THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Matthew: 5:38-48

Leviticus can be seen as commentary on the most basic of God’s commands to God’s people. The “Ten Commandments” of biblical and movie lore. Then we hear a part of a sermon, by Jesus, interpreting commands such as these. The commands we hear this morning from this section of the sermon on the mount can be confusing. Once scholar suggests that we cannot understand them apart from the one who is saying them. After all, this is the same Jesus who (later in the gospel) says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them..”(Matthew 23:2-4)

Greg Carey (of Lancaster Theological Seminary) reminds us, “These sayings emphasize doing what Jesus says…the thesis insists upon righteous conduct, including Torah observance, that exceeds even that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is calling for a deeper and more radical way of following God. And it is important that he is saying these words for personal reflection, not to be put upon others.

Diana Butler Bass in her recent book “Grounded” describes the understanding of how to be a faithful person is shifting. She says: “Who and what, along with their authoritarian answers, have been traded for the experiential and open-ended concerns of where and how. This idea might help us understand these texts and move away from a rigid literalism. (Bass, Diana Butler Grounded, Harper One: New York, 2015, p. 10)

These instructions were offered to God’s people as they returned from exile, spoken to a people who knew what it meant to try and live a holy life in the midst of a culture that was quite different. Jesus speaks to a people who knew these same commands by heart. The preacher Jesus is suggesting that through the years these instructions have not been properly understood.

It is not Judaism that is the problem, it is institutional Christianity. We need to realize that we are the recipients of a tradition that has turned these sayings into a justification for docility and obedience to ‘the way things are.’ Many people of color, women, persons of various sexual orientations, and the poor have found themselves at the blunt end of the powers that be that have used Jesus’ words as a way to control and manipulate them by insisting upon their marching in step with a particular, and privileged, arrangement of the world.

Jesus’ words have been twisted to insist that somebody else be ‘obedient,’ and that an other not be persistent in their justice work, but be docile and compliant. “Turn the other cheek” can be used by those in power to keep others in line. These are situations that Jesus is not envisioning here. The exercise of self-giving, and of “going the extra mile,” are meant to be liberating and not enslaving. It is there, in being generous and offering grace, that God dwells.  Let me tell you a story:

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.
But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.
“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.
As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”
Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.

“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.
Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.
“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”
Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.
The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”
Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”
“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” (A story from NPR, Morning Edition, 2008: http://www.npr.org/2008/03/28/89164759/a-victim-treats-his-mugger-right)
On this seventh Sunday after Epiphany, it may be difficult at first to identify the promise God offers in these texts. Jesus here is “at his ornery best offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one that is giving it.” As with much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is waking up a generation of people for whom the Law–now so associated with the powerful who are guardians of its precise following–only presents itself as a burden and obligation. The religious people, at least the ones we bump into in the Gospels, have become disconnected from God and the ordinary people, but Jesus speaks of these obligations from a personal place, offering for all who hear a reinterpretation that brings life rather than death.

This revolution is not unlike the revolution going on now. It is not so much that people do not believe in God, but that their faith in the institution has failed or is failing. This sense of failing is that we have put our hope in the wrong things. God is present in acts of mercy and kindness and healing and grace. Holiness is not only a demand, it is a condition.  That is the promise. There is justice in this kind of faithful following.

THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
February 12, 2017

“God: Choose Life”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37
I know someone who faced a terrible choice. It felt like a life-or-death decision, except that early on in the decision making process it felt to him like both options are fatal. He could stay where he was, knowing his current circumstances cause him soul crushing conflict. He could venture into the unknown, but at a terrific risk. Who is to say which would be the more difficult choice?

Sometimes he wishes that he could just forget about the spiritual compass that has lead him to this point. Sometimes, even though he doesn’t believe in it, he wishes that fate would decide for him. This is the disciple’s proverbial “being stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

This is life. It is messy, painful, ambiguous, frightening. It requires difficult decisions to remain true to yourself and that in which you believe. Decisions, and the follow-up on those decisions, are so difficult that it is easy to understand why so many people are willing to exchange life for the status quo. If I am unwilling to make hard decisions that are in keeping with my faith as it relates to the world, then I must give into the lie that it was simply ‘fate’ that brought me to this place…this intersection. The intersection is choosing to honor God, or choosing to honor our own self-centered concern.

