Wednesday, February 26, 2014

7th Sunday after Epiphany

St. Matthew 5:38-48

In last week's sermon, I spoke of the Scriptural assertion that God is light. In so being, he sheds light on the darkness of human sin and error. Corporately, the light of God shows the depravity of human discord and hatred. Individually, it reveals the ways in which we have tried to live according to our own light rather than the light of God, and in so doing have hurt both ourselves and others. Another word for this light that reveals and also heals is grace. Grace reveals us to be broken humans in need of real help, and then in answer, it points us to the goodness, mercy and love of God. Grace, however, does more than just reveal the goodwill that God has for us and for humanity. Grace changes and transforms us. Furthermore, grace is not that which God gives us once we make a claim on him. We do not claim God; he claims us. Hence, grace is the claim that God has already made on us and on our lives in Jesus Christ. Jesus has come in the flesh. He reveals the eternal goodness, justice and love of God. Whether we accept it or not, Jesus has become our representative, a vision of perfect humanity. We can reject the claim he has made on our lives. We can ignore or avoid it, and fill our lives with endless distractions. We can even deny the claim and the loving God behind it. We can do all these things, but we, and no other human being, can undo God's claim on us. Imagine you were the only child of a loving and devoted father. When your father died and left all that he had to you, you could not object to his lawyer, I'm not happy with this will, can it be rewritten? You could give away the estate, you could squander it, you could even ignore it, or you could also receive it thankfully. Of all these options, none of them is to undo  the last will and testament. So too with the claim Jesus has on us. It cannot be emended, broken, or qualified. That is why it is important that we state the matter in this way: God's claim is on us; we do not claim him; we only respond to him. If the latter were the case, it would be entirely up to us to cling to God, but the fact is God has drawn near and clung to humanity in the man Christ Jesus.

The Gospel lessons for the past few weeks have been successive passages from what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, contained in chapters five to seven of Matthew's Gospel. It contains many well-known passages, including the Lord's prayer and the beatitudes. The phrase, go the extra mile, is based on this morning's excerpt from the sermon on the mount. In last Sunday's selection, Jesus reveals how he is the fulfillment of the law by explaining the implicit meaning of various commandments, mostly from the Decalogue. The prohibition against murder, for example, implies that contempt and hatred of others is also forbidden. Similarly, the prohibition against adultery forbids lusting after a woman in one's heart. In today's Gospel, our Lord continues in a similar vein. The Old Testament law, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is cited; Jesus argues that this law is misunderstood if it used to exact petty revenge. It is an undisputed principle of justice to equalize wrongs and injuries. Jesus is saying however that if the ego uses this principle merely to satisfy its lust for revenge, then there is a failure of the true spirit of love and the spirit of what it means to be human.

The lesson ends with an astounding and difficult saying, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." It would be easy to walk away from this and the past few Gospel lessons thinking that Jesus is just telling us to try harder. We might be left thinking that he is merely teaching an exalted morality: there are good and bad choices before you; make a good choice, says Jesus. This however is a complete subversion of the meaning of the text, and such an interpretation ignores the wider context of the life and teaching of Jesus. I suggest that the sermon on the mount is essentially about God's grace. Such grace is not just a sign of his good will but of his desire to transform and redeem us, to make us perfect, as he is. Again, what God has showed us in our Lord Jesus is that he has staked a claim on us and on human nature. Jesus shows us that God loves us, but he also shows that can share in that love in a way that will transform and renew us. In Jesus we share in the perfection of our human nature, a perfection that we may share in because we belong to him and he is our head and representative. We can, according to the lesson, bear a divine type of love for others, a love that does not expect reciprocation or reward. In fact, it is love that knows that the beloved will sometimes reject the lover. Our Lord says, God sends rain on the just and the unjust and he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good. This is the type of love that we are to show, a love without exceptions for both good and bad, kind and hostile, holy and depraved. We practice this love not by manufacturing the love ourselves, but rather, as we know ourselves to be claimed by God in our Lord Jesus, we can become vessels of what is ultimately his love. The claim of God on our fallen humanity is that we would share in a glorified and redeemed human nature, in a persevering love, a love to the every end.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Habitat for Humanity Invocation

Almighty God, who settest the solitary in families and givest rest to all those who put their trust under the shadow of thy wings; inspire us, we pray, with zeal and fervor in the ministry of providing homes and places of refuge for those most in need in our community. We commend especially to thy care those families and individuals left destitute or homeless by super-storm Sandy. Grant to us in the work before us such clarity and conviction, such humility and hope, that we and all people of our towns and cities may be reminded that all belong to the human family of whom thou art the Father. Finally, put us so in mind that we worship and serve a Redeemer who as a man had no where to lay his head, that we may perform this work with a love and devotion as unto him. Grant these our prayers through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

