By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
Without looking at your phone, I wonder if any of you know what time the sun will set this evening. I do; it’ll set at 6:36. Although it hasn’t been very sunny this winter, the lengthening of days is a process I follow quite closely. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. As the days lengthen, the happier and more energetic I become. Although this hasn’t been a harsh winter, I am eager for the season of winter to come to an end.
On the Church’s calendar, the Christian calendar, this morning marks the end of a season: the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the season that follows Christmas. It is a season when we celebrate that Jesus came to bring light to our world. John’s gospel begins by proclaiming that in Jesus was “life, and the life was the light of all people.” Matthew’s gospel tells us that the dawn of Jesus’ ministry brought light to those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death.
This morning’s bible story is a story about a particular kind of light. It is the story of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain so that his face shone as bright as the sun; a brightness that even lit up his clothing. Now transfiguration is a big, churchy word and a somewhat peculiar thing. Even religious experts can’t provide you with a clear, concise definition. The Greek word for transfiguration is metamorphoo; which sounds a lot like our English word, metamorphosis, meaning “a marked change in appearance, character, condition or function.” And so, up there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, Jesus changes in an obvious and discernible way. Each of our gospel writers describes it a little differently but, perhaps the easiest way of understanding it is this: up there on that mountain something happened to Jesus that caused his “Godness” to come through in a way so bold and unmistakable that even those thick-headed disciples couldn’t miss it. And that change, accompanied by the voice of God, was so dramatic and overwhelming that the disciples were seized with fear. When the voice of God Almighty spoke to them, directly to them, it was more than they could handle. And we really shouldn’t blame them, should we? I mean, we all talk about wanting to hear God’s voice? We say how much we wish God would speak to us – right out loud, plain and direct so we wouldn’t have to work so hard at figuring out what God wants to tell us. But, let’s be honest. If it really happened, it would freak us out. It would terrify us. And it certainly terrified Peter, James and John.
But there on that mountain, as they are seized with fear and confusion, Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus responds to their fear. He ministers to their fear by reaching out and touching them. He tells them not to be afraid; that intimate touch, those reassuring words, is details that only Matthew provides. Jesus does not leave those disciples to silently stew in their anxiety. He is there for them… as he always is. That is a reality this gospel writer does not want us to miss. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we are told that this baby to be born to Mary will be named Emmanuel; which translates “God is with us.”[i] Matthew’s gospel ends with what we call The Great Commission. Before Jesus returns to heaven, he gives the disciples their mission; the same mission the United Methodist Church has: To make disciples… It’s a daunting task, then and now. So Jesus’ final words to them – the very last words of Matthew’s gospel – are this: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[ii]
So that day on the mountain when Jesus’ disciples see him transfigured and hear a voice from heaven, Jesus, the embodiment of the awesome glory of God, is also the gentle hand that touches them and reassures them not to be afraid.
As human creatures we struggle quite a lot with fear and anxiety, don’t we? But we’re never in it alone. Jesus is with us in a very intimate way. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus touched these disciples. When we read the gospel stories about Jesus healing people, it’s pretty hard to miss how often it involves touch. In fact, sometimes Jesus’ touch heals people without him even saying a word. Sometimes others initiate that touch. They reach out and grab the hem of Jesus’ robe and even touching his clothing, they are healed. When people bring children (who were, frankly, not highly valued in the ancient world) to Jesus, Jesus touches them; he lays hands on them; a gesture of blessing. The healing, restorative power of Jesus was experienced through his touch. We even have a hymn in our hymnal: “Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all, healing pain and sickness, blessing children small... ”[iii]
So there on that mountaintop that day, Jesus reached out his hand and touched those disciples. He responded to their fear by speaking words of comfort: “Do not be afraid,” he says. And they will need that comfort and that encouragement in the days to come because they are about to undergo some pretty scary stuff. They are inching ever closer to Jerusalem where Jesus will be put to death.[iv]
This Wednesday, my friends, Lent begins. I don’t think Lent is a very popular season. I can assure you there won’t be nearly as many folks in the sanctuary this Wednesday as there will be come Easter morning. We like lilies and hallelujahs; we delight in hearing the good news that “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!” But we don’t much care to hear the proclamation of Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s an unpleasant reminder of our human vulnerability that most of us would just as soon avoid.
