Once you were darkness

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Another long story this week. In the progression of our instruction for baptism, we have a story of a person being enlightened: literally regaining his sight, and spiritually coming to see the truth in Jesus. It’s a long, complex story with a lot of details and controversy between Jesus and the religious establishment of the Pharisees.

But we start with Jesus own disciples. These guys are following Jesus, as we follow him—and so we like to assume they would get it right. They aren’t so different from us, right? Well, actually, yes. They look at people and they make wrong assumptions just like we do. They see a man who is a blind beggar and they make assumptions that his condition is the result of something.  People experience things, they look around and they decide that events are connected with one another. And generally speaking, that’s correct. People’s actions have consequences; they are connected with one another and affect other people, they affect children and neighbors and parents. And, anyone who reflects honestly on their own life and behavior has ample empirical evidence that people sin. That is to say, people act selfishly without regard to the good of others or their needs and eventually someone gets hurt because of that.  What we see in the first verse of today’s gospel lesson is the next step that people often make—the disciples make conclusions about other people’s sin from results that they see.  “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” It had to be one or the other, right?

Not exactly. We like to use our analysis to find the badness in something, anything other than ourselves, and to assume that the connections that we see explain everything—one or the other, the man or his parents—somebody’s a sinner. How did Jesus respond? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” There is more to the connections between people and events than the disciples saw, or that we see.

One interpretation of Jesus’ words could be that he is referring to the healing of the man’s blindness that he is about to do. Fair enough, that certainly shows the works of God. But I think there is a more general application of Jesus’ response. In the infinite number of connections between events and people and God, there is always far more than we perceive.  And certainly, if we are living in a world governed by anger or self-pity or despising some subset of our neighbors, our view and our understanding will be severely limited, indeed it can be like blindness.

This man was a disabled beggar until Jesus took the mud of the earth, like that from which God had formed the man in the garden. He spread it on the man’s eyes and sent him to be washed in the pool—not so much different from the pool of baptism. When the man emerged from the pool and was able to see, everyone was confused. He was the same man, but he was not what anyone expected. Was it that they could not believe in a healing miracle? Perhaps, though skepticism about miracles was much less common in those days than now. But if you look at the story, it wasn’t the miracle that they couldn’t recognize, it was the man who was formerly blind. They knew him when they could see him lying by the road, “Oh yeah, there he is the sinful progeny of sin” or maybe just, “poor, pitiful, blind beggar.” But standing up, walking around as a responsible and articulate adult?  That’s not visible to them. It is so easy to dismiss those who are different—not powerful, not wealthy, not comfortable. But it is the Glory of God that loves and blesses every person, not just those that Jesus’ disciples might be comfortable with.

This man witnessed and explained what he had experienced: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  The scene that ensues is actually pretty funny, because there were these very devout religious types who did not like Jesus, and they had caught him out doing something on the Sabbath Day that they thought was a violation of the rules. They interrogated this man repeatedly, and tried to get him to agree that Jesus was a sinner and not from God. But when they put it to him, this man said, “He is a prophet.” It goes on and he says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” As they persisted in harassing him and looking for evidence against Jesus, he answered them, “I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples?”

This story is the story of the man’s spiritual formation and his conversion. As he spoke the truth, he was driven out by those who would not hear the truth. It is only near the end of the story that the man who was healed by Jesus actually has the opportunity to see Jesus and the conversion is made complete:

“And who is he sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.

The man who was blind could see, he could see and witness to the truth; but those who thought that they could see and that they knew how things should be done and how they would work out, turned out to be blind. In focusing on their own limited set of connections and presumptions, they missed the glory of God—the mercy and compassion of healing. From Jesus we have joy, not fear. Though the man had been blind from birth, his life was filled with the witness to God’s goodness and the glory of God.

As our Epistle today says:

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is god and right and true… Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

A Spring of Water gushing up to Eternal Life

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Today’s Gospel is long, because it’s a great story and there really isn’t any way to break it up. There’s so much fascinating detail that we could look at and discuss for a very long time, but we are going to focus on the path of preparation for baptism as the ancient lectionary takes us through Lent.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan and it was a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were not Jews, though they shared the first five books of the Bible with them. To an outsider, they might look quite similar, but the bitterness between the two groups at that time would make the current feelings in our country look mild by comparison. Of course, we tend to hear that term as “Good Samaritan,” but when Jesus told that other story involving a Samaritan, the effect was similar in his context to what it would be in some quarters in this country if he had described the “Good Radical Islamic Terrorist.” The woman was a Samaritan, and each thing she said to Jesus was an essential part of the outline of Samaritan theology and belief. What I notice is that she uses her theological arguments to keep from engaging with Jesus, or facing the truth.

