Posts Tagged ‘ sermon ’

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. 


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.


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.

Celebrating Grandpa

Below is the text from the sermon I preached at my grandfather’s funeral in Austwell, TX on Monday morning.
I hope it helps you know him even a little bit.

Growing up, I spent a lot of my weekends here in Austwell staying with my grandparents (as all of us grandkids did).

I would split my time between piddling around on the piano with my grandmother and going for drives with Grandpa, bouncing around the passenger’s side of his truck – no seatbelt, because as Grandpa told me once as I began to strap myself in:
“This is Austwell.  You don’t need that here.”

Getting his haircut from the same barber for over 40 years.

Because I was the only boy, Grandpa and I routinely did typical “boy” things that my sister and female cousins weren’t all that interested in: we built a flat wooden car to drag around behind his riding lawn mower, we organized our tackle boxes and cast for redfish from the peer, we played lots of catch, we shot at glass bottles with the be bee gun he had given me at what my mother insisted was much too young an age, and one of my favorites, we burned trash together – out behind their house on the bluff, in an old, rusted out barrel, poking the fire with sticks, sometimes talking, sometimes in silent awe of the flames.

As you all know well, my grandfather was incredibly skilled with his hands, could fix almost anything, was good with pipes, cars, and machinery and was first and foremost a farmer – some of the many talents he tried to teach our family early and often.

One of those teaching days in particular, I remember very clearly.
I was probably six or seven years old and early in the morning, just after our usual breakfast of Post-Toasties cereal with ½ and ½ instead of milk, Grandpa and I pile into his truck and drive out past the grain silos and the old warehouse into the fields, our sun-visors extended, with the staticky AM radio on (the static he always told us was the sound of airplanes coming in for a landing!) and with our hair blowing in the wind, as we had so many times before.

But something is different about this morning…the earthy smell of freshly turned soil blows through our open windows and as we get closer to the fields, I can see the dark black Texas dirt exposed and bare.

“Today is a planting day,” Grandpa says.

He parks the truck alongside one of his smaller tractors and invites me to follow for one of his ‘lessons.’  “This is the tractor we use to plant all the corn in all of those fields.”

He points to a huge metal container fixed on the back of the tractor. “See this tub?”

“Of course,” I say in my six –year-old, matter of fact tone.  Offended at such a silly question.

“Well, this morning, you and I are going to fill it with seeds,” he says.
My eyes widen.  “That’s alotta seeds,” I say.

“Yes,” he chuckles, “that’s alotta seeds. When you want a big crop to grow, you gotta plant alotta seeds.”

He taught me that each seed or kernel of the maize and corn he planted and harvested was a gem that held great potential inside of it and in order to bear a large harvest, the potential inside had to be encouraged to grow.

Looking back now, I realize that that morning, I learned a little about planting and a whole lot about my Grandpa.

I believe he held for each of us, his family and friends, that same hopeful farmer’s perspective – that he looked on you and me and saw gems holding great potential inside.

I think that’s how he showed his love for us –

not necessarily or usually by affection, but by always wanting to teach others something new, by gently and sometimes not so gently urging that inner potential to be realized,
to grow up and out of all of us.

He showed that love by hiring and befriending people in the community who others wouldn’t hire or who were hard to deal with at times, empowering them to work and help themselves.

He showed that love for this town while he served as mayor for eight years, cleaning up the water and sewer systems, helping Austwell progress as a community.

He showed that love in his compassion for people in need by always being the first to offer assistance whether out of his own wallet or going on middle-of-the-night propane deliveries when families were cold, or by helping other farmers who were short handed.

He showed that love to us grandkids by encouraging our imaginations and playful spirits, whether that was chasing us around the house as a howling werewolf or pretending we were weights hanging on his arms that he was lifting over and over (even when it resulted once in him breaking his collar bone).


United States Navy

He showed that love for his family when he would do just about anything he could to help them, like the time (at least this is how he told the story) the time he snuck around to the end of the firing line during basic training and took the shooting exam in his brother’s place (their uniforms had the same last name sown in them afterall) so that they could remain together rather than being separated in the next stage of their military training.