Sometimes choosing safety is actually a decision for death, spiritual death. Sometimes choosing to ‘take care of our own, first’ is actually a decision for death. This life and death decision making can run counter to our base instincts.

It is true that there are things in life that are outside the realm of our control. We are free. Everyone else is also free. Forces beyond us act upon us without our permission. Our freedom is not absolute, and we certainly aren’t guaranteed the wisdom or the insight to be good stewards of the freedom we do have. My grandmother would frequently remind me, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As I said last week, God promises us guidance. You and I have this text from Deuteronomy. We, as if we were standing on the mountain ourselves, can hear God’s booming voice: “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Here on the mountain, in the shadow of God’s presence we cannot avoid or run away from the reality of this decision. We cannot say “nobody told me.” We cannot say, “I was forced to go along with everyone else.” We can do nothing to escape this weighty decision. The decision is ours. Do we turn toward God, or do we turn away from God.

Now that our pews have cushions we can comfortably sit here and ponder this question. As someone who spent a good deal of time in philosophy and theology courses, it is a wonderful pastime to hold up the question to the light, turn it around in your hand and observe the reflection and refraction off of the idea. In the comfort of this place it may seem easy to decide. Of course we will make the right decision, sitting here, as it were, in God’s presence and in the company of God’s people. Who would choose death? Not me. Not ever.

Well, except for the time when my neighborhood buddies and I decided it was a good idea to lean a plank on the rail of the railroad tracks making a ramp at the bottom of a 30 foot steep hillside so that as we careened down the hill the plank would launch our bikes (and us) nearly to the top of the other side. I arrived at home with bent handlebars, a chipped tooth, and cuts and abrasions too numerous to count. As my mother applied the mercurochrome to these wounds I was interrogated. “Why on earth would you do that?” My reply, “everybody else did” received that cold stone stare that only mothers of sons have perfected.

Look, We confuse so many things with choosing life. We confuse comfortable surroundings with life. We confuse reactions to fear mongering as choosing life. We confuse pragmatic business decisions with life. We confuse remaining in our own familiar surroundings with those we are most familiar with, those who are least likely to say ‘hey, wait a minute’ with choosing life. We confuse financial security with freedom. And, I am only talking about the church here. Individuals have as many or more little prisons in which we quite voluntarily serve a life sentence. In the language of Deuteronomy we have many idols that are not God that we bow down and worship.

The choice that God sets before the Israelites today echoes in our lives, and in the life of the church, every day. It’s a choice we must continue making, a path we make, as Brian McLaren says, ‘by walking.’ And it sin’t always clear which choice is life and which choice is death.

That is why the one thing that is helpful is prayer. Last Sunday our Consistory president asked us to pray for the church. I would add that you must, in this prayerful attitude, ask questions and listen. There are some keys to ‘discerning the spirits.’ Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us. Discouragement can easily move us to do the right thing, or keep us doing the wrong thing. Joy can also move us to stay in an unhealthy situation or confirm a movement in the direction God would have us go. That is why prayerful discernment of the spirits of desolation and consolation is a spiritual practice. Choosing life requires practice. And courage.

We should hear the invitation to choose life in the context of the greatest of all Ancient Lies: “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘Your surely will not die!'” The denial of death thus competes with the invitation to life. We must make a choice. We cannot avoid this choice, these choices. We have been promised freedom, and we have furthermore been promised consequences according to how we use that freedom. You will notice that Israel did not cease being God’s people when they made a bad decision. But there were consequences. Some say that if you leave Egypt today, on foot, it would take two or three weeks walking to get to Palestine. The Israelites took 40 years because they didn’t always choose well.

The hard part about “choosing life” is that instead of making one big choice that you make once and then go about your business, you have to choose life in lots of little choices that you make every day. If we want to choose God’s ways, we have to make that choice over and over again every day.

This may be hard, but it isn’t impossible. Earlier in the chapter, Moses tells the people:
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

We can grasp this terrible, wondrous freedom that God so generously gives us by the reins and courageously ride it into the land of the living. Or not. The choice is ours. To choose, or not choose. And, not choosing is still a choice. We can go the easy and wrong way or the hard and right way. But remember this: God promises life.

THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY
February 5, 2017

“God: I Will Guide You”
Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

In the Anchor Bible Commentary, the NRSV of Matthew 5:13, says The salt hasn’t “lost it’s saltiness,” but it’s “low-grade” salt. The Greek word here translated as “low-grade” is μωρανθῇ (mōranthē).

