Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘sermon on the mount’

Matthew 5:38-48

Are you a perfectionist?

perfectionist
A dictionary definition: a perfectionist is a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection. In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait of a person who strives for flawlessness and sets excessively high performance standards, often accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and deep concerns about how others evaluate. To a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable.

Are you a perfectionist? Do any of these phrases ring true for you?

There is no room for mistakes. You quickly race to correct them.
There is a very specific manner in which things should be done.
If something feels out of place it’s not acceptable.
It’s all or nothing—either you do something well, or not at all.
It is about the end result.
You are really hard on yourself when something goes wrong.
Not achieving a goal makes you feel heavy.
You often ask: What if? After the fact.
Your standards are extremely high and you fear not being able to reach them.
Success is fine, but there is always another level to achieve.
You only start things when you feel ready.
You can spot mistakes a mile away when others are like: Huh?

You are willing to sacrifice sleep, personal time, and even well-being sometimes to achieve something in the way you deem right.

Do you relate to any of this? Personally, I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist in general, but I do relate to a few of these characteristics. So though I may not be a perfectionist in all areas of my life, in certain ways I am. I bring this up, because in Matthew’s Gospel we get a story about Jesus of Nazareth talking about perfectionism, or so it seems. On the surface, it actually seems even worse than the psychological perspective I just shared. Jesus seems to be saying that we as human beings must be as perfect as God.

As perfect as God? Hold the phone, Jeebus!

kermitjesus
No way that Jesus is encouraging us to be divinely perfect, right, because that would be, well, impossible and also depressing. Talk about a self-image downer….

But let’s take a look at the word perfect in English, a translation of the Greek word telos. Telos has nothing to do with being morally perfect [or free from mistakes]. Telos is about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity that is…like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit. Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in personal growth. This concept, restated by Jesus in Matthew, is referring to the perfection/growth of nature. The growth of trees and plants is perfectly balanced. And as we know from prior Jesus comments in Matthew, we as human beings are compared to things like salt, light, earth, clay, and animals. Being perfect, in this context, is about growth in our love, compassion, and wholeness. Like a tree, we are made to grow buds that eventually bear fruit. That is Divine perfection.

treefruitHow can we love perfectly? How can we live love in a time such as this?

Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient and when it’s difficult.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways according to where they are in life.
Love with no borders, walls, limits, rules, or formulas.
Love and leave resentment behind.
Love those outside your social circles.

Love consistently, no matter what is happening in the world.

Let’s go back to the discussion about perfectionism. Having perfectionist traits is actually not all bad, you know. There is such a thing as a positive perfectionist, someone who is achievement oriented and not failure oriented. Positive perfectionism, which I argue Jesus practiced, is the lifestyle of noticing that there are things wrong in the world [injustices, suffering] and that helping to make things better gives life meaning. Positive perfectionists focus on how to make a lasting impact and they rarely give up because when they encounter obstacles, they shift to problem solving and see an opportunity. Failure is not the end of the world, because failure or mistakes lead to assessment and renewed brainstorming. Planning happens and there is a renewed commitment to pursuing that positive impact.

Friends, in a time such as this, when people are distracted by hate, and confusion, and manipulation; at a time when it may feel difficult to focus on loving and working for compassion; at a time in which it can feel overwhelmingly dismal and increasingly negative—we need to focus on cultivating the part of ourselves that is beloved, worthy, and good enough to make positive change happen. This is not a time to be overly critical of ourselves or of others. This is a time to be patient and compassionate both with ourselves and others. This is a time to reach out and build bridges, a time to surround ourselves with those who are trying to make a positive difference in the world and who recognize the importance of community.

Whatever level of perfectionist you are, bear in mind that you are enough; you are capable of living love in your relationships. You are capable of making a positive impact in the world. And the more we join together—all of us trees with compassionate roots and growing branches—the more fruit we will bear.

Building & Nurturing Reconciling Community

Matthew 5:21-24; 33-37 

So many labels.

labels
We are named this, that, the other thing.

