Salt & Light

The following is the text from the Sermon I preached at The Episcopal Student Center at Texas A&M for Epiphany 5, Year A.
You can find the Gospel story that this Sermon is based on here: Matthew 5:13-20


Tonight’s Gospel story drops us smack-dab-in-the-middle of what we typically call “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Jesus has been surrounded (again) by a hoard of people wanting to hear him teach or be healed by him or see him do something miraculous, so he hikes up a mountain and his disciples follow him up there.  His sermon with them begins with the beatitudes, you remember these:

These are all the “blesseds”…”Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” etc.  We will save those for another Wednesday night..

But right after he has described all of these ideal characteristics of the life of his followers and what benefits that lifestyle will bring, we get tonight’s section about being salt and light. So if this passage is going to be anything more than “a nice Jesus saying” for us, we need to dig a little deeper into this text.

What do we know about salt then and now?

-       Commodity, precious, used in the meal that sealed a covenant

-       brings flavor to something bland – makes a food “come alive”

-       used to enhance the tastes of food

-       used as a preservative, keeping something that might otherwise go bad

-       used to stimulate thirst

What do we know about light then and now?

-       no electricity, so sun and fire were only sources of light

-       enables us to see things we couldn’t see otherwise

-       a kind of energy, solar power

-       gives color

-       helps vegetation to grow

-       can be focused for specific uses – like a giant laser

So, in his sermon, Jesus is specifically calling his disciples, those who follow him, salt and light. In the biblical language we may lose some of the power of this calling, so listen to a more modern paraphrase adapted from author and Episcopalian, Lauren Winner:

YOU, beloved, are the salt of the earth.  But if salt becomes stale and loses its saltiness, can anything make it salty again?  No.  It’s useless.
It just lies there, white and bland and grainy…
And YOU, beloved, are the light of the world.  You can’t hide a city built on the top of a hill – at night, it’s lit up and stands out so much that you can’t miss it.
It would be silly to light a lamp and then stick it under a bowl.  Either the light would go out or it would catch the bowl on fire and the whole purpose of lighting the lamp in the first place would be lost.  When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illuminates the entire house.  YOU are like that illuminating light.  Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere, even in the church, may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to me, and in response to your light, may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it.[1]

Cool paraphrase, huh?

At the time when Jesus is preaching this sermon up on the mount, the Jewish people are in the midst of great theological and social tension. Remember that Israel is occupied by the Roman Empire — so you could say that this people who had lived in some form of exile or another for almost 600 years at this point, are now living in a kind of exile in their own land. The peace is being relatively kept, but Roman Rule is the heavy-handed law of the land.  And, understandably, the whole Jewish community is in huge conflict over the future of Judaism and what it meant to be Jewish under these circumstances.  And they are asking lots of hard questions that they don’t have any answers for: How can it be that the Holy City of God is now occupied by pagans? What does this say bout God’s relationship to us? What does God want us to do?  How are we to respond?  What will our lives, our faith look like in the next 50 years?

Each of the different groups of Jews sought out answers in very different ways, ranging from the Sadducees — who were forming collaborations and questionable alliances with the Roman occupiers, to the Zealots — who wanted to form a militia and stockpile weapons so they could overthrow the Romans.  Then, there were the Pharisees – some of whom wanted to take up the sword, but most of whom,

“opted for [forming a kind of] ghetto; realizing that the small Jewish nation was no match for the vast military resources of the empire….[so they instead turned inward, going] deeper into private study and practice of Torah.

If [they] could not obtain [their] political independence, at least [they] could preserve [their own] cultural and religious identity.” [2]

So, at the time that Jesus preaches this sermon on the mountain, the whole community of Israel is (and has been for centuries) deeply afraid that they are going to lose themselves.

You and I are living during a time of major shift and change in our church.

“Many [of the] values and practices from [our parents, grandparents and great grandparents’ generations] are being questioned and jettisoned. [Denominations like ours]  are getting smaller, and losing social [standing].”[3]

As a result, many of our well-intentioned elders in the church, are doing their best to be as faithful as they can be AND are yet, are living in a place of fear right now.

They are asking the same questions of our faith community that the Jews in Jesus’ day were asking:

Given all the craziness and change in the world around us -what does it mean to be a Christian, to be an Episcopalian these days?  
Who do we have to hand our traditions and our beliefs down to?
What will our faith look like in the next 50 years?
This church we know and love seems to be changing, no matter what we do to keep it the same – what if it changes so much that we don’t recognize it anymore?

 From that place of understandable fear and uncertainty, in the midst of asking those hard questions and not yet knowing any of the answers, I’m afraid the leaders of our churches often turn inward and start clinging desperately to anything and everything they can that, in their minds, resembles “how things used to be.”  They resist change, sometimes at all costs and the church risks becoming a ghetto of pious and very faithful older people that is less and less meaningful to the world outside.

They do it because they are afraid.
They do it because they understand it as the most faithful thing they can do.
They do it because some of the things that they have believed their whole lives about the bible and about Jesus and about being a community of faith are now being questioned in the church.
They do it because they want to maintain our identity as Episcopalians and because they want protect the faith that our church has inherited from centuries of Anglicans before us.
They do it because the future of the church is quite unsure and probably doesn’t look as much like the past as they’d like.
And, my beloved college students, they do it because they don’t know you.
They don’t know you. 

