To provide some wider context to the New Testament readings for the week, I want to share some reflections from Walter Brueggemann on the role of the New Testament and Jesus in the Christian life:
“Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion. Compassion
constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. In the arrangement of ‘lawfulness; in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion. Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion. The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms. Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement. Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public
criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.” — From The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann
I hope these reflections help give you some context and perspective as you crack open your Bibles and read the Scriptures along with me. To me they are reminders that ultimately the scandalous compassion of God, which Jesus embodied, is the lens through which we are to interpret our faith, our Scriptures, and our lives.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
I chose Matthew 14:27, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” for my breath prayer mindfulness practice this week. I noted each day my response to this verse.
As I begin my breath prayer on the first day, my feelings of fear welled up about being without a job. Then I gradually felt a sense of peace enveloping me, as remembered that at first the disciples felt fear in seeing Jesus. They thought Jesus was a ghost or evil spirit upon the waters of the sea when they saw him through the mist hearing him say these words. Yet it was the living Christ they saw, bringing peace and offering hope. It strikes me right now that my joblessness is giving me the opportunity to be here for some people close to me that are hurting. I feel for a moment God is telling me not to fear, for it is God with me, looking out for me, which I am experiencing in this time of waiting. The door I hope to see open is not coming yet not because God does not care. No, it is the opportunity for me to serve God and others in different ways, and when the right time comes, the way will be clear. Right now, the time I have without a job is a gift from God, not a curse, for I am able to help family and friends who might need me and grow in ways I won’t be able to when my new job comes.
On my second day of using this text for breath prayer, initially all it did was relax my body and calm me enough to face into some things happening around me. Then, as I meditated on the words with each breath, a realization came. It was as if I heard Christ with His voice of love whispering, “Which is more real in this moment, the storms and crises around you, or Me? What seems stronger and more able, the sources of fear, anxiety, and pain or Me, the Lord who comes in walking on the storm?” Jesus comes to me walking on these surrounding storms, whispering these words of peace. I need to put down my defenses so I can hear and trust Christ. Only then do I free myself so I may be fully present in my life storms.
On day three of using this text for breath prayer, first I felt a sense of peace. Saying these words was like leaning on a a good friend’s shoulder when they were worn and weary. Then a sense of enfolding presence surrounded me like the warmth when my mother would wrap me in a patchwork quilt when I lay at home feverish and sick as a child. In the words “take heart” I felt a rich feeling of encompassing embrace. This brought an encouragement to not just wait or rest but to a particular type of outlook and set of actions. In the midst of my uncertainty and stress I was reminded that I am carried by another, whose love is unswerving when the world may sway and twist. While others around me are not always be able to lift me up, I know Christ is present to lift me from the waters of fear.
On day four, what struck me was the phrase “it is”. So often I live my life fearing that next shoe will drop. Have you been there? I am reminded by these words that not only must I not live always expecting a shoe will drop, but I also need to embrace that some moments I cannot live just as if a shoe won’t drop. I can embrace those moments because I can remember “it is”. Sometimes, shoes will drop. And in the grand scheme of things, a shoe is just a shoe. Suffering, pain, or inconvenience are inevitable. Living in fear of them won’t prevent them, while embracing that they are just a part of the many threads woven into the afghan blanket of life allows me to experience them open to what they are. My Buddhist brothers and sisters remind me that true healing is not the removal of pain, but the changing of our relationship with it. Jesus calls me today to recognize pain will come, but a large part of my own suffering personally is how I respond to that pain. Christ comes to me in my pain, fear, doubt, and confusion as the one riding on the storm, hidden within it, walking on the water as if a fearful ghost. Yet the living Christ comes to me also as the one friend who can walk beside me on life’s long dark journey, always able to carry me through and lead me on.