Just as in last week’s lesson, there is a comic misunderstanding.  One of my professors once remarked that the woman thought Jesus was a plumber.  The Greek phrase that we translate as “living water” means running water, like a stream, or a spring, or an aqueduct. “Give me this water, so I don’t have to pull jugs out of the well anymore!” But the Living Water that Jesus was talking about was refreshment from God that takes us out of all of our defensive arguments and crafty evasions.  Life in humble freedom, not in winning arguments. When Jesus shows that he sees through her evasions, she says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” And then she again dives into the theological argument, advancing the Samaritan view of what the great prophet Moses, had taught them. Then Jesus says it directly: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” We learn here that it is not subtle or forceful arguments that connect us to God, but living in truthfulness.  And it is not having the right prescribed formulas or activities, but living in the compassion of God.

The woman is still debating with Jesus about the nature of the messiah, when the disciples return. We should note that they misunderstood Jesus in just the same way that the woman had. She had misunderstood about the Living Water and when Jesus told them, “I have food that you do not know about,” they were looking around for a secret picnic basket.  Though they had been with him, they still did not understand; they were still confused. So he said it again, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Our food and drink are the love of God and flourishing in his Spirit.  As Jesus explains that “one sows and another reaps,” and that “others have labored and you have entered into their labor” the woman returns from the village with a bunch of other Samaritans. She has heard Jesus, she has understood, and she has shared his word with others. In this case, it happens that those others were exactly the last people in the world that Jesus’ disciples were expecting; least of all expecting to become one with themselves.

The woman was indeed the apostle to the Samaritans. What she shared with them was what she understood, “he told me everything I have ever done.”  In other words, Jesus knew her, and she knew and understood that she was known.  She was converted to truth.  She had been thinking of the hard work of drawing and lugging water and she had the fantasy of running water. But Jesus gave her the transformation of Living Water, the water of baptism, of dying and rising with Christ, of being sustained and refreshed by God’s spirit, of swimming in that water without fear of drowning or worry about going thirsty.  She told her fellow villagers the truth that she knew, but they learned the truth from Jesus—they asked him to stay for two days, to share with them the Living Water and the Food of Eternal life.

Living the Christian life and preparing for baptism are not things that we do individually, by reading books or gazing at our computers. We learn Christian life in community, we prepare for participation in the death and resurrection of Christ by learning to be generous and courageous by living with others who are also learning courage and generosity. “Then they said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Born from above: the journey to baptism

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come for God.”

Nicodemus was a devout Jew, a Pharisee, and a member of the ruling council. He comes to Jesus, genuinely searching for the truth of God. Notice that he comes from the dark—the imagery is that he is in the dark, he does not know, so he comes to Jesus and is enlightened.

The Gospel lessons during Lent this year trace the traditional path of the catechumenate, or the course for preparation for baptism from the ancient church continuing through to today. Last week, Jesus focused us on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” and “worshiping the Lord and serving only him.” Today, Nicodemus comes from the dark to ask Jesus about the true teaching of God. And Jesus tells him how to experience the Kingdom of God.  “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being begotten from above.”

One of the characteristics of the Gospel of John is that people who are talking with Jesus misunderstand him, often with comic results. This is the first instance.  It’s sometimes difficult to pick up what’s happening if you don’t know the language because puns don’t usually translate that well from one language to another.  There are two words in the Greek of this passage which have double meanings: “gennan” can mean “born” or “begotten” and “anOthen” can mean “from above” or “again.” A lot of translators miss the joke so they translate it to make sense of Nicodemus’ response: “born again” and that Nicodemus understands Jesus to be talking about going through the birth process in the flesh, coming out of one’s mother’s womb again. What Nicodemus does not know, but the readers of John’s Gospel do, is the prologue of the Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were begotten, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

In modern American English, we seldom use the word begotten, which refers to the father’s role in the development of a baby as opposed to the mother’s, so the ambiguity in Greek is also ambiguous for us. But we see that Nicodemus completely missed Jesus’ meaning. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God is for those who are born from God, not from any markers of human descent at all. It is Jesus, the Son, the Word of God, that gives life and brings light out of darkness. We are born from God, even though we are only born once from the human perspective.

