Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon; Epiphany 7A; Matthew 5:38-48

Last week we heard four of six of what are called the six antitheses, or six opposites. They are called this because of Jesus', “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” formula. If you remember, those four were do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not divorce, and do not swear falsely. The sermon touched on three of those four: do not murder, do not commit adultery, and do not swear falsely.

As with the salt and light from two weeks ago, I said that Jesus wasn't addressing individual morality, per se, but the corporate behavior of the body of believers. As a body, we are called to be salt and light, respectful, safe, and honest. As individuals we don't always live into that. As a corporate body, we must. Those things are how we function; they are not necessarily reflective of our individual status.

Today we get the last two antitheses, or opposites. You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you turn the other cheek. You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

What Jesus is doing here is beginning to move us from one realm to another. Over the last two weeks we were hearing how to behave as the body of believers. We were learning what our corporate function was. We are salt and light. This body of believers behaves in a certain way, and in here you are respected and safe. It is these functions that are presented to the world as what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

That said, until the kingdom comes, we can't live in this space forever. We must get out there. And out there is filled with people and policies that are vastly different from how we behave in here.

Mosaic law provided for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This was a way to mitigate violence and push for restraint. In other words, you can only retaliate in like manner and with an equal amount of force. But Jesus is telling us that we are not to retaliate at all. All retaliation does is lead to more retaliation. All retaliation does is lead to a downward spiral of violence that begets violence.

There was an excellent Star Trek episode called, “The Day of the Dove,” in which a Klingon crew was brought aboard the Enterprise. Tensions predictably flared. Fights erupted. Phasers became swords and people were miraculously healed of deadly wounds. The stage was set for an eternal battle between humans and Klingons. Until they realized that it was only by not participating in violence that the violence would end. As Spock said, “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves; otherwise it is not stopped.”

In the world we live in, where are those places and times in which we must stop ourselves from violence? Should we retaliate with bombs, or with schools? Violence is easy. Peace is hard. Jesus is not calling us to be victims, allowing ourselves to be used and abused. But Jesus is asking us to look for the dignity in all people and see them as children of God. And that IS an individual act in which we must all participate.

This behavior ultimately leads to the next statement – love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This, again, is a mandate on how we are to behave as individuals representing the body of Christ. And again, it is hard work. Even tax collectors and Gentiles love and greet those who love and greet them. If that's all we do, then we are simply imitating the world.

But Jesus is calling us to live differently. He is calling us to live as God lives, and that is with a love for all people and all creation. Again, this isn't easy. The trick, I think, is to work at loving individual people, because it's too easy to dislike or hate other groups.

It's easy to hate “the Muslims.” It's much more difficult to hate a person that you sit down with for coffee or a meal who happens to have a different faith. It's easy to hate “those immigrants.” It's much more difficult to hate a family who escaped war and famine looking not only for a better life, but simple safety. And on and on and on.

We are all God's children. And like a parent loves all children equally, God loves everyone as equally. Jesus is asking us to follow that example and emulate God's love for all people. For if we only love those who love us, we are no better than those who live outside the kingdom.

On this seventh Sunday after the Epiphany we are being asked to live a certain way. We are being asked to be salt and light. We are being asked to treat each other with dignity and respect. We are being asked to create a safe place for all people. Today we are being asked to live out these functions in the world around us; and that starts by working to deescalate violence, love our enemies, and pray for those persecuting you.

Nobody said this would be easy. Many people say it's futile and pointless. But Jesus makes it clear how we are to act, both in here and out there. We can choose to either operate as the world operates, or we can choose to operate how Jesus operates.

That choice will determine what kind of church we become.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon; Epiphany 6A; Matthew 5:21-37

Our cycle of readings continues working through the Sermon on the Mount. So before I get involved with today's gospel, who can tell me what last week's sermon was about? And saying, “The gospel” is not a valid answer.

Last week I discussed Jesus' statements, “You are the salt of the earth,” and, “You are the light of the world.” These were both statements about the corporate body of believers and were an indication of function, not status. You are the habeneros of the world, and by your actions you will add flavor to God's banquet. Taste and see that the Lord is good. You are the light of the world, providing shelter and safety to those walking in darkness, broken down, and stumbling through their own life storms.

Our function is to be spicy and shiny.

Today we get a glimpse of what that function looks like.

