You are the Salt of the Earth, Epiphany 5(A) – February 5, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]; Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20

Youth ministers are a vicious lot. They are wonderful human being, but they are vicious.

Youth ministers are wonderful because they work with a population that many people are either afraid to work with or simply don’t know how to work with. They have a life-long, enduring impact on the youth they serve; but youth ministers are vicious because they have come up with the following activities:

  • Take an onion. Put a stick in it at cover it with caramel. Have the youth bit into it.
  • Take some Oreo cookies. Remove the cream filling and replace with tooth paste. Have the youth eat the cookies.
  • Take a Twinkie. Remove the cream filling and replace with mayonnaise.

I told you they were vicious. I’m not relating all this to raise your ire about youth ministers or make your stomach turn. All these gross-out object lessons are meant to teach young people about how appearances can be deceiving and the importance of gaining a deep understanding of situations so that we don’t just jump into moral and mortal danger.

We all want authenticity, don’t we? We all want the inside to match the outside. When promised a caramel apple, who wants to bite into an onion? Nobody delights in a toothpaste Oreo to say nothing of a mayo-Twinkie.  The inside should match the outside. Sugar and salt look identical to the eye but they operate differently on the tongue. Which one is which? Only a full tasting will be able to finally decide.

Today Jesus has a lot to say about salt and the importance of salt being salt and not something else, “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 underfoot.” Well, what does that mean?

First, it’s important to remember that Jesus is talking to his disciples: it’s these folks that he is describing as the salt of the earth. That is good and bad news for them, and therefore us.

We see that Jesus has a vision in mind, a standard by which we disciples should be in the world. We are meant to be the salt of the earth, a sort of leaven or spice for the world. It’s interesting that Jesus uses this metaphor of salt.

Salt, in a dish, is not just salty, but since it is such a fundamental flavor it highlights all the others. In a word, we followers of Jesus are meant to enchant the world, to draw out the flavors of all the world, existence, everything!

For too long Christians have been the people who want to quit the earth, to escape into an abstract spiritual existence. But here we see that Jesus would have his followers deeply engage with the world, indeed to act as a spice that enlivens all the rest. With this spice, the world feels things more deeply, the highs are higher, the lows are lower. With this spice of Jesus’ disciples the world feels, thinks, and acts more profoundly.

Now, before all this, Jesus says that we are the salt. The key word here is are. He doesn’t say, “You will someday be the salt of the earth,” or “Continue to work at becoming the salt of the earth,” no, “You are, the salt of the earth.” For Jesus, we disciples are indeed already the salt of the earth, this is a spiritual reality, we are already the salt of the earth, it is a state of being that is already in place. This calls to mind the great saint Evelyn Underhill who said that spirituality is more about reminding and remembering than learning something new. We are this salt of the earth, if you don’t believe me, ask Jesus.

So with this reminder that Jesus has a clear idea of what we are to be in the world, this enlivening spice, and that we are indeed that spice, we come face-to-face with the prospect of how we are doing in the light of Jesus’ statement. In other words: how are we doing in living with the standard that Jesus has laid out? Are you living as the salt of the earth? Are you enchanting and enlivening the flavors of life, are you feeling, thinking, and living deeply in the pain and joy of the world or are you living in another way that Jesus doesn’t describe? He is pretty harsh too when considering the prospect of salt without saltiness: “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 underfoot.”

It seems to me that a life of saltiness that Jesus is getting at here is one that, without fear, moves into the world in love and affection. We salty ones don’t allow ourselves to be bowled-over by the tragedies and disappointments of the world, but we also don’t allow ourselves to fall into quiet resignation over injustices. We followers of Jesus, we salty ones, walk a brave line of love into the deepest experiences of life, neither being swept away nor disengaged. This brave walk of course happens only because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit which, in my experience, is more about granting patience and tenacity more than anything.

So what does this salty life look like anyway? To me it seems that a salty life of following Jesus is one where, first and foremost, the disciple has begun to make peace with themselves. Where in your life have you shied away from the cold facts of life? Which relationships have you let grow cold because the truth is just too awkward? Which aspect of your personality and habits are hindering a zest of life, what needs the salt of Jesus?

Next, I suppose, is that the salty ones begin to move beyond themselves and gently offer themselves to others; hopefully simply as presence, ally-ship, and friendship and not as an overpowering fixer. We are salt, not cayenne. Salt allows the flavors of others to shine. Cayenne insists on being forward and in your face. Being salt means that we listen, we notice, and we don’t have to have our way.

Being salt for the earth means to remind the world of what God created it to be: a loving commonwealth that is created for the flourishing of all and that anything other than that is not living in accordance with how God desired things to be. You are the salt of the earth, called so by Jesus himself, no go, be salt and nothing else, not sugar, or an onion, or a toothpaste Oreo.

Walk bravely into the world and know that we go together empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Josh Bowron. Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. He holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 5(A).

Becoming Peacemakers, Epiphany 4(A) – January 29, 2017

[RCL] Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12 

Today we commemorate, and celebrate, the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. Last Sunday, we heard in the fourth chapter of Matthew that Jesus has gathered disciples and gone throughout Galilee teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing the sick. The Sermon on the Mount, which occurs early in Jesus’ ministry, is the longest piece of teaching from Jesus recorded in the New Testament, and the first recorded teaching in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew sets the scene for us: Jesus sees the crowds that have gathered, then goes up the mountain, where he sits down and begins to teach his disciples. Perhaps Jesus preaches his homily in answer to the question from Psalm 15: Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill? The psalmist had answered, “Whoever leads a blameless life, and does what is right, who speaks truth from his heart.”

