Day 54 – February 28th, 2013 – Matthew 17:1-13

The Transfiguration is another of one of those stories in the Bible that I simply find strange, and only floods me with questions. Jesus takes three disciples with him up a mountain and all of a sudden his clothes are dazzling white, and he’s with Moses and Elijah. FIrst of all, did Jesus know what was going to happen as he led them up? Or did he merely know that he was going to have some kind of encounter with God, since that’s what happens on mountains. The text tells us that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. What were they talking about? What could they have possibly been talking about? Were introductions made? Or was it a reunion? Every time I read this story the image of a pitcher, catcher and manager in a conversation on the pitcher’s mound comes to mind. What is being said there is one of life’s great mysteries. Are they talking about intricate strategies for the next move? Or are they talking about whether to go for Tai food or Italian after the game. We outsiders may never know. And what is the purpose of this event? Does Jesus need reassurance for what he is about to go through? Does Jesus feel the need to give Peter, James and John some reassurance about who he is, that he is indeed, “The Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (MT 16:16)?

It’s a strange story. And once again, I feel bad for Peter. He’s often painted as a bit of a buffoon here for recommending the building of three dwellings, but isn’t it only human to feel a need to respond to such an awesome and strange happening? He simply doesn’t know what to do. His heart feels the need to do something right and good, but all his brain can come up with is three dwellings. I’ve been there. I get that. In understand the need to respond, but not know how to do so. Perhaps the story’s purpose is to key Peter, James and John into the bigger picture. By the end of the story some lights seem to have gone on as they discuss Elijah and John the Baptist. So maybe that’s what it’s about. Who really knows? My best guess? I think it has to do with Jesus dazzling white clothes. The word translated as “dazzling” is used only one other time in Matthew’s Gospel, and it is in describing the appearance of the angel at Jesus’ tomb. Perhaps this is a story that makes no sense here, but becomes clear in chapter 28. Perhaps it is a foreshadowing to the resurrection, to new life.

How have you read the transfiguration? What meaning do you take out of it? What stands out to you in this story? Think, wonder and ponder on that. It’s obviously an important story, but it is also deeply mysterious.

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Day 53 – February 27th, 2013 – Matthew 16:21-28

I hinge a lot on this passage. This is where, what I like to call, the “nicey-pants” Jesus disappears: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. In my years in working in churches I have come to see that we 21st Century Americans don’t like this verse. We don’t want it preached and we certainly don’t want it expected. But I think it’s the essence of Jesus’ call on the Church, that is the collective body of Christ. He calls us to die. So much of church these days is about survival. What and who will save our institution? I have long held that if church wants to survive, it must die. It must stop striving to fill the place up and start emptying it out. Stop trying to get people in the door and get people out the door. Stop trying to increase attendance and giving (or as I heard one pastor once call it “nickels and noses”) in order to build ourselves up, and start pouring our talents, gifts and resources out into the community around us. It sounds like death. How could we do that? We’re barely making budget as it is? As long as we worry about that budget, that “bread” that Jesus warns us to stop worrying about in 16:8-10, we will die. But take what we have and die to it, that is give it away to the world around us, and watch how we will come alive.

This, I know, is perhaps unrealistic idealism, but, well, so too is radical grace, is it not? And isn’t this how the Church grew in its infancy. It may be too simplistic and idealistic, but this, I believe is how it will grow today as well. And by grow I don’t mean auditoriums and sanctuaries filled with bodies for an hour a week. By grow I mean the Church will truly begin, and indeed continue, to transform the world. It will, with and by the power of the Spirit of God, restore shalom to the world. But, like its head, that is the Christ, this work will not come without struggle, pain and suffering. But, like its head, that the Christ, it is in that struggle, pain and suffering that comes resurrected life. It is in dying that The Church will live.

Day 52 – February 26th, 2013 – Matthew 16:13-20

I’ve read this passage what seems like a million times, and every time I read it what I see in it is a proclamation about who Jesus is. It wasn’t until I read Gonzalez’s Three Months in Matthew that I saw that there is just as much in this passage about who Peter is as there is about who Jesus is. All these years I’ve paid more attention to what Peter says here than Jesus. I wonder if we all too often are too concerned about who we say Jesus is and not enough concerned about who Jesus says we are. Don’t get me wrong, the proclamation of Jesus as The Christ is important, but just as God cares about who we say Jesus is, so too does God care deeply about who Jesus says we are. At first Jesus says, “you are blessed, Simon, son of Jonah…” (16:17), but then he switches and says, “and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. Peter (Πετροσ) means “stone” or “rock”. So Jesus says, “and I tell you that you are The Rock and on this rock I will build my church”. He gives him a new name, a name with great meaning and purpose.