We are told what we are capable of or not capable of. And we bring all of these experiences into our relationships. We bring all of this into community.

These labels, these stereotypes—they hinder us from fully expressing ourselves and sometimes they even keep us from connecting to others. I would argue that the divisiveness we experience in the world occurs because we too readily accept the labels given to us, and too readily apply labels to other people. The divisiveness begins in each one of us, as we seek to balance how we see ourselves with how others may see us. It is not easy, for sure, but essential work we all must do. Because if we don’t know, love, and accept ourselves as we are, and if we too often accept the labels given to us, we will find it difficult to have meaningful and positive relationships. It will be more difficult to be part of a community.

This individual work I will call self-reconciling—the work of getting to know yourself apart from societal, religious, and even family labels. Discovering how to love and accept yourself as you are, raw and unfiltered. That self-reconciling, in my experience, leads to reconciliation with others, in community.

Jesus of Nazareth spoke a lot about this type of reconciliation, within ourselves, and as part of a community. His quite famous “sermon on the mount” includes such identity metaphors as salt and light, and of course, the beatitudes–the affirmation of the marginalized as part of God’s reconciling work. We are looking at the latter part of this speech in Matthew’s Gospel, and this time Jesus shifts to a conversation about the Law.

What is the law? Plainly speaking, it was and is the Mosaic Law, the precepts and rules from the Torah; in other words, the first five books of the Old Testament. For Jewish folk in Jesus’ time, the Law was of utmost importance. It defined the behaviors of individuals, and also how people related to each other in community. Jesus, in the Gospels, interprets these Laws as Rabbis were prone to do. In his interpretation, however, was an underlying theme new to many:  laws were only good insofar as they valued and protected people.

In other words, it was not about who followed the laws more religiously. It was about how people’s lives were affirmed and embraced—that people had a right to be part of a safe community in which they could be themselves.

Please keep in mind that for Jesus, the Scriptures were not ending points that were God-words and therefore a done deal. Instead, the Scriptures were more like beginning points from which to re-form them. Jesus moved away from the authority of the written words in order to truly honor the spirit of the teachings themselves.

Each time he says “but I say to you” Jesus is placing a comma where others had placed a period.

The Scriptures were not dead and set in stone. God was still speaking through them—to people in the current age, and thus they should be interpreted in that age.

Thus, Jesus runs down a list of various laws and rules that his audience would have seen as hot button issues: marriage and divorce, murder, repayment of debts, adultery, and oaths [making vows/promises]. But in each case, Jesus focuses less on the letter of the law and more on what the spirit of the law was about—affirmation and reconciliation in community. A quick breakdown of the issues at hand:

Murder. It is not enough to just say that we shouldn’t kill each other. The point is in the valuing of another. People’s lives matter. Rather than prohibiting violence against another, this law is actually about wanting the best for others, actively seeking their well-being, affirming who they are, and even taking risks to do so. No one should go to a church or worship or do anything so-called religious before reconciling with others and loving them as they are. Can you imagine what it would be like if we actually committed to this? Then it wouldn’t be about how many times you attend worship or educational classes or how many committees you serve on or any of that stuff. It would be about reconciliation with others and seeking the best for our neighbors.

Marriage and divorce. So easy to get caught up in morals here, but that’s not Jesus’ take. Instead, this law is about certain individuals being mistreated, in this case, women. Females were considered property in Jesus’ time. The rules for marriage and divorce were completely one-sided in favor of males. But the spirit of the law is about the valuing of persons and thus prohibits us from objectifying them or treating them as lesser. In blessed community, we value each other fully and consider ourselves to be of equal value and therefore deserving of protection and affirmation. In 2017 the spirit of this law is absolutely relevant. Still there are far too many people [who say they are Christians] who are fighting against and in some cases blocking the affirmation of two men or two women who wish to marry; and others who refuse to recognize the beauty and full humanity of transgender people. And females still experience objectification and are considered property. This is not what beloved community stands for.

