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

To fulfill the Law and the Prophets

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 5, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

sermon-on-the-mountLast week I said that Jesus’ entire life and teaching was commentary on the Old Testament. It was not just in our own day that people thought that Jesus was teaching something different from the scriptures of Israel. Some people liked Jesus for bringing what they thought of as novelty and new fashions, while other people hated him for upsetting the ways in which their understanding of the rules supported their habitual ways of life—and even made it easy for them to lord it over others and prosper at their expense.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not an innovative set of rules to put a new group into power. Jesus calls us to account for how we live in the world in which we find ourselves.

“You are the salt of the earth.”  I have always had difficulty in understanding what this means. I won’t say that I’ve figured it out and it’s now crystal clear, but here is something I’ve discovered. Both times that Jesus says this in the Gospels it is followed by the phrase which our translation renders, “but if salt has lost its taste.”  The translators do their best, but they’re struggling with an idiom that doesn’t fit in our language.  But the word that’s translated, “lost its taste” actually means “becomes foolish.”

So what would it mean if Jesus stood up and said, “You are salt, but if the salt has become foolish, it’s no longer good for anything?” It’s a jarring figure of speech, you have to pay attention to it and try to figure it out.  One commentator on this observed that “salt is to food, as wisdom is to life.” A foolish chef, who didn’t season, would have tasteless food. While it is difficult to avoid salt nowadays, a diet with no salt leads to severe problems with muscle contraction, water balance in the body and neurological problems. Without salt, you die. Likewise, without wisdom, the life of people or a society becomes selfish, inconsiderate, unstable—even when the rules and structures are fundamentally sound. Approaching rules without wisdom yields a society with defective human bonds and imbalance that causes it to fall apart.

Jesus says, “if the salt has become foolish, how can its wisdom be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”  What Jesus is doing is not dismantling rules or traditions, he is bringing the blessing of the life of God to this world.

Living that life is not automatic. Someone mentioned the other day that one of the blessings of this parish is the wisdom of many people, who have gained that wisdom by living many years. She was right. As time goes by and we get experience, it becomes clearer what things will work and how they will work; what the consequences of anyone’s actions or non-actions might be—sometimes in subtle ways that aren’t so easily explained.  Of course, some people become skilled in stealing people’s money or abusing others—there’s a certain kind of wisdom in old criminals. That’s not the only sort of foolish wisdom that some pursue. But if we spend a life, seeking to be compassionate, or honest, merciful or courageous as we learn in following Jesus, then our wisdom will grow. We see the fruits of decisions and learn better how to shape what we do for best results. When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is honoring the wisdom that is in each of us.

At the same time, we need to be humble about our wisdom: it’s just a little seasoning. No one is wise enough to control the whole planet. No one’s power does more than influence the flavor of life a bit. But if we abandon the way of God’s compassion, and our salt becomes foolish, all of our purported wisdom is nothing—just trodden underfoot.

“You are the light of the world,” is a parallel illustration. Jesus is encouraging us—that is, urging us to courage. Our life in his love is nothing to be ashamed of or hidden, our wisdom is to be shared. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It’s not that we gain heaven by our good works—what Jesus is saying is that the fruits of our wisdom glorify God.  Scripture is the repository of wisdom over countless generations. And when our traditions and practices are faithful to the love of God in Christ they convey the distilled wisdom of the saints of the church throughout the ages. Yet the “law and the prophets” and the “teaching of the church” are not legal formulas to bludgeon your opponents and reward your cronies—they are wisdom to be seasoned by the salt of yourselves—not the foolish salt, but the flavorful salt of your knowledge of God’s compassion.

As St. Paul says in our epistle today:

“We do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak of God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heard conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”

The teaching of Jesus which we are exploring in the Sermon on the Mount fulfills the law and the prophets, revealing the Spirit by guiding us to understand God’s will in the wisdom, mercy and compassion of God.

Walk humbly with your God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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.

In the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary is taking us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week he called the first disciples and the lesson ends: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

The next thing Matthew says is a description of the great crowds who travelled from all over that started following Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them. Over the next four Sundays we will be going through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is the fundamental foundation of Christian spirituality.

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The introductory part, which I just read, is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together, they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

The Beatitudes start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor? They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have things that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or still could lose.

And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we mourn for people who have meant much to us. In our own community, we have lost people, long-time members—and we grieve. Losing a spouse or a child or another close loved one hurts immensely, and it continues to hurt for a long time. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about that word. Meek has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Being meek does not mean that you don’t speak out when you see wrong or injustice. It’s only the meek and humble who can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s Kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.

And as we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you achieve by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.

Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. For instance, it never occurred to me that the President of the United States would ever make an order that caused long-time residents of this country and whose permanent visas were in order to be detained and refused re-entry into the country as happened this weekend. That order embodies fear and anger and uses power to gain satisfaction for that anger by scapegoating people like the U.S. Army translator who was detained and threatened with return to Iraq. At times like this, when Christians speak out for the dignity of people there is a real risk of suffering for it.  The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.

So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.