They don’t know about the amazing gifts that you bring to the table.  They don’t know how deeply you love Jesus and how committed you are to following him.  They don’t know your passion for becoming a community that loves each other well and makes a difference in this world. They don’t know that you love MANY things about our Episcopal identity. They don’t know that you may be frightened about some of the same things they are.  They don’t know that you really want to be here, to be part of the church, to be leaders in the church.  They don’t know you.
And how can they trust what they don’t know?
How can they entrust this church that they have loved and that has loved them to people they don’t really know?

And because they are afraid, YOU are going to have to be the ones that make the effort.
YOU are going to have to do the work of letting them know you.  It’s not fair.  But there it is.

And this is why I don’t water down the scriptures with you in sermons or in bible studies.
This is why I hold you all to a really high standard, and call you out when you aren’t living up to it.
This is why we are building as inclusive a community as possible.
This is why we are grooming a Vestry and training Sacristans.
This is why every week we practice the fullest liturgy of the church that we can – with Candlemasses and Lessons and Carols and Feast Days and worship services that sometimes take longer than you’d like.

Because in the midst of a church that is afraid it’s going to lose itself, Jesus is up on the top of a mountain preaching tonight to this congregation, saying:

YOU are the salt our dish needs. 
YOU are the light our shadows are longing for. 

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Photo taken during Candlemas Liturgy on January 29, 2014.

Become the kind of followers who draw out the bold flavors that are sometimes hidden in our churches.  Enhance the way we taste to the rest of the world so that we aren’t too bland. Preserve those ancient practices that are meaningful and sacred rather than letting them spoil.

Become the kind of followers who shine your bright light into the dark corners of our old buildings. Expose the unseen cobwebs that hang from our pews and the dust that covers the ageless wisdom of our prayer books, so that we realize we need to clean some things out and tidy some things up.

Be light in the very places that are crusty and grumpy and distrustful because your light is a source of energy that can give new life to even the most withered plants in our garden.

No more excuses that you are too bland.
No more hiding yourself under a bowl.
The time is coming and is now here for you to step out and become the followers Jesus is pleading with you to be – the very spice and the very illumination that can call a new church into being.


[1] Winner, Lauren F., The Voice of Matthew. 2007, Thomas Nelson, Inc. and Ecclesia Bible Society. pp. 24-5.

[2] Van Driel, Edwin. “Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 5.13-20.” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 1.

[3] Ibid.

A Community of Questions?

The texts for this sermon, in particular the Gospel passage from John can be found here.

 

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.


Now before you go calling Thomas names, like “Doubting,” put yourself in his shoes for a moment.
He and the rest of the disciples have been through a lot lately- have seen their rabbi, their teacher, their friend, the leader of their movement arrested, tried and convicted and brutally killed as a common criminal. To say the least it’s been a traumatic week.

And now the others are saying that they’ve seen Jesus. 
That he’s back – that he appeared to them while they were hiding away in the locked upper room.
That yes, he has died, but he’s not dead.

You can almost hear the gears turning in Thomas’ head.

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You can’t uncrucify the crucified.  They must be mistaken. 
What if it wasn’t really him?  What if the stress and fear of these last few days has turned them all delusional?
Or harder and scarier yet…what if they are telling the truth?
What if he did appear to them and I missed it? What if he really is alive again? 
What does that mean? What have we gotten ourselves into if he has somehow risen from the dead?

These must have been the kind of questions racing through Thomas’s weary head when his friends came to him with this unbelievable news.

Doubt has become a dirty word in the Christian Culture of our University. Most of you, I’m willing to bet, have heard in some form or fashion, from other students or from pastors or preachers in and around College Station, that our job as followers of Jesus is to just have faith or to just accept the Truths (capital T) of the Bible – that questioning these things is a sign of faithlessness, that doubts about Jesus mean you’re not a true follower or that becoming more mature in your faith means stomping out those doubts.
I remember hearing those same messages from other Christians here 12 years ago. 
And they are just as mistaken today as they were then.

Brené Brown, who is a brilliant scholar and story teller (and an Episcopalian in Houston to boot) talks about this tendency in her research work on vulnerability.  Watch Brené’s Ted Talk here. She’s found that we Americans, particularly when we feel afraid or vulnerable, try to make everything that’s uncertain certain and that religion has gone from a belief in mystery to a list of certainties to ascribe to: I’m right, you’re wrong, there is only one way to be a real Christian and it’s our way not your way, in order to really be a disciple of Jesus you have to believe this and this and this and you can’t ask any questions about it because it’s a certainty whether you like it or not.  There’s no discourse, no conversation. 
Here’s what you’re supposed to believe.  Now believe it.  And that’s it.

Well, my friends, I don’t know what that is, but it’s not Christianity. It’s not the faith that’s been handed down to us over the last 2000+ years.  It’s not what Jesus taught and did at all.  If it were, he never would have reappeared a week later when Thomas was actually there. 

Thomas missed it the first time, then he didn’t believe when he was told about it, so that’s it.  He’s out.  No room for doubt in our religion, you have to be certain.  Sorry. Sucks to be you Tommy.  No. 

What happens instead?  Jesus shows back up when Thomas is around and offers him exactly what he’s asked for – Here, Thomas.  Put your hands in the hole in my side.  Touch the places where my hands have been pierced.  It’s me.  It’s really me – I’m here. 