Are we aware that we are all given a new name by the Christ himself. In Christ we have a new name, that is a kind of character and nature. God declares us as something more than we know ourselves to be. We are made for something that is unique to us, but which is not for us; it is for the transformation of God’s world. Who am I? What is my purpose? I’m still clarifying how to do it (and will, I believe, in fact be clarifying how for the rest of my life), but I am certain of what my purpose is. It was eight years ago during a 30 minute period of silence on a staff retreat that I felt God saying to me, “Paul, as you are you, bring me to them”. As I heard this, I saw in my mind the recollection of myself as a 7-year-old boy wearing a robe and helping my dad with the tray of communion wafers for kneeling parishioners at St. John’s Episcopal Church in South Minneapolis. I could see it as if it were a movie on a screen right before my very eyes. My job in this world is simply to be who I am and in so doing present Jesus to the world around me. For too long I had been restlessly striving in my life to “bring people Jesus”, but on that day the paradigm shifted: “Paul, don’t bring them to me, bring me to them.” And the other piece of it that was crystal clear was that I am to do it as I am me. “Don’t be anyone else, Paul. Just be you. As you are you, bring me to them.” There is a lot yet to figure out, but currently this happens through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, through visiting the sick and the shut-in, through loving my family well, through ascribing worth on to 9-year-old little leaguers struggling to hit from the pitching machine, through whatever context I find myself at any given moment, for in every moment there is opportunity and need for the love, grace and power of Christ to be brought forth- not like a club over the head, but perhaps like a blanket around the shoulders.

In Christ we are all given new life, purpose, character and nature. We are more than we imagine we could be. We have a new name. It reminds of a simple praise chorus I’ve grown to love which says:

I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, Outcast, Lonely or Afraid
I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One
Faithfulness, Friend of God
One who seeks my face

So who are you? What “name” has The Christ ascribed to you? Take some time to wonder about that. Be still, be patient and listen. Let the Spirit of God come to you and name you.

Day 51 – February 25th, 2013 – Matthew 16:1-12

“Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. It seems that for the last five chapters of Matthew, all I see is this great battle brewing between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees. Here Jesus warns us to beware of their yeast. Meanwhile the disciples are wrapped up in the fact that they have no bread. Jesus gets pretty pointed, again, and says, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?  Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread?” It’s easy to get caught up in the meeting of our physical needs. We worry about jobs, cars, groceries, and mortgages. The majority of our time and energy seems to go towards these things. Yet Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand?” Do we? It is easy to forget that God indeed does provide for us. we don’t have to worry. Jesus has been saying it since chapter 6. The hard part is that this promised provision may not come in the package we want it to. But if we are to truly follow Jesus, it means that we trust him wherever he leads.

We spend incredible amounts of time worrying about “bread”, yet there is something greater about which Jesus seems to think we actually should be worrying: “The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. This actually has the power to kill us. Jesus is saying that their teaching and way of living will actually suck the life out of us. We are worried about bread, meanwhile there is something out there that can actually strip us of life. That is the legalistic life of the Pharisee and Sadducee. God designed us for abundant living, and that life only comes by the grace, that is the active work of the Spirit, of God. What the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees do is tell us that this life comes through the active work of our own doing. Obey, obey, obey and be worthy of abundant life. And the irony of it is that it actually sucks the life out of us. And so in order to feel any sense of abundance in life, we must tear others down by measuring their perfection against our own. Life comes from God and God alone. We need not be concerned about physical bread being put on the table, for God does provide. And we must be very careful not take in the “yeast of the Pharisees”, for it will, as yeast does, spread through the whole loaf of our lives.


Day 50 – February 24th, 2013 – Matthew 15:21-39

I love the stories where Jesus crosses boundaries- social, physical, religious and otherwise. Perhaps it is my own lens
that I cannot seem to shed, but the more I read the Gospels, the more I see a Jesus bent on breaking down walls. What has been interesting about this journey through Matthew is noticing how focused Jesus was on Israel to begin with, but then begins to break down the walls here as he affirms the Canaanite woman’s faith. The focus on Israel coupled with the branching out beyond Israel only confirms for me the idea that Jesus’ intent here on earth was never to create some kind of narrow, limiting, structure designed to exclude, but was broadening, widening and opening the gates of the Kingdom. The question is, was this his intent all along or a “plan B” of sorts? He was pretty clear with the disciples that they were to go to the “lost sheep of Israel”, but he seems to give up too quickly on this focus for the branching out beyond Israel to be a plan B. In Three Months With Matthew Gonzlaez points out the contrast between Jesus’ affirmation of the Canaanite woman’s faith in this story and the criticizing of Peter’s in Matthew 14. Why is he so tough on Peter and so affirming of the Canaanite woman? His patience with “Israel” seems to be out of balance with his tolerance and grace towards gentiles. It seems as though he is looking for faults in Israel and looking for reasons to affirm outsiders. There seems to be intent to break down Israel for the purpose of reaching beyond it. Is it possible that God’s plan all along was to break this thing wide open? In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems to me that Jesus seeks to get right into the heart of Israel in order to break it wide open.

