Matthew 5:45

The man stood on the mountainside
and turned to face the crowd.

Son of Man —
Child of Earth —
speak to us of God.

Whom shall God bless with warmth and sun?
On whom shall sweet rain fall?

On every one, both good and bad,
for God so loves us all.

Whom shall God curse with plague and storm,
with fire, and with flood?

I came to save, the stranger said —
It’s you that call for blood.

 

 

Love and Anarchy

Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely. All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root.–Emma Goldman

You wouldn’t think that Saint Valentine and Emma Goldman would have a whole lot in common. Saint Valentine, after all, was a 3rd century Christian priest, while Emma Goldman was a 20th century Jewish anarchist. Valentine gave his life in support of Christian marriage, while Goldman was an advocate of free love unfettered by marriage. And yet when it came to love, they agreed about one thing: Love cannot be legislated. We can neither be forbidden, nor forced, to love.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;

rivers cannot sweep it away.
(
Song of Songs 8:6-7)

In Valentine’s day, the emperor Claudius forbid soldiers to marry, just as the state of Alabama would later forbid interracial couples to marry, just as the US Congress would later forbid same-sex couples to marry. But in each case, there was absolutely nothing the state could do to prevent them from falling in love. As songwriter Holly Near puts it, “Kids are gonna love who they damn well please.”

The love we are speaking of here is passionate, sensual love, the love shared by lovers. There are of course, other kinds of love: love among friends, love among family. The ancient Greek language had different words for each: Eros, Philios, Storge. They are not wholly separate things, of course — lovers start families, friends become lovers – but there is a different quality to each. Both state and the church typically endorse and encourage familial love and friendship; but Eros – that one’s a troublemaker.

The Christian church has never really known what to do about Eros. It is never mentioned in the New Testament, although it is rapturously and lyrically celebrated in the Song of Songs. Jesus remained silent on the subject; the apostle Paul was famously celibate and urged others to follow his example. The church has historically been conflicted as to whether sexuality was a blessing or a curse. For this we can perhaps partly blame Saint Augustine, who came up with the idea that Original Sin was somehow passed on to each generation via sexual reproduction.

Yet here in the Bible we find the Song of Songs, these lush verses of scripture, extolling Eros – sensual, passionate Eros – in metaphors so sexually charged that the book would doubtless have been banned by some well-meaning school board, had it not been, you know, sacred.

Jesus did speak constantly of Love, exhorting us to love our neighbors, to love God, to love our enemies, even, but the love he spoke of was not romantic love, but unconditional love – not Eros, but Agape. The love of God, the Love that is God – that’s Agape.

Yet Eros, too, is a form of love, and bears the marks of divinity (as CS Lewis once said).

The love between lovers awakens us to beauty. It gives birth to joy and gratitude. It stirs us to generosity and tenderness. In this, it is like that Love which is God.

Love blesses that which the state condemns. It permits that which the law prohibits. It unites that which society divides. In this, too, it is like that Love which is God.

As Valentine and Goldman both knew, Love does not follow the rules. It does not stay within the lines. Love can blossom between black and white, Jew and Gentile, Arab and Israeli, native and immigrant, Muslim and Christian, Montague and Capulet. There is an element of anarchy in Love. Love is a law unto itself.

Jesus understood this, for he told his disciples that love of God and love of neighbor was the sum total of the law. Saint Paul, that confirmed old bachelor that he was, understood this also. Even Augustine of Hippo – yes, the same Saint Augustine that I just blamed for that whole Original Sin thing –even Augustine knew this to be true. Augustine lived with a woman for many years, had a child with her, but never married her, because his mother forbid what she saw as an “unsuitable” match. One wonders what might have happened, had Augustine met Valentine.

Years later, Augustine preached this sermon:

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will… Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.

And so, beloved, let these words be our benediction and our charge this day:

Love, and do what you will.

Both Emma and Valentine would agree.

