“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus said.
They say you attract more flies with honey. But what if our honey attracts no flies? What if the wicked are not converted? If people in need are ungrateful when we are generous? If we love but our enemies continue to hate us?
Jesus asks us to check the good we do. Both the hows and the whys.
As for how: Do we love beyond our tribe? Beyond our own kind? Beyond our party, country, and religion? Do we love God’s own enemies?
Of course, for Jesus, love is not a feeling. It’s concrete action that benefits the other, including the enemy. Jesus himself does and wants us (in the words of one scholar) “to break the rule of reciprocity and cost/benefit analysis.”
To do that, Jesus goes even deeper: surfacing our hidden motivations for the good we do. We expect something in return.
“Let go of that expectation,” Jesus seems to say, naming only one motivation. Do it because God does it. God is good to everyone, and it usually has no apparent effect on the evil. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus did and does what he commands us to do. So it’s the invitation at the heart of Jesus’ life: “Follow me.” Or, “Do what I do.”
The only person I can change is me. The only person you can change is you. And virtue is its own reward. Jesus shows us the way. Jesus is the way. Ask Jesus for the faith to follow and to trust that following is enough, no matter what anyone else does. --PC
Once, when I was in the deeply depressed aftermath of a breakup (and my parent’s divorce and my dad’s suicide attempt), a friend lent me a CD: Jeff Buckley’s acclaimed 1994 album, “Grace.” If you know it, you’ll know why she now admits that, all things considered, this may have been a grave mistake.
I was sad, and so is the album. But didn’t so much make me sadder as it gave me a language to express the fullest depths of my sadness. (Psalm 13 did too.) One song stood out: Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Almost a cliché now, it said what I still hold as the truth:
And Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
It’s the darkness that resonates with me. And also the Hallelujah. Love is both. It’s always both. If it’s not really both, is it really love? Isn’t this what the cross of Jesus says too? That Love is not a victory march? Love is suffering and our salvation. Only love can include both dark and light. Only love bears the darkness until dawn breaks.
We Christians should know this better than anyone, and many do. We’re just as good as anyone (and sometimes even better) at insisting on a love that’s only the good parts. Thank God for a Jew who dabbled in Buddhism (Cohen) and a kid raised on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (Buckley).--PC
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment,” Jesus taught the disciples.
This is the third consecutive week of reading the Sermon on the Mount in worship. This week, Jesus seems to expect the impossible.
If you told me you never get angry ever, I would be suspicious. Anger is a natural human emotion. It’s a sign someone or something you care about has been threatened or violated. I’d worry you were suppressing anger--a sign of a wound, even a traumatic wound. Or I’d suspect you were polishing your record for the pastor. Feeling anger is not the problem; it’s what you do with it.
On the other hand, I’ve journeyed a long time with anger, my own and others’ anger. Many things cannot be unsaid or undone, even when they are forgiven. Anger has consequences.
I’ve learned that the feelings and reactions that seem automatic and inevitable are not. What seems impossible is possible, through the courage of self-awareness and self-reflection, the strength of discipline, the grace of healing, and the blessing of other people caring enough about us to patiently but firmly holding us to account.
What Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount is a powerful moral and spiritual vision. Jesus wants to inspire us with hope: more is possible! He does not intend to burden and harm us with unrealistic expectations. Humans are addicted to punishing, not God.
Pray with your anger. In God’s presence, ask yourself, “Am I right to be angry? What more vulnerable feelings am I masking with this anger?” Ask God, “Help me do what is right and help me do it with love and holy energy and appropriate urgency.”
“We have seen the Lord,” we’ve been singing in worship lately. And we did, yesterday, when we visited Bob, who was dying. We saw Christ on the cross, suffering with Bob and us, loving Bob and us, whispering a promise that today we are with him in paradise. Carolyn reminded us.
Last week (as I write this), we were together at Sandy Birt’s funeral. Not all of us, but wherever there is one of us, all of us are there. All of St. Paul. The whole body of Christ. All creation and the host of heaven.
During the service, Sandy’s son, Travis, and daughter, Jenn, remembered their mom. Then came my turn to speak. So I walked down the steps from the communion table, past Sandy Birt’s white-covered casket, and toward her family to read the Gospel of Matthew.
And it came back in a flash: I had done this before. I walked down these same steps toward this same beloved family after Hannah died.
And I remembered what my pastor told me just the month before, after Jeanne Etheridge died. She said, “The longer you stay, the more you will love them, and the harder it will be when they die.”
In worship a few weeks ago, we heard from the Gospel of John. “Where are you saying?” the two asked Jesus. “Come and see,” he said. And the gospel says, “they came and saw where he was staying, and he stayed with him the rest of that day.”
“You all are the salt of the earth… You all are light of the world,” said Jesus to the disciples.
Salt and light do not exist for themselves but have a purpose. That purpose is a universal one, because every human--and indeed pretty much all creatures and plants--need salt and light. Jesus expects us to bless all people, not some people; all creation, not some parts of it. Salt and light are small parts that serve the whole.
“Don’t miss the forest for the trees!”, Jesus was saying. Notice the big picture--yes, the universal purpose to serve the whole and also, that you’re not alone.
You’re part of a forest. You’re a single grain in God’s big salt shaker, one ray of light in God’s sun. The “church” is Jesus’ name for you and all the rest of Jesus’ disciples. So stop going it alone and start going with Jesus’ community of followers. It’s a constant temptation and for people like us a lifelong task to move from “me” to “we.”
When Jesus calls us salt and light, he’s asking for intentional action. Do what Jesus does. Be who Jesus is. This is what Jesus expects of us. Orient your life according to the Beatitudes, for example, just like Jesus did. It’s not automatic. Church-going is a start but is by no means the whole job. Salt that loses its saltiness will be replaced.
Rest with Jesus now. Let his love, mercy, and self-giving comfort and lead you. Ask Jesus, “What is my part to do, with your church for your world?”
Yesterday (as I write this), I visited Bob Wright. I had heard he was in hospice. So after the annual congregational meeting and a bite of lunch and quick rehearsal of Matthew’s Beatitudes, I drove to the Alverno.
I found Bob asleep and his daughter, Carolyn, at his side. We never met, so she and I introduced each other, and then she brought me up to speed. Bob couldn’t breath well. He was retaining fluid. His eyes were swollen shut. But the morphine and anti-anxiety medication from hospice had helped a lot. He was more at peace. He mostly slept.
I asked if Bob still had moments of clarity. Could he still have conversations? “Yeah,” she said. “Less so now, but he can hear everything we say, so I talk to him.”
And, as if on cue, Bob woke up. With groaning effort and with help from Carolyn, he sat up on the edge of his bed, eyes closed. Carolyn sat next to him on the bed and put her arm around him. I sat in the chair she had been sitting in.
Bob hardly looked like himself. But we talked. Bob said, “I’m ready. I just want to be with the Lord.” He was past ready; I could hear it in his voice. Carolyn and I comforted Bob with the best words we could find. She sat holding him and loving him. “Bob, I admire your faith,” I said, and I read and prayed. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Bob said.
From the parking lot, I called the St. Paul people I knew Bob knew best. They came and visited that same day.