The picture I get in my head, as strange and maybe even as nerdy as it sounds, is the rebel alliance’s strategy in
images destroying the Death Star in the first Star Wars movie (A New Hope). To destroy the Death Star they had to get a shot inside. From the inside that shot would blow the whole thing wide open. Now let me clear- I don’t think the nation of Israel was in any way, shape or form a manifestation of the imperial empire (that would be Rome). I am merely looking at this isolated picture of the blowing up of the Death Star. That’s what I see Jesus doing in Matthew. He is like a laser shot by God, right into the heart of Israel, and from its heart its rigid walls, boundaries, and limits are blown wide open. I think it’s safe to say, and even inspiring to say, that in breaking the kingdom of God wide open, there is indeed “a new hope”. 

 

Day 49 – February 23rd, 2013 – Matthew 15:1-20

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” This is an important question for many mainline protestants today. In fact, I hear many mainline protestant leaders asking this question to many new church plants and non-denominational churches. Tradition is a tricky thing. Which of our traditions have become “sacred cows” and which ones have something important and even necessary about them that we must preserve? We must be careful when reading this text in english. “Tradition” means a lot of things to us 21st century Americans. When most people think of “tradition” they tend to think of worship elements in a traditional worship service (robes, organs, responsive readings, etc.). But I don’t think it is 1st century Greco-Roman equivalents to this about which the Pharisees are asking. It seems that the Pharisees question is a fair one. The Greek word translated as “tradition” here is παραδοσιν which one dictionary defines as “the content of instruction handed down”. That definition speaks to doctrine more so than what we often think of tradition: If we paraphrase the Pharisees’ question inserting this definition it reads, “why do your disciples break the content of instruction handed down”. The handing down of the faith is deeply important to the Jewish people of this era (as it is now), and 21st Century western Christianity would do well to more fully embrace this. But Jesus’ response is piercing as usual: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” I don’t think that Jesus is condemning the tradition here. He is condemning the way the tradition is carried out. Whenever our traditions become more important than the people whom they are meant to serve (and by serve I mean that our traditions are meant to serve us by being a means through which we connect to God), we miss the point. In fact we do more than miss the point. We miss the intent and work of God.

We must remember that this faith is living and active. It is constantly morphing and expanding, and it is big enough to embrace new expressions of it. We must keep before us the question, “what matters most to God”, and not worry about the forms we use to express whatever that is that matters most to God. Breaking tradition is really no big deal. But breaking the commands of God for the sake of our tradition is a whole other idea. The question is what are those commands? In just a few more chapters, Jesus will tell us: “love God and love neighbor.” It’s that simple. Whatever forms and expressions that manifests itself doesn’t really matter- as long as it has that at its core.

I went to my church on Sunday
Just to hear good news
And I confess it’s been years
More or less since I warmed these pews
But I’m looking for something stronger
Than my old life these days
Yet the church of my childhood
Seems like the YMCA

Every Sunday is just like the last
As if the church has no history
And the people have no past
We just sing the songs we like to sing
And we preach about the news
And we think up some new thing
Just to fill up the pews

I want palms on Palm Sunday
I want Pentecost still to be read
I want to drink of the wine
And eat of the bread
But they strive for attendance
While I starve for transcendence
But I count among this body
Both the living and the dead

Whether its guitars and amps
And video screens and cordless mics
Or incense and robes and copes
And candle light
Just stop all the fighting over words
And ways and tell about Jesus
Like in the good old days

“Opener”/ George Baum | Michael D. Bridges © 1992 Lost And Found

Day 48 – February 22nd, 2013 – Matthew 14:22-36

At then end of this story Jesus admonishes Peter saying, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?”. Because of this we often look at this story as a story of doubt, a story about a failure of Peter’s. But I’ve never read it that way. I read this story as a story of a great success. Look at the story again. Look at verse 29: “…So Peter got out of the boat [and] started walking on the water”. We often forget that Jesus was not the only human to walk on water. Peter did it too. Yes, he lost his focused, took his eyes off of Jesus and sank, but the only reason he sank is that he trusted Jesus enough to get out of the boat and walk. He could have stayed in the boat and not failed, but had he done that, he would not have succeeded. God doesn’t want us to live lives of not failing. God calls us to something much more.

There is a lot to take away from this story. Today, here this: God has plans for you. Big plans. And God believes you can do it. God knows you can do it. God made you with those big plans in mind. You were tuned for it. I can’t tell you what those plans are, though. You will need to dial into the voice of God and discern that for yourself. But I can tell you that they will have something to do with restoring the shalom of God to the world. God had big dreams for this world in its creation, and God has big dreams for us to do in its restoration. But here’s the deal: If you’re going to step into God’s dream for you, you’re going to need to be like Peter. You’ll need to be courageous. You’ll need to fix your eyes on Jesus and step out of the comfort of your boat. It is by the power of the Spirit of God, by God’s grace, that we walk in those dreams, but we have to get out of the boat. We have to risk failing in order to succeed. God’s dreams live out on the scary waters of faith. Step into them. It’s safer than you think.

So what’s God’s dream for you? To what is God calling you ? How is God calling you to partake in the restoration of God’s shalom in the world? When you hear that voice, get out of the boat.