Etymologically this word is related to: moron. Imbecile. Just store that fact away for a bit.

See, salt is an identifiable substance because of certain qualities. Salt is identifiable because of what it does. This is not unlike the term ‘Christian.’ Yet, frequently folks identify with this term, christian, solely on the basis of their perceived status as ‘being saved’ not by qualities of action.

The apostle Paul, the great champion of the idea of salvation by grace, is exasperated at one point; in his letter to the Romans he writes, “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” The epistle to James emphasizes the importance of good works to such a degree that grace-loving Martin Luther longed to strike it from the canon. Christians have long pondered their relationship with the law, and most are content to ignore it even though in this Gospel passage, Jesus unequivocally states that he came ‘not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets.

In a nutshell, we are saved by grace – and yet, what is next? how do we live in response to this extraordinary gift? Thus, we need guidance.

That word, response, is the key to understanding. Our actions do not save our lives; God’s action does. After that, the ball is back in our court, so to speak. We can choose to live in a way that honors the incredible gift we have been given, forgiveness even though we do not deserve it. We can choose a life that embodies the love and justice of Jesus Christ, or we can choose to live in a way that denies it. There is a huge difference between a follower of Jesus and a believer in Jesus.

For instance, some people are uncomfortable with Justice and Witness ministries. But if, as faithful Christians, we do not protest and fight for the values of justice that Jesus himself described, then we never were followers/disciples and our fellowship is nothing more than some sort of self-aggrandizement gathering. We might associate our fellowship with this idea of Christianity, but we are not really followers of Jesus.

The OT Lesson today is from Isaiah 58, where the prophet says:
Isaiah 58:1-5
58
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…

It is not as if we, and Israel, have no directive. The promise I am considering today is this: God does not leave us without direction. If we prayerfully and faithfully craft a response to God’s grace, even with consideration to our own gifts and abilities, our own limitations and shortcomings, we are shown a path forward. We are not left to sort it out alone. We have the prophet’s cries for righteousness and repentance, from Isaiah to John the baptist. We have the law as it is expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and as it is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. We have Jesus’ teachings, those invaluable (if seemingly unreasonable) invitations to overthrow the status quo. Lazarus and Dives makes this claim obvious (Luke 16:19-31). The division of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:44) makes this plain.

Still, the promise of these life-giving mandates does not compromise our freedom. No one is asked to do more than they are able. Benedict, founder of the benedictines, crafted for his young community a ‘rule of life.’ There is a beautiful tension between obedience and freedom; once vows have been made, monks and oblates are bound to order their lives according to the rule of life. But each member submits to this rule only through his or her own abilities and resources.

The rule doesn’t save a Benedictine any more than the law saves the sinner. But the rule, the law, the commandments – the way – is itself a form of grace. We need a map. We need markers reminding us to pursue justice and love kindness as we walk humbly with our God.

There is a promise within the promise here. Remember the psalmist’s words: “happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” To put it as plainly as possible: we are better off when our response to the grace of God is to honor God with lives the reflect God’s values. We are happier when we are truly the salt that we were redeemed to be, and we will surely know sorrow and regret if we lose that.

Every now and then someone says to me that the church should not be political. It is only in the last couple of months that I realized that it isn’t so much that the church is political, but that the politics of the world do not square up, in any way shape or fashion, with faith – that is the faith that calls for a response to the radical grace of God. The Beatitudes, of which todays Gospel reading is a part, is literally Jesus’ big speech where he turns to his followers and tells them (and that means us) not to be an embarrassment.

See, there is a line, and if you cross it, you go from “Christian” to imbecile pretty quickly. It’s hard to define where that line is…but we all know it when we see it. We all know it when we stand squarely on the other side of the line, and looking back we see Jesus standing there shaking his head. We all know it when we turn on the TV and another yay-hoo who claims to be a Christian is giving their support for torture or racism or the exclusion of one group or another.

Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth.” He names and claims this for the disciples, and to us. In response to God’s grace, great things are expected of us in the name of justice and righteousness, and we can do great things in the name of God and God’s Kingdom. So, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

And don’t be a moron.

Amen.