 

by Liza B. Knapp, for February 12, 2017, ‘Love Sunday’ at First Church of Deerfield, MA

image credits:
Emma Goldman photo by Chicago Daily Tribune, September 8, 1901 – Life and Conflict in the New World, Emma Goldman Papers, UC Berkeley, Public Domain.
Saint Valentine window cc.Flickr.TheRevSteve

 

MLK Day Prayer

Still-speaking God:
We give thanks to you
for the prophets of the past,
but we confess:
your modern-day messengers
make us uncomfortable.
Forgive us, God, and disturb us.
Send your Spirit among us,
that we may hear your Word for us,
in the words of our scripture,
in the whispers of our hearts
in the warnings of your prophets,
and in the weeping of the world.

Were you expecting someone else?

There is no due process here, no habeas corpus. No official charges will ever be made, and no public defender will ever be assigned. There is nothing for John to do but wait.

And as he waits, he wonders. He wonders what will become of his movement. He wonders what will become of him. He wonders, perhaps, if the kingdom of heaven is really as near as he told them.

But then he remembers his cousin Jesus, who came to be baptized in the Jordan. And he wonders, if this Jesus might be the One to come after him, the One who will fulfill the promises John merely proclaimed. And so John sends his disciples to ask The Question:

Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

It’s a funny question for John to ask.You’d think John, of all people, would recognize the messiah. After all, he was the one who told everyone that he was coming, the one of whom is was prophesied, Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead, to prepare the way before me. If John was the one who sent out the invitations, how is that he can’t recognize the guest of honor when he arrives?

**

Some of you may have heard the story of Tamika Cross, a young, African-American medical doctor who was on a flight from Detroit to Houston when one of her fellow passengers lost consciousness. When the flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board, Dr. Cross immediately raised a hand, but as she began to rise the attendant told her: “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down, we are looking for an actual physician.”

At that moment another passenger came forward – someone older, whiter, and male – and the attendant told Dr. Cross, “thank you for your help, but he can help us.”

My point is, that sometimes our preconceptions make it hard to recognize that the person right in front of us is the person we have been waiting for.

**

So anyway: John’s disciples come to Jesus, and ask: are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

And Jesus replies: Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

That answer is classic Jesus.

John asks Jesus a straightforward, either/or, yes-or-no question, but Jesus, as usual, throws it right back at him. Judge for yourself, Jesus says. You’ve heard the stories about me. Is this what you’ve been waiting for, or not?

The answer, of course, depends as much on John as it does on Jesus.

Just what sort of Messiah, is John waiting for? What sort of savior was he envisioning? Was he expecting a charismatic prophet like Elijah, who would bring back that old time religion, with all of its rules and regulations? Was he expecting an avenging liberator like Moses, who would call plagues down upon those who had enslaved his people? Was he expecting a military leader like David, who would drive out the foreigners and make Israel great again?

John may have prepared the way for Jesus; but was he really prepared for this unlikely physician, this itinerant healer who shunned all power but love, and all arms but truth?

John asks Jesus, Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies, You tell me. Am I?

**

So what about us? Who are we waiting for this Advent season?

It is easy to be a Christian in the weeks before Christmas. It is easy to share in the anticipation of Advent, as we await the arrival of the baby in the manger. But what happens when the baby arrives? There is an element of surprise in every birth. You never really know, just who it is you are waiting for. Just what sort of baby, what sort of child, what sort of adult will this particular human being, this long-awaited human Son of Man, turn out to be?

It’s easy to be hopeful on Christmas Eve, when the packages are still unopened and full of promise, when Santa may yet arrive with the very thing we wished for. But what happens when we open the package? Are we ready for what we will find inside?

Are we ready for this unlikely physician, this Jesus who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who preaches good news to the poor but sends the rich away empty, who embraces the outcasts and welcomes the stranger, who chastises the pious and forgives the sinner? Are we ready for this Jesus, this imprisoned, crucified and risen messiah?

Or are we expecting someone else?

My friends, this is Advent, the season of expectation. And so like John, we ask: Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies:

You tell me. Am I?

 

Psalm 150

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in the banquet hall and night club.

Praise God for his mighty acts;

praise him according to his virtuoso sets.

Praise God with the sound of the trumpet;

praise him with the clarinet and sax.

Praise God with the hokey pokey and fox trot;

praise him with the bass and baby grand.

Praise God upon the loud cymbals;

praise him with the high hat and snare drum.

Let everything with a beat,

praise the Lord.

Amen.

