not because we deserve them, but because that’s just what he does. It’s in his nature. He just wants to give us a way to live right with God. And chooses to use blessing as a way to get us there - to see who we truly are in the eyes of God.
In her book “Accidental Saints,” Nadia Bolz-Webber imagines Jesus looking at the crowd and “extravagantly throwing around blessing as if grew on trees.”
She writes, “Maybe the Sermon on the Mount is all about Jesus blessing all the accidental saints especially those the world didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance.”
Maybe you know these people – the ones the world doesn’t always admire. Maybe that’s you. Again, maybe you think you don’t deserve to be blessed – believing you’re not good enough, or poor enough, or meek enough to receive God’s love and grace.
But here we have Jesus blessing you saying, You are good. You are worthy. You are enough.
watch the message here
How blessed are you that when you feel powerless, or believe you’re a little nobody in the world, Jesus blesses you, nonetheless. And yet, the world still covers its ears and closes its eyes, and turns its back ignoring God’s Word made flesh.
I’m not just talking about those who simply don’t believe any of this is true. If we’re being honest, most of Christianity has ignored Jesus’ words and the things he did – “healing people; demanding justice; embodying inclusion, compassion, and a nonviolent way of living.” (Rohr)
Thankfully, there have been those “Accidental Saints” who truly and faithfully believed the gospel is more about being Jesus than worshipping Jesus.
One such saint was Francis of Assisi who actually believed Jesus meant it when he said the kingdom of heaven has come near. Hearing this, Francis changed his thinking. And embraced his Christlikeness, by going out among the poor and living into this blessedness by being a blessing to them.
Imagine what the state of our world could be today if we took Jesus serious enough to become little incarnations, “throwing out blessings as if they grew on trees!”
This begs the question how can we worship God if we don’t trust God’s Word enough to live it out in the world?
Jesus invites us to follow him, to imitate his ways, so that God’s glory can be seen and felt and embraced by all. We do this by embracing and being a blessing to others.
According to Megan McKenna, this means offering “deeper mercy for those who experience more divisive misery, deeper blessings for those whose hope is dimmest...More than a religious attitude, the beatitudes are a social attitude toward realities that should not exist among humans.”
These blessings we are given are an invitation from Jesus himself, to participate in God’s kingdom. They call us out into the world to be little Christ – the incarnation of God’s love. Jesus has entrusted us with his ministry. He sends us out to the spaces between to be God’s love in the flesh.
Jesus, the Word of God, challenges anyone who dares to follow him to pick up the cross - to walk in his footsteps, blessing everyone we pass along the way. For the blessings we receive from God are the very blessings we are to be for God.
Again, you might not think you’re good enough to receive God’s blessings muchless give God’s blessings. But that’s simply just not true.
In her book An Altar In The World, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us “the world is just waiting for you to recognize the holiness in it.” She encourages us to “welcome to your own priesthood, practiced at the altar of your own life.”
We need not worry or be afraid because through Christ, God has provided us with all the love needed to bless the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the dying.
With God’s love in us, we can honor the poor in a way that empowers them. We can offer mercy and forgiveness to those who have hurt us.
As Jesus knows, there’s a good chance people will ignore you, put you down, or speak lies about you. But instead of getting angry or seeking revenge, Jesus says, “Be glad. You’re in good company. God’s prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble” (Mt. 5:12 MSG)
If you want to get things right in the world, or in your own life, perhaps it’s time to let God’s Word direct the way you live by receiving and being a blessing to others.
Jesus, God’s Blessing made flesh, shows us the way to be in the world without being of it.
When we model our lives on his, peace will prevail; all will be comforted and everyone will have their fill; mercy will be shown to us; and the kingdom of God will reign, now and forever. Amen.
Adapted from Our Blessedness by Ian Macdonald on July 25. 2021 (accessed on February 1, 2023).
Bartlett, David. L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Accidental Saints: Finding God In All The Wrong People. (New York: Convergent, 2015).
McKenna, Megan. Blessings and Woes. (Orbis Books: 1999).
Pagano, Joseph S. The Beatitudes and Barriers, All Saints Day. Nov. 01, 2017 (accessed on July 23, 2021).
Rohr, Richard. Scripture as Liberation, (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2002).
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar In The World. (Norwich: Canterbury, 2009).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”