But we really can’t avoid it. Even if you don’t come back to church – and let me say I hope you do – Lent will still be happening on the other side of those doors. In fact, a bit of Lent can catch us by surprise at any time of the year: that call from a friend or family member that they’ve been diagnosed with cancer; that notice from the plant or company that they’ll be downsizing; that empty stare across the dinner table from a spouse it seems you hardly know anymore. There’s no escaping the reality of Lent.
And yet, even in the seasons of Lent, there are still signs of God’s glory breaking through the clouds. In the seasons of our lives that seem dry and empty, cold and barren, hopeless and frightening, the signs of God’s glory persist. Sometimes God’s glory catches us by surprise just as it did those disciples so long ago. Regardless of what we hear or see or feel or endure, we need to remember that God is with us and will be with us always, even to the bitter end.
Maybe you’re in that dark place this morning; longing desperately for a little light; longing to hear the voice of Jesus say “Do not be afraid… I am with you always.” Friends, even during Lent we are still an Easter people, a people who believe in light and life even when all we can see are the clouds that overshadow us. The healing hand of Jesus is still touching us, reminding us of his presence, reminding us that there is nothing to fear.
And you know there is another place in the New Testament where this word for transfiguration – this metamorphoo – is used. It is used by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians and it is used of US. Paul says that we see God’s glory like a reflection in a mirror because we are being transfigured into the same image as Jesus, although by degrees, Paul points out.[v] Even so, how awesome is that: that people could see God’s presence in us; that people could see God’s glory through us.
Among chaplains and spiritual directors, there is this thing we call “the ministry of presence” and it is a way of revealing the glory of God and it is much easier than you might imagine. It is about simply being with someone in their time of need; perhaps offering nothing more than a hand on the shoulder and an assurance of God’s presence.
Joseph Bayly authored a book entitled, The Last Thing We Talk About: Help and Hope for Those Who Grieve. He and his wife Mary Lou lost three of their children. They lost one son following surgery when he was only 18 days old. Their second son died at age five from leukemia. They lost a third son at age 18 after a sledding accident. Bayly wrote,
I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly; he said things I [already] knew were true. I was unmoved, except I wished he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me for an hour and more; listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply and left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.
Some of you are aware that I am completing training in spiritual direction. One of the most difficult things to learn is to shut my mouth; that’s a tough task for a preacher. To be a spiritual director is to listen and receive the gift of another person’s presence and experiences; to subtly guide with questions, not advice… but most of all to listen fully… a practice that is in short supply in our world today. Notice how many times, as another is speaking to us, we listen half-heartedly, already formulating our response before they have even finished speaking; and our responses are often about what we think they should do or know or be or believe. It is hard to shut our mouths and to simply listen; to practice the ministry of presence and to reflect the light of Christ.
But friends, the light of Christ is still shining. And sometimes we can see it most clearly through one another. God’s glory enters the world not only through clouds or thundering voices from the heavens. God’s glory enters the world through us; through our ministry of being present with another in their time of grief or fear. You might recall that Matthew’s gospel is also the gospel in which Jesus proclaims that WE are called to be light in the world; light for those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death… and rest assured there are many.
You know the Christian Church has long had a custom of giving something up for Lent. But I want, this morning, to encourage you to take up a new practice in this holy season. I want to encourage you to shut your mouth; and to listen more closely, more patiently, more fully to those around you. And when you find someone whose life is filled with darkness and discouragement, suffering and sorrow; practice the ministry of presence; reflect to them the light and glory of Jesus. Don’t preach at them. As a matter of fact, say very little. Mostly be with them. Reach out and touch them; reassure them that they have nothing to be afraid of. Shine a light in their darkness: the glory of Jesus revealed through you.
 Matthew 4:16
 The American Heritage Dictionary.