Jesus doesn’t tell Thomas that his questions are keeping him from being a true follower. 
He shows him that there is plenty of room for his questions by offering to give him the evidence he needs.

 The Episcopal Church, you and I, have something unique to offer our fellow followers across the street over there.  We are a community, this is a place, where questions and doubts are welcomed. 

Not because we think we have all the answers but because we trust that God can handle our questions. Not because we want to nay-say the mega churches in town but because we want to be the kind of community that wrestles through hard questions together. 

Dr. Tiner told a few of us on Monday night about a sign that one of the former priests here put up on campus to advertise the Episcopal Student Center (and I totally think we should bring it back).  It read: “Jesus died to take away your sins not your brains.”  If you want a simple checklist of things you have to accept and believe in and that makes you a member of the community, then you are in the wrong place. 

In this community, we engage God fully- physically, spiritually, and intellectually.  Questioning the Scriptures is exactly the work we are supposed to be doing. Wondering whether all this resurrection stuff is true or not is one of the reasons we are here.  Talking and discussing and dialoguing about different interpretations and possible solutions to the problems that we have with Jesus’ way of life is the very stuff we are supposed to be about because, if Thomas’ story has anything to teach us, it’s that in those places of questioning and wondering and wrestling, the Risen Jesus himself shows up and says, “Here I am.”

You have reached the moment in your lives when it’s time to stop believing stuff just because your parents believe it…or because someone told you this is what you should be doing…or because being a Christian is a cool thing to be in Aggieland. It’s time to grow up and make your faith journey your own. It’s time to start asking the hard questions because you’re not sure or because you see something in the church that doesn’t look like Christ or because you see something in the world that doesn’t jive with a God who is all-loving and all-powerful. 

What if we were a community who did that together? 
What if we were the band of Jesus followers in CS who invite questions rather than shutting them up?
What if we were the place where all of us voiced our doubts and wrestled and prayed through them together?

Being a follower of the Risen Jesus is not an idea to be grasped or a case to be proved.  It is a life to be lived. It’s messy. It ebbs and flows.  It’s a process of becoming. It has to be yours and not someone else’s. It requires you to engage the world, one another, and your own lives with all that you are.

Tonight’s story of Thomas isn’t a story about a doubter.
It’s a story about a believer who came to believe because he asked some hard questions.
May we be so courageous as our brother Thomas, and in living our questions may we touch the Risen Jesus.

who am i that you would call me?

Moses is having an identity crisis.  And it’s not your run of the mill, mid life kind of identity crisis.  It’s an all out, “I don’t know who I am or where I come from” kind of crisis.

To catch us up, we need one of those “previously on…” introductions to tonight’s reading, so here goes…

The Hebrew people have been enslaved in Egypt now for quite some time.  Long enough, in fact, that Pharaoh – the dictator king – realizes that the Hebrew people outnumber the Egyptian soldiers and could possibly stage a coup and overrun their masters by simple numbers.  So Pharaoh decides to better the Egyptians chances of staying in power by increasing the oppressive labor required of the Hebrew slaves, and when that isn’t’ enough, he decides to strategically kill off some of the Hebrews, specifically, all the new born baby boys.

Moses is born into a Hebrew family at this precise time when baby boys’ lives are in danger from Pharaoh’s orders.  In order to protect him, his mother and older sister, Miriam build a basket, cover it in tar, and send baby Moses down river to, hopefully, safety  out of Pharaoh’s reach.

Well, baby Moses’ seafaring is short lived.  Just down the river, his basket boat gets caught up in the reeds and before his older sister can pull him back out into the current again, along comes none other than Pharaoh’s daughter, the princess, who hears the baby crying and rescues him out of the river.  The princess realizes this is a Hebrew child but has compassion and decides to raise him as her own.  Only problem is, she isn’t a mother herself, so she can’t nurse the baby.  Miriam, thinking on her feet, steps in and offers to find a Hebrew nurse to care for the child until he is weaned, the princess agrees, and Miriam goes and finds Moses’ (and her own) mother.  Now Moses mother gets to nurse the baby and is on Pharaoh’s payroll while doing it!

Fast forward a few years, Moses is on solid foods and the princess takes over rearing and raising him, where?  In Pharaoh’s palace. Moses is given the life and benefits of a true Egyptian prince.  He’s treated as if he were the king’s own grandson, cousin to the prince who will himself inherit the throne one day.  So, you can imagine the inner identity struggle (that all good story characters must have, right?) that Moses deals with throughout his growing up.  Am I Hebrew?  Yes, but not really.  Am I Egyptian?  No, but kindof.

Along with that identity crisis, comes a spiritual struggle: see, the God of the Hebrews is one and walked and talked with Moses’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even Joseph who got Moses’ people into Egypt.  But that God doesn’t seem to be here in Egypt.  Here in Egypt, there are many gods: a god of this tree and a god of the sun and the god of that river and that palace and a god for everything.

This “who am I and what do I believe” struggle that all college students have comes to a head one afternoon when Moses is a young adult.  He sees an Egyptian soldier terribly beating a few Hebrew slaves.  He tries to get the soldier to stop using is “adopted grandson of the king” shtick, but when it doesn’t work, Moses decides to physically handle the situation and ends up killing the soldier…which at first he thinks he’s gotten away with, but finds out the next day that everyone in town is talking about it and he decides that once again, in order to prevent Pharaoh from killing him (which he is bound to do as punishment for killing a soldier) he will once again try to escape and hide out.