So we have Nicodemus approaching Jesus—and he doesn’t understand, even though he is educated and a religious leader. Jesus teaches Nicodemus and his teaching goes on past what we have read in today’s gospel lesson. Even in today’s lesson, the teaching is dense, packed with meaning. At one point Jesus compares God’s action in himself with something that Nicodemus would have recognized—when Moses lifted up poisonous serpents on poles so that the Israelites who had been poisoned would see them and be healed.  Beholding Jesus brings healing to Nicodemus, to us and to the world.

Nicodemus is an archetype of the catechumen. He is initially in darkness, but he comes into the light of Jesus. Initially he is puzzled, he misunderstands and makes mistakes. And it takes time, the preparation, the conversion, the learning—they don’t happen in a single day or a single session. There is much to learn and to experience on the Christian journey.

Nicodemus appears twice more in the Gospel of John.  In the seventh chapter, Jesus had been encountering opposition and there were plots against his life. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” And the chief priests and Pharisees were talking with the temple police, “Why did you not arrest him.” And Nicodemus spoke up, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing does it?” Nicodemus was hearing Jesus, and seeing the Kingdom of God, yet he was still on his way.

Later in the Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Joseph of Arimathea got Jesus body to put it in the tomb, Nicodemus also came and brought the mixture of spices, weighing a hundred pounds, to prepare the body for burial. Nicodemus had come from the dark, and had witnessed Jesus life.  Being born from above was more involved than many might think. It was more difficult than re-entering a mother’s womb—he witnessed the death of the Lord of Life.

We move forward in the journey toward baptism. With Nicodemus, we learn. We learn of the Lord of Life, the love and mercy of God, and we learn of how very intertwined our life is with the world of human sin and pride. The reality of the death of the Messiah is essential in understanding the Word that was with God in the beginning, in being born from above as true children of the father.  In Nicodemus we don’t see the resurrection…he does not know about that until after the last time we see him.

So in our story of Nicodemus we have the beginning of the journey toward baptism. The journey of Lent continues as our life and learning continues.

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God for ever and ever. Amen.


The Slanderer

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the slanderer.”

We are inclined to look at the wrong things when we think about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Oh wow, forty days of fasting in the wilderness, what self-control!”, we think. And that Devil: We’re pretty sure we know what he’s like, we’ve seen Halloween costumes and even some medieval paintings, this demon with horns and a tail. But it’s a mistake to think of a single demon or even a demonic force opposed to God enticing Jesus and engaging in test of wills with him. In Jesus’ time, the Greek word “diavolos,” which we hear as “Devil” had a straightforward meaning that everyone would have understood, even if they were also thinking of a personified demon. It meant slanderer, or someone who tells falsehoods to damage the reputation of someone else; someone who misleads others.

It’s true that most of us aren’t up to forty days of desert survival on our own with no food and limited water. But it’s not a world record. It’s a serious time of reflection, a serious time of withdrawal from the world. It’s the same amount of time that Moses spent on the mountain when he received the law from the Lord. It’s not trivial, and such a fast achieves something in terms of clarity and spiritual growth, but the fact that Jesus fasted does not distinguish him from other seriously spiritual people.

The real lesson in today’s Gospel comes with the Devil – the slanderer –posing three questions to Jesus. Like all slanderers, he tries to confuse the issues, he seeks to undermine clarity. Each question designed to get Jesus to focus on his own power and concerns, to regard the spiritual as magic. Most important, they’re designed to take the focus off God and onto Jesus. The slanderer wanted Jesus to think it was about having super-powers like Spider Man or one of the X-men, rather than being God’s human child.

After all, Jesus was human, he was hungry. “There’s no reason to go hungry—just do a magic trick—take care of what YOU want in ways that aren’t available to others.” But Jesus remains calmly clear on the source of mercy, the source of Life.

