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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. 

Image

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.

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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.

Image

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.

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.

Young Adults in Church

Just came across a really interesting article summarizing some research done for a book about American Young Adults (18-29) and their aversion to the church.  It suggests six main themes in this disconnection, and one of them (not surprisingly) is the experience that Christian Churches are too exclusive:

“Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences.”

Here’s the rest of the article.