Now, Moses finds himself in Midian, a pagan and desert land just outside of Egypt.  And in a moment of chivalry Moses finds himself defending 7 sister shepherdesses from some rough, surly men, which wins him a place in the heart of the shepherdesses father, who then welcomes Moses into his home and gives him one of his daughters, Zilpah, as a wife.  And Moses accepts his reward, which seems to me to be the opposite of chivalrous.  Turns out that “dad” is a priest in Midian – he is in charge of leading the people through their worship of idols, so now there is a third layer to Moses’ spiritual and identity crisis. God of Abraham?  Gods of Egypt?  Gods who reside in idols? For years he lives in this family and, having taken over the shepherding business so the sisters don’t have to risk dangerous run ins anymore, he’s now in charge of caring for the sheep in this dry, desert place.

And that’s exactly where we encounter Moses in this evening’s reading.

There he is, this sometime hero, sometime villan, sometime savior, sometime killer, Moses who ran and hid from the consequences of his choices on more than one occasion, who has worshipped the gods of Egypt and the idols of Midian, there he is, tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the middle of the Midian desert,
when the God of his birthing sets a thorn bush on fire and invites this wayward wanderer who doesn’t know who he is to alter the course of his own people’s story.

 

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You can hear an urgency in God’s voice
as he cries out from within the bush:
MOSES!  MOSES!  This God knows Moses’ name…in the Jewish culture, (as in many others) one’s name is inextricably tied to his identity.
To know and use someone’s name is to claim an intimate knowledge of who he or she truly is.   And this God calls Moses by name….

This personal intimacy between Creator and creation, between God and humanity, is the HEART of Jewish and Christian theology.

God knows God’s people, so the voice from the bush is evidence that the divine urgency is about relationship:
“Moses!  I know your name…and I know who you are.  Even if you don’t.”
And then, God issues a task for this prophet to do:
“I’ve heard my people’s cries and I want you to go to Pharaoh and I want you to convince him to give them their freedom.”

Moses objects, “But LORD, who am I to do this? Why me?”
Did I mention Moses is having an identity crisis?

And God answers, “I will be with you.”
You can imagine Moses thinking,
“Well, what does that have to do with who I am?”
“Everything.”  God seems to be saying.

“The fact that I am with you and will continue to be with you makes up your identity. Who you are, Moses, is tied up in me. “

 

It is important that we recognize that God’s answer is not a guarantee of Moses success in this calling… God does NOT respond to Moses by telling everything will be just fine, that he will be safe, that it will be easy.
Rather, God’s answer, “I am with you and I will be with you,” is a divine commitment to share in the life and the risk of the one being called.  “Your identity is tied up in me…and I’m going to be with you when you risk everything to pursue this calling.”

See, the God in Moses’ story, our God is not independent from humanity.
Throughout our scriptures, God reveals God’s self to the world in personal and intimate ways, and by divine design then, humanity is tied up in God’s presence: Moses is Moses because God is with him.

And what happens next in this story has undeniable implications for the rest of history, and I would argue, deeply and profoundly effects the kinds of Christians that you and I are today:
Moses asks God, “What if the Israelites ask who sent me?
What do I say then?  WHO ARE YOU?”
See, Moses has asked the question, “Who am I?” and God has answered
“I am with you,” so now Moses asks, “Well, then, who are you??”

And the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah,
this God who uses Moses’ name
and therefore intimately knows who Moses is,
this God tells Moses God’s name:
I AM. He says.  In Hebrew, ‘ehyeh asher ‘ehyeh.

It can also be translated
“I make happen whatever is made to happen”
“I will be who I will be.”
“I bring into being whatever is brought into being.”
I AM who I AM.  “Tell them I AM sent you. “

From within his story, this beautifully constructed story, emerges the truth that this God, I AM, is involved in history, engaged in our lives when we turn away.

I AM is not wholly other… there is no gulf between God and humanity.  “Moses, who you are inextricably tied to me because I am with you.
And because I am with you, who I AM as God is also tied you.”

God’s identity is wrapped up in us, just as our identity is wrapped up in GOD’s.  That’s the way God designed it.  That’s God’s story, that’s Moses’ story, that’s our story. We know God’s name and God knows ours.

As we journey though Lent, doing the hard work of self-examination and repentance, a wrestling with our identities- who we are and who we are called to be, learn from Moses’ story:
God is with you and in you, and that has everything to do with who you are.

Breaking Boxes

Sermon for 4 Epiphany, Year C 2013
RCL Readings here.

tumblr_m9f7mwS6tG1rf06ano1_1280This week’s Gospel story picks up where we left off last week.  Jesus has returned to his hometown in Nazareth of the Galilee and is in his home church, the temple he grew up in, and he has just made a bold and brazen claim.  After reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says to them that this prophecy has been fulfilled in him, that he is the anointed one, the christos, the meschiah they have been waiting for.

And the people gathered and listening to him have this momentary swelling of pride at this remarkable boy who is their own – bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, one of ours.

They remember him at seventeen, they remember him at twelve, they remember teaching him in Hebrew school when he was six.  And now he’s returned home.  And now he’s teaching them. But they are so caught up in their nostalgia and pride in him, it’s like they miss the significance of what he has just said.  “Oh sweet little Jesus, come back home…Joseph and Mary’s son…he’s grown up so much.”

