Month: February 2017

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

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.