Perhaps his homily includes the text from Micah: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8). Certainly the subject is how to live an ethical life, a life worthy of the household of God. What is the nature of God’s justice, kindness, and humility? What is the nature of God’s kingdom? What constitutes a blameless, right, and truthful character, for the individual and the community?

So Jesus begins: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Why the poor in spirit? That doesn’t sound right to most of us. Wouldn’t it be better to be rich in spirit? It is Jesus’ role to help us re-think our definitions and values; his movement is one of renewal. Jesus helps us to look at the old texts from the prophets and the psalms in a new spirit. So let us look at blessedness as God’s gift, as Jesus makes known the values and priorities of the household of God, and offers a guide to living God’s gracious and abundant life.

To be poor in spirit is to be open and empty before God. Let us approach God’s kingdom humbly, with our hands, hearts and minds open, free of clutter, of old habits and anxieties. Humble and receptive, available for God to do a new thing. Jesus re-orders our reality, re-defines the nature of abundance to mean a new life in God.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The mourner is cracked open, available to receive God’s grace. Open to sorrow over all pain, offense, and need. Mourning is another kind of emptying, an assumption of appropriate responsibility for the brokenness around us.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Qualities of gentleness, quietness, kindness, and humility. Qualities of letting go of control into the hands of God. Another kind of emptying.

So the first step to kingdom living is emptying, and the next is transforming that clean emptiness to the blessing of a profound relationship with God. Poverty of spirit, mourning, gentleness, humility: these are characteristics of the contemplative life, these are qualities of a life of prayer.

Righteousness and justice lie at the heart of an active life in the kingdom of God. Having taught his faithful disciples how to be humble servants of God, Jesus begins to teach them to be leaders: peacemakers who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

In the section of the Beatitudes describing the righteous life, Jesus puts truth and justice issues on the table. Justice must be accompanied by mercy and purity of heart. The psalmist has written, in response to the question Who may abide on God’s holy hill: Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.

These words describe the Beatitude qualities of purity of heart and peacemaking. One who is pure of heart is single-minded in the quest for justice and truth, sincere, transparent and without guile before God. One who is pure of heart cultivates habits of integrity: unity among heart, word, and deed. The peacemaker values truth and reconciliation: peace with God, reconciliation in the community of faith, love for all neighbors, near and far. These are qualities of life in community.

Finally, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. A great challenge to the qualities of blessedness – openness, gentleness, humility, purity of heart, justice, and mercy – occurs when we are persecuted for that very peacemaking to which we have been led by our relationship with God and our neighbors. Or perhaps we want to aid and protect those who are being persecuted. There is no peace without justice. Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake must call on virtues of courage, patience, and self-control.

Peacemakers must affirm hope in the midst of difficulty, despair, suffering.

The shape of the Beatitudes is brilliant in presenting an ethic of character based on the interplay between being and doing. In the Beatitudes, we journey with the disciples of Jesus from faith through simplicity, service, and reconciliation to hope. Hope is the future tense of faith. As Christians, we live in expectation. Expectation leads to joy and freedom. Jesus reminds us: rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. As followers of Jesus, we are to be prophets, in our prayers and in our lives, of the good news of the kingdom of God.

Hear with the disciples, Jesus’ words of renewal. We are blessed by God’s grace to live the abundant life of the household of God, in relationship with God and our neighbors. We are called to be Peacemakers, living the Beatitudes in our daily work, in our communities and organizations. Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly with your God. Hunger and thirst for Righteousness. Make peace with purity of heart. Expect nothing less than the kingdom of God, and persevere in the face of opposition.

In Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus tells us what we will become when we live by the ethics of being he teaches in the Beatitudes. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. As the salt of the earth, may our way of being foster justice and peace in our daily relationships. As the light of the world, may our way of being be a model for justice and peace in the world around us and in the world to come.

We have need of Peacemakers here and now, at home, in our communities, in our country, in our world. May we become poor in spirit so that we may be renewed, refreshed, and inspired by the words of the Beatitudes. May we profess the good news of the household of God, in our lives and by our prayers. Amen.

Written by Susan Butterworth. Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she leads weekly Taizé prayer. She is writing a book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 4(A).

Think Again, Epiphany 3(A) – January 22, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Today is January 22nd and we are just about three weeks into 2017. Did you make any resolutions this year? If you did, how are they holding up?

New Year’s resolutions can be big or small. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • This year, I will eat less, drink less, exercise more.
  • This year, I will put down my phone and pay attention to the people around me.
  • This year, I will find a place to volunteer and make a difference in the world.

Making a New Year’s resolution is a kind of repentance. We make New Year’s resolutions because we recognize our ongoing need for conversion to the new life of God’s Kingdom. We know that we aren’t living up to the full potential God is calling us to. We are sorry for falling short, and we promise to do better in the future.

Now that three weeks have passed, we may already have to repent for not living up to the resolutions we made. But that’s okay: God always accepts our repentance. As long as we continue to turn toward God, God will be there to welcome us.

There’s more to repentance than personal conversion, however. Being sorry and promising to be better is part of it, but it isn’t the whole picture. In fact, the “being sorry” part of repentance really isn’t going to help you change your ways until you get an idea of what that the bigger picture is.

Let’s consider the word in the Gospel that is translated “repent.” The Greek word Jesus uses is “metanoia” (met-an’-oy-ah). “Meta” is a preposition that can be translated many different ways, but usually it means “after.” “Noia” is a verb and means “to think,” “to perceive.” Put them together and you have something like, “to think after,” “to see after.”

But—after what? The interesting thing about this word—about repentance—is that the word itself implies a two-way street. Repentance isn’t just something we do to or for God. We aren’t able to do it—to repent—until after God comes to us and opens our eyes and enables our response. Only then are we able “to think after.” Perhaps the English phrase that catches the meaning best is “to think again.” God enables us to think again about our actions, to think better about them, and to change our ways going forward.