Can you relate to Jesus here – do you have people back home that treat you like this?  That still think of you as a child?

Perhaps, dare I say it, even your parents?

Are there people that tell stories about you to other people in front of you that start with,
“I remember when she was a little girl…”
It’s almost like they seem to be stuck in that time period, still thinking you belong at the kids’ table.

I know this still happens to me, even at 33 years old.
About a year ago, I went to an ordination service in my hometown – I grew up about 160 miles south of here in Victoria, Texas, spending most of my Sundays with the community at St. Francis Episcopal Church and that congregation truly helped raise me, shape me, form me from my earliest moments. They were the village that it took to raise this child.
So when I returned there not so long ago for this ordination, I got to reminisce with some of the St. Francis folk, all of whom were curious about how my ministry was going.

One woman, who has been a member of St. Francis for all of its 52 years as a parish and who I’m quite certain must have taught me in Sunday School at some point, tapped on my collar and said, “The priests around here get younger and younger.”  Then she noticed my goatee, and pulled on it a little bit, and with a laugh asked, “What’s this for?  Are you trying to look older?”

Several Christmases ago, I even got to preach a sermon in the pulpit of that church that I grew up in. After the service, another one of the ladies who a youth group sponsor when I was in middle school came and gave me a hug.  “That was a good sermon, dear.” She said.  “Did you write it?”

Do you know that Cross Canadian Ragweed song, “You’re always seventeen in your hometown…?”

Meanwhile, back in Nazareth, Jesus, going through this infuriating experience that most of us have had, doesn’t just get fed up and leave.  In fact, he keeps teaching…and, as he continues teaching, things get really hairy, really quickly.

He re-tells them stories about their famous prophets, Elijah and Elisha…specific stories about how God ministered through them, first by feeding a widow in the land of Sidon even though there were many Israelite widows who were starving from a famine at the time, and how God healed a Syrian leper, even though there were many Israelite lepers who were not healed. Jesus is intentionally challenging them, provoking them even, by telling these stories of God’s presence NOT with the Jewish folk, not with those in the synagogue, not with the ones who went to church and were involved in the diocesan summer camp…but with outsiders, with people who didn’t believe the same things they believed, even with people they considered to be unclean heathen.

In no uncertain terms, Jesus is condemning the exclusivity of those who had known him since his birth, rebuking the self-righteousness of those who were most invested in how their church and culture operated.

“The Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me,” he says.  “I am the Anointed One and I haven’t come only for you. I don’t belong to you.  I’m here for the very people you love to hate, your enemies, everyone you have ever excluded because they didn’t look like you, or think like you or didn’t worship like you.  God is present in me for them.”

As you can imagine, the people are no longer beaming with pride in Jesus.
Jesus has surprised them, has not acted in the ways they raised him to act, and it pisses them off.

“What are you saying? We are the faithful people of God, the chosen ones, we live our lives in relationship with God and you come into our church, telling us that God is with you and has come for those people?  Who do you think you are?”

As their anger builds, they kick him out of the synagogue, drive him out of his own town and are ready to throw him over the cliffs and kill him.

I know we can all relate with Jesus, the misunderstood boy in his hometown.

But I’m afraid, truth be told, that you and I are actually more often like these people in the synagogue. 

Like them, most of us have spent a good deal of time with Jesus.
Like them, we are the ones who go to church, who value the scriptures, who try to live our lives in relationship with God. We have seen Jesus, experienced him at work – in our lives, in our friends’ lives. We know him personally, we know him communally. We’ve felt his presence at camp, at a Happening or a Vocare, have known he was near when we’ve worshiped with just a few others, like here tonight, or with thousands of others at something like Breakaway.

And all of those experiences are valid, are important, are life-giving.

But sometimes, like those hometown faithful, we allow our experiences to become expectations.

Sometimes we let our previous experiences of God become a box that we try to fit God into.
“I know how God works.  I have experienced him in this way.
I know who this Jesus is. I have felt him in that way.”

Trouble is, when we can’t recreate those same exact experiences, we can feel like God is less present than He was back then, back at camp, during that retreat, in that really amazing time. Or, even worse, when we see or hear of others who are experiencing Jesus in ways that are very different, we think, “well, that’s not the same Jesus I know.”

If we keep trying to squeeze God into the same boxes we’ve grown up with, if we only look for God to move in ways that we’re familiar and comfortable with, then, like those in the synagogue, we are in danger of missing what Jesus is saying and doing right here in our midst.

Those in his hometown certainly weren’t expecting God to be alive in the 5 foot 4 carpenter they helped raise.  But that’s exactly what God was doing. That’s the incarnational nature of our God who surprises us constantly by showing up in places we don’t expect him.

And having a grown up faith in this God, rather than one that’s still relegated to the kids’ table, begins with taking a hard look at what expectations your faith is resting on. It is maybe the most difficult part of growing in our faith, of going deeper in our discipleship – naming and dismantling the boxes that we have created for God.

But if we can do that, if we can let go of God instead of trying to hold on to Him, if we can turn God loose instead of acting as if we own Him, if we can look for God incarnate in people and places and ways we don’t expect, then we become free to truly follow Jesus.

