Monday, February 14, 2011

Traveling ever Deeper into the Realm of Heaven

The events in the Middle East, in Egypt particularly have been mesmerizing this past week. We have been transfixed by scenes of determination, togetherness, nonviolent revolution – and then celebration. Those who have been there report that for hours and hours, Egyptians kept pouring into Tahrir: whole families, fathers with small children on their shoulders, throngs and throngs of jubilant young men and boys, committed activists and health and safety volunteers, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, all floating in a sea of Egyptian flags.

Radical change - and the need to be radically welcoming of such change – even as it alters our relationships and even when we don’t know exactly what it will mean as the balance of power shifts, yet again. As Mitch McConnell, minority leader of the Senate, said, ?We have a big stake in the outcome, but limited ability to affect it."

We are in the midst of sea change in the world. Not just in Egypt. But in India. In China. And here at home.

I do not, as a rule, follow financial news - but my ears perked up this week to hear that a German exchange company, Deutsche Borse, is negotiating to acquire that icon of American capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange.

Change is happening fast. And unpredictably.

It was happening fast in Matthew’s day as well. The central question around which the Gospel of Matthew revolves is – "how do we face change?" The Temple, the icon of Jewish and Christian worship and the central focus of how their society was organized, was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Razed to the ground. And not just the Temple, but all the priests AND their families. Executed. The Romans had had it with the Jewish propensity for revolt, and so they attacked the very heart of their society, culture, economics and worship.

Christians were mixed up in this as well Jews. The first Christians were a sect within the Jewish faith – they were not a separate religion. They worshipped at the Temple just as their Jewish kin did, just as Jesus did. The Temple was Holy. We, in our secular culture, have little understanding of how significant Holy Place is - but the Temple was where the people came close to God and God came close to them.

Now it was gone. And that meant massive upheaval and change – the cosmic rug pulled from under their feet. With the priests gone, laymen stepped in. We reflexively boo and hiss when Pharisees and Scribes enter the story – but they were lay lawyers, and they stepped in to do the best that they could to hold the people together and to pull them through this tragedy. The Temple, the place of God on earth, was gone. Their sacramental life was no more. But they still had the Law of Moses to serve as the link between them and God and to serve as their identity – and the Pharisees set out to teach it and to uphold it to the utmost of their ability. And so – after the razing of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Jewish community became more home-based and more Law based.

One reason for this was to provide organization. Another was to maintain their identity as a people. And a third was because the lens through which they viewed this disaster was that God was angry with them, and so, in order to appease God, they would study harder and become ever more Law-Abiding. Upright. Righteous. As perfect as possible.

So where did that leave Christian Jews? It left them increasingly at odds with their own community. At some fundamental level, their identity had already shifted. They were followers of what was known simply as “The Way.” They experienced the living Christ in their midst – and they were pretty convinced that God was not angry with them, and that keeping the Law as perfectly as possible was not the way to salvation.

When they continued to experience the living Christ in their midst, independent of any building or indeed of any one place – they were set free, in some incredibly awesome ways. The Gospel of Matthew is birthed out of this radical change – it points backwards repeatedly to the Law and the Prophets, but it does so in order to point forward to this new way. A new way of life based in the deeply held conviction that they were precious human beings, baptized and claimed as Christ’s own forever, and that this Christ lived at the heart and center of their gatherings – gatherings that had no buildings, no parish halls, no organs or pianos. Gatherings that had as their sole focus hearing the Word in community, praying, passing the Peace of the Lord to one another, and blessing, breaking and sharing the Bread of Christ.

So the Gospel of Matthew was written to Jewish Christians undergoing radical change - thrown out of the synagogues and in many cases, alienated from family members.

How to deal with change... Anyone who has undergone deep change knows that it can put a tremendous stress on relationships. Amen?

Today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount deals with those stresses. How to organize community and relationships in a way that is consistent with the old way – with what is known – Torah Law – but now deepening and widening out into this new Realm known simply as the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus leads his followers deep into the Realm of the Living Christ – the Christ who lives within the believers, and within their gathered body. Deep into this Realm, relationships shift – they are no longer simply about abiding by the Law or about lopping off outward manifestations of relational difficulties – but about going inward, to the heart, to attitude, gaining an inward orientation.

Where does murder begin? It begins in anger. Where does treating someone else as an object? It begins in lust. Where does swearing begin? It begins in exaggeration and irreverence. We might think of these things as relatively small on the scale of world affairs. But on the scale of the building blocks of the relationships in which people live their lives – they are not so small – and they can wreak havoc.

The Jewish Christians of the 1st century knew Torah Law for sure. And they were able, in the presence and with the guidance of Jesus, to radicalize the Law, to deepen it, to penetrate its depths and alter it to fit their new realities.

So what about us? I wonder what Law we know for sure and what the Living Christ in our midst is calling us to radicalize to fit today's fast paced changing realities?

One Law we know for sure is that we are all created in the image of the Living God, and that there is no place where God is not. We know for sure that God loves everyone, unconditionally and indiscriminately, and we know for sure that we, as a community of Christ, are not dependent upon buildings or land for our existence. I believe the Living Lord in our midst is challenging us and inviting us to live ever deeper into that Law of Unconditional and Indiscriminate Love and Ever Abiding Presence – away from dependence upon external realities and into the Kingdom of Heaven here, in our midst, on earth. Amen.

Photograph: Reuters, from The Guardian, Feb. 12, 2011
Photograph: Mark Lennihan, AP, from NPR, Feb. 10, 2011