In the Gospel of Matthew today, Jesus announces the beginning of his ministry with the words, “Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Or as we might translate it: “Think again! God’s Kingdom is almost here.”

This declaration is the starting point for all of Jesus’ teaching. Everything that comes after grows out of his idea that God’s Kingdom is coming to displace the Kingdoms of the world that have perpetuated injustice and impoverished God’s people.

Jesus comes out of the wilderness proclaiming this message, but we aren’t really told to whom. The assumption that most people make is that repentance is primarily a personal matter: I had better repent of my own personal sin. And of course, we had better— we are all better off when we do repent. But in this passage, “repentance” is not the message Jesus brings to individuals. Individuals like Peter and Andrew and James and John (and perhaps, you and me) get a different message: “Follow me.”

So then, who is the recipient of the “repent” message? Think again—the kingdom of heaven has come near! There is a challenge in this pronouncement. Who is Jesus really telling to step aside? It isn’t the common people, like Peter and John, the people down on the ground. The coming of God’s Kingdom is good news for the poor.

The person who’s got to be worried if a new king shows up is the old king. In this case it was Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, and all of Caesar’s client kings and subordinate rulers and hangers-on who benefited from his reign. Now why would Caesar need to think again?

This is a good question, and its answer is tied to another question you may be asking: why exactly were Peter and Andrew and John and the others so eager to quit fishing for fish and start fishing for people? It seems remarkable how quickly they respond to Jesus’ invitation. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and Matthew tells us, “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They give up their livelihoods without a second thought to follow an itinerant preacher around the Galilean countryside.

This response is remarkable, but maybe not as remarkable as it seems. For us, of course, if we think of fishing at all, we are much more likely to think of a sunny mountain stream or a lazy afternoon on a boat. But Peter and Andrew and John weren’t fishing for sport—they were fishing to survive. They were merely cogs in the economy of the Roman Empire. In fact, fishermen were so heavily taxed for the right to fish the sea of Galilee that their backbreaking labor netted them just enough to survive, but little else.

You can begin to see why Jesus was put to death by the Roman authorities as a political revolutionary: the first act of his ministry was to tell the Emperor to “think again,” and in the next moment, to liberate some of the cogs in the Emperor’s great machine.

The Roman Empire seems long ago and far away—something fantastical and unreal that we know only from television and movies. The real Roman Empire wasn’t a good place to be a peasant. By Jesus’ time it was a totalitarian domination system. Which we like to think has nothing to do with us, safe in our modern western democracy.

Nevertheless, the picture God is trying to reveal to us through these stories from long ago—part of the thing that will help us “think again” and maybe alter our course—is that concentrated wealth and power still tend to be bad news for those at the bottom of the economic system.

There are still powers and rulers in our world today, in government or in business, who abuse their position to benefit themselves and their friends, to the detriment of the vast majority of God’s people. How are we to resist these powers? Especially when most of us benefit in some way because the system is set up the way it is. Can we build a world where resources are shared and not hoarded? Where God’s love and God’s justice rule? Where Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven becomes a reality?

Jesus is calling us to join in this work. His invitation today is: Follow me. It is up to us to build God’s Kingdom, and Jesus tells us that we can. When we repent. When we think again. Every time we open our hands and hearts to share God’s abundance with those in need brings God’s Kingdom closer. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for it—your Kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Jason Cox. Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 3(A).

There Goes a Lamb, Epiphany 2(A) – January 15, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Winston Churchill once called his political opponent “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

At least for much of the 19th Century popular art, hymnody and poetry tended to portray Jesus as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Part of the problem would seem to be that we confuse love with sentimentality. Social media, for all its wonders, seems to have fueled concepts of anger and love, easily protected by a firewall of separation from physical contact. Pictures of cute little kittens fight for screen space with graphic videos of atrocities. “False news’ stimulates belief, particularly among those who haven’t received basic training on how truth should be distinguished from falsehood.

So when Jesus walked by and John announced to his followers, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! “, what were they to make of such an improbable claim? If they had the slightest familiarity of their faith and religious tradition, two words stood out. They were “lamb” and “sins.”

The edifice of first century Judaism was based on two traditions. The older, the one that placed the Temple center stage, invoked memories of their father Abraham, as he attempted to offer his wife Sarah’s only son Isaac as a human sacrifice. In the story God’s messenger instructed Abraham to substitute an available animal, a goat, for his son. The story has many nuances, but its most important is the step it makes from barbarism to a more benign concept of substitution. God was going to accept an animal, albeit one in mint condition, as a blood offering by which the person, family, tribe or nation were “atoned”, made one with their Creator. Around this system grew the Tabernacle and then the Temple cult, supervised by an hereditary priesthood descended from Moses’ brother-in-law Aaron.

The second vital part of Jewish religion in the days of Jesus was the synagogue system. The Old Testament tells the story of Israel, torn apart, situated between aggressive world powers, conquered again and again. The conquering powers sought to cower the Jewish people by destroying its visible connection with God. Those Jewish people taken hostage “by the waters of Babylon” not only wept; they gathered together to hear their Scriptures read by authorized teachers. In first century Palestine Temple worship, with its substitutionary sacrifices, situated in Jerusalem, jostled together with synagogue practice, hearing and receiving the Scriptures and applying them to daily life.

Note how today’s Gospel brings together these two practices, not in a theory, but in a Person. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, “who died that we might be forgiven, who died to make us good.” Jesus is also Rabbi, the authorized teacher, in whom God’s law is renewed and applied to the new citizens in his chosen nation.