Part of the reason why “religious” folk keep hanging onto laws that denigrate and divide people, says Jesus, is due to our spending way too much time arguing about oaths.

The formal swearing of oaths in court is something familiar to all of us. But have you ever thought about how much people swear oaths in churches? You want to join a particular faith community [or even attend a Christian school] and you must swear an oath. You must swear that you believe a particular list of things, a doctrinal statement, etc. For Jesus, oath-swearing was for people who didn’t trust each other. You say pious and hollow words. It has nothing to do with how you treat people.

And yet, in beloved community, oaths are unnecessary, because people speak the truth to each other, trust each other, and love each other honestly. I encourage you [and myself] to focus less on the labels we are given and the labels we give; I challenge you to focus less on rules and more on community.

How will we as a community value and affirm others?
How will we tackle the culture in our communities that devalues some because of their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or social status?

How will we continue to build beloved community?

 

Saltiness Leads to Light

Matthew 5:13-16curry.jpg

I’m not a big fan of bland food. If you are, no problem—no judgements. Everyone has different tastes and certainly, what you grew up eating affects your taste buds. But for me, I like strong flavors in food. I gravitate towards spicy and tangy curries and sauces, a wide variety of chili peppers, and accent flavors in herbs like cilantro.

And I cannot imagine what certain bland foods would be like without…salt.

dead-sea-salt-crystals-12Dead Sea Salt Crystal Formations

Everybody uses salt to some extent in their food. Of course, salt isn’t just to add flavor, because it also can be a preservative. Ancient cultures around the world used salt for a variety of reasons—even religious ceremonies and currency. For the sake of our conversation, though, we are not talking about your everyday table salt. We are talking about sea salt.

Sea salt comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. There are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, as the story in Matthew’s Gospel assumes, salt can lose its flavor. Salt from places like the Dead Sea or any other body of water obviously can mix with sand and other things, thus making it not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mix loses its saltiness. In Jesus’ day, merchants in the region of Galilee would deal with this on a regular basis, as they would encounter salt mixtures that were not usable because they were flavorless. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt.

That’s the context for the humans being as salt metaphor.

Being salty is about having flavor, but also about being useful. What comes to my mind in this moment is that saltiness involves diversity. As a human race, we are full of flavors, full of beautiful colors, cultures, and ideas. What makes us salty isn’t that we are all the same or homogeneous. Our diversity makes us salty; our diversity makes us useful as well, because the more we encounter and cooperate with others who are different, we gain new perspectives about the world [and ourselves], we break down barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, and we better our world. Like I said, I’m all about the flavor, baby.

And then there’s light.

lightpersion
Pretty common religious reference across the board, right? But in this case, the light reference needs some explanation. Think 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine, as we know this area today. People of that time typically had just one room in their houses. When someone entered a home, they would immediately notice an oil lamp on top of a stand. When it was time to put the lamp out, the residents of the home would place a bushel basket over the lamp. Practically, that would keep the smoke and fumes in the basket and not blowing in your face. This context is important if we are to gain insight into this Jesus saying.

an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1

You see, Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matthew’s author, says that we should be like the lamp on that stand, except for one caveat—we shouldn’t put the basket on top of our light to snuff it out.

Jesus raises the stakes and says that humans should not just be a lamp, but a city, and not just on a stand, but on a hill.

We are supposed to be even brighter lights that illuminate the darkness, up on a hill where others can see.

I don’t know about you, but I want to SEE that. Who is tired of all the hateful speech, manipulation, fear tactics, and hypocrisy? I honestly do not care if you are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Sikh, Jain, Baha’i, Secular Humanist, Atheist, Wiccan, Republican, Democrat, Independent, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, bland food or spicy food lover.

Why not accept our saltiness? We are all unique, and this is SO GOOD.

Why not be light? Why not be light in this world, because the world needs us to be light, yes?

I’ll do my best. Won’t you shine your light and add yours to mine?