These stories and countless others that we will have the opportunity to tell and re-tell in the days and weeks to come are examples of how God’s kindness, God’s love, God’s own hope for the kind of people we have the potential to become, were alive and well in my grandfather.

And that is what we celebrate today – the life of our friend, and father, and uncle and brother, and grandfather, which was infused with that divine hope and goodness that sees us as gems and calls out to each of us to learn and to grow into our potential.

And that’s also the reason we mourn today…because our connection with that godliness that was Grandpa, our relationship to that particular incarnation of the divine named Roy William Wise is now changed…not gone, not lost…but surely changed.

And so we grieve, and we tell stories, and we cry holy tears.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they have had something to lose.
Blessed are those who dare to risk loss
for only they have known love.

And yet, if we learned anything from all that God wanted to teach us through Roy, we do not mourn without our own renewed sense of hope.  Hope in God’s faithfulness to his promise that death is not the end, but rather just another kind of seed that sprouts a whole new kind of life. The kind of resurrection life that had it’s potential deep down inside of Roy and is now fully grown in his death. We know that God has now transformed Grandpa’s life into a new and even more sacred existence, an everlasting life where he is at one with the gardening God whom we experienced at work in him.

We are here because our lives were touched by my grandfather, because we loved him, and because in some way he helped each of us grow- because he was in some sense, our farmer as well.

And so…today is a planting day.

Another day to learn from him.  Another opportunity to allow to grow in us those gems that he saw and nurtured while he was here with us.

Another cycle of harvesting what has grown and using the seeds from that fruit to plant another crop with all those we love and want to encourage.

In these last months, my grandfather took to a fairly atypical response for him when one of us would say, “I love you.”
He began saying back to us, and sometimes shouting back,
“I love everybody!”

And this morning, we say,
“We know, Grandpa.  We saw it.  We felt it. We learned from it.

We know.”

Easter People in a Good Friday World

Sewanee in the Spring

Wrestling with what Resurrection means in our world, our culture, our existence today, here’s an excerpt of what I came up with:

In our death dealing world, resurrection is what people are truly longing for:

A widow whose husband died at a much too early age.
A man who is struggling with a new career at midlife
and fears his ability to cope with new challenges.
A grandparent who has lost all their independence
and has to live in the 24 hour care of strangers.
A young mother suddenly raising children on her own.
A friend who has been laid off and can’t find work.
A colleague who falls into a deep, clinical depression
and struggles to live through the day even with meager energy. 

People are longing for resurrected life.

And if you and I are serious about why we’re here today, then we have the responsibility to them and the Risen Christ himself, to live in a way that demonstrates that death has lost is power over all of us…that resurrection didn’t just happen once upon a time, but that resurrection happens again and again and again…to point out to them and provide for them opportunities to experience new and risen life.

Read more of this sermon here…

Exploring the Dichotomy

After hearing me lead a group in musical worship recently, one of my clerical colleagues patted me on the shoulder and, intending a true compliment (I’m sure) said,

my favorite Slaid Cleaves tune


“Sometimes I think you may have missed your calling.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well I mean as a musician instead of a priest,” came the reply.
“I’d like to think I get to live out both…as a musical priest.”

Sadly, that was the end of that particular conversation.

It does sometimes seem a dichotomous life, particularly around midnight at the end of the final Saturday night set when I’d love to hang with the band and some fans for a few more beers but have to get home to finish the ending to  the next morning’s sermon…though one of my hopes is to help shift the traditional paradigm that would limit my “real” vocation to only one option. So, perhaps this venue, this blog, can be a first step in my tension-holding, congruency-discovering, status-quo-challenging quest. Perhaps you’ll join me in my discovery as, along the way, I share sermons, musings, class notes, and the like from my “priestly” role and share music, photos, and gig calendars from my “I’m in a band” identity.  Or do the sermons come from the musician and the band leadership from the priest?