The Anointed Ones

Following is the first sermon I preached as the new Campus Missioner at Texas A&M this past Wednesday during our first liturgy of the semester.

 Here are the texts used for this sermon.

I am so excited to be here.
This place, this community, this ministry were incredible gifts to me during my years in college here, and I am honored and humbled to be back.

I’ve been looking forward to tonight for months; I’ve been soo ready to kick this semester off tonight with good food and meaningful worship, to get a great start on our time together.  You all have been in my prayers since October, even though I didn’t know many of your names (sometimes I just made some names up for you, like Jehosephat.  It’d be really cool if we had a Jehosephat here).

And a big part of what I’m so excited about is that I’m not the only one who is excited.

The churches in Bryan and College Station are excited too– I’ve had a dozen offers in as many days from their members to help cook or clean on Wednesday nights and even to host students in their homes for weekly or monthly dinners, I even had a parishioner who helped me find and buy us a new dishwasher for the kitchen!

Even many of you are excited – for starters, you are here tonight!

I’ve had lunch or coffee with several of you, 9 of you showed up on last minute Facebook notice to help us hang some lights outside on Monday, Emily is teaching us some new music, a few of you baristas have some cool ideas about re-arranging the furniture and improving the setting of the café, and 2 of you have already decided to design some new t-shirts for us.

I am so excited to be here.
I can’t wait to get to know you better and to let you know me.
I look forward to learning about the things that you hope for, the kinds of things you want to do, about your talents and all of the things you are most passionate about – all of those have a place at this Table because, as Paul would say, your passions and talents and dreams are like all the various and equally important parts of our Body, they are the very elements of the Body of Christ in this place, and without them the Body is not whole.

I’m excited because tonight’s passage from Luke’s Gospel sets an incredible tone for our ministry together here– gives us a purpose and a vision for where we ought to be headed in the days and months and years to come, all the while reminding us of who we are and where we come from. Tonight’s portion of the Jesus story has profound implications for you and me as we begin this journey together, so why don’t we start there…

With the hot desert sand still clinging to his sandals, Jesus emerges from the temptations of the wilderness and begins traveling back to the region he grew up in.  He is making his way toward home, toward Nazareth, perhaps to rest and recover, perhaps because after 40 days of nothing to eat out there, the food he is most hungry for is his own mother’s.

But something is different about him.   Almost as if he has had new life breathed into him, as if he holds some new authority, possesses some new power.  As he travels through the region of Galilee, he occasionally stops along the way in some of the synagogues to worship, to listen and to teach – all of which were his rights as a Jewish man. But the people are so impressed with what he has to say and how he says it, that word of him is growing and spreading and preceding him to the next village.

By the time he arrives in Nazareth and enters his home church for Sabbath services, the whole town is waiting breathlessly to hear what he has to say.  The anticipation is palpable as Jesus gets up to read the lesson from the Prophets – the attendant hands him the scroll and he unrolls it to place in the third section of Isaiah that says:

The spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…

And then, taking the posture of a Rabbi, Jesus sits down among the people and does something radical.  He tells them that he is the embodiment of these ancient words.

“Even while those words are still ringing in your ears,” he tells them, “while they are still in your hearing, they are being fulfilled. Today.  Right here.  Right now. Because the LORD GOD has anointed me.”

samuel anoints davidAnointed.
That word has some deep connotations that we might miss at first glance.
Anointing is an old ritual practice– the pouring or smearing of perfumed oil on things or on people in order to set them aside for a holy function and a sacred use.  In Greek, the root word is christos, in Hebrew, meschiah, and if those words sound familiar, good…they should.  “Messiah” and “Christ” mean the same thing – “anointed one.

The prophets, who were most of themselves anointed for their holy work, spoke of a Meschiah, an anointed one of God, who was coming, who would transform the world around them by (in Isaiah’s words) doing things like setting prisoners free, giving sight to the blind, releasing those who are bound up, bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming the year of God’s favor.

In claiming fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words, Jesus is saying, I am that Christos. I am that Meschiah – I am the Anointed one that you and your ancestors have been waiting for. I’m the one who will transform the world.

What a radical thing to say.

Do you remember your baptism?

Or how about a baptism you’ve witnessed…
After dunking or sprinkling water on your head, what does the priest or bishop do?

Whether it’s for a baby or an adult the very next thing that happens is that the priest or bishop puts perfumed oil on your head…in the sign of the cross…anoints you and says,
“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

The same Spirit that was in Jesus, the same Spirit of the LORD GOD that anointed him, seals you, envelops you, runs down your forehead and throughout your whole being, and you are forever thereafter marked, claimed by Jesus as his own.

See, by virtue of your baptism you are anointed ones.

Little Jesuses on the loose, running all around Aggieland – you.
And so, these ancient Scriptures still ringing in our ears are being fulfilled…in us. Today.  Right here.  Right now.

What does that look like? What does it mean?
How should we do this?  What kind of community should we be?

Well, that’s the thing I’m most excited about.

Starting tonight, we get to discover all of that together.
And it’s going to be fun.  And it’s going to be hard work.
And it’s going to be meaningful and scary and new.

And as we learn what it means to consciously and intentionally become followers and not just admirers of Jesus,
as we become more and more like the one we are marked by,
then the Holy Spirit’s presence that has sealed us, and is upon us,
and is within us can and will transform the world around us.
Right here.  Right now.