If you are up to date with the never-ending church squabbles about how Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is a substitute for our sins, our family sins, the Church’s sins and that “of the whole” world, the important point is that God knows how this is true.

Our minds are best focused on the Eucharist, rather than on theories of how Atonement works; on a Person rather than a theory.

In the Holy Meal, we re-member. We bring to life in the here and now, the sacrifice, once offered for the sins of the whole world. We eat and drink, ingest, the life of Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Before we reach that point in the service, we hear Jesus the Rabbi, the authorized teacher, expounding to us God’s law, the words Jews heard at the time of Jesus and the words Christians have heard since the time of Jesus. And we corporately confess our misdeeds, missteps and flirtations with evil.

We do so as God’s community of priests, as we stand between God and the human race, the nations, the Church, our families and ourselves.

Sitting in your pew this morning, look up, and with the mind of faith see the Lamb of God, the one you call Rabbi, and in your hearts pray, “ Have mercy on us. Grant us peace.”

Written by The Rev. Anthony Clavier. Clavier is Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, IL. He is also co-Editor of The Anglican Digest.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 2(A).

The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany 1(A) – January 8, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

God, our strength and our hope, grant us the courage of John the Baptist, constantly to speak the truth and boldly to rebuke injustice, with eyes open to recognize God among us.

We are in the season of Epiphany, the season of growing light, the season of the Magi and the revelation of Christ to all the nations, the season when we celebrate Christ’s baptism, and the miracle of the wedding at Cana. The season when we celebrate Christ as the light of the world. A time to reflect on mission and unity.

In today’s gospel passage from Matthew, we read the story of an encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. Who was John the Baptist? Why was he baptizing at the Jordan River, and why was Jesus there?

John is considered a historical figure who is included in the accounts of the contemporary historian Josephus. According to Josephus, John was a popular prophet and holy man who was a contemporary of Jesus. Herod was afraid that his popularity might lead to an uprising and had him imprisoned, and later killed. John is recognized by Christians as the prophet foretold to prepare the way of the Lord. His life is closely linked with that of Jesus. The celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, six months before Christmas Eve, may be the oldest commemoration of a saint, dating back at least to 500 C.E. when the feast was celebrated much like Christmas in the early church.

Let’s start by noting that John did not invent baptism. In the book of Leviticus, God instructed the people of Israel to cleanse themselves from impurities, especially before sacrificing in the temple. Ritual cleansing before approaching God was a part of Jewish life. Special pools called mikvehs were constructed for the purpose. Immersion in a natural body of water, especially flowing water, could effect the ritual of purification. Archaeological remains of mikvehs from the time of John and Jesus have been uncovered in Israel and in other ancient Jewish communities.

The Jewish world in first century Judea was diverse. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two sects of established temple religion, while the Essenes were a renewal movement that lived an ascetic life in the desert at Qumran, in opposition to what they saw as the corruption of Jerusalem and the temple. After centuries of oppressive rule by foreign powers, the Essenes heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, and looked for the promised Messiah. Life in the desert community protested the worldliness and corruption of Jewish worship in Jerusalem, and the oppressive, colonial rule of the Romans. The Essene rule of life placed emphasis on purity, ritual bathing, and obedience to God’s commandments, to be ready for the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom. The ruins at Qumran include the mikveh for ritual immersion. It has been speculated that John the Baptist was a member of the Essene community; certainly he had some beliefs and practices in common with the Essenes.

Thus John, like Jesus, was a Jewish man who led a renewal movement within Judaism. People were deeply stirred by the words, deeds, and example of the holy man, John. Picture a revival meeting, down by the river, folks wading into the water to proclaim the renewal of their faith, emerging clean and ready to encounter God. A popular movement, from the grassroots, countering what they considered to be the corruption and petrification of the religious structure of temple worship centered in Jerusalem. Jesus may have been a follower of John; certainly he would have heard of John and his message of repentance; he traveled all the way from Galilee to the Judean desert to be baptized by him. John had a genuine calling to ministry, one that Jesus recognized and sought out.

In turn, John recognizes Jesus’ ministry. Indeed John says he is not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, and hesitates to baptize one whom he recognizes as God’s anointed. But Jesus respects John’s ministry, and he insists: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, his faith and purpose renewed and sealed, ready to begin his public ministry. And God’s spirit descends on him like a dove, and God’s voice, echoing the prophecy of Isaiah, says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” John and Jesus have acted together in obedience to God. Encouraged by John and anointed by God, Jesus is ready to follow the straight path that has been laid for him.

God is certainly pleased that Jesus is ready to commit to a mission and ministry of justice. Perhaps he is also pleased that Jesus and John have come together. The two ministries were inter-related. Both preached a message of repentance and renewal, freedom and justice. In John 2: 35-42, we learn that Jesus’ first two disciples were drawn from the followers of John the Baptist. In John 3: 22-30, we find John and Jesus baptizing side by side. They share a common message, criticizing corruption and calling for the cleansing of public life. They urge their followers to live a life worthy of the kingdom of God.

For Christians, baptism is a public proclamation of faith and intention to live a life that pleases God. When we renew our baptismal vows, we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to resist evil, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

It is no coincidence that the World Council of Churches’ Week of Prayer for Christian Unity occurs during the season of Epiphany, with its themes of mission, unity, cooperation, and ecumenism. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, congregations and parishes all over the world exchange preachers or arrange special ecumenical celebrations and prayer services.

We can easily imagine a pulpit exchange between Jesus and John. Perhaps we can envision ourselves joining in that special ecumenical prayer service and celebration of common baptismal vows of faith, respect, justice, and peace.

Together we might promise to renew our commitment to our covenant as God’s people, to repent of our blindness, to rejoice that God sent Jesus to be the light of the nations, to show us the way of justice for all.