Then, taking Jesus to the top of the Temple, the slanderer tells Jesus to get God to dramatically show off his power. But Jesus is not about power. He is simple. He is about God’s love and mercy. It is not about showing off and taking care of Jesus, it is about God’s love for all of God’s people. And Jesus says: “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “

The slanderer isn’t done yet. He offers all power to Jesus, nakedly and grandly: “all the kingdoms of the world in their splendor.” And Jesus sends him away, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

We’ve heard about three kinds of power in today’s Gospel lesson: material, religious and political. Powerful people, and those who desire power, regard these as magic that can take the place of human honesty, compassion, generous work and common sense. Jesus focused on telling the truth and healing people—that was not popular with those who wanted to use power—but that was fine with Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven is gained through loyalty to the Lord of Heaven, not in gathering power to ourselves.  In that Garden, so long ago, the woman listened to the tempter, picked that unripe fruit and gave it to the man, and from then on, humans have listened to their fear and used falseness to try to fool God. Jesus was not fooled or fearful.

In Lent, we are called to shed our burdens of fear and our inclinations to grasp at ineffectual ways to control the world around us. We are preparing for baptism, where we die to self, and live to real life, the life of Jesus whose life burst the tomb of death.

It’s OK to give up something for Lent. It’s best to give up things that add to your confusion and take your focus away from generous living. It makes no sense to give up Twinkies for Lent and then buy a case of them at Costco totwinkies have after Lent is over.  That would be a way to continue to focus on Twinkies rather than the Kingdom of God. The discipline of Lent is to focus on where God is leading us, to find the abundance of life in the opportunity to live for others, to give up on self-pity and worry. The time of Lent is not a test of strength, or of our resistance to temptation. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” or another translation, “Do not bring us to the test.” Do not attend to the Slanderer, follow Jesus, in him we receive life as a gift, and that gift is the resurrection from all death.

“By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”


Six days later

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 26, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

Six days later than what? If you look at the Gospel of Matthew, a lot of things happened in the day that immediately precedes this statement. The lectionary puts in an introduction that wants us to focus on the very first part of that passage, which is the confession of Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But there is a lot between that statement and when the Gospel says “Six days later.” Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and this same Peter takes Jesus to the side and starts to lecture him that he should be a little more upbeat and appropriate—and what did Jesus say?  “Get behind me, Satan!” And what he said to his disciples was:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So that is the context when the Gospel says “Six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”

This is the story of the Transfiguration, and it can’t be separated from Jesus’ journey to the cross, of how he would be betrayed, of how religious and government people would be threatened by his witness and kill him.

They went up on the mountain and they saw the glory of God. And in it they saw Jesus’ face shining in the glory of God.  It makes no sense of course as a simple image. Any movie maker can do shiny. shiny-001 shiny-002And all that shines and glitters in this world contributes nothing to the goodness or salvation of this world or to our knowing about God. But in this context, Moses and Elijah appear. The two key prophets of Israel, who brought truth to God’s people. Our lesson from Exodus tells us about Moses. He went up on the mountain with his assistant Joshua. And for six days—notice that, SIX DAYS—they were on the mountain, covered by a cloud and the Glory of God appeared on them like a devouring fire.

The truth and holiness of God is not so much shiny as terrifying; overwhelming; purer than our impurity can handle.  This passage doesn’t mention what happens down the hill at the same time—the Israelites get nervous and scared, and while Moses is on the mountain getting the law directly from the all-holy, all-pure and all-wise God, they are leaning on Aaron the priest to make an idol for them, made from all their shiny jewelry, to assuage their fear by worshiping the graven image.

And Jesus is on the mountaintop with the two prophets most known for opposing and defeating idolatry, the three sages speaking, here in this context when Jesus and all his followers knew he was on his way to Jerusalem. And this same Peter guy, he sees it, and he volunteers to step in and do something.

I love Peter. His responses are so real, even when he’s doing the wrong thing, you know in your heart that his goof-ups resemble our own.  He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here, if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That’s not necessarily a goof-up. To dwell with the three prophets, to wait in the presence of the glory of God. Really, what aspiration could be better? There is no rebuke of Peter.