[i] Matthew 1:22-23
[ii] Matthew 28:20b
[iii] Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands from The United Methodist Hymnal; United Methodist Publishing House; 1989; #273
[iv] See Matthew 16:21 and Matthew 17:22-23
[v] See 2 Corinthians 3:18
By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:21-26
Today, we are far removed from what was a difficult issue for the early Church: the fact that Jesus, a Jewish rabbi deemed Messiah, was increasingly dismissed by Jews and increasingly embraced by Gentiles. So, what were Jesus’ disciples to make of that? Well, in the minds of those early Jewish disciples, they never left Judaism. By their interpretation, they had – in fact – embraced the only authentic Judaism. And so, they had no desire to reject their Jewish heritage. Today many of us view those numerous laws in the Old Testament as laborious and rigid; a laundry list of do’s and don’ts. But that was never God’s intent; nor was it the interpretation of first century Jewish Christians. Those laws were given to bring people into a right, or righteous, relationship with God and with one another. It you don’t ever remember anything else I ever say, remember this: Christianity is – first and foremost – about relationship.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Like the Moses of old, he ascends a mountain to proclaim instruction on how God’s people are to live in relationship with God and with one another. Now the goal of God’s commands has not changed. The goal is that of righteousness; that God’s people are called by God to pursue a right or just relationship with God and with others. Jesus’ teaching is ultimately about relationship. His teaching helps the people who follow him to understand how to live in right relationship. It does not disrespect the law that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. That’s why, immediately before this morning’s gospel verses Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to complete… For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[i] Now when we hear that it might make us nervous. After all, the Pharisees were the religious professionals and, if they’re weren’t getting it right, how could the average Joe stand a chance. But the problem with the Pharisees is that they were focused on the letter of the law and not on the intent of the law. They weren’t trying to help others understand and follow the law; rather, they were complicating things.
So, the teaching of Jesus presents a more clear and practical approach.
This morning’s gospel verses are the first in a series of six teachings. I’d invite you to open your pew bibles as we look at this together and take a quick trip back to our high school literature classes. Go ahead and turn to Matthew, chapter 5, verse 21.
Each of these teachings begin with Jesus noting what was said in the past; the thesis statement. So verse 21 begins: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…” and Jesus states the thesis, what had previously been proposed. Then, Jesus ups the ante, so to speak with an antithesis. Jesus presents an expectation that supersedes what was previously said. So verse 22 begins, “But I say to you…” and he states the antithesis. But Jesus doesn’t stop there because he’s a very good and effective teacher. Now, if you’re a good educator, what do you do after you present an idea or concept to your students?
You give an example, a practical application and that is what Jesus does in verses 23-25. But I want to focus, particularly, on what Jesus says in verses 23-24. Verses 23 & 24 provide an example in the context of worship; an example that helps us understand what was wrong with the righteousness of the Pharisees and what righteousness means to Jesus.
The Pharisees, you see, loved to look righteous. But Jesus will go on to say in chapter 6 that we shouldn’t make a show out of our prayer or fasting or alms giving. Worship (like other spiritual practices) is important because it is a way of maintaining our relationship with God. But we need to always be careful that what we say in worship doesn’t get left in worship. In other words, Church shouldn’t be like Las Vegas. You know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But what happens during worship in Church ought to be internalized in such a way that it influences how we function throughout the week. So the outward actions of worship must be in harmony with what is happening inside of us AND with how we’ll behave when we walk out the door. Righteousness is about that consistency – that integrity – of thought, word and action.
In verses 23 & 24, Jesus continues to address human relationships, particularly the experience of conflict. Conflict is inevitable, right? Jesus has just told us that, ideally, we shouldn’t get mad at people or insult them or call them names. But it happens; and when conflict damages a relationship, what should we do? Remember that righteousness is all about relationship and, if our human relationships aren’t right, then we’re not in right relationship with God. So Jesus tells us, before we enter into God’s presence, if we remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should first go and be reconciled to them.
Now obviously there’s a bit of hyperbole in that statement. In Jesus’ time if someone was offering an animal for sacrifice and remembered they had been in a tiff with a friend, it wouldn’t have been practical to leave an animal on the altar and walk however far and long it took to apologize. Likewise, I don’t want anyone to get up and walk out on my sermon at this very moment. But again, the point is this: righteousness is about sincerity and consistency in our relationships with God and others and if we enter into God’s presence to worship without consideration of our other relationships, then we run the danger of our worship being hypocritical and downright offensive to God.
Now, if you don’t already feel challenged by this message, don’t worry; it gets even tougher because notice that Jesus’ teaching doesn’t say if YOU have something against your brother or sister. Rather, it says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against YOU” which is as much to say, this is a “no fault” admonition. We don’t get off the hook if the other person is in the wrong.
But you can take a deep breath now because here’s the hope. First of all, from a very practical standpoint, we are to seek reconciliation but it isn’t guaranteed. In other words, even if the other person is at fault, we need to still make our best effort. But Jesus’ teachings, as a whole, never encourage people to remain in abusive or oppressive – one might say unrighteous – relationships. Sometimes a relationship will never return to what it once was. Sometimes a relationship shouldn’t ever return to what it once was. Furthermore, there are occasions when – even if we have done all we can do to amend the brokenness – the other person may still reject reconciliation. It is not something that can be forced on people.