Together we might go forth, delighting God, delighted by God, strengthened in our own ministry and mission to live and work in hope, unity, and peace.

Let us close with the lyrical language of Isaiah 42: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Gracious God, we thank you for your anointing in the waters of baptism, for your powerful voice, for your strength, and for your blessing of peace and unity.

(To the people): Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

(Response): I WILL, WITH GOD’S HELP.

Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1(A).

Fearless Following, Epiphany (A) – January 6, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Dr. Margee Kerr is a sociologist who studies fear. She and other experts who write about how to keep New Year’s resolutions say that the secret to keeping resolutions is not to follow most people’s usual approach. Most people’s usual approach is to think about how we’re deficient, inadequate, unsuccessful, and try really, really hard to be different this year.

Instead, Kerr says we need to confront the fears that keep us from achieving our goals—confront them, figure out if the fear is rational, and then take steps to overcome the fear.[i] Overcoming fear gets us on the path to meaningful change.

Whether or not we’ve made new year’s resolutions this year, whether or not confronting our fears can help us keep them, when we hear today’s Gospel lesson, we get to see fearlessness in action. We get to see how fearlessness in seeking the holy leads to freedom and joy.

First a little background on these fearless worshippers from afar. Contrary to the familiar hymn,[ii] in Matthew’s gospel, they aren’t kings, and Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there are. The idea that there were three of them probably comes from the three gifts they bring. What we know about magi before the Christian tradition is that as early as about six hundred years before Matthew writes his gospel, magi are known as a group of religious experts in Persia.[iii] Classical sources show them advising kings, performing religious rituals, watching the stars, and interpreting dreams.[iv]

They are called kings starting about four or five hundred years after Matthew’s Gospel.[v] This description fit nicely for Christians as a fulfillment to passages in the Old Testament, like in our Psalm for today: “The kings of Arabia and Saba will offer gifts; all kings will bow down before him” (Psalm 72:10-11) and our lesson from Isaiah: “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).

By the sixth century, the wise men had been given names and descriptions, often seen in artistic representations. One is named Caspar, meaning “Treasurer,” and is imagined as a beardless young man. Melchior means “King of Light,” or “King of the City,” and is portrayed as a bearded old man. Balthasar means “God protect the king,” and is portrayed as a black man.[vi] By the eighth century, the three magi represent three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe—what was then the whole known world, coming to worship Jesus. [vii] This global depiction fits well with Matthew’s story of the first Gentiles, the first non-Jews, coming to worship Jesus, the one in whom all humanity can know the grace, mercy, joy, and perfect love that casts out fear that comes from God.

So, in what ways are the magi fearless?

We just have to start with this one: the wise men are not afraid to stop and ask for directions. If you prefer, they are not afraid to ask for help, get more information. They may have special abilities, like noticing and tracking an unusual star, but they don’t neglect the use of basic common sense. Looking for a king? Go to the king’s house. Ask for help there. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask when Herod’s butler answers the palace door. “We observed his star, and here we are, ready to do him homage.”

When Herod hears about this, he is terrified. King of the Jews? I’m the King of the Jews! Herod thinks. The position is filled. There is a young pretender to my throne out there somewhere. Herod is scared, but he knows where to go for more information. He knows scripture will have the details he and the wise men need.

This is important. The wise men know something of God’s grace through nature. Through the appearance of the star, they know that the Christ has been born, but their knowledge from nature alone is incomplete. They need scripture to tell them where. By the star’s guiding, they’ve gotten close—they’re about nine miles away from Bethlehem—but experiencing God through nature isn’t enough. They don’t know enough to get to the full manifestation of God. They don’t know enough to be able to truly worship.

On the other hand, Herod can get a room full of Bible scholars together and still not truly worship. One can memorize verses from the Bible, but miss the Gospel, the Good news of God’s redeeming love for all people in Jesus Christ.

Notice Herod doesn’t question the authenticity of the star. He doesn’t question the authenticity of the scripture. But he is so certain of his own importance that he won’t even go with the magi to see the child for himself. He is so worried about safe-guarding his own power, that he won’t even go and see the one who may be the long-awaited Messiah. He would rather stay in Jerusalem, send others to do his bidding, turn his magi guests into servants—go, do this and that, and then come back and tell me. He would rather have second-hand hearsay than risk losing his place, his power, his resting as the still point of his own universe around which everything else must turn. He isn’t seeking God’s truth, so he spends his time and energy scheming and deceiving.

The wise men, not afraid to ask for help, direction, guidance, and not afraid to trust the witness of scripture, continue on their way, filled with great joy.

They follow the star and the guidance of the scripture to Bethlehem where they find the Christ child. They worship and offer their gifts – gold, for a king; frankincense, to honor his divinity; myrrh, because this divine king will die and myrrh is used to anoint the body of a king. The wise men achieved their goal: worshipping the true king of the Jews.

Then, they show fearlessness in two more ways.

First, during the night, they receive word in a dream not to return to Herod. And they obey. They don’t second-guess the divine. The wise men are not intimidated by worldly power, and they’re not drawn by it either. They aren’t afraid that Herod told them to come back and they’re not obeying him. They don’t get caught up in Herod’s intrigues or see if maybe there could be something in it for them if they go to Herod, or if maybe they can change Herod.

Second, they return home by another way. They are not afraid to incorporate new information when it’s given to them, even if it changes their plans.

With their departure by another way, the wise men exit the story.

But they don’t have to exit our lives as witnesses and examples. Afterall, they were the first of all the people, through the generations and throughout the world, who worship Jesus Christ and find that perfect love casts out all fear.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany (A).