(in memory of Raymond “Dutch” Wolff, 1925-2016)

(‘Saxophone’, Image by schuetz-mediendesign, Public Domain via Pixabay)

Hymn for a Rough Passage

in memory of a dear friend

the Mystery and the Mud

The water is wide, I can’t cross over,
Nor have I wings, that I could fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both will row, my Love and I.

Though seas be deep, and waters rough,
Though stormy wind and tempest wail,
We will cast off for the farther shore
And let God’s Spirit swell the sail.

I cannot see the other side;
What lies ahead is mystery.
By grace alone shall my wand’ring soul
Come safe to land across the sea.

(Painting by Peggy Anderson)

(1st verse traditional, 2nd and 3rd by Liza Knapp).

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freezing the moment

Close your eyes, for a moment, and try to remember some place, some time, some moment when you felt that you were in the presence of something sacred. How long ago was that moment? How long did it last?

I remember this one particular afternoon, a sunny spring afternoon at the home of some family friends, a farm in Columbia County, New York, where we often spent school vacations. On this particular day, I was maybe ten years old, and I had wandered by myself out to a hillside above the pond. I was lying on my back in the long grass, eyes closed, feeling the breeze above me and the sun on my face. It was a Sunday afternoon, which meant that any minute my parents would call to tell me it was time to go home. But for that moment, everything was perfect. I was completely at peace. I was basking in the glow of God.

And then my parents did call me, and the moment ended. You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before someone calls you, and you have to move on.

One day, Jesus takes three of his disciples on a hike up a mountain. They leave the others far below, and climb up to a high place, a place apart from the crowds and the conflict that seemed to be following Jesus everywhere lately. And in that place apart, he is transfigured in his disciples’ eyes. His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than bleach could bleach them, whiter than humanly possible.

Transfiguration isn’t a word you hear every day. Really most of us hear it only once a year, if we happen to be in church on the Sunday before Lent. Its meaning is similar to transformation, or metamorphosis. A transfiguration is a complete change in form or appearance, into something more exalted, more beautiful. Think of caterpillars, turning into butterflies. The only reason that doesn’t totally freak us out, is that we have come to expect it. But just imagine, if it caught you by surprise.

Now mind you, the disciples have seen a lot of wondrous things since they have been travelling in Jesus’ company. Healings, exorcisms, crowds of hungry people miraculously fed, storm waves miraculously stilled, a child miraculously restored to life. Signs of the kingdom, everywhere they looked. But now it is as if a veil has been torn open, as if the scales have fallen from their eyes, because now they can actually see the light of God streaming from him. It catches them by surprise, and it takes their breath away.

Moreover, he is no longer alone with them, but appears to be in the company of the great leaders of Israel’s past, Moses and Elijah, the law-giver and the prophet. Not knowing what else to say, Peter offers to build them houses, tabernacles on the mountaintop. Because that is what humans do, in places where we have encountered the Holy: we build shrines. Jesus is transfigured, and now the only thing Peter can think of to do, is to stay there on the mountaintop, basking forever in the glow of God.

But Jesus declines Peter’s offer of a mountain-view home. Instead, they head back down the mountain together, and Jesus asks them to keep their peak experience to themselves. For ahead of them still lies the cross, and the empty tomb, and their vision of who Jesus is will be even more radically transfigured in the days ahead.

Moses and Elijah have this is in common: they, too, had profoundly vivid experiences of God on a mountaintop. Moses was on Mount Horeb, when he saw the burning bush, and heard the voice of God in the fire, telling him to return to his people in Egypt. Later, Moses again climbs Mount Horeb – it’s also called Mount Sinai, those are two names for the same place – and once again amid fire and smoke, God speaks to him giving him the Law to govern Israel.

But while Moses is up there on the mountain, the Israelites begin to get into trouble in the camps below, so God tells Moses he better get back down there to his people.

Generations later, Elijah, fleeing persecution, climbs the same mountain, and he too hears the voice of God there, not in the fire, but in silence. And that voice says, Elijah, What are you doing here? Elijah comes to seek refuge in God; but like Moses before him, God sends Elijah back down the mountain, to serve the people of Israel.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

When I was in high school, we received word that our family friends would soon be selling the farm of my childhood. It was, after all, not really mine, not even my family’s property, but it was holy to me, and it was hard to imagine losing it. I was a budding photographer at the time, and I spent hours wandering the fields and barns, trying to freeze the farm in time, to capture it with the camera’s shutter. But looking through the lens was not like lying in the grass. Life is like that. Try to pin it down, and it turns into something different. The butterfly’s wings are never more beautiful than at the moment when they emerge fresh from the cocoon. But if we try to preserve it, to pin it down, we end up with something lifeless.

