Month: January 2017

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.

IMG_0096_2

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.

 

Advertisements

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.”