———————-

[i] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-we-scream/201512/forget-new-years-resolutions. Accessed 11/29/16.
[ii] Robert J. Morgan writes that “We Three Kings” was composed by John Henry Hopkins for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary in 1857. Morgan, Come Let Us Adore Him: Stories Behind the Most cherished Christmas Hymns (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 81.
[iii] John Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Gospels (London, UK: SCM-Canterbury, 1974), 126.
[iv] Amy Richter, Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 172–9.
[v] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 111.
[vi] Ibid., 116.
[vii] Ibid., 108.

Seeking God’s Light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2015

January 6, 2015

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In the reading from Isaiah, we are called to “arise” and “shine”; we are called to get up and be in relationship with this light that is God’s love breaking into a world that has been covered in darkness. This darkness has covered the earth, this thick darkness that the Magi walk through; we have been promised that it will vanish in the dawn of this new light that is the Glory of the Lord.

Isaiah says that the nations shall come to this light and the kings to the brightness of this dawn. And then in the gospel reading this morning we see the nations streaming to this light. We see these kings on a long journey through the dark. Weighed down with their gifts and riches as they seek. These treasure chests they have brought with them from the East.

Exactly who they are is difficult to discern. Are they wise men? Kings? Persian magicians? The text says “Magi,” and our tradition of song and story has overlaid a multitude of meanings – for example, that there were three of them, and what their names were.

But in the text, there are not three men, but three gifts. The Bible does not say how many Magi there were; there could have been three – or 30.

There is room in this magical caravan for all of us.

What is clear is that they are other definitely otherworldly, mysterious. These travellers are not part of the Jewish world. They come from far away. They are the world flocking to the light of God.

These Magi have been traveling in the dark, following a star; we don’t know for how long they have been seeking any more than we know where they started,or how many of them there are.

But as they get close, they seek council from Herod. We in the audience want to shout “No! Don’t ask him!” Herod is afraid of the child, and we all know there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful man when he is afraid.

From the text, we know that when they find this child with his mother, they pay him homage. The word that gets translated as “homage” is a wonderful combination of the Greek words for “to fall down” and “to kiss.” This is worship at its most pure. They find this child, which is the goal of their journey, and they fall down in praise. And then, of course, they offer the gifts.

These wise men, these kings, these magicians from a far-off land offer the baby three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is tradition, too, around the meaning of these gifts.

The gold is because the baby is a king, and they say just this to Herod and all of Jerusalem – that they are looking for the child who has been born the King of the Jews.

They offer the baby frankincense because he is God, and the incense symbolizes prayer rising to the heavens like smoke.

And they offer the baby myrrh, which was often used for burials and symbolized death, because even here at the beginning of this story about Jesus as a baby, we remember that this story goes to the cross and beyond.

We are all on our own journeys through the dark, carrying our own gifts within us. We, too, seek to find the truth of love in this world of darkness. We, too, bear our gifts and are seeking the right place to lay them down.

We come bearing gold, our gift for our king. To whom and to what do we owe our allegiance? Who is our king? What orients our lives in the political spectrum, and how do we work together? There are any number of authorities who would eagerly have our obedience and fealty. How do we know which loud voice in the clamor of the world should be obeyed?

We come bearing frankincense and seeking what is holy in this world. We are looking for the thin space, the gap between this world that we see and touch and the other world that we long for and know to be true. Is it our selves, our families, our nation? Is it our ideologies, our own opinions? Is it personal growth? Is there anything that makes you fall on your knees in honor of something greater than yourself?

We come bearing myrrh, in all that we mourn. We are all bearing grief in this world, and we are looking for a place to lay it down. What is it that makes you weep? What do you do with the grief in your life? Myrrh was used for the anointing of a dead body. What are you ready to bury? What do you need to let go of and mourn the loss of?

Whom do we obey? What do we worship? Where can we lay our broken hearts? The answer is: the Kingdom of Love that Jesus preaches about.

This new kingdom is the Light that illuminates the deep darkness. This new kingdom has broken into and shattered all we thought we knew about the way the world works.

If we obey the Kingdom of Love, we will find ourselves overflowing with compassion, and forgiving our enemies, and giving away all we had thought was “ours.”

If we worship in the Kingdom of Love, we find ourselves falling down at the feet of Love and joining with angels and archangels and breaking bread with God’s beloved.

If we allow the Kingdom of Love to break our hearts, we will realize that all the world’s children are our children, and that the heart of God is overflowing with gracious compassion for everyone.

It sounds like loss – the loss of being the center, the loss of “treasure.” But in this loss there is overwhelming joy. That is what is said of these Magi: that in their encounter with this infant incarnation of Love, they were overwhelmed with joy.

There is something out there that is so bright and beautiful that it draws the shepherds, and the Magi and us. This is what we look for in the dark, burdened by our treasure, longing to lay down our obedience, our worship and our grief.

And so we walk through the dark, our eyes eagerly seeing a speck of light – a star we can follow. That is what Epiphany is about – it is a time to look for the light of God shining in unexpected places. And it is a time to fall down and kiss the light when we do find it.

 

— The Rev. Kerlin Richter is the founding priest of Bushwick Abbey, a creative new Episcopal church plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Uncomfortable, yet unafraid – Last Sunday After Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (A) – 2014

March 2, 2014

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, is also World Mission Sunday. How appropriate.

“Mission” is derived from the Latin word mittere, which means “to send.” It entered the Christian lexicon in the 16th century during the Age of Discovery and the expansion of imperialistic European power to the “New World.” However, the concept of mission – to spread the teaching of Jesus Christ – can be traced back to the first century and Paul of Tarsus. We are all familiar with Paul’s dramatic conversion story on the Damascus road. And it would be safe to say that that transfiguring encounter with God is what compelled Paul “to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory of Jesus and his love” – what compelled him to become a missionary.