Today we hear from the next section of the sermon on the mount – a section that has been called “the six opposites,” or “the six antitheses.” They are called this because they are presented in a, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” format. Of those six we are given four of them. And of those four, I want to look at three of them: you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not swear falsely.

It would be easy to look at any of these and see them pointing to individual moral imperatives. Don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't utter false oaths. Those are all good things; and things that, if we refrain from doing, will allow us to live moral and upright lives. As good as that is, it may not be what Jesus was getting at. I'm not so sure that what Jesus was addressing wasn't so much personal morality as he was addressing corporate behavior. Again, function not status.

Just like last week when Jesus discussed the corporate You of salt and light, it seems he's doing the same thing here.

Don't murder because that's bad. But neither are you to be angry with, or insult, or denigrate your brother or sister. By doing these things you harm the community of believers and, in our case, the body of Christ.

Anger is a sort of given. We will all be angry with someone at one point or another. But Jesus is asking us to recognize that relationships can't be fueled by anger, that anger is more apt to tear apart, and that we should work toward reconciliation. Likewise insulting and denigrating others have no place within the corporate body because they act like a cancer that, if left unchecked, will grow to the point of causing a fatal system failure.

Don't commit adultery. We can all agree that that is a bad thing. But neither are we to entertain those thoughts, because by doing so we devalue the people around us to simple objects. We also elevate our own desires to a position of primacy that cares not for how others are affected.

Part of living within a community such as ours is being able to hold others accountable and expect a level of trust within the group. If we can't trust each other, if we elevate our desires over and above all else, if we devalue the personhood of others, then how exactly are we to be the light that shines in the darkness? How can this place be a place of safety for others when we ourselves are not safe?

You shall not make false oaths. But neither shall you make any oath at all. Why? We are all familiar with how people used to be sworn in at trials – “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Or people who say, “I swear on my mother's grave.” Or people who say, “As God as my witness . . .” One reason people do this is to add depth or seriousness to whatever it is they are talking about. But there are at least two problems with this.

First, it can be seen as a form of deflection. If a person invokes a higher authority in their oath, it can create the illusion that they are beyond reproach. How dare anyone question the sincerity of said oath when I back it up with the power of God. There are plenty of examples of people trying to get out of some pickle who do this, only to be found guilty later on.

Second, and more importantly, it reverses the relationship between us and God. Properly speaking, we are here to serve God and work for the spread of the kingdom of heaven. Our baptismal covenant lays this out for us. Do you turn to Jesus? Do you put your whole trust in him? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? When we make an oath invoking the name of God, we reverse that role. We put God in a subservient position, and we assume that we have power over God, calling him into service and making him our beast of burden.

What Jesus is asking us to do is to remember the proper relationship we have with God. What Jesus is asking us to do is to remember that we should act honorably, truthfully, and with dignity at all times so that our Yes or No will be sufficient answers.

I'm reminded of Inigo Montoya who, in his lifelong pursuit of the six-fingered man, didn't swear upon his father's grave, or by God, but only upon his own personal abilities.

As we move through the Sermon on the Mount we get a glimpse of what Jesus is calling us to be as a community. He is not giving us a moral code to live by. He is not laying down a code of personal morality and behaviors that we are expected to live up to or else be tossed into the outer darkness.

What he's doing is showing us how to live in community, together, as believers. Avoid anger and insults. Don't view people as possessions or things to be conquered. Keep your answers truthful and straightforward.

It will be in doing these things that this community of believers, this part of the body of Christ, will be well on the way to shining its light onto the world. And it just might be that this corporate way of living will find its way into our everyday personal lives.


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sermon; Epiphany 5A; Matthew 5:13-20

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.

All of the commentaries I have are in agreement that these statements from Jesus are of a corporate nature. The “you” here is referring to y'all, not necessarily an individual “you” of James, John, Peter, Bill, Sherrie, Pat, Nancy, or whomever. He is referring to the corporate body of believers.

One of those commentaries does a good job, I think, of discussing the salt of the earth statement. Saying, “You are the salt of the earth” today seems to have taken on an entirely different meaning than what Jesus apparently had in mind. You may know I'm not from here, so this may not have any meaning, but in Montana, the Dakotas, Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, and other parts of the west, when people call someone “salt of the earth” it has a moral quality to it. It means they were good, trustworthy, honest people. It means their yes meant yes. It means their handshake was as good as their signature. It means that they were the most likely to be featured in a Chevy truck commercial wearing jeans, boots, and cowboy hat stomping through the dirt, rain, and mud.