On day five, the practice opened me to my mixed feelings of joy, anxiety, hope, and fear. It did this through the words “be” and “it is I”. Fear keeps us from truly “be”-ing real, truly being our authentic selves. My friend and ministry colleague, the Reverend Ted Warner, recently suggested that we think of Christian life as dance. This past week I’ve been blessed to spend a lot of time with my three year old nephew which has involved lots of dancing and singing. He asks me to dance with him and he dances like no one is watching. Or, rather, he dances as if there is One is watching, that One who finds every dance move he makes up to be great. He sings like no one would ever think to criticize his voice for style. He has not yet learned the fear that keeps folks from being true to themselves. I hear the call on morning five to open myself, to not let my own fears keep me from being true to myself. I am invited to trust that the heart of the universe and heart of my life is that One who looks at me with love, rejoicing at my dance and my song whenever it is heartfelt. I hear Jesus whispering to me, “take my hand. Just believe and let go.”
On day six, feelings began to bubble to the surface; feelings of disappointment and loss at some people in my life whom I’ve sadly learned I can’t lean on. These people often will present themselves as people I should trust with my heart, excusing painful actions by saying “it is I”, “I’m your—” relative, friend, etc., they say. Sometimes I know I struggle hearing Jesus, the Father, and the
Mothering Spirit as they whisper, “Take heart, it is; do not be afraid”. I struggle to realize their “it is I” is trustworthy. Others’ “It is me; trust me” have proven untrustworthy. When the Father, Son, and Mothering Holy Spirit say, “I’ve got you”, the ground will not fall beneath me. This day I’m hearing in my meditation a call to put down my defenses, and lay myself upon their mercy, letting their loving arms carry me. I’m hearing too to not always hear “It is I” as a promise that will be broken but to hear it also as a promise many will be faithful to answer.
On day seven, the phrase “take heart” spoke to me like the words of an old friend, landing on my ears like the pat of my grandma’s hand on my shoulder when I was a little boy. Right now I feel really discouraged. Sometimes I’m trying to be there for some folks dear to me and it feels like no matter how hard I try, things get worse. Sometimes we do our best, care as best we can, things remain rocky, and we and those we care about get hurt. The breath meditation reminds me: “take heart”. Sometimes showing compassion is not about the outcome. Sometimes we face into things so much bigger than us that when we try to face into it it brings oh so much pain. This is when we have to remember — ultimately we are not the Savior, we are not the Liberator, we are not the Healer. We have to sometimes put our trials into the hands of Jesus, realizing that what we cannot do, Christ can. We have to sometimes hold the hand of the motherly Holy Spirit, leaning on her everlasting arms when it is hard to stand and our feet are uncertain. We have to trust those we love into the arms of the heavenly Father, knowing he can carry them through better than we can.
Beyond my breath prayer from this text, here are some reflections I gleaned from other New Testament texts this week:
My view of Matthew 25:31-45 was forever changed when I learned Jesus’ word for “punishment” is the same word used for pruning trees. Pruning trees is certainly a painful process for the tree, but one that ensures its health and full growth. That understanding of the punishment which Jesus describes the Son of Man sending the goats to transforms my understanding of this whole story. In fact, it has changed how I view the Christian doctrine of judgment overall. God is not out to destroy a one of us like we are rubbish in the trash heap. The most far gone of us are of infinite worth to Christ. Nor is God a child abuser sending God’s children to a torture chamber forever. Judgment instead is a pruning: God leading us through the fiery ordeal of facing those parts of ourselves which cause us to not live into our identity as children of God, to not reflect God’s image in our daily lives. God’s purpose, even for the goats in judgment, is for them to acknowledge that which is within them that stands in the way of loving God fully and their neighbors as themselves. So judgment is aimed not at destruction but at healing even the most hardened among us. God’s goal is to reconcile all creation to God’s self and all people to each other. The goal of judgment is transformation, not torture or destruction. I have great hope that God might just be able to pull this off.
Matthew 26:26-35. I notice two things: First, Jesus chooses to worship before his betrayal. The Passover meal he takes part in is an act of worship under Judaism, and though we often forget it, Jesus is Jewish. Also, the prayer he takes part in after passover is an act of worship. Jesus knows to have the strength to endure what lays
ahead of him in his betrayal and death, Jesus must reach up and out for strength from his Father and our Father, and the Mothering Holy Spirit who dwells in all things. Also, we begin to see his friends betray him. Sadly, having friends let us down is a part of life, one Jesus even experienced. Jesus is able later to model letting forgiveness color his friendship, allowing him to accept that even those closest to us, who love us the most, will let us down. With us as with Jesus, grounding ourselves in the One who never slumbers or sleeps, and will never let our feet slip, is the way to keep this openness to others through their frailties and failures.