Jesus teaches us and the crowds the way of life. But what he teaches is not important because it is new or different. It is important because he lived it and shared God’s mercy and compassion.  It is a mistake to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as representing “New Testament teaching” as if it were different from the “Old Testament.”  His life and teaching are consistently a commentary on the scriptures of Israel.  Hear again our Old Testament lesson for today: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Over the next three weeks, the Sermon on the Mount will illustrate how Jesus’ humble walk with God interprets the scriptures of Israel. God blesses those who accompany him on that walk, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom, finding God’s peace, purifying their hearts, receiving and giving God’s mercy and comfort.  May all of our spirits become poor enough and empty enough to inherit the reign of God.

 

Whom then shall I fear?

A sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

Last week, our gospel story was from the Gospel of John, and in it was the call of Andrew and then the call of Peter. Today’s gospel story is from the Gospel of Matthew and in it is the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Two different Gospels, two different writers, two different stories remembering the call of Jesus’ first disciples.  In John, they were over by the Jordan, east of Jerusalem while John the Baptist is still out baptizing people. In mending-netsMatthew, the story takes place after John was arrested. They are on the beach at Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, far to the north of Jerusalem.

The lesson begins: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” It was a very dark time. The leader of the movement for repentance and hope had been taken—the powers would no longer tolerate him and by extension, they wouldn’t tolerate this movement, of which Jesus, by being baptized, was a part. Precise time frames are difficult to draw out of ancient texts like the Gospel of Matthew. But we know that after his baptism, Jesus withdrew into the wilderness and was tempted and then he heard that John was arrested and then went to Galilee. Time has passed between Jesus’ baptism and the point at which he proclaims, “the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” During that time, Jesus reflected. He knew the darkness and lived among those who were in darkness.  And Matthew refers to our lesson from Isaiah:

“In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Jesus began to proclaim: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  Though John the Baptist had been saying pretty much the same thing, now Jesus IS the light.

What does Jesus mean when he says repent. Repent of what? Repent of the shadow of death. Of fear. Of hatred. It is time to live in God’s Kingdom and not in the kingdom of Herod or the Empire of Caesar. But what is God’s Kingdom, how do we know it? Jesus gave his disciples a prayer, which we have all been taught, and which we all say every day. It describes the Kingdom—indeed in living it, it is God’s Kingdom.  “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, just like in Heaven. Give us today the bread we need. Forgive us our offenses as we forgive anyone who offends us. Keep our faith and character from being tested, but save us from evil.”  Living in God’s Kingdom is simple, easily understood, but also challenging—especially challenging to our selfishness, our anger, our fear, and our inner darkness. And Jesus calls on everyone to repent. Jesus calls us to repent. He is the light. God’s kingdom is the light that shines light on our inner darkness and gives us a way toward a life of generosity of spirit and of compassion.

And as he is saying this, Jesus walks down on the beach of that big lake in northern Palestine that is sometimes known as the Sea of Galilee. He sees these guys working. “Come with me, we have much more important work to do.” Jesus invites them to invite others into the kingdom. And they come along with him as “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Jesus is here to heal the sickness and darkness in this land too. We are called to follow him in the good news of the kingdom and to share the light of his love.

Come and see

A sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

st-andrew-iconWhen I became the director of the library at the General Theological Seminary, my wife Paula gave me a special gift. She commissioned an icon of St. Andrew to be painted (or as the Orthodox more properly state it, written) for me.  On a luminous red background with a gold border and nimbus around his head, it shows a man with scruffy hair and beard holding one hand up in blessing and in the other, holding a scroll—identifying him as a preacher of the word. There is a caption written in Greek on the red background, “ho hagios Andreas Protokletos.”

That caption refers to our Gospel story this morning. It means “Holy Andrew, the first-called.” St. Andrew is important to me—largely because we share a name, I identify with him.  So, what does this mean, “the first-called?”

This story is very early in the Gospel of John, in the first chapter, immediately following the Prologue and the introduction of John the Baptist. John is at the Jordan baptizing people for repentance. Andrew was a follower of John, working with him, learning from him. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And Andrew and one other disciple followed Jesus. And when he turns and talks to them they ask, “Teacher, where are you staying?” They are asking to listen to the teacher, and his response is immediate, “Come and see.”  We don’t know who the other disciple was, but Andrew was the first of the Twelve Apostles. He spent the day listening to Jesus and went and found his brother, Peter: “We have found the Messiah!” After this point, Peter is chief among the disciples, the most important leader of the church and Andrew pretty much fades into the background. But Andrew was the first one to be called.

Think about that for a minute. We human beings like to put things in order of priority; the most important or the most powerful first. We can only focus on a few things, often only one thing at a time, so we focus on the biggest, the most important and then, wanting attention, we seek to become the most prominent or the most powerful. But our focus and wants have nothing to do with reality as God gives it to us.  The First Called was an obscure disciple and not a hero or a leader—not the biggest or the best, nor any other superlative, not even the least or the worst. Andrew heard John: “Behold the Lamb of God.” And he responded by following—and in interacting with Jesus he was called: “Come and see.” His call did not come out of the blue, it came in the context of a life of searching. The call of God never comes without the context of a life—of human possibilities and needs.  We see here that this obscure Apostle is also deeply important in the development of the church—how can you tell the story of Christianity without St. Peter? Yet Andrew knew that Jesus was the Messiah from sitting in his presence and listening—even before any of the rest of the story unfolded.