Our gospel reading for this Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a mountain where he stands in conversation with Moses and Elijah – a symbol that the ancestors recognize Jesus as the one who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. And the encounter seems all well and good until the voice of God speaks from a bright cloud, at which the three disciples of Jesus fall “facedown to the ground, terrified.”

Icons of the Transfiguration story show the three disciples on their hands and knees, cowering, crawling away and covering their faces. They are high-up, isolated and vulnerable. And although by this point in Matthew’s gospel at least one of them, Peter, acknowledged that Jesus was “the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” he and his friends quickly forgot about Jesus’ divinity upon realizing that they had no control in the presence of God penetrating their human realm.

They were being changed, and that change frightened them. Yet, ever so gently, Jesus looked upon his friends and said, “Do not be afraid.” And then carried them down the mountain into the midst of human squalor and need. They had seen that God was real, and could now go tell the story to people who needed to know.

Jesus called them to be uncomfortable, and reminded them to be unafraid.

So often, church folks, much like Peter, James and John, are stubbornly adverse to change. Whether the argument is about liturgy, or pew leaflets, or the church’s race and gender politics, there is ample evidence around the Anglican Communion that suggests we have become comfortable in our silos of privilege and tradition. A lot of us do not prefer change.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the world’s pervasive evils as racism, militarism and materialism, and to this we can add sexism, heterosexism and ableism, which is the discrimination against people with disabilities. These evils convince some of us that we cannot be too sure of God’s presence. We are persuaded, then, to control our environments as to not become overwhelmed or vulnerable. The limitations of our eyes and ears sometimes make the comprehensibility of God’s goodness impossible. So, routine becomes our god.

Routine, comprehensible and comfortable, becomes a means of protection from a constantly changing life. We erect structures of narcissistic might where we employ rituals to remind God to protect us and show us favor against a common enemy – it helps if the enemy looks different or loves differently, has less or knows less. Sometimes those structures and rituals are cultural, humble externalizations of how we communicate with God. Too often those structures and rituals are seemingly immovable symbols to keep out the “other,” whom we fear will steal our things, or praise God too loudly, or whose stories will force us to face our own brokenness, or remind us of our complicity in oppression.

Yet, Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the very nature of the universe of which we are a part, and of which God is at the center. And it contradicts who and what we hope to become as followers of a metaphysically and physically transitory Christ.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, to go and  “make disciples of all nations.”

Unwillingness to change is ultimately unchristian, because it is a selfish relinquishing of our responsibility as bearers of the Good News, which requires us to get up and get out.

However, in our gospel reading today, Jesus calls us to transgress our comfort zones and be transfigured, to be changed into the very likeness of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

The Episcopal Church has 25 young adults who have answered Jesus’ call to us to be uncomfortable and unafraid. The Young Adult Service Corps, a part of the Global Missions Office of the Episcopal Church, has young adult missionaries in 14 countries – South Africa, the Philippines, China, Italy, Haiti, Panama, Spain, Tanzania, South Korea, Cuba, El Salvador, Japan, Honduras and Brazil. These young adult missionaries give anywhere from a year to two years of their lives to the work of God. Many of these young people have never been to the countries where they now live and work. And many of them have little proficiency in the local languages and no experience with the local cultures and social mores. It is the perfect recipe to be uncomfortable, and thus the perfect place to be transfigured.

In partnership with organizations associated with the Anglican Church in those various countries, some of the work of these Young Adult Service Corps missionaries includes helping victims of domestic violence, teaching children who have been the victims of sexual violence, working in economic relief and development, working as student ministers to university students, and working as spiritual companions to seafarers who spend a majority of their year away from home, at sea.

And while many people think that missionary work is about going to some dark place and Christianizing a desperate people, the missionary often finds that she is the one who is being converted, changed, transfigured.

The missionary finds that she is called to do as God instructed Peter, James and John: to “listen.” And in her listening she learns to become one with the people, to get to the heart of things, to lose herself in love of and in service to the people she now calls her family and friends. And in that very coming together as one, she becomes a witness to the transforming and transfiguring presence of God.

The Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church is giving a generation of young people the opportunity to fling open the doors to their silos of privilege in order to build bridges and partnerships with God’s church all over the world – to do their small part in joining together the disjointed places of the family of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Once we have been to the Mount of Transfiguration and blessed with the knowledge that we are one with the entire universe – at one with each other, nature and God – then we can’t help but to tell the story, walking as one constantly being transfigured. Indeed, the transfigured one dedicates her life to bringing about God’s peace on earth.

A Franciscan prayer asks God to bless us “with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships … with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people … with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war.”

Whether abroad or at home, once we’ve broken open the doors to our silos of privilege and tradition to encounter God’s transfiguring presence, it must become our mission, with God’s help, to descend the mountain and enter into uncomfortable places, to be a transfiguring presence in the lives of others.

Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian and mystic said it best:

“There must be a matured and maturing sense of Presence … on the social, naturalistic and cosmic levels. … Modern [humans] must know that [they are children] of God and that the God of life in all its parts and the God of the human heart are one and the same. … Thus, we shall look out upon life with quiet eyes and work on our tasks with the conviction and detachment of Eternity.”

 

— Paul Daniels, II is a Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) volunteer serving as the Student and Young Adult Minister at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Grahamstown, South Africa. He is from the Diocese of North Carolina

Stone soup, 7 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-401 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Once upon a time, in a land much like ours, there were some weary travelers who came to a village with nothing but a cooking pot. They found a place to camp near some water, filled up their pot, and put it over a fire. Then they took a large stone and put it in the pot as it simmered.