Matthew 26:36-46 shows us the importance of simply sitting with and being present with another person in their time of trial. Very rarely do we let ourselves just be with one who is hurting, yet in our pain we know that such fellowship is what we need. Not answers, but companionship. Jesus cries out for this support his last night before his betrayal, but his friends are not able to offer it. How have you experienced people sitting by you in your pain? How have you experienced people not being able to sit another hour with you? How have you been there for others? How have you failed to sit another hour with them in their pain?
Matthew 26:47-56. Jesus confronts great powers of oppression in his last moments. He confronts what I believe is a mental illness that ultimately takes Judas’ life. He confronts the power of imperial oppression and systemic violence. He confronts religion turned into a tool of exclusion and oppression. Sometimes I feel at a loss in facing oppressive powers and systems around me : the power of family brokenness, the power of those I know facing illness, the power of homophobia and racism entrenched around me. Jesus shows a way forward. Right to the end, Jesus continues to love Judas, realizing the whole time that Judas is not an enemy, but one caught under the sway of these powers. Jesus loves those who kill him, praying for their forgiveness on the cross and even extending an offer of hope of deliverance to one dying beside him. Yet Jesus also confronts head on the powers of oppression about him. He names them and — maybe most important! — chooses to respond in ways that don’t buy into them. No, we won’t return violence for violence. No, we won’t respond to their hatred with hatred. But no we won’t act like this system of oppression is ok either. I struggle to follow this path Jesus trail-blazes of loving unconditionally, while not also accepting as ok the ways illness, oppression, injustice, and violence catch people (and myself!) in self destructive patterns. But I believe the way Jesus paves is the way to liberation.
So often we hear Jesus’ words to Caiphas and the Sanhedrin, “soon you will see the Chosen One seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven,” (Matthew 26:64) and think its either Jesus talking about his Deity or some second coming at the end of time. I’ve always read it that way, and I’m sure some of these ideas may be a part of what Jesus is saying. But I wonder, with what I read in Matthew 25, if this might be less about Jesus’ Deity or about the end of time and more about how, whenever we face someone suffering, Jesus tells us we see the Chosen One, the Child of the Father in the mothering Holy Spirit, with us through them. Because us of this truth on that day we face our Creator that will say to us, “Whatever you did to them, you did to me”. Could Jesus’ talk of them seeing the Chosen One be less an allusion to the end of time or Jesus’s Divinity and more a way of saying, “If you had eyes to see, you would see the Chosen One, the Child of the Creator, present in each person standing on trial, in each person being locked up, in each person you execute”? I begin to wonder at times if a better way to read the texts of judgment is not “Left Behind” films and preaching but a call in this present moment to see the ways in which Christ is coming through the hurting all around us, coming and in or through them shining a light on and putting a mirror to our own lives. I do believe if we have eyes to see, we can see the eyes of Christ shining back at us through everyone tried of a crime, taken into a police car, put in jail, thrown in prison, put in SHU, executed or set free. I wonder if I learn to do that, how it would change the way I look at and respond to so many people. Oh Lord, help me see your eyes shining out of the eyes of all those around me!
The message I get from Luke 9:28-36 is that though mountain top experiences of phenomenal spiritual vision are a real thing, you can’t live up there on the mountain. The air is too blasted thin. And you and I have work to do. The purpose of the mountain top experience is to expose you to the Shining One who lights your path known by so many names, but to Christians as the living Christ who we are told is “God’s own, God’s Chosen One, whom must listen to”. What we need to do is not try to live in this mind-blowing experience, but get our tails off the mountain and learn every day to listen for the voice of That One. As we hear that daily whisper of the Savior, He will guide us to choices that are different. They may be as simple as being a listening ear to a friend or family member, helping watch somebody’s kid who needs a break, or as amazing to others as building a homeless ministry like Love Wins Ministries. But what it looks like to others doesn’t matter. Any work done with that heart of listening to the Savior as Christ leads you, is taking the mountaintop and making it alive and real here in our valleys.