Re-framing Blessedness

Matthew 5:1-12

different-greetings3How do you greet people? How do people greet you?

It depends on where you live, of course.

In Hawai’i, someone might approach you and say:

How’s it?

In Philly and South Jersey, I hear this a lot:

How YOU doin’?

Or, this:

Whazzup?

or

What’s up, yo?

Or the really short version:

“Zup?”

But I’m originally from the Midwest where people often say:

How are ya?

or

Howdy!

And in Canada, I’ve heard:

How’s it going, eh?

In Java or the Philippines you might be asked “where are you going?”
This is a formulaic greeting and the expected answer is “over there.”

Burmese or Cambodian people may ask “have you eaten yet?” (literally, “have you eaten rice?”).
But don’t get too excited—it’s not an invitation to lunch, just a simple hello.[1]

Many cultures use important gestures as well as words. In China, you might receive a nod or bow; older generations in Hong Kong may clasp hands together at the throat level and nod; In India, people place palms together as though praying and bend or nod, Namaste; in Indonesia some say selamat, which means peace; Japanese may bow from the waist, palms on thighs, heels together; and Koreans may offer you a slight bow and handshake (right hand in one or both hands); in Malaysia, some touch the other person’s hands with both of their hands, and then they bring their hands back to the chest, a salame gesture.

There are so many ways to greet other human beings.

What surprises many people from other countries is how people in the U.S. greet one another. For example, even when people greet you with how’s life? or how are you doing? they are not wanting to hear your whole life story. People tend to expect a very short answer like “fine” or “I’m good” or “Fine, thanks for asking.”

Of course, we say fine or good even if we are having a terrible day or even if our life is in shambles. How are you? We are like trained Pavlov’s dogs:

I’m fine.

Which really means:

0120OPEDanderson-masterBut there’s a new phenomenon I have noticed.
How are you? I’m blessed.
I’m blessed.

And then, when you leave someone, they may say to you:
Be blessed!

And now trending on Twitter, the overused, incredibly confusing:

#BLESSED

I’m on my yacht near the Cayman Islands.

#BLESSED

I got the job at McDonald’s and here’s my selfie of me in my new uniform.

#BLESSED

I just had a peppermint milkshake and so far no lactose intolerance.

#BLESSED

My team is playing in the Super Bowl and I love commercials, too.

#BLESSED

My stocks just went up and I’m making it rain.

#BLESSED

Blessed? What does that mean?

The dictionary says that as an adjective, blessed means: made holy; consecrated. This of course can be used as a title for a dead person who we think was somehow holy, i.e. “the Convent of the Blessed Gertrude” or “the blessed saint Tim Tebow.”

But blessed can also mean favored, fortunate, lucky, privileged, enviable, happy. See #BLESSED

Similarly, blessed can mean having a particular quality or attribute, i.e. Warminster is a nice suburb, blessed with an abundance of strip malls.

Ironically, blessed can also mean an annoyance or exasperation. There wasn’t a blessed thing anybody could have done!

Yes, we have explore this word blessed if we are to get anything out of these famous words of Jesus [so-called sermon on the mount], found in Luke and in Matthew’s Gospel. Often called the Beatitudes, they are not just famous for Christians. People of many traditions are familiar with these words–Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. What we are looking at today is of course in Matthew’s Gospel, but you can also find a shorter version in Luke. Most people who study the Bible believe that Jesus did not say all this in one moment from a hill overlooking the Lake of Galilee. Most scholars think that this sermon is actually a collection of Jesus’ words throughout his ministry, kind of like a greatest hits album.

Tour with the Rolling Stones to follow.

I have backstage passes.

#BLESSED

Now a lot of people think that Jesus invented the beatitudes but he didn’t. The beatitudes are part of a wisdom literature that dates back to the writings of what we call the OT and the Psalms and Proverbs. In Israel’s culture, poets and sages used beatitudes to encourage admirable behavior and traditional attitudes towards life. These ancient writings affirmed that blessedness was not about material fortune or prosperity. People were blessed when they were filled with and surrounded by a spiritual sense of well-being—both as an individual and as a community.