A villager saw this, became curious, and asked what they were cooking. They explained that they were making a wonderful dish called stone soup that they would be happy to share with the village. They just needed a few small things to make it extra flavorful. The villager decides that he can part with a few carrots and adds them to the pot. Another villager sees them and contributes some potatoes, and so on and so forth until there is a wonderful, nourishing soup to be enjoyed by all.

This folk tale slyly illustrates what the concept of gleaning can look like in a community. By each contributing some, there is always enough for all. In the story, the villagers were sort of tricked into contributing, but they did contribute on their own accord because they believed that the end result would be something great. And it was. But it would not have been if they decided to keep their doors locked and never spoke to the strangers amongst them.

In the story, the stone was the base for the soup, with the villagers building upon that. Similarly, our foundation is Jesus Christ, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading, and we must choose with care how we build on it – individually and as a community. We are the Body of Christ; we belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God. All parts of us belong to God: all our hurt, all our joy, all our imperfections. If we believe that God’s Spirit dwells within us, that means that God’s Spirit dwells in others, too, whether we like it or not.

This should matter to us. This should change us.  It should transform us into being perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect.” Not an ethical or moral perfection, but perfection in the Hebrew sense of the word “tamim,” which mean “wholeness.” To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly and to be single-minded in our devotion to God. That is what we are striving for in this lifelong journey with Jesus.

If we are striving for wholeness in God, then our lives as disciples will show it. Our love is not one of vengeful retaliation, as we see in our gospel story today. Instead, our love extends even to our enemies, because that is what God calls us to: actions of faith. The thoughts and feelings that are inside us are acted out with the vehicle of our bodies. Are we God’s dwelling place? If so, how does anyone know?

Jesus calls us to radical hospitality – for ourselves and for others. God loved us first so that we would know what love is, and because of our love of God, we are able to love ourselves and love others.

Jesus constantly challenges us with this. He said:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

Tax collectors were despised in Jewish culture for being unpatriotic and were seen as unclean by coming into contact with gentiles.

Jesus continued: “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?” The gentiles were considered unclean and unbelievers in Jewish culture, and to be compared to them was insulting. Jesus calls the disciples – us – to a higher standard than this. God’s love is seen in the world when communities are concerned with compassion, justice, and care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

Have you ever walked into a party or a conference where you know only one or two people? Or have you ever been the new person at school, at work, at church? You look around and everyone else is chatting and seems to know each other and you just stand there feeling awkward. It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life – Jesus calls us to discipleship, and that means not just mingling with, but embracing the other. That means noticing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversations. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant.

Remember, there will be times when we are the awkward person or when we, believe it or not, are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but very active and intentional. It means seeing God in the other, as God sets no bounds in loving. If we stay inside the boundaries of where we feel comfortable, wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue.

Look around you in the pews today, or when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Catch someone’s eye. Hold eye contact for a moment and really look at them. See them as God sees them – precious and holy – a child of God. This may be difficult, especially if you feel someone is your enemy, but as Frederick Buechner wrote in his book “Whistling in the Dark”:

“Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. … You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction.”

How would it feel to be beheld like that? What is it like to know that you are loved by God with such utter completeness?

Hopefully, it is life changing. Hopefully, this love reminds us that we are all part of something greater – a community that is larger and more understanding than we know. Hopefully, we will know that we are cared for by a God who really see us and invites us to share what we have for the soup, no matter if we think it’s fitting or not.

This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts have changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that people want to gather around and be part of.

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the rector of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minnesota.

Intensifying the Law, 6 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 16, 2014

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 or Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

In the moral life, we can think of commandments in at least a couple of ways. One way to think of a commandment is as a rule by which we can evaluate the rightness or wrongness of a given action. We might think of a commandment like, “thou shalt not bear false witness” as a rule against the deliberate telling of untruths. The moral task then will be to decide whether telling our spouses that “we love” their new neon green and brown plaid blazer breaks the rule against lying or not.

A second way to think of a commandment sees it as a guide and exhortation in the formation of our moral character. Taken this way, the command against bearing false witness is not just about following the rule, but it is also about the formation of an honest character. The rule is followed not just for the sake of following it, but because by repeated attempts to follow the rule in our ever-changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to act honestly.

Jesus thinks of commandments in the second way. Our gospel lesson for today comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “Antitheses,” because Jesus’ teaching is presented in the following pattern: First, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said ”; then Jesus follows with his own magisterial statement, “but I say to you”. The problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” is that it suggests that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not so. Rather, what Jesus is doing is intensifying the particular law’s claims and thereby clarifying its true meaning.

In the so-called “Antitheses,” Jesus is showing what he meant earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said he came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and to teach a greater righteousness: “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The commandments are not just rules to be followed, they are given so that by following them we might become formed in a greater righteousness.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those in 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.”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can follow the rule and still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to kill is the formation of our hearts and minds so that we look at others not with anger, but rather with love. The greater righteousness is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the type of people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work to be reconciled with them.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle others. The lustful glance, the undressing with the eye, treats others as objects and takes what doesn’t belong to us, even if it keeps its distance. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses and respects our neighbors.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” The commandment is given so that we would become honest people.

L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become grace-filled people through the daily and disciplined practice of Christian obligations. He writes:

“Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about a ballet dancer, or, if you prefer, a Michael Jordan on the basketball court … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.”

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to the higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might become the type of people Christ wants us to be, people formed and fashioned for life in the kingdom of God.

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a description of the character of disciples fit for the Kingdom:

“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.”

We become these types of people not by forsaking the law; rather, we become these types of people by following the law with true intention. God gave the commandments not so that we would become moral rule keepers; rather, God gave us the commandments as guides and exhortations for the formation of our character, so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).