This commentary points out that salt of the earth is not a moral or character judgment on the part of Jesus. It was, instead, used to give color to a corporate body. It was used to describe the function of that body, not its status.

Our function is to shake up the world. Our function is to stand both out and apart from the world. Our function is to be the flavoring of God's banquet. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Our function is to help wake up the world to the wonderfulness of God. This is why Jesus used the salt image. When things are salted, our feast takes on a new flavor.

But salt today is common place. It's on practically every table. Some people salt their food even before trying it. Maybe this saying of Jesus has lost its saltiness.

If this statement describes our corporate function, and if this statement has lost some of its impact, maybe we need a new image. Our function is to shake up the world. Our function is to draw attention to God. Our function is to be the flavoring in God's banquet. Therefore, you are the habeneros of the world. You, as the St. John's corporate body, are what will flavor God's banquet as we invite people to taste and see that the Lord is good.

You are the light of the world.

Here again we have a corporate “you,” a description that this institution, this community, this body is the light of the world. Before I discuss that, though, we need a disclaimer. We, the corporate “you,” this body of believers, are really not the light of the world. The true light of the world is Jesus, and his light shines through us into the world.

Technicalities aside, what does it mean for us to be the light of the world? Light does a number of things: it makes it so we can see where we are going; it provides warmth; it allows for growth; it can make us happy. And in the context of scripture, it drives away the darkness and it draws people in.

It's that last part, drawing people in, that I want to focus.

Out west there are plenty of stories about people whose car has broken down or run out of gas, are wandering through the night, or are trudging through a snow storm, who see a light in the distance. That light draws them into a house where they find shelter, food, and safety. People traveling will more likely stop at motels that have working lights than not. Like moths, we are drawn to the light.

We are living in a world that is hell bent on promoting division and fear. People of all persuasions are asking to be defended from Them; with some of those requests being legitimate. We are doing our level-headed best to seal ourselves off from any and all who are different. We are trying to cover the light and hide it.

But that isn't what Jesus is calling us to do. This corporate body is called to be a light to the world. If we live without fear, if we live as Christ is calling us to live, if we live so that our light shines out in the darkness, then we will attract all those people who are broken down, walking in darkness, and stumbling through dangerous terrain looking for shelter. If our light shines in the world, we will attract those needing safe haven.

I believe St. John's is that place of safe haven. All are welcome here: black, white, yellow, brown, male, female, gay, straight, trans. No walls. No separation. When our light shines, it shines on everyone.

So here we are, trying to add flavor to this world through our distinctive calling as disciples. That seasoning shows up in the Community Cafe, Micah's backpacks, the cold weather shelter, and our soon-to-be daily worship. And here we are shining the light of Christ onto a darkened and fearful world, a light that indicates, “In here you are safe.”

We also need to remember that this is not always a popular thing to do. Not everyone likes habeneros and would rather avoid them all together. Following Jesus may lead us into some spicy situations. And not everyone drawn to our light will fit our preconceived notions of what an Episcopalian should look like. But if we are the light of the world, if we are shining the light of Christ onto a darkened world, we need to be prepared to welcome all it attracts.

You are spicy. You are shiny. Our challenge is to live into those functions without losing our flavor or dimming our light.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Some Fluff

With all of the political crap going on, and the general busyness of life in the new place, I thought I'd post up a fluff piece for all 3 readers.  This was in last week's local paper, and I was debating on whether or not to put it up here, but .... what the hey.

Enjoy ... or not.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon; Epiphany 4A; Micah and the Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount spans three chapters – 5, 6, and 7 – in Matthew, and is the longest collection of teachings/sayings in the gospel. It is also the centerpiece of Matthew's effort to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and his mission to reinterpret the law in a new way.

The law was given to God's people as a societal framework. Like all laws, some carried more weight than others. And like all laws, it gave rise to lawyers who interpreted it. Some did that well and others not so well. Some looked for all kinds of ways to avoid what was originally the basis of the law. This arguing over the law created, as you might imagine, a system where people found reasons to accuse and attack others while at the same time looking for ways to exonerate themselves.