Butterflies exist in motion, just like moments exist in time. Pin them down, and they become something different.

Many of us have had mountaintop experiences, moments when the veil is torn open and we suddenly see things, not just by the light of day, but by the light of God. And it is tempting, in those moments of clarity, to think that perhaps we are done; that we have glimpsed not just the truth, but the whole truth. And so we want to linger on the mountain, to hold on to that particular moment in time. We want to pin it down, put it in a cabinet, and protect it from damage.

But the church is not a shrine, it’s a movement. There’s a reason why the first disciples referred to their faith as “the way.”

Jesus does not linger on the mountaintop; like Moses and Elijah before him, he returns to his people. We see Jesus, transfigured, in garments of dazzling white; but Jesus is ready to get his hands dirty. We try to pin him down, but he is on the move. We look for God on the mountaintop: but God, it turns out, is already down in the valley.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before Somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

(sermon preached by Liza Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, Transfiguration Sunday, 2015)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)

If…

When my sister and I were kids, my Dad would buy two lottery tickets each week. Every Sunday, my sister and I would each get to hold one while he read out the winning numbers from the paper. We never won, of course, but we liked the game of imagining what we’d do if we did.

When I was small, I would imagine buying a pony, and a farm to keep it on. As I approached adulthood, I started to dream of making other people’s wishes come true. Maybe I’d buy a grand piano for my Dad, or a house on the beach for my Mom. Nowadays, I have to admit, my first thoughts are more practical: I dream of paying off the mortgage. But once the bills were taken care of, I imagine the rest going to some worthy cause – Doctors without Borders, perhaps.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

There are other versions of this game; a couple of years ago I remember driving in the car, listening to the call-in program Vox Pop on NPR, and the question for the day was, “What would you do if you were President Obama?” Most of those who called in said they would end the war, fix the economy, and institute universal health coverage.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

What would you do, if you were President?

What would you do, if you were God?

The devil comes to Jesus, in the wilderness, playing this game. If you are the Son of God, the devil says, turn these stones to bread. The devil isn’t asking for proof of Jesus divinity. He’s really saying: If I were the Son of God, that’s what I’d do.

The scripture refers to this exchange as a temptation.

It is tempting to believe that we could change the world, if only we were wealthier, or more powerful. It is tempting to believe that we would somehow do better than those currently in power. It is tempting to believe that only the powerful can change the world.

But here is a true story: once upon time, a church youth group set up a table on a downtown street corner, with an empty soup pot on it. They were asking the people passing by for donations to help feed hungry kids. The first person to approach the table told us that he was homeless, and broke, but that he really wanted to help. He found thirteen cents in his pocket, and he dropped it into the soup pot. He gave whatever he had. And so did many other ordinary people. And by the end of the afternoon the soup pot contained enough money to buy a year’s worth of food.

The fantasy of changing the world by winning the lottery is perhaps at its heart a wish to do good without having to sacrifice anything. A wish to change the world at no cost to ourselves. But it turns out, even Jesus, couldn’t do that.

If you were the child of God, what would you do?

For so you are.

 

Photo: http://dominicanes.me/tag/satan/

 

 

Royals

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” — Matthew 2: 1-12 (NIV)

How many kings are mentioned in this story?

That’s right: two. One is named Herod. And the other, is named Jesus.

Magi were not kings. They were students of astrology, probably followers of the Zoroastrian religion, a faith which may be older even than Judaism. The Magi, then, were people of a strange faith. Wise men, yes, but not Jewish wise men. Yet in Matthew’s gospel, these are the first to pay homage to Jesus, the first to bow down and adore him. Their presence at Jesus’ cradle is an early sign, that maybe, just maybe, there is more than one pathway to truth; that maybe, just maybe, God calls to her people through traditions other than our own.