What a radical thing.

Jesus is not safe.

Below is the homily I preached at Church of Reconciliation this past Sunday with a nod of thanks to Scott Bader-Saye.

For the sake of Stewardship themes, we switched the gospel readings with the coming Sunday, so here is the Gospel text used for this sermon.

 

I’ve been reading a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, written by the Ethics professor at the seminary in Austin, Scott Bader-Saye.  In the final chapter of the book, “The Risk of Generosity,” Scott writes:

we [Americans] have become habituated to an ethic of safety.  That is, we have begun to think about safety as the goal we should pursue above all others.  I was recently reading about a report by the Council of Europe, the human rights arm of the EU, on the U.S. practice  of “extraordinary rendition,” sending prisoners  to other countries  for interrogation practices that would be illegal under U.S. law.  Whether, or to what extent, the United States does this is under dispute, but what was most interesting about the article was not its actual content.  Rather, what caught my attention was a comment posted by a [reader and] visitor to the BBC website in response to this story: “Whatever it takes to keep our world safe.”

Scott shares this disturbing comment in the context of writing about how we have in many ways made safety and security our primary goals, and much of his book is spent contrasting those desires with the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God as it is described in our sacred texts.

I think we can use this lens of safety and security to interpret the odd discussion between the Zebedee boys, James and John, and Jesus in this morning’s verses from Mark’s Gospel.  Jesus has shared with his closest students and friends now, at least three times, that they are headed toward Jerusalem and that there he will be handed over to the authorities and that they will kill him. Now maybe for James and John, like the rest of the disciples, this hasn’t sunk in, they don’t get what Jesus is really saying, but I think they do.  I think the brothers have realized that Jesus is serious about this being killed stuff and I think it scares them. I think this news unnerves them and makes them concerned about their own safety.  Like toddlers testing the limits with a parent, they even try to trick Jesus into answering their question before they’ve asked:

“So, Jesus…um…John and I would like to ask you something.  Would you promise to do what we ask of you?  We’d, uh….well, um….when you come into the glorious kingdom, can we, you know…can you promise us that we will be the ones sitting closest to you…what I mean is, from that point on and forever thereafter, James wants to be at your left side and I want to be at your right.”

In other words, “can you promise us that in the end, not matter what, the two of us will be safe, dialed in, right next to you so that we are secure from any harm?”  Now you’ve got to give them credit for having great trust, great belief, that Jesus has the power to keep them safe if they simply stay beside him. On the other hand, pun intended, in making safety and security their desire, their primary goal for themselves, they’ve completely missed the mark on what the coming of the kingdom – Jesus’ glory – really brings.
And I’m afraid it’s mistake that you and I too often make: that being with Jesus means no harm will come to us.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite parts of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.  (And I’m paraphrasing here…)Lucy has arrived in Narnia and has begun making friends with the Beavers.  She’s heard already of the Great Aslan but for the first time she’s realized that he’s not a person, but a lion. A bit startled at this revelation, she asks, “But he’s quite safe, isn’t he?”

And Mrs. Beaver answers with a litany of Aslans attributes and what he’s done in the realm of Narnia, which Lucy thinks has not answered her question. “Yes, but is he quite safe?” she asks again, a bit desperate.

“Dear Girl,” shouts Mr. Beaver, “Haven’t you been listening to anything Mrs. Beaver has been saying? No, Aslan isn’t safe.  He’s a lion!  He isn’t safe at all! But he is good…”

Following Jesus isn’t safe.
It never has been.  Just ask those first disciples.  Ask James and John.
Jesus pretty much rebukes, even more harshly than Mr. Beaver rebukes Lucy.
“Jesus, Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left.”
And his answer is, “You don’t know what you’re asking me.”

And they don’t.  The only other time in the entire Gospel of Mark that the phrase “one at the right and one at the left,” is used is in describing the two criminals crucified with Jesus.  James and John’s very words are the words used a few stories later to describe the cruciform geography of Golgatha.  This is no accident.  Mark is a better writer than that, and he knows how the story ends.
The Gospel writer is showing his audience is showing us, that following Jesus isn’t safe at all.
That being a disciple means going all the way to the cross.  And not just to Jesus’ cross.
To our own crosses as well.

Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if you would my disciple be;
deny yourself, the world forsake,
and humbly follow after me.

Jesus doesn’t promise safety.  He never did.
In fact, he promises that following him will lead to your death…to many deaths…to your dying to many things.  Because his way isn’t about self preservation.

And so, his promise to James and John isn’t the one they ask for, and it’s a promise not only for the two of them, but for all his followers, even you and even me.

At the end of this morning’s gospel Jesus promises that in his realm,
masters become masters not because they lord it over others like a tyrant, but because they serve.

In his realm, those of us who have more than enough stop worrying about needing more – we cease tucking away and keeping our wealth and blessings to ourselves, and instead practice pouring out what we have, out of God’s own abundance in our lives.

In his realm, our motivations shift away from giving or sharing with our brother or sister because of the blessings we receive when we do that sacred work, until our sole motivation for giving becomes the upholding of our end of the covenant which is blessing others.

In his realm, we do things like letting go of all pretense, letting go of what we are comfortable with, so that we can get on our hands and knees to wash someone’s feet.

And so, you see, if you, with James and John are looking for security and safety, you’re looking in the wrong place.