However, while Peter is still speaking a cloud comes down—just like the cloud that covered Moses and Joshua for those six days. Peter, James and John heard the voice and they hit the deck. This was the real deal. What did the voice say? “This is my beloved son—LISTEN TO HIM.” Listen to him. The whole scene clears, and that is what they are left with: “my beloved son, Listen to him.” “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus told the disciples to say nothing, because the image makes no sense until it is lived out through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. People are apt to confuse God’s glory with shininess, or the messiah with success, or the prophets with some sort of memorial. We do that. But for Peter and James and John, this was real, and it wasn’t about shininess, it was about Jesus and the journey they were taking with him.

Today is the last Sunday before we embark on the journey of Lent.  The season of Lent has been, since ancient times, the season of preparation for baptisms which were normally done at Easter. While many of us were baptized years ago, we are preparing to own our own baptism, our death with Christ and resurrection in him. It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and I invite you to a season of reflection. The Gospel lessons during Lent guide us through the catechesis, or preparation for baptism, and my sermons will be about that. On Monday evenings there will be a time of soup and study in Martin Hall. On Wednesdays, we will have Eucharist at 10 a.m. followed by a Bible study on the Virgin Mary, and at 4:30 p.m. we will have Evening Prayer at the Orchard Creek Lodge in Lincoln Hills. I encourage you all to prepare to own your baptism and walk with Jesus by living a joyful and holy Lent.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and we will observe it at the 10:00 a.m. Eucharist and at the 4:30 Evening Prayer at the Orchard Creek Lodge.

Let us pray once again our collect for today:

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Love your enemies

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

This is the fourth week that the Gospel in our lectionary is from the fifth chapter of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. Next week is the last Sunday before Lent, so this is the end of this series, even though the Sermon on the Mount continues for two more chapters. Jesus has been teaching us, just as he taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him. They followed him not only to learn about what he might teach, but because in encountering Jesus, people were healed. That’s sort of an odd thing. There is no doubt that Jesus was a healer and he cast out demons. If you approach the documents that we have with an historical eye, it is more sure that he was known for his exorcisms and healings than anything about his teaching. Yet when we get an accurate picture of him, he wasn’t a magician and did nothing particularly showy.  Despite the crowds, what we know of Jesus was how plain and ordinary he was. His healing and his teaching were the same thing: moving people from the self-absorption of fear and pain to the honesty of healthy life in God.

What Jesus presents is simple, anyone can do it—you don’t have to be smart, well-educated, or a religious superhero. However, it is a challenge to be honest in your life, and honesty requires courage, because there are real-world consequences for being honest in a world dominated by fear, selfishness, and self-serving dishonesty.

The Parable of the Good Shepherd Separating the Sheep from the GoatsSome people think that the things that Jesus says in today’s Gospel are unrealistic or even soft-headed.  But let’s look. This eye-for-an-eye thing was about holding to proportionality in pursuing justice: if a person caused you loss or injury, you weren’t entitled to have your posse go out and kill them and their whole family and take everything that they had. It was an eye for an eye, not nuclear war for an insult. But Jesus knows his customers. People rationalize and lie to themselves and others about how badly they have been treated and how terrible the others are. So, if you think you are wronged, accept it, live generously. Accept even a real wrong to your own interest, for the sake of truthfulness and justice in society. This is not about coddling wrong; it’s about stepping away from self-justification of entitlement to personal comfort. Even when we must stand up for justice, it is not for our own advantage or comfort that we stand, but for the sake of those who are harmed by the contemptuous and violent. The fierceness of compassion is far different from the rage of self-defense and selfish rancor.

So when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” isn’t that impossible?  I mean aren’t we going to be upset if people do bad things to us and our loved ones? If love were about feeling good, it would be impossible. But what Jesus has to say is not about making you, or anyone else in our country, feel good. We tend to think of love as some sort of positive feeling—nice disposition toward someone else, or some group of people—or kittens. But love, as Jesus teaches, is a disposition of the will—­a choice—for the good of someone else. Christian love is not desire, or even friendship, but concern and action for the good of others. ­

Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” He does not say, do everything they want, or pander to their cruel whims. Rather, we should look for their ultimate good, for their healing and health. If you are taking care of a cranky and spoiled child, it is not loving to let them run into a busy street or hurt their little sister or brother. Loving another means looking out for that other person’s well-being, not their whims or what they seem to think they want. Pray for your enemies, for their well-being, for them to be guided to just actions—even it is in spite of themselves. It sometimes means that you have to stand up to a person who is destroying their life or the lives of others. Sometimes it costs popularity for not being as “nice” as some expect or for failing to join in the ridicule and nastiness toward a person who is clearly troubled and a problem.