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
January 29, 2017

“A Blessing”
Psalm 15; Matthew 5:1-12

The bible is fairly clear about those things that bring curse. “Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows…” (Deuteronomy 27:19) Jesus said, “…39When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ 40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.…” (Matthew 25:39-41)

The promise of blessings is also there in the bible, just not the way some prosperity gospel preachers would like you to understand it.

For example, the Beatitudes present a list of such promises, but frankly, most of them are not the promises we would prefer. Rather than hearing ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” we would rather hear, “You won’t mourn.” Rather than hearing, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” we would rather hear, “you shan’t be persecuted.”

These are odd promises.

One of the problems is how we generally define the word ‘blessings.” Some translations use the English word “happy” in place of the word “blessed.” The Good News Bible seems a little too cheery for me when it promises, “Happy are those who mourn, for God will comfort them.”

Then there is the French version of the New Jerusalem bible that famously translates this same word, μακάριος (blessed) as debonair. “Debonair are the peacemakers.” This is the French term we usually think of as defining stylish or suave. What it really means, however, is de bon aire, ‘of a good disposition.” We might say “content.”

This same Greek word can also be translated as ‘honored’ or ‘favored.’ It is the same word that the Angel assigns to Mary, Jesus’ mother. It is not always easy to get from one language to another, nor is it easy to determine all that this entails and all that it does not include. Still, we might well wonder, what good it does Mary to be favored if she is without her son?

No matter how you translate μακάριος, happy, ‘a good disposition,’ or honored, the blessing of the beatitudes is God’s promise of something good. That something good is God’s presence.

Let me circle back on this a bit. Psalm 15 is describing this blessing, as present in the kind of community within which God dwells. When the psalms were being collected, many Jews who had been scattered all over Asia minor would never experience Temple worship. Psalm 15 encouraged them that communities of honesty and justice, wherever they may be, were themselves dwelling places of God. In this sense they are blessed.

For Christians, this concept evokes the confidence that it is not merely we who dwell with God but God who has chosen to “tabernacle” to ‘dwell,’ with us (John 1:14).

One story that illustrates what I mean is the story of Jacob and Essau from Genesis. Jacob had a fabricated idea of what blessing meant and he pursued it through deception. Jacob wanted the birthright and the blessing and would do anything to obtain them. Yet, He totally misunderstood both. Jacob quantified the blessing. To him the blessing was a substance. He confused the result of blessing with the reality of blessing. Blessing, however, is living life in covenant relation with God. It is to have and know the presence of God in your life, realizing that God is committed to you and will walk with you and provide for you and care for you.

The problem we have with this is that God may not care for us how we want God to care for us. We are prone to want God to care for us in the way Jacob viewed the birthright and blessing. Jacob wanted stuff and all that came with it. He wanted luck, happiness, and honor…and wealth. It is the height of irony that the man who connived so to get the blessing leaves home empty-handed.

So, understood this way, the idea that God is present with those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the meek, isn’t all that strange. Throughout the bible, it is made plain that God has a preference for these folks. Which makes it entirely possible that God would rather tabernacle with those folks who were detained at JFK overnight that to sit with all us good folk in church.

See, to be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth — not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are, simply because you deserve it.

Blessing can be observed in our healing ritual today; drawing together as the family of God, seeing each other as God’s beloved children, meeting each other at the points of our brokenness, and conveying to each other our and God’s promises of regard, presence, accompaniment and, above all, worth. You are worthy of blessing, so are refugees and immigrants, for God Almighty has created us and called us so.

CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY

“An Odd And Precious Kingdom”

Colossians 1:11-20

You might have heard that the day after our election, the server that handles requests for immigration visas to Canada crashed. It was overloaded.

I suppose that there were some people who were taking action on their promise if one candidate or another won they were moving north, across the border.

Now, in my view, Mr. Trudeau is an attractive leader. He has many qualities I admire. But he isn’t Jesus. Neither is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Despite the hopes of some back in 2008, Barack Obama was not the Savior either.

Apparently, this identity confusion is an easy mistake to make. It is with some frequency that people assign messiah status to someone. I don’t know how. I realize that hoping for someone to come along and set everything right is a powerful motivation to incorrectly assign someone the title of messiah.

Still, there is some relationship between what we hope for and what we observe.  When we say things like, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” we make a legitimate connection between core beliefs and identifiable qualities. Behavior, you see can betray what our core beliefs actually are. Moreover, these same actions reveal something of our character.