But here is the best news: although it’s not always easy and may take time, because of Jesus and his work within us, we can achieve the ability to fulfill the spirit of these commands. With the help of Jesus we can make gestures of reconciliation even when we have been hurt. It’s also important for us to remember that these teachings Jesus gives are directed, specifically, at his disciples. So, for those seeking to follow Jesus, we – of all people – ought to be able to find a way to reconcile. Yet sometimes that’s hard in the church. Sometimes we live by verse 22 and ignore the words that surround it and so we feel anger, but we try to deny that we feel it. We keep stuffing it down which generally doesn’t work very well. Anger doesn’t go away just by our ignoring it and if we stuff down our anger and refuse to acknowledge it, then we will never take the step toward reconciliation. Do you see how important that is; the failure to acknowledge our anger or hurt actually prevents us from following Jesus’ command? After all, if I have convinced myself that someone didn’t upset me or hurt me, then I’ll never have cause or motivation to seek reconciliation and that is what Jesus wants for us.
The teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shouldn’t discourage us because, through our relationship with Jesus, we can live out his teachings. Jesus is the source of the grace and power that enable us to fulfill his teachings. It is through our relationship with Jesus that we can truly become righteous; being in right relationship with our heavenly Father and those around us.
Bible scholar David Rhoads writes, “The transition from hypocrisy to integrity involves an openness to the teaching of Jesus, a willingness to look at ourselves and an eagerness to be exposed [to] and empowered by Jesus’ words.”[ii]
In a village where Gandhi lived, there was a widow trying hard to raise her teenage son. The teen refused to eat healthy food, but consumed enormous quantities of sugar. The widow knew that if Gandhi spoke to her son, he would listen. She brought the young man to Gandhi and said, “Will you talk to my son and tell him to stop eating sugar?” Gandhi was silent for a moment and then said, “Would you bring the boy back in another week?” A week passed and they returned. But Gandhi replied, “I’m sorry. Would you please bring him back in another week?” A week later, desperate, she returned a third time and Gandhi spoke with the boy. When he was finished, the woman took Gandhi aside and asked him, “When we first came to you, you asked us to come back in a week. Then, when we came back, you asked us to come back in another week. Why did you do that?” Gandhi replied, “Because I had not realized how difficult it would be for me to give up sugar.”
Friends: I think this morning’s message is a timely one. Our nation is divided and angry. Even within the church, many of us are finding it hard to accept those who voted differently. But a broken nation is not a good or healthy thing and, as the Church, we have the opportunity to model something different. Now, we shouldn’t try to hide our feelings. Remember; when we suppress our feelings, it actually interferes with reconciliation. We need to talk to one another honestly and respect our differences. We need to acknowledge people’s pain and respect people’s hopes. It is hard. But if Jesus’ Church cannot model such integrity; if we cannot seek reconciliation with one another, then I don’t imagine there’s much hope left for the world. After all, we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
[i] Matthew 5:17, 20. NRSV.
[ii] The Challenge of Diversity: the Witness of Paul and the Gospels by David Rhoads. Augsburg Fortress; 1996; p. 94
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:13-18
In the book Craddock Stories, renowned preacher Fred Craddock tells delightful stories about his many decades of experience as a pastor and preacher. He writes of the first church he ever served:
I remember the first church I served as a student. They had a fund called the Emergency Fund and it had about $100 in it. They told me I could use it at my discretion, provided I dispensed the money according to the conditions. So I said, “What are the conditions?”
The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness or poor management.”
I said, “Well, what else is there?” As far as I know, they still have that money.
What are the criteria Christians should use to determine and understand the practice of “doing good?” Jesus did a great deal of good and was often criticized for it. Jesus seemed to do a lot of good for some pretty unsavory characters: prostitutes, tax collectors, a wide assortment of sinners. According to the thinking of the day, many of the people for whom Jesus performed miracles were hardly deserving of the mercy Jesus showed. Quite the contrary, according to the religious thinking of the day, many of the folks Jesus helped had “made their own bed” and, thus, should have been expected to “lie in it.”
Yet Jesus, quite indiscriminately, is in the business of doing good; of dispensing unimagined mercy and unmerited grace. And he expects exactly the same from those who consider him their Lord. Disciples of Jesus, according to Matthew, are not simply those who hang out with Jesus hoping to absorb his holiness like an airborne virus. Disciples of Jesus are those called to share with him in the work of ministry. In Matthew, chapter 4, Jesus calls his first disciples, fishermen by trade, with this very appropriate invitation: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Yet, immediately before the story of Jesus calling the first disciples, our gospel narrator announces the launch of Jesus’ ministry with these words from the prophet Isaiah: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”[i] The coming of Jesus means the coming of light into the world and if disciples are those who learn from Jesus and imitate the lifestyle of Jesus; then our being in the world – our day to day living – must also be a source of light powerful enough to overcome the world’s darkness. Sharing in the ministry of Jesus clearly involves the bringing of light into places of deep darkness and the hopelessness and fear that dwell there.
In this morning’s gospel passage from chapter five, Jesus defines the role of his followers with two powerful metaphors. Disciples of Jesus are to be “salt for the earth” and “light for the world.” Now, what’s interesting about these two things is that neither of them draws attention for the sake of themselves, but rather, is important because of the way they impact the objects or substances in their midst. One does not, generally, eat salt all by itself. Salt, served alone, is not a very satisfying meal. But it is the way in which salt alters or changes the flavor, the quality, even the texture of other foods that makes salt so invaluable, so essential. Likewise, we do not buy a light bulb so that we may sit in a room and stare at the bulb. We purchase a light bulb for the benefit of everything else in the room. Or, as bible scholar Eugene Boring puts it, “The primary function of light is not to be seen, but to let [other] things be seen as they are.” And so, it is quite fitting that Jesus tells his followers: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” As followers of Christ, we do not do good for others in order to draw attention to ourselves, anymore than a light bulb draws attention to itself. Furthermore, our “doing good” is not something that we add to our life’s “to do” list.
These verses follow immediately on the heels of Jesus’ beatitudes. And in those beatitudes (like this morning’s verses), it’s critical for us to notice that – these are not Jesus’ wishes or hopes for the future. Jesus is not saying to his followers: “I hope you’ll try out being gentle or righteous or peaceful. I hope you’ll give ‘shining light’ a try sometime. If you do, here’s what might happen.” No; that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. These verses are not Jesus’ wishes or hopes or even invitations to those who have made the commitment to follow him. These are Jesus’ pronouncements of a reality that already exists. Jesus pronounces that – if we are truly his followers – this is who we already are; this is, already, our lifestyle. Our “doing good” is not an item we add to our moral checklist. If we are truly followers of Jesus; then we are shining light in the world; a light that takes the shape of good works that honor God because they reveal the nature of God. Jesus will later say in this Sermon on the Mount that God makes the sun rise not only on the good people, but even on the evil people. God is the source of good; God is the giver of good gifts.
We do good for others so that God can be seen through the good things we do. In other words, so that people can know and experience that our God is a God of mercy who cares deeply for them… whether they deserve it or not. Whether we think they deserve it or not.
Friends; right now our world needs some light. It doesn’t just need volunteerism – as good and noble as that is. Our world doesn’t just need activism – although that also is an important thing. But what our world needs more than anything else is light to shine into the darkness; light that honors God by revealing the nature of God; the one who is the origin of any and all “good works.” As followers of Jesus, the light within us is not something we conjure up for ourselves; rather, the light within us is the light that has been kindled by Christ. And that light overpowers the darkness and fear and despair that may, at times, appear to be enveloping the world. But it is not; it cannot for Jesus reminds us that we bring light into the world. We are those whose lives reveal that our God is good and generous.
People of God, as Methodists, we come from a long history of shining light in the world and that light does bring change to the world. The work of John Wesley and the early Methodists changed the social and political map of 18th century England as they led the charge in reforming the treatment of prisoners, children, coal miners and other laborers and even the treatment of animals. Wesley was bold and outspoken in his admonishment of those who believed that holiness was defined only by our times of prayer, worship and study of scripture. In fact, Wesley went so far as to declare that the absence of good works within our lives is an indication that our spirits are not right with God; that we have inwardly withered, so to speak.
Friends and fellow light bulbs, we cannot fix all the world’s problems. But we can shed some light on the world and, through our good works, point the way to a God of goodness and generosity and grace.
[i] See Isaiah 9:2
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