6th Sunday after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
St. Matthew 5:21-37

In last week's Adult Forum, we talked about the three great "God is" statements in the writings of John the Apostle; these three statements are God is Spirit, God is light and God is love. God is Spirit indicates that God does not have a body and so therefore is not in a place; nor is God like a man with the passions and desires that go along with being human. Furthermore, whatever conceptions we have of God invariably fall short of his reality. God is light means that God is holy. He cannot have fellowship or take delight in our darkness whether as individuals or as a society. If you have felt an instinctual revulsion at some evil--say something you read in the news or something you did in your past--you've identified in a small way with the reality of God's holiness. Finally, God is love. God's love is in a the driving force behind the unfolding of events in the Bible, because over and over again, one reads of God reaching out to a people who have turned their backs on God. God's love is a persevering love. Together, these three statements, God is Spirit, God is light, and God is love give us a helpful and scriptural conception of God.

In the Old Testament and Gospel lessons today, we get a sense of God's holiness that God is light. The Old Testament lesson comes near the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy. The people led out of slavery in Egypt have been wandering in the desert for forty years. Now they are about to enter the promised land, and Moses has been told that he will soon die and will not enter the promised land with the rest of his people. The book of Deuteronomy is the farewell speech of Moses. He reiterates the Law once more and reminds the people of the covenant and promises that they made to God. Speaking through Moses, God says, "see, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. . . choose life." A caricature of the Old Testament is that it is full of arbitrary and meaningless rules. From the standpoint of faith, however, God is anything but a fickle parent who disciplines purely for his own pleasure and convenience. The world operates under an implicit principle of law that has been made explicit in Scripture. In other words, God's law is embedded in the fabric of creation itself. Think of the teaching of the Bible about sexuality which forbids intercourse outside of marriage. As a society we have largely cast off this traditional morality, but isn't it interesting and significant that there are good, natural reasons for the practice of monogamy? Monogamy limits the spread of venereal disease; it provides arguably the best environment for the nurturing and rearing of children. Further, when Moses tells the people to choose life not death, he is not merely speaking figuratively. Transgression of God's good law can and sometimes does lead to the death of the body. I have a friend in Oklahoma whose brother is quite literally drinking himself to death. David's plea to his brother is to choose life.

The holiness of God is further set forth in the Gospel lesson. The text is taken from the sermon on the mount. Jesus teaches the true meaning of Old Testaments laws, including the prohibitions against murder, adultery and false swearing. Contrary to the common perception, he is not saying that the Old Testament laws were not strict enough. Rather, the point of his teaching is that these insights into the law were already implicit in the commandments. If adultery is forbidden, how does adultery begin? Clearly, it begins long before consummation, in the heart of a man, so this too must be forbidden. Our Lord is thus unpacking what is already there in the commandments; he is not changing or amplifying them.

If we have faithfully read and heard these lessons, we will probably have a sense of the divorce between our own broken and fractured lives and the perfect law of God. We are not alone. The narrative that follows the book of Deuteronomy is largely a record of the people of Israel not choosing life. They periodically return to God, but these seasons of repentance and faithfulness are quickly succeeded by more and greater acts of disobedience and willfulness. The people of Israel did not choose life. Furthermore, I suspect our Lord's words might remind us of our own acts of unfaithfulness and disobedience. If we have heard them faithfully, they will pierce us. Both of these lessons demonstrate what it means that God is light. Through these lessons God's light may shine on our lives.

Think about light for a moment. One obvious characteristic of light is that it reveals. It can reveal things as they actually are. These lessons show our human inadequacy and sin, that we have not chosen life in so many instances. It is also the nature of light that if we have not been long exposed to it, light can be painful. It might give us pain to think of the foolish ways we have broken God's law as described in the lessons. God is light, and while it might be difficult to hear these lessons, they are addressed to sinners and lawbreakers. These passages of scripture are for you if you have a wayward streak. They are for you if you have followed a path of self-destruction. They are for you if you have ever chosen death, either consciously or unconsciously. The question is will you allow this light to be shed on your life? Paul wonderfully writes in the letter to the Ephesians: "when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light." In other words just by allowing your life both past and present to be exposed to the light of God is transformative. Consider the Samaritan Woman in the forth chapter of John's Gospel. Our Lord violates all kinds of social and religious norms by conversing with a non-Jewish woman. Like the voice of the prophet he names her history--she was married four times and living with a fifth man not her husband--in this act of naming her history there is forgiveness and transformation. Could you, my friends, take the moments you have chosen death and self-destruction and put them in the light of the Lord, allowing them to be exposed to the light of God and even perhaps hearing the voice of our Lord Jesus naming that history. Just by allowing his light to shine on it and to acknowledge that history will contain the seeds of new life and transformation.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

5th Sunday after Epiphany

"And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”