That is to also say that on the basis of what we observe in terms of allegiances reveals something about ourselves and, more importantly, whom we serve. Another way to say this is to ask, “Whose kingdom do you choose to live in?”

Now, this kingdom is actualized no matter what. Odd, I know, but even if no one follows this king it is still in effect. But the only way that this kingdom is experienced by the wider world is if its citizens live in it.

This is why the early church, particularly the writer of Colossians, said of Jesus, “He is the very image of the invisible God.” What they meant by that is when we look at Jesus and we see Him feeding the hungry, we see the image of God in action. When we look at Jesus and see Him healing somebody who is broken and in need, we see the image of God in action.   When we see him balancing his life between prayer and service, we see the image of God in action. It’s hard to see otherwise, isn’t it? The same is true for us. You can tell who we serve by watching.

Have you heard the story Jesus once told about a ‘rich young ruler.’ This prince came to Jesus and enquired what he must do to inherit eternal life. The usual practices were listed. Observe the Ten Commandments. You know what to do. And the man was like so many of us who can say, “I have observed all of this since my youth.” Then Jesus tells him one more thing: “go, sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”[1]

The Evangelist Luke says that the man went away in a funk because he was wealthy.

This may lead us to erroneously say that the root of all evil is money. It isn’t. The quote is, “the root of all evil is the LOVE of money.” I wonder if perhaps the issue was that the Rich Young Ruler was unable to set aside other ‘rulers’ in his life. That was what Jesus was asking him to do. That is why it is only at the end of the conversation that he says ‘THEN, come and follow me.”

See, citizenship in this kingdom does not convey privilege. It demands responsibility. You have to get your allegiances straight before you can participate in this kingdom.

The fact that the reign and rule of this Messiah refuses to follow the logic of the world is no more evident than in the reading from Luke this morning when the Thief recognizes Jesus as the Messiah.   He does so, not along a dusty road in Nazareth as he healed the sick; not in the temple where he taught ‘as one with authority;’ not at a wedding in Cana where the wine ran out and he miraculously duplicated the reserve. Not even on the Mount of Olives when Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus ascended into heaven.

The Thief recognizes Jesus as he hangs, brutally beaten, nailed to the cross. By all outward appearances this is simply another poor, Palestinian Jew, made an object lesson for anyone who might threaten the Roman Empire…the obvious ruler of the land according to all worldly logic. It is there, in suffering, in pain, in unwavering allegiance to God alone that the Thief recognizes where real power resides and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Do you remember when I told you last week, “Winning is no indicator of God’s favor, Reconciliation is?” I might well have said that in anticipation of the readings today. This scene is a reflection of St. Paul’s words to the church in Colossae: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”[2] It seems to me that the Thief was miraculously transferred in the darkest of moments to a place with the brightest of hope.

This may seem like something going on in a ‘spiritual plane,’ but Paul is writing in a most practical way, describing participation in real life in a most odd and precious kingdom.

I once heard the story of a teacher who, while cleaning out her attic found a cross she had received as a gift years earlier. It was a crucifix, a cross with the figure of Jesus hanging on it. She put it on her desk for several days. Then, like on my desk, things got cluttered so she put it on top of her bills. It made her think about how her faith impacted her finances. Are they really ‘under’ the cross of Jesus? A few days later, papers from students arrived and the cross was moved there. How does faith affect work? A few days later the cross ended up on top of some recent photographs of her family. How did her faith impact these relationships?

For several weeks that cross lay on her desk, and it seemed to ask her, on a daily basis: “What does it mean if Jesus, truly, rules my world?” On this Christ the King Sunday, what does it mean to us that Jesus’ reign and rule begins right now?

[1] Luke 18:18-23

[2] Colossians 1:12

“If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted of destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and…give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”

“The bulk of a tree,” writes Tom Wessels in Reading the Forested Landscape, “is mostly dead wood.” Other than the leaves, the only living part is the cambium, a group of cells a few millimeters thick that resides under the bark. The trunk may be lifeless and inert, but it’s still needed to provide structure for the growing cambium. The bulk of Christianity — whether it be ancient cathedrals or big-box megachurches — is mostly dead wood. The cambium of faith resides unseen, just beneath the surface, ever growing in new directions.
Fred Bahnson, “The Priest in the Trees: Feral faith in the age of climate change,” Harpers Magazine, Nov. 16, 2016

“I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.” – Cornel West

REFORMATION SUNDAY 2016

“Sustained in Hope”
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Luke 19:1-10

Today we observe Reformation Day. As Phyllis Tickle once wrote, we are entering into a new Reformation.(Tickle, Phyllis. “The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why” Baker Books, 2008.) Tickle (cites an Episcopal bishop, Mark Dyer) says that about every 500 years the church has a “rummage sale.” In this sale the ‘great church’ gets rid of what doesn’t fit anymore, or that hasn’t been used in ages.

