This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
Who are we? Sometimes it’s not an easy question to answer. We are each many things and as we mature we evolve. The people in our lives may see us as they always have, not recognizing the ways in which we’ve grown or changed. We each have a truth to proclaim, a testimony of who we are and what we believe. Our core identity may remain constant, but our life experiences and spiritual growth effect the ways in which we express our identities and proclaim our truths.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that the light shines in the darkness and that the darkness did not overcome it. It’s easy to get caught up in the news and let ourselves be dragged down, but it is within our power to take a break, we can allow our souls and our minds to get away from all of the negativity of our world. We can turn off our televisions and put down our phones and give ourselves the gift of a short retreat. We can sit quietly and pray or read scripture or do anything which we find spiritually uplifting and refreshing. It’s important for our sanity and for our spiritual health not to allow ourselves to be overcome by the dark.
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
When I read about The Transfiguration, I tend to focus on the theatrics of the the scene. The mountaintop, the appearance of Moses and Elijah and the transfiguration of Christ, making his face shine like the sun, are all show stopping images, but then they all hear, “This is my Son the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” These are the words of God, which they hear from the bright cloud that covers them. That seems to me to be the most important part of the event. God tells us to listen to Jesus. It’s a pretty clear message, delivered in an amazing and dramatic way, and yet we, still to this day, have a hard time following that directive. Jesus never said for us to judge our neighbor or to hate our enemy. He tells us not to judge or we will be judged. He tells us to love our enemy and to pray for those who persecute us.. He tells us by word and by example to care for those who cannot care for themselves. He shows us that we must love love those on the fringes of society who are considered unclean or who’s lifestyles we think abhorrent. Jesus’ message is one of love and inclusion, which is why I find it so confusing that we’re currently witnessing, people who call themselves Christian’s, rush to pass “religious freedom” laws which allow discrimination against people whom they view as sinners. If they wanted to embrace Christ’s teachings, it seems that they might want to engage with the sinners whom they seek to avoid so that they could share with them the good news.
Jesus opened his mouth and taught his disciples, saying: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There are many people who make a big show of their faith and use faith as a club to beat anyone who lives a lifestyle that differs from their own. I think of Pat Robertson and Gerry Falwell and their claims that hurricane Katrina was brought about by God to punish people for abortion or their claim that the attacks on the World Trade Center were punishment for the liberal agenda, gays, feminists and a host of other sins. Robertson even predicted in 1998 that God would strike Florida with a meteor because of Gay Day at Disney World. I don’t think God has that sort of vengeance based agenda. What I am more inspired to think about when reading the passage above is something that has given me great comfort over the years. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This gives me so much comfort because of the many years that I prayed only in private and alone. Perhaps one of the reasons I get so much joy from going to church is because corporate prayer is a gift that I appreciate all the more because I denied myself that gift for so many years and for many reasons.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The concept of loving one’s enemies is startling when you stop to think about it. First, one needs a to have an enemy. Who qualifies as an enemy? I don’t think that I have an enemy in my personal life, but perhaps there are people who consider me to be their enemy. There are people who I think of as enemies in a more abstract way, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever get as far as loving them no matter how hard I try. For example, I would have a hard time showing love to a White Nationalist. Still, I have the hope that when people come face to face with the people they think of as the enemy, they’ll come to the realization that they’re not an enemy after all. A few years back I was called an anti gay slur by a young woman in a CVS parking lot. I was startled by it, and my knee jerk response was to insult her appearance, which was clearly not what Jesus would have done. To my dismay, she burst into tears which brought me up short. I felt terrible for having hurt her, but I still couldn’t understand why she had felt the need to belittle me. We stood together for a short while silently and then to my surprise she apologized to me and then I to her. I wouldn’t say we parted as friends but we did come to an understanding and we were able to show one another a small amount of kindness.
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.
We say about some people that they are easy to read. I want to be be one of those people. I want to be so open with who I am and what I believe that anyone meeting me for the first time will know immediately what I’m about. Part of that for me means that I must strive to reflect God’s love in all my dealings with people; I’m not there yet. If I am to be a letter as Paul talks about, then I want to be a love letter, not of passion and desire, but of the pure love that Christ asks us to have for one another. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
With so much anger and division in our country as a whole, it seems especially important that we be reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ. There are people with differing political views in every congregation and community. It’s important at all times, but particularly in times of stress, that we share with one another the love of God. It is, after all, God’s love that has gathered us into communities of prayer and made us brothers and sisters in The Lord. This past Sunday that was brought home to me in a very touching way. There is a very conservative man in our congregation who made his negative opinion of President Obama known to all, and frequently, throughout Mr. Obama’s time in office. For years he addressed me as Mr. Schwartz instead of calling me Phillip. He has always been courteous to me, but I bristled every time he called me Mr. Schwartz. This Sunday, for the first time, he called me Phillip at The Peace and again when we were leaving church. He was friendly to me rather than merely polite. This may not seem like much to some, but to me it seems almost miraculous.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We are told to let our light shine so that our good works may be seen. Of course, in order for our good works to be seen we must actually do good works. There has never been a time when there wasn’t a need for people to help one another and in times of stress and hardship that need becomes even greater. We’re currently living through a very uncertain time. We’re seeing the number of hate crimes increasing against Muslims and Immigrants and LGBTQ folks, as well as threats against synagogues and Jewish community centers. We need to be sensitive to the fear and anxiety that some in our communities are experiencing and do what we can to assure them them the we are on their side.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We see the lack of mercy everywhere we look, but we can be merciful and support those who suffer at the hands of the unmerciful. Just this past Friday evening I was reminded of the goodness of so many. There was a vigil to protest the recent abduction of three members of one family by I.C E. This family will now be torn apart because of a merciless deportation policy. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and when we come together we can demand it. We can work for peace and justice in our own communities and on a broader level as well. There are many people who are pure of heart and willing and eager to help their neighbors who face hardship. When we turn off the news and put down our phones and our iPads and look each other in the eye we see all of these things. We cannot afford to be discouraged by what we read or see on the news. We need to trust in God and in our neighbors and stay engaged in working for justice, peace and equality, hoping that our reward will be great, not just in heaven, but right here as well, in the form of a more merciful and just society.
Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I love the mental image of Jesus as the good shepherd. It allows us to think of him as a guide and protector in a very tender way. It allows us to turn to him for support and comfort, we his flock being lovingly, guarded and kept safe by our attentive shepherd.