It's really not that different from today. People do all in their power to stop, obstruct, or persecute people for one thing on one day, but will turn around and instigate, support, and uplift those very same actions when applied to themselves on the next day.

Into this political fray stepped the prophets. Those unpopular people who spoke truth against power and often were tortured or killed for their proclamations.

In the ever-deepening arguments around the law came Micah. Support your mother, says the law; unless you declare that support to be dedicated to God, says the lawyer. This is but one example of the law being used to avoid a responsibility we have to others.

To this Micah says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” This was Micah's summation of the law in an attempt to get people to understand what the core of God's message was. What Micah had to say then is just as applicable today.

Do justice. What does that look like? When women are terminated for being pregnant, that is not justice. When mobile home owners have the land sold out from under them, that is not justice. When water is poisoned yet nothing is done about it, that is not justice. If you are upset by people being given the same rights and opportunities as yourself, that is not justice.

Love kindness. There has been precious little of this lately. I was reading something the other day about revenge. People keep trying to get even because the scales have been tipped against them. But in that act of getting even, they themselves tip the scales against the other. The only way to get even is to stop the cycle of violence and push for a sense of kindness.

Walk humbly with God. There is a certain segment of people, usually those of wealth and success, who look at their position in life as what they have done. Theirs is an overly prideful attitude that says, “Look at what I have accomplished” – usually followed by, “all by myself.” There is a blindness to the place of God, and this blindness creates a prideful spirit.

Maybe remembering the line from Eucharistic Prayer D – We offer to you from the gifts you have given us – might help keep us humble. Everything we have has been given by God. That does NOT mean that if you have more stuff God loves you more; it means you have a responsibility to give back to God a greater amount.

Micah's pleas, however, didn't gain much traction, especially with those who had a stake in maintaining their power and control over others.

And then comes Jesus. Part of his mission wasn't to interpret the law within its existing framework, but to follow Micah's example and reinterpret the law within God's framework.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those that mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness' sake.

These words describe God's purpose of every holy law and the foundation of the kingdom of heaven. These words turn our values upside down. These words are counter to the culture we live in.

Don't believe me? Just look at the news, Facebook, Twitter, or any number of other sites for how we treat others.

Those who exhibit humble tendencies are eaten up and destroyed by the proud and self-righteous. The world and those with real or imagined power will work to stomp out anything that goes against their worldview. People fighting for equality are told they have enough, or that what they want makes them “more special.” Those who mourn are told to get over it.

Jesus is reinterpreting the law, as Micah tried to do, in a way that puts God first and makes God present with us. Some cannot abide by that. Some will continue to stomp out dissenting voices. But God will not be stomped out. God will not be silenced.

All we have to do is remember to put God first in all things. All we have to do is look for how Jesus is reworking the law to turn society upside down. All we have to do is to follow the example Jesus is giving us, continue to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly before God . . . and be prepared to suffer the consequences that an angry world will throw our way. Put another way, following the words of Micah and looking to live out the Beatitudes in our daily life is not for the faint of heart.

The question is: Which way of life are you going to follow – the law or the way of Jesus?


Monday, January 23, 2017

Crises Averted

So a little while ago I posted about two people who wanted to come see me with some concerns they had.  One of them had issues with the bulletin and the other had an issue with a new program we started for the kids called, "Letters to God."

The Letters to God person thought that we were going to respond to the questions posed by the children with an actual letter from God . . . sort of like some parents give their kids an actual letter from Santa.

In my original writing about this program to the parish, I had thought I made it clear that that was not how this was going to work, but apparently I missed the mark.  However, the first time I did this I explained to the kids, "Now, you know that God really isn't writing you back, but this is a good way for you to ask questions."  One little girl was visibly relieve to hear that God would not be answering her directly.

When I was making that explanation to the kids, it suddenly dawned on the above-mentioned person exactly what it was I was doing.  Problem solved.  But he didn't want to cancel the appointment he had made, so he came in anyway and we had a grand time telling stories about all kinds of churchy stuff.

The other person was concerned that the bulletin was too hard to follow.  Before I arrived the parish had been printing the entire service, every week, into one comprehensive bulletin.  I told the Search Team that, should I be called, that would be one thing I would change immediately.  There's no reason to invest the time and expense needed to reprint everything that's already printed in the BCP and Hymnal.  I was called and I changed it.