Everybody knows how hard this is to do.The fact that it needs to be done doesn’t make it any easier.  It is particularly hard when you are in any kind of relationship, which we are, by definition, as a community of faith. When we moved to Wernersville we piled up some old junk that had been sitting around for a long time. I noticed that Becky was doing the very same thing. Only she was boxing up some stuff that was particularly important to me. No, I hadn’t used it lately, and no, I don’t exactly remember why I was saving it, but I was saving it. It was good stuff.

I find the whole idea of a rummage sale offensive. Your personal stuff is put out on card tables. People are pawing over your things. “How much you want for that honey?” “don’t call me honey, and you know what, I changed my mind. It’s not for sale.” Really, she says? Well, how about fifty bucks? Only fifty? that’s a steal. Really, I said?

One reason that people get rid of stuff is that their situation has changed. Some time ago…well, not really all that long ago, we got rid of several boxes of cloth diapers. Our first child wasn’t wearing those disposable jobs. You can imagine that once we got down to the business of changing and washing cloth diapers our theology of diapering began to change. By child number 3 we were fully involved in the Huggies faction. So when I noticed these cloth diapers, I wondered. Are we ‘closet’ cloth diaper folks? Was my wife trying to tell me something? No. So we were honest with ourselves about what and who we were and the cloth diapers went.

The prophet reflects an exceedingly difficult time period where the situation has changed. Not long before, the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after another, brutally killing people. And we know that not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar would three times attack Jerusalem, taking the leaders and skilled citizens into exile, and in 587 BCE, destroying the city and the temple. Indeed, violence is all around. The present situation is scary.

But that wasn’t the last time the situation was scary. In 1940, a church newspaper in Basel Switzerland published a column under the title: “The Word on the (Current) Situation” that included an excerpt from the book Habakkuk. The Nazi’s censored the paper. The powerful do that when they feel threatened.

In Habakkuk, we see how the prophet is standing on the watch tower, waiting for the Lord to answer. As is all too often the case, no answer is quickly coming. Finally a word is heard. That word, “Wait,” is rarely a satisfactory answer when it appears as though some of your best stuff is going in the dumpster.

At his listening post, the prophet hears a word from the Lord, and it does begin with wait. But that’s not all he hears. So he speaks to the people, saying how important it is to keep on, and believing in, a God that will bring deliverance. Not back to the way things were, but to a way that things will be. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to have effect on the present situation is sometimes called hope. It is the substance of that which the Apostle Paul speaks when he tells the church in Rome: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:24 NRSV)

Now there are two principles to keep in mind in order to tap into this hope. They are the principles of power and privilege and the principles of truth and justice. If you pursue truth and justice it will always mean a diminishment of power and privilege. If you pursue power and privilege it will always be at the expense of truth and justice. (Chris Hedges quoting Norm Chomsky: TruthDig,“Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This’” April 19, 2010.)  This idea seems to me to be socially true and biblically correct, if we are convinced that Jesus, at his interrogation before Pilate, said, “my kingdom is not of this world.”(John 18:36, NRSV)

This rummage sale and the difficulties church is experiencing makes me think of the stuff of our study with the Center for Progressive Renewal, and the book some of us are reading, “Vital Vintage Church.” In the book the Rev. Michael Piazza strives to help Virginia Highlands church by focusing on truth and justice. There are some uncomfortable moments during the rummage sale, but not everything is sold or given away. Getting ready for these things help us sort out what is important to us, so important that we keep it, and not only keep it, but get those old dishes out of the china cabinet and serve Thursday evening dinner on it, we don’t need to only drag it out on Christmas or Easter when the whole family is gathered at the table; when we want remind everybody how special it is. Everyday is worth the good china.