But somehow, over the years, these interfaith seekers became transformed into royalty. The first depictions of the Magi as Monarchs emerged during the fifth century; by the seventh century, they had been given names, races, and physical descriptions. Their gifts were transformed into tribute, and their adoration became the homage offered by vassals to an overlord. They were no longer pious scholars, but Royals.

Maybe the interfaith message of Matthew’s story was a bit too shocking for the medieval church, bent as it was on crusades to rid the world of eastern heathens. On the other hand, in an age of monarchs, the image of kings bowing down may have seemed equally shocking. Imagine seeing the most important national leaders of our time, humbly bowing down in true love and respect before an infant, a poor child with no wealth, no army, no territory. Imagine seeing the wealthiest executives of our time offering up their wealth, not grudgingly, but joyfully. Imagine the powerful, willingly ceding their power. Imagine this, and maybe you can imagine the kingdom of God.

What a contrast, between these three mythical kings, and the historical king mentioned in this story.

Herod the Great was a controversial ruler of Israel. He was not a descendant of the ancient royal house of David, but was rather a loyal vassal of Rome, placed on the throne by the Emperor. He undertook ambitious building projects throughout his realm which were paid for by heavy taxes, and in his later years he grew increasingly paranoid and ruthless, eventually executing two of his own sons. So when the Magi came to Herod, asking: Where is the new King of the Jews?, you can guess how Herod reacted.

There are only two kings in this story. But as far as Herod was concerned, that was one king too many.

Herod craftily tells the Magi to bring him news of the boy’s whereabouts, so that he too can pay homage. The Wise Men are not fooled, however, and return home by another way. Herod’s true intentions are revealed later in the chapter; according to Matthew, Herod sent soldiers to kill all the young children in the region of Bethlehem, lest any of them turn out to be, indeed, King of the Jews. Herod had his own position to protect. The life of a child was a small price to pay.

In modern American imagination, Kings are the subject of fairy tales, or HBO television series, or tabloid headlines. Real world “Royals” are figures of romance, benign aristocrats who spend their time getting married and raising corgis. So it makes perfect sense to us that three benevolent kings might bring beautiful gifts to a poor child.

It is the image of Herod’s ruthlessness that shocks us.

It shocks us, even though our own generation has seen ample evidence of the extent to which the powerful will go to protect their power. Herod rules still, in the kingdoms of this world. Wherever politicians cling to power at the expense of their own people, Herod rules. Wherever leaders care more about their benefactors then their constituents, Herod rules. Wherever the life of a child is dismissed as collateral damage, Herod rules.

In a world such as this, we still need to hear Matthew’s story – a story, not of three kings, but of two. The story of a king who rules by force and serves the powerful, who would sacrifice even his own children to protect his position; and the story of a very different sort of king, who rules by love and serves the powerless, who sacrifices himself to save his children.

The Magi were not Kings, but seekers. Like you. Like me. They searched heaven and earth, looking for the One worthy of their homage. And they found him – not on a great throne, not in an expensive palace, not at the head of an army, but in the eyes of a child, who looked at the world through the eyes of God.

The Magi were not kings. But they were wise, because they knew a true King when they saw one.

 

(for Belchertown United Church of Christ, 01.03.2015)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp)

 

Risk Offering: for Epiphany

We don’t know much about the Magi,
and so we don’t really know how costly their offerings were.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were expensive
and would have seemed precious to the poor family receiving them;
but we don’t know how accustomed the Magi were to such extravagance,
or if these gifts represented any real sacrifice for them.
But we do know that the act of giving was in itself costly.
The Magi made a pilgrimage to a strange and unfamiliar land,
and risked both ridicule and retribution from Herod,
in order to pay their respects to the most unlikely of Messiahs.
Every time we make an offering to the church, or to the poor,
there is more at stake than the money in the envelope;
because in the eyes of the world,
every pilgrimage is a fool’s errand.

Prayer
Holy One, some of us have traveled far to find you,
and some of us have long roads ahead.
But we step forward in faith, O God,
that at the end of all our journeying
we shall find you waiting for us.
You are our beginning, and our ending, God,
and all our days we dedicate to you.
May the offerings of our hands,
the prayers of our heart,
and the steps of our feet,
bring us ever closer to that kingdom
where Love reigns over all.

Amen.