She came in today and we looked over Sunday's bulletin.  In talking with her, it turns out that she was only concerned with the Christmas Lessons & Carols bulletin we did.  Granted, that one was different, so I cut her some slack.  And as we looked at the regular Sunday bulletin, she could only say, "Well, this really is laid out pretty good."  Cha-ching!

All potential crises have been averted.  Life is good.  Now if only every future problem in the parish were going to be that easy to solve . . .

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon; Epiphany 3A; Matthew 4:12-23

What are we waiting for? That, I think, is the question we need to ask ourselves.

Last week, if you remember, I discussed how the image of seeing was so prevalent in the gospel and in this season of Epiphany.

John saw the Holy Spirit. He saw the Lamb of God. Andrew saw the Messiah. Jesus asked him what he was looking for. Jesus saw Peter. And so forth.

That sermon touched on Martin Luther King, Jr., the movie, “Hidden Figures,” and a few other things. I concluded by asking, “Where do you see the kingdom of God in the world, in this church, and in your life?”

Seeing was an important theme; it still is today. But I want to focus on something else today, and that something else is the word, “Immediately.”

Jesus is beginning his ministry by proclaiming the exact same message that John the Baptist was proclaiming: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” After he makes this initial proclamation he begins walking along the shore collecting his first four disciples.

Jesus sees Simon Peter and Andrew while they are fishing and says, “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and followed. A little farther on he sees James and John in a boat with their father. He tells them to follow him and immediately they left the boat, their dad, and the family business, to follow Jesus.

There have been, and will continue to be, a lot of people who have trouble with this account. After all, who in their right mind leaves their career, their family, their LIFE after hearing some guy they have never met and follow him to God-only-knows-where? And again, when they left, they left immediately. Who does this?

Well . . . me, for one.

I was happily living my life, minding my own business, when one day someone suggested this priest thing. There was some dancing around the issue, trying to avoid it, but once I actually heard God calling me into this vocation, I wanted to get on with it . . . immediately.

The difference between me and any of those four guys in today's gospel is that back then there were no discernment committees or Commissions on Ministry. There were no ember day letters to bishops giving them an update of your growth and challenges. There were no psychological evaluations or spiritual inventories to write and defend. There were no General Ordination Exams. But what was the same was an intense desire to get going, to step out in faith and follow Jesus immediately. And I believe that sense of immediately leaving everything behind can be attested to by everyone who has experienced a call of any kind.

That space in between the issuance of the call and its acceptance, or maybe I should say “it's fulfillment,” may take some time. Jesus told Peter and Andrew that they would fish for people; but it was at least another three years before that happened. The time between my accepting the call to become a priest and my ordination was eight years. We can probably all look back over our lives to times we felt a call and wanted to give an immediate response; sometimes doing so, other times needing a period of adjustment before fulfilling it. But I will bet that in those call stories there's always a sense of the immediate, a sense of, “Let's get going.”

Upon reflection, then, following Jesus immediately isn't all that surprising.

Have you ever been told, or have you ever noticed, that traditional churches are built like upside down ships or boats? If you look, we are in the hull, and the pews are the crossbeam supports. And it's no coincidence that this area of the church is called the nave, as in, “Naval,” or, “Navy.”

Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are sitting in a boat minding our own business. And like those four men we are being called to follow Jesus.

In just a little while we will be engaged in our annual meeting. We will hear reports on what has been and what we hope to be. We will hear about and from the many representatives of the many commissions of this church. Groups like Fabric & Grounds, Outreach, St. John's Shelter, the Choir, the Altar Guild, Greeters, the Community Cafe, and so many others.

All of these commissions were one of the reasons I was attracted to the St. John's profile. There is a lot going on here. I remember telling Joelene and other friends, “These people get it – it's not just about Sunday, but it's about Monday – Saturday as well.” And among this large list of everything we do and participate in, almost all of them are run by you.

That said, there is also room for growth. There is room to welcome and include new people. There is a need to let some of our older parishioners rest from their labors while equipping our younger members with the tools and resources to carry on.

So here we are in the boat. And while we sit in the S.S. St. John, Jesus is walking by calling us to follow him. He is calling us to get out of our comfort zone of the familiar. He is calling us to take a risk. He is calling us to get out and follow. Immediately.

Jesus is calling us. What are we waiting for?