That is the point of the 2020 vision statement, really it is. It isn’t intended to toss on the sale pile things that are vital to our life together. In fact, there are many things in that document that we have done for a very, very, long time and it would help if we would just say that out loud so the community knows it.

Yes, the current situation can always be a source of discouragement. These verses from Habakkuk shares the certainty that the present situation does not mean that the end is near. It is discussed, but not near. The Prophet is so certain of God’s intention to make a difference with God’s people, no matter what the current situation looks like, that he tells others of his steadfast hope. For the Prophet, he is moved to write this conviction so clearly that even a speedy runner will be able to rush by it and still read it!

On this Reformation Day when we so often applaud the idea that we are not like other Christians, forgetting the fights and bitterness engendered by Luther’s break with the church of his youth and ordination; and the estrangement produced by that split over the succeeding five hundred years, I long for Habakkuk’s clearer and more straightforward claim. When I encounter those in these days who are hurt and fearful, unable to see that our best days…as defined by truth and justice…are ahead of us, I turn to Habakkuk.

Listen, God is determined, even desperate, to be in relationship with all of us so that, in turn, we might be in relationship with each other. This won’t be easy for us to hear. We like our formulas and comfortable patterns because, truth be told, they give us a way to manage the illusion that maybe we’re still in control, at least a little bit.

Perhaps that’s exactly why Jesus again shocks the crowds and disciples alike by seeking out this rich tax collector, honoring him, affirming him, naming him a child of God and declaring that, indeed, salvation has come this very day to his household. Maybe it’s to remind us that we never were in control in the first place. Which, while hard to take, proves in the long run to be a good thing.

Maybe, by the grace of God, in our present rummage sale, we will be moved to get rid of what doesn’t fit or is worn out, once good stuff, and keep what is faithful in these days. Then we will be able to baptize this baby today and be convinced that this child and all of us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, will be steadfast and sustained in hope.

[Some parts of this sermon are stolen, borrowed, copied from others, but the whole of it was knit together by me.]

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
January 24, 2016

“Everything Depends on Remembering”
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-12
Luke 4:14-21

Today we get to go to church. Three churches, really. The first is not in this sanctuary, not on this date, but in Israel soon after the return from the Babylonian captivity. The people, under the watchful eye of Ezra and Nehemiah begin to rebuild their shattered lives and their city, now in shambles.

While rebuilding the walls of the city, something remarkable happened. An ancient scroll was discovered. It was a Torah scroll.

This discovery came in a moment when reconstruction was not only a revitalization project for the temple and city walls. The future of these people is in serious doubt. Enemies still threaten from outside, internal disagreements threaten the future of the community. Just how to re-establish Jerusalem in safety and peace is a point of contention.

The question about the future life of the Jews is an urgent matter. Some, no doubt, looked to the glorious past and sought a return to those days in practice and in shape and in function. Because human beings now are not so different than then, I suspect, others sought to throw off the so-called ‘old ways’ and start from scratch.

In reality, what was necessary then and now, to rebuild their faith and cultural life, was the recovery of their pre-exile view of the world; but they must reimagine it for a new situation because the world, their world and the world around them, has changed.

A few weeks ago I was driving between appointments and was listening to NPR. On a talk show they had on two economists (whose names I cannot recall). The Fed had just upped interest rates and the host and one of the esteemed economists were discussing how the economy might be revitalized. The third voice finally interjected saying, “I wish you would stop using the term ‘recovery.’ There will be no recovery. What has happened to us has decidedly changed our world. You may say ‘transition,’ you may even say ‘transformation,’ but please, don’t say ‘recovery.’

Recovery looks for the past to return. Transformation looks for change into the future.

In the last episode of Downton Abby, one of the servants, the under-butler Thomas Barrow, is looking for another position. He responds to an advertisement in the paper and goes to a nearby estate. Mr. Barrow is invited in by the Master of the estate and finds it, as the Master himself comments, ‘having slipped.’ But in his imagination, that is not how the master see’s it. ’Sir Living In the Past’ remembers when they had grand parties and drones on and on about the candlelight illuminating the happy faces of the upper class during Times That Won’t Ever Happen Again. Thomas hightails it out of there, left with the realization that — again — times are different and his job skills will soon be obsolete.

At the Downton Abby, in ancient Israel, and in our midst, the world is not only changing but has changed. Familiar ways of structure and relationship are now obsolete. In every single case, the biggest question is this: can the institution remain true to it’s timeless truths and be transformed.