This Jesus, he’s a lion!  He isn’t safe at all!  But he’s good.  He’s good.

 

 

 

 

 

teaching on divorce?

The following is my sermon from this past Sunday (Proper 22, Year B) as preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio…

Read the Gospel text from this past Sunday here.
Listen to the following sermon here.

I’ll say this: it’s a difficult Gospel passage to deal with.
Jesus seems pretty straightforward in this teaching about divorce,
he sounds pretty clear. You and I might read in the topical indexes of our Bibles that this passage is about divorce.  But I don’t think it’s really about divorce– I think it’s about something even bigger, perhaps even more difficult than that.

Let’s go back to the story a minute.
The Pharisees come to Jesus in order to trap him, to trip him up, to catch him saying something incriminating so that they could charge him.  So they ask him a LEGAL question, “Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

And that’s a question that has only one right answer in that context: YES. It is within the law.

Moses, the very figure-head of the law himself, had provided a legal way for men to write a certificate of dismissal so that they could be rid of their wives.  And at that time and in that culture, this divorce would leave the woman with nothing: no social status, no income, no way of providing for herself or her children, out on the street, completely vulnerable.

And if the legal system that is in place is one that allows a man to do that to his wife at any time for any reason, then she is always vulnerable, always at risk, with little or no voice of her own in the matters of her marriage.  The Pharisees’ trap constrains the whole matter to what the law will allow.

Sadly, I think you and I have our own 21st Century Christian way of getting stuck in that same trap.

We hear or read Jesus’ words in the passage, all he says about divorce, remarriage and adultery and we get stuck there. We make his words on these matters LEGAL: “Jesus said this about divorce, so that’s the law for good Christians.” 

But in the story,  Jesus actually refuses to render a legal judgment on this difficult, complex issue. Instead, as he almost always does, he turns the question on its head, shifting the basis of their conversation from the legal to the theological, from what the law will allow to what God dreams for our relationships with one another. Jesus, who always seeks protection for the most vulnerable, breaks open the whole conversation by pointing the Pharisees NOT to the law, NOT to Moses, but all the way back to the beginning, back to Genesis, back to the way we were created, to the very story we heard read earlier this morning.

Moses gave you this law [Jesus says to them] because your hearts have become so hardened, because you’ve gotten so far away from the kinds of relationships you were created for…from the beginning of creation, ‘God made you male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

Reimagine that whole creation scene with me.
This creative God of ours has created all that is, has even created human life out of the dust, has breathed life into that clay figure’s nostrils and has brought into being Admah, Adam.

And then God decides that Admah should not be alone so the creator proudly parades all the animals he has created in front of the man.  And with each animal, Adam ponders awhile and then names them.

And I imagine Adam’s creativity at first: rhinoceros, hippopotamus, platypus…and then, after hundreds of animals, and hours of naming things, he’s totally spent:  “Another one?!? Of for the love of God, call it…dog.”  And God says, “Oh Adam, come on, that’s just my name spelled backwards.”

So all of the animals are brought to Adam but a help-meet is not found that was his equal.

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then God took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man God made into a woman and brought her to the man.

This translation says “one of his ribs” but the Hebrew actually says “from the man’s side…the Lord God took from the man’s side and made that into another being, a woman.” This has huge implications that stretch beyond this Genesis story well into this morning’s difficult Gospel passage, and certainly into our own lives today.  Woman created from man’s side implies that, if humanity is true to the way we are created, she is never to be beneath him, but always along side him, always his equal.  That’s what help-meet means.

And in this garden that they are living in, the two human beings maintain that right relationship with one another, and they live in right relationship with God, and in right relationship with all of creation.  And those right relationships are what makes the garden the garden – the kind of Kingdom that God created us all to live and move and have our being in, and it was very good.

This morning’s Gospel passage is difficult not because it’s an ethical, legal teaching on divorce but because it’s Jesus reminding us how far off we are from the Garden life that God dreams for us.  And it was hard for his disciples and the Pharisees back then for the same reason.

The relationship between a husband, who at anytime has the right to toss aside his bride, and a wife, who has no voice in the matter and is always at risk of becoming destitute based on the whims of her husband, is not a relationship of help-meets, not the right relationship that we are created for, and she is certainly not his equal.

You and I are created to be in Garden-like relationships.

It’s how we are wired, even when it’s not how we act.  That’s God’s dream for us, for humanity.

Which is exactly why divorce hurts so much.
And not just for those who are the ones divorcing, but for the parents of those divorcing, their friends, their children, the whole community.
Divorces of any form of relationship, not just marital ones, hurt so much because they are the breaking apart of how we were made and Jesus knew that.

So his teaching in this morning’s gospel is less about personal condemnation for the legal act of divorce (which is probably the response the Pharisees were hoping for) and more about God being against the breaking of relationships, against the rending of human community, against that which tears help-meets apart, which is the very connection he created us for.

The Gospel, the Good News in this is that even when these relationships we were created for break apart, even when we don’t live into the kinds of Garden People God dreams of us being, even when divorces happen for all the right reasons or all the wrong ones, that’s not the end of the story.

Those of us that have experienced any kind of divorce and yet found new life on the other side of the pain and hurt know this to be true: God doesn’t give up on God’s dream. Even when we are as far from Eden as we think we’ll ever be. That’s what God’s faithfulness means.  And that is Good News.

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