In the Epistle lesson this morning, we get a first-hand description of Paul's missionary visit to the Church in Corinth, a city in modern day Greece. The first thing that needs to be said about this visit is that Paul was in fact on a mission. He writes, "when I came to you. . . I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Paul was not a tour of the Roman Empire with the hope of perhaps sharing the message of Jesus with a few friends and associates. He is driven to preach and proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the salvation found in him. Obviously Paul had been touched in a powerful and life-altering way. He had something that had to be shared. Frequently, you hear people who have embraced sobriety in a twelve step program speak of the program with a kind of urgency and conviction that I imagine Paul and the Apostles to have possessed. You see, encountering salvation whether from alcoholism and death or from sin and death gives one a sense of urgency to spread the message of this salvation. It seems to me that in the American Church, we are characterized more by being lukewarm in our devotion than having a sense of mission to share the good news of our Lord Jesus. Might I suggest that this lack of urgency is a result of our collective lack of conviction in the truth of our faith. We do not actually believe that which we say we believe because we would live and act in very different ways. The way to address this religious apathy is not to work ourselves up into a religious frenzy and go start preaching on the street corners, but to open ourselves up more fully to the love and grace of God. It might start simply by asking God to give you a greater knowledge of that grace and love. It is those who know themselves to be loved, who know that they have been delivered from the bondage of serving self and sin, who know that they have been healed from the demon of self-destruction, these are the ones who have a sense of purpose and mission, the ones who will be salt and light to the world.

When Paul came to the Corinthian Church, he did not preach the gospel to them with beautiful and elegant words. He writes, "my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom." There is an important point here. Just using beautiful and persuasive words will not convert the heart, or in other words, you can not argue someone into the faith. Many of us sense this and have decide not to talk about religion with our extended families because we learned how fruitless religious arguments can be. It is perfectly fine to give a thoughtful defense of our faith, to talk about, for example, how the world and biological life contains a great deal of order that points to a Being that orders the universe. Yet having said this, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that argument alone will convert the heart. Paul rightly divined that it is not elegance or wise discourse, but the Spirit working through him and in the hearts of his hearers that ultimately awakens people to faith. So, if you are going to have a conversation about Christianity with a non-Christian or an atheist, simply state your faith and the reasons for it, then heed this sound advice, "be the last to speak, the first to grow silent."

By contrasting the wisdom of this world with the wisdom of God, Paul is not saying that the Christian proclamation is irrational, or that we ought not to use our minds when it comes to matters of faith. Rather, Paul says there is a "wisdom of this age, and of the rulers of this age." Such wisdom cannot comprehend the account of our redemption in Jesus Christ. In the Greek and Roman world, there were four cardinal virtues expounded and celebrated by philosophers and statesmen: wisdom, temperance, prudence and courage. The early Church fathers embraced these virtues as harmonious with Christian morals, but they also added the virtue of humility. The Greeks and Romans did not count humility as a virtue. But of course, the Christian story places humility at the center by relating how the eternal Son of the Father took human flesh to himself. As Paul writes elsewhere, the Son of God did not count equality with God something to be grasped. He did not elect to be born as a rich man from a noble or prosperous family. Rather, he was born in a stable to a modest working family and was reared in the outback of Jewish religious and social life. In Greek mythology, the children of the gods were men of renown, inventors, warriors and kings. Jesus was carpenter turned itinerant preacher. For Christians, the Greek account of virtue needed to be supplemented with the addition of the virtue of humility, because of the model that Jesus of Nazareth provided. Humility is a different kind of wisdom than the wisdom of the world. It is a wisdom hidden in God and manifested principally in our Lord Jesus.

But there is another aspect of this wisdom not of this world, and it concerns the type of love characteristic of God and again modeled in our Lord Jesus. God's love is a persevering love; it is the type of love that loves until it hurts. Jesus loves his disciples and will not let their folly drive him away. Jesus loves even those who crucify him, praying while being crucified for their forgiveness. It is a persevering love. It is also a love that you could be called gratuitous. The world gives verbal allegiance to unconditional love, but it practices a love of convenience: I love you as long as you love me and do not hurt me. As long as lover and beloved are turned to each other and seeking for each other's good, all is well, but as soon as that attention wavers, the beloved's affection does too. With such a conception of love, it is easy to understand the prevalence of divorce in our society. God's love for humanity is altogether different. God's love is a decision of his unchangeable will. He chooses to love, and of course, since God is above passions and emotions, this love does not and can not waver. For this reason, love is in the very fabric of creation because from the beginning God has chosen to love humans and elected them to share in his grace and glory. It means further that God loves even when humanity has its back turned on him. From the perspective of the world, there is a kind of folly in this gratuitous love. If a young man continually offered himself to a young woman only repeatedly to be spurned and scorned, we would laugh at him or least try to talk some sense into him. The wisdom of this world cannot account for such love, the foolish love of God for us wayward sheep. The ultimate manifestation of this foolish love is in our Lord Jesus, who "came unto his own, and his own received him not." It is this persevering love that calls us still and which we commemorate every time we gather to share in the mystery of his Body and Blood. In Holy Communion, we tell again the old, old story of this persevering love.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation

"When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law"

This morning we mark another important feast of the church year, the feast of the Presentation of the Infant Christ in the temple. Perhaps more than any other feast, this feast bears a variety of names. Historically, the feast was known as Candlemas, a joining of candle and mass, similar to the word Christmas, and reflecting the tradition of blessings candles on this day. The feast is also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Old Testament ritual law, a mother was declared 'unclean' for a period of forty days after the birth of a male child. Being unclean meant that the woman could not enter the temple for formal worship. At the expiration of the forty days, the law mandated that she go to the temple to make a series of sacrifices. Today, the fortieth day after Christmas Day, the Church commemorates her sacrifice in the temple. As a side note, there is in the traditional prayer book a service known as the churching of women, which is basically the church's equivalent of this ritual. The service consists of a short series of prayers, thanking God for safely bringing mother and child through labor and delivery. Giving birth has became so mechanized in our society, but in a more rustic society, people had a strong sense that safely delivering a child was a true deliverance from mortal danger to mother and child.

All of this talk about uncleanness, sacrifices after giving birth, and special prayers for mothers might sound hopelessly antiquated. To the casual observer it might seem to confirm the modern secular criticism that the Bible is hateful towards women and Christianity inherently oppressive of women. Part of the problem is that as a culture we are so sensitized to this issue that if any difference is posited between men and women, there is an immediate distrust and suspicion. So what are all these sacrifices and uncleanness are about? Think about children and giving birth for a moment, apart from the religious aspect: every child is a blessing; a baby can steal the attention of just about anyone; people are by instinct drawn to them. Furthermore, the addition of children does not mean that each child gets a smaller portion of love. Rather, experience indicates that love does not diminish when given away; each new child is loved equally. While all this is true and good, it is also true that we live a difficult and complicated world, a world in which, let's be honest, there are plenty of sorrows and pains. The birth of a child not only means that he or she will have to face this reality--a fact that has prompted some modern people to forsake procreation altogether--but it also means that the new born child will have his portion of sorrow and pain to experience himself and to inflict on others.

The Bible says the same thing about the human condition but in slightly different terms. The Bible says that humans are made in the image of God, and that God made everything and declared it very good. The Bible also says that children are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. But the Bible also indicates that man's attempt to be his own lord, to be self-sufficient, has not only resulted in alienation from God but in suffering and pain and sorrow. This is illustrated in the opening chapters of Genesis when the disobedience of Adam and Eve is succeeded by the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. In the Bible's account, alienation from God is succeeded by discord in the human family and the disorder grows like a cancer. According to the Bible, each person born into the world bears a portion of responsibility for this destructive and disordered system. In theological terms this is known as original sin. Under the Old Covenant there were signs appointed to indicate that God was redeeming humanity and human nature despite original sin. Male infants were marked by circumcision and mothers were commanded to make the sacrifices mentioned earlier. The problem of course is that these outward rituals alone did not break the human heart and cause it to be consecrated to God's service.

This is where our Lord Jesus enters the picture. He is born into the world as every human child, knowing temptation and trial, and yet, as the author to the Hebrews puts it, "was without sin." Mary makes the sacrifices and our Lord is circumcised because in this new chapter of the human story, our Lord subjects himself fully to the law. By becoming one of us, even in being subject to the law, he rewrites the story of the fall and the disorder of our world, becoming a new and perfect Adam. On the cross, he bears the punishment and the curse of breaking the law, not of course because he was a law-breaker, but for us law-breakers. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul writes "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us" and "when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law" (3:13, 4:4-5). Our Lord remedies the central problem of human existence not by imposing a solution from the outside, but by taking our problem on as his own, becoming one of us, or in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, "taking our flesh and blood."

When Our Lord Jesus went into the temple, light began to break over the disorder and destruction of human sin and discord. The elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna could see this light and had faith that a new humanity was being engendered in this new Adam, our Lord Jesus, and this new Eve, the blessed virgin Mary. The kingdom of God was breaking in as Christ was subjected to the law for our sake. In him, the new Adam, the people of God are a new humanity. They bear that image of God in which they were created, but they are also forgiven and redeemed from original and actual sin. Every time we reject the transgression of Adam to be our own lord and master, we reflect this new humanity that freely loves and serves God. Every time we reject the discord and hatred of Cain, we reflect this new humanity that lives by the law of persevering love and service. The kingdom of God breaks into our broken and disordered world and the love and grace of God shines forth. "By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation; Good Lord, deliver us."