I use the term transform intentionally. See, there is no going back. No matter how much I may desire it there is no recovery of the halcyon days of my youth when my ‘stay at home’ mother would scrub us up, take us to Sunday school and church every week. Just as did everyone else’s family I knew. Some not only long for the past, but are stuck in believing that the present ‘isn’t how it should be.’

There are others, of course, whose memory does not contain the same content as mine. These folks are often baffled at my pining for the ‘good ‘ole days.’

Gathered there near the Water Gate is a similar crowd. Some who have lived long enough to know the way things were and some who only know the way things are. For all of them their history has given them an amnesia of sorts. Their faith seems distant, or their faith seems irrelevant. But somehow all of them realize that there is a ‘something more’ to life other than the way we knew it or the way it is. They command the priest Ezra to bring forth this scroll. He stands on the platform placed at the gate for deliberation and judgment and reads.

The scripture is read and the people who knew the way things were and the people who know the way things are dutifully respond, “Amen, amen.”

It must have been similar to times when one of our scripture lessons is particularly challenging and we automatically go on to the rubric where the reader says, “The Word of the Lord,” and we reply, “thanks be to God” even while some reservations rise in our hearts and we may have wanted to say, “well, maybe.” Being the good pastor that Ezra is, he sends out some colleagues to ensure that the people understand what has been read.

And ever since, God had ensured that someone would go forth into the community to ensure that no literal reading of Holy Scripture goes without interpretation. Those colleagues of Ezra ensure that the reading does not inflict the rigid orthodoxy of the past on the gathered people, but urges them to meet God anew in the changing times in which they find themselves.

The beauty of their interpretation is that those who knew the way things were and those who know the way things are are both moved to proclaim, “yes, that is it.” And they weep.

It appears as if Ezra understands these tears as tears of sadness, caused by the people’s recognition that they had forgotten God’s law. That may well be. But instead of insisting that they get their act together, Ezra skillfully and compassionately calls for a feast on fat and sweet wine and to send some to those who do not have any.

It appears that this wise old priests knows that the divine instruction is not a cramping, restricting legislation, but a way forward with justice and joy. That instruction has not been forever hidden in the wall, not set in concrete at Sinai. It has been interpreted in this new day in such a way that the people who knew the past and the people who know the present can see a way forward in God’s presence, together in worship and service that results in their transformation and the transformation of their community.

I pray that I have offered you one such way forward. Today is our annual meeting and in the many sheaves of paper we offer you is my report. In that report is my interpretation of the divine instruction I have received as I keep my nose buried in scripture, as it intersects our present condition. It is called the 2020 Vision Statement. There is no vote on this, as there was no vote at the Water Gate or at Nazareth as the Word was interpreted. But the people gathered do have options, then and today. We can hear God’s word of renewal and reinterpretation, and celebrate the presence of the living God in our midst; we can meet God anew in the changing times we find ourselves with joy and hope. Or not.

If as we hear scripture we somehow are moved by the Spirit, there are ways to faithfully respond. I believe that memory is the most important element of any transformation. it begin’s with our own memories of our own situation. Our memory that resides in scripture allows a careful re-collection of memories of God’s many blessings. But transformation begins when we remember that the promises of God remain sure, in this moment, even as in the past. Remember with me the presence of the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and minds, empowering us for this work. And, this is perhaps the most important step, to participate in the diverse body of Christ, caring for one another, sharing the compassion and love of God in the world.

Today we also get to go to a second congregation, not Nehemiah’s Israel, but in Nazareth. There a young Rabbi also stood up in the midst of a congregation and read an ancient text; then he interpreted that text in such a way that it announced a new day. In this new age in which we are living, we need to be bold in our faith.  We need to trust this Jesus, filled with the Spirit whom God gives to us in Baptism and the Sacrament.  We need to live free from old enslaving habits because Jesus gives us the freedom to live that way.  We need to trust that this world which wants to oppress us and thus depress us with its beliefs and practices is powerless, useless, in his new age.

This morning we are present in a third congregation. These voices are speaking directly to us. Times are a-changing.  As it always is, today the time when God’s ancient promises intersect our present condition.  Don’t live in the past, but let the promises given in the past give you freedom, release, insights and spiritual riches, as you enjoy and serve the world that God has given us.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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