We are all called to know God and to witness to God in the context of our own lives. Like St. Andrew, the most significant things in our lives are not the big achievements or awards, but our simple witness to the truth of God and our simple living of Christ’s love. “He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter, or Rock).”

Tomorrow we celebrate the life of a saint of our church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “drum major sermon,” Dr. King acknowledged that he had received many accolades in his life. But he also said that upon his death, what he most wanted was for people to remember the following:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

 

King makes it clear, that he means that it was not any of the attention or awards that he received, that were of any significance, but the ways in which his life was of service to others. We are also called to use our gifts, individually and as a congregation to serve the good of others.

Since Fr. Bill Rontani retired, St. James has been in a period of transition. This interim time is not a time of drift or emptiness. It is an opportunity to reflect on God’s call to us—to “Come and See” Jesus and discern the direction where God may be inviting us to travel. As God’s disciples, we live realistically in the real world. We live in hope, but not in delusions. We know the love of God as we have experienced it, not as we imagine it might happen at other places that get the attention or success.

An important part of this time of discernment is today. After our final hymn, we will gather for an exercise that has the label “Appreciative Inquiry,” after the method in which I have been training to be a certified Interim Minister.  The most important part of Appreciative Inquiry is that every person’s story will be heard.  No matter how retiring or insignificant a person may think of himself or herself, every person has a story and that story is a vital part of who St. James Church is. I invite each of you to come and hear and tell one other person’s story.  There is a simple, concise and un-embarrassing structure of how we will do this. The goal is to have people who know each other the least interview one another, and to introduce their new partner to a small group. I assure you, the depth of insight from this exercise will enhance the life of this congregation, and the most important statements will come from surprising sources. After this week and next week, the information from our experience will be used by the Parish Profile committee to help draft the document that will guide St. James’ search for a new priest. That priest is not some sort of savior or solution to all problems, the priest will hold you accountable to your vision of who you really are as a congregation, and will assist you in your life as disciples of the true Messiah.

As St. Paul said in today’s epistle:

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him…”

 

“Come and see.”

The darkness did not overcome it

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Each time that I am the celebrant at the Eucharist, after the service I say the beginning of the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is our Gospel lesson today. I say it as a prayer of thanksgiving, and I end with those words: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel today is the Christmas story, as John tells it—and Christmas is the essence of Christianity. Whether the story we read is the baby in the manger, with shepherds running out of the hills to see him, or later on when the astrologers from the East come asking at the palace of Herod, because they want to give gifts to the infant king. (oops–not such a good idea, see Matthew 2:16-18–), or as we say it today, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—God is in this world with us, born of a human woman. God’s choice was not to do this in the most secure or powerful place, like the palace of the Roman Emperor, or even of the King of Judea, but rather in the most precarious of circumstances.

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

The image of the light shining in the darkness would have been understood in antiquity as a lamp—a little dish with oil in it, and a wick—with a flame like a candle. In those times, a room at night would be black with overwhelming darkness, but one small light would push the darkness back—indeed with your eyes accustomed to the dark, you could see everything in the room. The tiny light would overcome the huge darkness. Just as the baby—born in poverty and vulnerability—brings salvation into the world.

Soon, people will start to throw away their trees. Christmas is over as soon as the presents are opened. Nobody, except for a few Episcopalians, pays any attention to the twelve days. But our celebration is not of a day, or a season, or of trees or of gifts. The Gospel puts it, where? “In the beginning”—that is to say, in the beginning before anything at all was created, the Word was there with God, and it is the life of that Word that is the light that shines in that little baby in Bethlehem and continues to shine and overcome the darkness of the cross in his Resurrection.

This light, then, shines in the darkness. It does not need to be the great white lights on Broadway, nor the TV lights in a football stadium that outdo the sun during the broadcast of a game, nor the sun itself or even a star. Our faith is in that small, quiet light, the light that tells of the life of the Word, of Jesus.

Christians sometimes get confused. Sometimes they think, oh, if we can do so much with this little light, how much more could we accomplish if we had more and bigger lights, and lots and lots of power? And maybe then we could get EVERYBODY to celebrate Christmas our way, then everybody would be much better Christians. Of course you need a lot of power for all those lights, so maybe you should deal with the people who have the power and forget about those guys in the stable.

 

Our hope, as Christians, is not in the big lights and the big productions, but in that one small and humble light. That hope is not wishful thinking, but the sure and certain triumph of the love of God. Though we might live a life of vulnerability along with Christ, and we might lose one thing or another that we might like to have, the reality that is the love of God will never fail. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from his fullness have we all received all the gifts of God and lives filled with confident hope.

 

Merry Christmas.