So, it’s kind of shalom-like, if you will.

Be at peace with yourself and be at peace with others.

#TRUEBLESSING

But then Jesus enters the mix with his twist of the beatitudes. That’s right, Jesus twists it. His beatitudes are paradoxical. They don’t fit our typical idea of blessedness. In fact, Jesus turns our idea of what blessed means upside down. Jesus says, in nine different ways, that being blessed means being:

Poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, peaceful, persecuted, and hated.

Uh….#BLESSED?

More like #ANNOYEDBYJESUS

Suddenly, I’m not feeling so blessed because Jesus’ beatitudes really seem to have an attitude!

But hey, let’s give it another look and see what blessed really means in another language. You see, Matthew’s Gospel was written in Koine Greek and the word for blessed is makarios. From that to the Latin word beatus. And then, to the English word blessed.

But did Jesus speak Greek as his first language? Uh, no. that would be Aramaic. And there are two Aramaic words that become makarios in Greek. They are ashrei and tovahoun. Unlike makarios, which is passive, the two Aramaic words are active. In English, their translation is wake up or get up.[2]

So all of a sudden, we are hearing this:
Wake up to be poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, and peaceful.

And get up even when you’re persecuted and hated.

I’m starting to get it, are you?

The beatitudes are more than feelings. They are not promoting any kind of self-help or get rich with Jesus scheme.
Instead, the beatitudes contradict what society says we should be about:

Make the most money; don’t worry about who you step over.
Think about yourself and your own closed circle and disconnect from others.
Be the strongest and mightiest and make war if you have to.
Don’t cry—don’t be weak.
When you give to someone, definitely ask for something in return.
Manipulate others or the earth as needed.
Give up on justice if it’s too hard or inconvenient.
If others talk bad about you, pay more attention to them than to those who know you and actually care about you.

Yes, Jesus’ beatitudes challenge our perspective and our behaviors. And they remind us that being blessed isn’t about having more things or even feeling happy all the time. In fact, Jesus’ beatitudes embrace the negative experiences we all have in life. In other words, we don’t have to answer “I’m fine” when someone asks how we are doing. We can answer honestly if we so choose. I personally like what one individual did when I asked How are you? He paused, looked up at the sky, looked over his body, pinched himself and then said: The sun is out and I’m alive.

I wonder if we were more honest with ourselves, our God, and each other, if those moments of disappointment and despair and even depression would become opportunities to find growth, healing, and wisdom. I think so. Everyone gets down, has difficult times in life, and doesn’t feel blessed at all. But if we’re honest in those moments, we can discover that all the things we chase after too much like superficial happiness, wealth, fame, and power—they don’t bless us.

#DISAPPOINTING

Instead, friends, recognize that being poor isn’t just about having less material things. It’s about being wise. It’s about detaching yourself from things and finding freedom, joy, and gratefulness in all that is simple and beautiful.

And Mourn openly and honestly when you are sad and don’t resist it; find comfort and healing.

Be humble with the animals, trees, land, and sky, and so cooperate with and enjoy Mother Earth.

Seek justice, but not just for yourself or for those who are close to you; seek justice for anyone anywhere.
This brings wholeness.

Be merciful to everyone, and mercy will find you.

Be honest on the inside, and this will show up on the outside.

Work for peace and never war, and then end your hate and start your love.

Stand up for others who are pushed down even when it will cost you something. This continues the circle of your interconnectedness to all living beings.

Accept that people won’t like you and will sometimes say bad things about you when you try to do good things. Don’t let that stop you. Instead, find joy in the fact that you even have an opportunity to do good.

Friends, don’t just be blessed. Wake up to live compassionately; stand up to live for justice.

#Amen


[1] The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash By ALINA SIMONE, NY Times, JAN. 19, 2014

[2] Abuna Chacour

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