Does it require courage to follow Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount? Yes. Is it too hard for ordinary Christians? No. Healthy Christians know to seek the good of others before self. They also are honest about their own fears and their own selfishness, and they seek to repent and believe the Gospel daily. It is the pretense of acting like we are better than others, or the justification of selfishness and self-interested manipulation of the world around us that is unacceptable.

Jesus doesn’t say that life in the real world is easy. He just doesn’t pity us, rather he loves us and looks for our good.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We are blessed and we are healed by Jesus’ love for us and the courage of his honesty. We are called to be Christians in this world, in this country, at this time.

Let us pray once again our collect for today:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

Choose life so that you and your descendants

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.

This Sunday we reach the part of the Sermon on the Mount that is really tough. And it IS tough because Jesus mount-of-the-beatitudesseriously meant it to be that way. There’s no getting out of it, even the scholars who are most skeptical about whether we know much of anything about Jesus agree that these hard sayings are clearly from him.

Jesus discusses three important portions of the Jewish law, and in each case he ups the ante. “You have heard it said…You shall not murder. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment, and if insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, “You Loser!” you will be liable to the gehenna of fire.”

Some people think that this means that our internal emotions or motivations are all that counts, but that’s wrong. Jesus is talking about how to understand the law of Moses, the law of God. And following the law of God is about what you do—however, it is so common for people to try to litigate and argue with God—in other words, what is the least I can get away with and still comply? Jesus is saying that does not work at all—in fact it is the opposite. Murder is wrong, but so are the less noticeable hurts that people try to sneak by with—ways of hurting, bullying and undermining that perhaps there’s no criminal charge for, yet the damage to others and the spiritual damage to those that do the hurt can be severe indeed.  There is a word which I translated as “Loser” and the NRSV translates as “You fool.” “Raka” is not even a Greek word, it’s a crude insult from Aramaic that tells the target that they are nothing, purely a target for contempt. Jesus is firm about this: living a life of contempt for one’s fellow human beings is the surest way to a life of torment. I find it particularly troubling that contempt is so fashionable nowadays. Sometimes Christians are among the most contemptuous. I recommend we follow Jesus and do what we can to limit the amount of contempt in our circles of influence.

There is an awful lot in this lesson which I would unpack at greater length if I didn’t contract this cold this week. When Jesus talks about adultery and divorce and prohibits divorce, he is doing the same thing as with murder and anger—plenty of people, especially men of his day, found technical ways to get out of responsibilities to their wives and even children through a writ of divorce.  You can’t be “technically” in the right with God while betraying your responsibilities of respect and care for others.

Jesus tells all of his hearers a way of abundant life, that at the same time is demanding. If we lived this way thoroughly we would be like him, people from God’s point of view. But we are not. Heaven knows we are not.  Just about everyone in this room has fallen short on some part of Jesus’ expectation of us in our lifetime, perhaps recently. How can we be safe or sure that we are doing OK? The answer is we can’t—Jesus is presenting the law of life, not the law of death. It’s not about being safe from death it’s about living life. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is to truly understand the law of Moses, as we have in our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy today: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; that that means life to you and length of days.”

The Christian way of life is not a life of avoiding mistakes and building defenses. It’s a matter of living joyfully and openly. Of accepting the frequent times that our relationships with our sisters and brothers in this world have hurt them and we might in some way be part of the blame.  This is a process of life. As Jesus says here: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that you brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Live this injunction with the same generosity that Jesus commands for these other things.  It is not just when you approach communion, that you should be aware of this, and if the person is far away, don’t give up on either church or being reconciled with your sister or brother—it might be later. And indeed, it should also be earlier—recognizing and repenting for our offenses against others on a regular basis. There are many difficult cases where there exists no basis of trust for any real reconciliation to be effective. The first step is to know and recognize what happened to break that trust; the second step is to humbly recognize your own role in it. Sometimes we have to be humble enough to give up self-blame and guilt—because it is truth that results in reconciliation, not capitulation.

Life in the generosity of Jesus Christ is exciting and demanding. Yet in the tender compassion of God we will be led through unscathed.

Let us pray once again our Collect for today:

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers, and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in the will and the deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen