Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: ...and Gone to Meddling

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 19, 1965, Epiphany 7A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 33-34;
Matthew 5:38-48

… and Gone to Meddling

You’ve heard that saying before, right? The one from which this week’s sermon title comes? Take last week’s title, combine it with this one, speak it in a good drawly Southern accent, and you get it to best effect: “Well, now, preacher, you done quit preaching and gone to meddling.” Maybe you’ve heard it before?
I’m not sure if that saying existed in Jesus’s time, but a few of his hearers might have been tempted to invent it at this point in the Sermon on the Mount.
After all, that set of blessings we call the Beatitudes was challenging enough. That talk about being salt and light, and your righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees, and Jesus not abolishing but fulfilling the law, was challenging enough. (Note that we just heard a small portion of those laws in the reading from Leviticus. Despite the unfortunate "thou shalt not phrasing, those are good laws, meant towards making us good people -- love your neighbor, welcome the stranger -- but they're not enough?) Those reversal statements from last week’s reading were more than challenging enough. But now, with today’s reading, Jesus really has done quit preaching and gone to meddling.
After all, in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a caution against excessive violence or vengeance in retribution for wrongdoing – any measure of justice or punishment extracted against a wrongdoer was not to be in excess of the wrong committed. In other words, you didn’t decapitate a thief for stealing a loaf of bread. It is, in a way, the ancestor of the “proportional response” ideal that has governed geopolitical relations for many decades (you might have heard that term if you watched The West Wing, for example). But Jesus flat-out rejects such a response.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to care that nowadays, if you turn that other cheek, you will get hit again. If you get sued and your coat is taken, and you offer up your cloak also, you won’t have anything to wear. And if you offer that second mile, you’ll be another mile more worn down. Maybe those things wouldn’t have been the case in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, but those cultural strictures really don’t seem to apply anymore. I mean, just in one month I already feel like I’m fresh out of cheeks to turn. Jesus does not seem to care about this.
And if that weren’t bad enough…”But I say to you, Love your enemies and play for those who persecute you…
I really do want to throw up my hands at this point and cry out the way John McEnroe used to do on the tennis court, when a call went against him: “You canNOT be SERious!
These days I have enough trouble even keeping up with who my enemies are – or more accurately whose enemy I am, since sometimes I don’t even know I’m the enemy until someone is in my face about it. Just over the last couple of years I’ve been labeled an “enemy”:
…because I belong to this particular denomination;
…because of a school I’ve attended or at which I’ve taught (and there are several to choose from);
…because of how I vote – or more precisely who I don’t vote for;
…because I don’t choose to watch football anymore;
…because of where I have lived in the past;
And you get the idea. You don’t even get to choose your enemies anymore, and Jesus says we’re supposed to love them. “You canNOT be SERious!
What follows from there seems a bit milder, as Jesus points out that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Well, yeah, we know that, if we ever think about it for long. Admittedly sometimes it feels like, to borrow from an old pop song, “only the good die young,” but when our minds are working properly we know that isn’t true. It’s just that the bad things that happen to good people matter to us, because those are our friends; those are the people that matter to us; those are, if we’re honest, the people we know. We don’t know our enemies. Maybe we even don’t really think we have enemies.
The author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner had an interesting idea about enemies and how we relate, or don’t relate, to the passage we have before us. He offers a few examples from scripture – Cain’s enmity towards Abel, King Saul’s enmity towards David, Saul of Tarsus’s enmity against Christians – and notes that most of us really don’t “do” enmity like that before. He continues:

It would be pleasant to think it's because we're more civilized nowadays, but maybe it's only because we're less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we're less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.
Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.

You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they're tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they're vulnerable. You see where they're scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You're still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It's possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can't, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.
 In the long run, it may be easier to love the ones we look in the eye and hate, the enemies, than the ones whom—because we're as afraid of ourselves as we are of them—we choose not to look at, at all.[i]

I’ve never met Frederick Buechner, but he seems to know me pretty well.
As much as a struggle as this statement causes, as much as “love your enemies” feels like an impossible burden to bear, we haven’t even gotten to the worst part. That’s in verse 48.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That’s the NRSV, for real. “Be perfect.”
I know I’m not supposed to go the Greek in sermons, but sometimes you just have to, and in this case the NRSV translators have done us no favors. But what is given in the Greek frankly isn’t quite so simple as the NRSV makes it seem. I’m not sure it’s any better, though.
I could pick on the adjective τελειοι, a derivative of the word τελος which does indeed mean “perfect,” in the sense of “whole” or “complete” or “having achieved the target” more so than in the sense of “without error” that we tend to ascribe to the word. But I think the verb gets us in more trouble.
The verb simply rendered as “be” at the first of v. 48 is the Greek word εσεσθε. It is a form of the word ειμι, which is the most basic Greek world for “be” or “exist.” That’s the word we see in all those “I am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John – “εγο ειμι,” or “I am.”
Even if you have never looked at or listened to biblical Greek before, you could guess that εσεσθε is a rather different-sounding word than ειμι, and you would be right. It is in fact the future indicative form of that verb. It’s not present tense, and it’s not the imperative mood of the verb we would expect in a command (the way the word “love” in “love your enemies” is a command, in the imperative mood). It’s not Jesus thundering at the crowd “BE PERFECT!!!” (with three exclamation points); it’s Jesus simply making a statement of fact: “You will be perfect (whole) (complete), the way your Heavenly Father is perfect (whole) (complete).
Oh, and one more important grammar point: εσεσθε is plural – second person plural, to be precise. “Y’all will be… .
While I find some solace that I’m not on my own in this, I’m not sure all of these Greek things – the stuff I went to seminary to learn – actually makes this a whole lot better.
Remember that grudge-holding Frederick Buechner was talking about, what we’re likely to do rather than have real rip-snorting enemies? My suspicion is that we prefer it that way. We like nursing those grudges, even if the object of those grudges never knows the anger we’re holding against them. Actually seeing the “enemy” the way Buechner describes – seeing them in all their frailty and woundedness and brokenness – well, we don’t really like that, maybe because it takes our fun away or maybe because we find those things in ourselves too, when we ever allow ourselves to look.
And Jesus is saying – in this forward-looking, matter-of-fact statement – is that we won’t do this anymore, because that’s not how our Heavenly Father is. And I’m really not sure we’re comfortable with that. Even as we know in the deepest darkest recesses of our hearts that it what we need, what we desperately long for is to be whole, to be complete, to be freed of all these burdens of resentment and hatred and woundedness…we don’t want to give it up.
But this is what will be, if this “following Jesus” thing we claim is anything more than lip service. Because we are God’s, we will be like God. Because the Spirit moves us, we will move with the Spirit. Because Christ lives in us, we will live like Christ. And that’s not even a command. Just a statement of fact.
So, are we following Jesus? Do we dare?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, except where noted):
#385    All People That on Earth Do Dwell
#203    Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#771    What Is the World Like
#---       Receive the Stranger (insert)




[i] Frederick Buechner, “Enemy” (published both in Whistling in the Dark and Beyond Words)


Once again, agnusday.org nails it.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Now You've Quit Preaching...

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2017, Epiphany 6A
Matthew 5:21-37

Now You’ve Quit Preaching…

One of the great, or at least tricky, difficulties of preaching, especially preaching from an extended portion of scripture over a series of multiple weeks, is that even very long passages of scripture can be extremely self-referential, recalling or elaborating upon words spoken several verses or even chapters before (as later scholars so marked the Bible, of course; neither Matthew nor any other biblical author marked verses or chapters in their writings). The Apostle Paul is pretty notorious for this sort of thing in his letters; the prophets of the Old Testament frequently double back to repeat or reinforce ideas many times in their writings; and yes, the gospel writers, whether recording the words or deeds of Jesus, could string out quite a bit of instruction from one simple statement.
Our modern Bibles don’t always help us see this. Those helpful section headings found in modern editions of the Bible sometimes have the effect of encouraging us to read whatever is under that heading as a discrete chunk of text that can be read all by itself, without reference to other parts of the biblical text. Sometimes that’s not a major problem, but sometimes, as with the texts given for today’s lectionary gospel reading, that can have seriously harmful results.
Beginning with verse 21 of Matthew 5 we arrive at what in scholarly terms is a series of six antitheses, all organized according to the formula “you have heard it said … but I say to you” or some variation of that formula. Four of those antitheses are included in today’s reading (we’ll get to the other two next week), and these four often are lamented as creating unattainable standards for Jesus’s disciples, or for us modern-day followers of Christ.
These theses or statements Jesus cites were indeed familiar to his listeners; two of them come straight from the Ten Commandments, and the others are also found in the Torah, particularly Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The first antithesis, drawing on one of those Ten Commandments, begins with the widely accepted commandment “you shall not murder” and a corollary statement from Deuteronomy that committing murder makes one susceptible to judgment. Easy enough for Jesus’s listeners to accept; however, to go from there to Jesus’s statement that even being angry at a brother or sister left one susceptible to judgment, and calling someone a fool put you in danger of Hell, was a jolt to the assembled crowds, and to Jesus’s still-fairly-new disciples as well.
The next two antitheses struck particularly hard at the men in Jesus’s audience. The long tradition by which deuteronomic regulations about divorce and adultery had been interpreted tended to slant the balance of power in society decidedly towards men, with women having virtually the status of property instead of person. Such guidelines granted all the power in marital relationships towards men – women could not, for example, give that certificate of divorce mentioned in v. 31; only men could. The reasons such a certificate could be given, while nominally limited to infidelity, could in practice be extended to just about any way a man might take offense at a woman. Once a man had decided that the offense was too much for his ego to bear, he might say, oh, I don’t know… “she was warned; she was given a reason; nevertheless, she persisted”? And he could dismiss her, just like that.
Jesus spikes that kind of reasoning, hard. To men who had been accustomed to having things there way, Jesus pronounces that the burden of fidelity and decency really was on them after all. You’re looking at her with nothing but lust? The sin is yours. You want to divorce her, when she’s been faithful to you, and condemn her to a life with no place to live, no food to eat, no way to make a living? You better believe the sin is yours. She is a person, a fully human being fully loved of God, every bit as much as you. And a man who insisted on indulging in the privilege of treating women as poverty had no part in the kingdom of God. (And yes, this is just as true now as it was then, though it is sad that this apparently still needs to be pointed out.)
The final antithesis here, on the swearing of oaths, seems even more remote from us. Swearing oaths, or making vows, only happens if we’re testifying in court or possibly serving on a jury, or some such similar official situation. But even here there is something about genuine faithfulness to be learned; the need to add anything to your “yes” or “no” is, Jesus says, “from the evil one.”
Taken on their own, these sound anything from harsh to impossible. It’s not hard to imagine not committing murder, but not being angry at someone? And pulling back from making your offering at the Temple in order to go make things right with someone? Inconceivable.
(And I’m quite certain the Stewardship Committee doesn’t really want me to make a big deal of that particular recommendation with the offering yet to be taken in this service.)
If these look harsh or impossible, well, yes, they should. They are harsh or impossible…unless you get outside of this smaller unit and look back to Matthew 5:17.
Remember that one?
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”
What Jesus is showing us in today’s reading is what it looks like when the law and the prophets are fulfilled.
What Jesus is showing us in today’s reading is what Jesus does in us.
When we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, we no longer need to wallow or indulge in our anger or toss insults at one another. We certainly don’t need to be overcome with lust or treat one another as disposable property. The fulfilling of the law accomplished in Jesus changes the way we relate to one another. When we relate to one another in Christ, our human ways of using and abusing are left aside.
What we have yet to learn, it seems, is that fulfilling the law and the prophets is a very different thing from obeying the law and the prophets. As these examples show, it was quite possible to obey the law – to keep every jot and tittle of the law, as the King James Version of 5:18 reads – and yet not fulfill the law, and in fact be very far from fulfilling the law. Obeying the law can frankly leave us cold and indifferent towards our brothers and sisters, or – even worse – judgmental jerks whose lives are outright antithetical to the fulfilling of the law. If our relationship to the law and the prophets leaves us cold or hateful or judgmental of our neighbor, we are working against the fulfillment of the law that is what Jesus has declared is his mission in and among and with us.
So yes, these antitheses are impossible for us. But they are not up to us. What is up to us is Jesus in us. Our job is simply to be the vessel in which Jesus’s fulfillment happens. It’s not about a demand to do the impossible on our own; it’s about being the ones in whom Jesus carries out his mission not to abolish, but to fulfill.
For Jesus, the one who does not abolish but fulfills, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#415                  Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
#64                   I Long For Your Commandments
#444                  Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive

#313                  Lord, Make Us More Holy



Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sermon: Time to Be Salty

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 5, 2017, Epiphany 5A
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

Time to Be Salty

So Jesus continues with his first great teaching episode, as recorded by Matthew, having first laid out those blessings and consequences we now call the Beatitudes. If one were analyzing this sermon (which, remember, continues through chapter 7), those Beatitudes might constitute a prologue, while today’s passage might be described as a transition from that prologue into the larger body of the sermon, one which anticipates some of the larger themes of the sermon and also anticipates some of the criticisms Jesus will expect to hear in his public ministry.
An example of the latter would be Jesus’s pre-emptory statement that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law (v. 17). While the religious authorities will in time resort to major nitpicking about Jesus or his disciples violating some corollary of some midrash of some story related to some law about table manners in Leviticus, Jesus fulfills the law – not in the manner of a checklist, but in a life in which the law is lived, en-fleshed, for all humanity to see.
Jesus also drops in a couple of metaphors for the effect he calls for his followers to have in the world. One of them is easy; for Jesus to call his followers “the light of the world” both points to a lot of scriptural allusions his disciples would have recognized, and is itself a pretty obvious metaphor. In scripture we can go back to the beginning, the story of creation itself, and God’s command to “let there be light”; we can sing with the psalmist “the Lord is my light and my salvation”, or hear in today’s psalm of how those who “fear the Lord” and “greatly delight in his commandments” will “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.”  And as for the metaphor itself, light illuminates. What is hidden in darkness is revealed in the light. As Jesus also extends the idea, light isn’t meant to be hidden under a bushel basket or behind a wall; it’s meant to shine for all to see.
But that other metaphor…”You are the salt of the earth.” That’s a little bit different. There are not so many obvious references about salt in scripture, and I doubt that Jesus meant for his disciples to recall Lot’s wife being turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a reference in Leviticus (2:13) to salt being added to certain sacrifices, and the book of Ezra apparently indicates that receiving a gift of salt from someone indicates that you are in their service, but again, those don’t quite sound like what Jesus has in mind here. Furthermore, the metaphor itself isn’t as obvious, or is perhaps occupied by many possible meanings.
To further keep things interesting, Jesus takes the image in a direction we may not expect. I suspect we don’t often concern ourselves with the possibility of the salt in our kitchen losing its taste, for example, nor are we likely to toss it out to be trampled underfoot. Of course, the salt in your kitchen is probably not very much like the salt with which Jesus’s followers would have been familiar.
In the era in which Jesus is speaking, the primary importance of salt might well have been as a preservative. It was necessary both make foods palatable and to make foods (meats in particular) last. Such was the importance of salt that ease of its transportation was one of the primary driving factors in the roads that became characteristic of the Roman Empire.
On the other hand, salt also has, or at least has been believed to have, destructive properties. Ancient armies sometimes practiced “salting the earth,” purported to be a means of destroying the fertility of the lands of their enemies; perhaps the most famous such case was during the Roman conquest of Carthage, close to two hundred years before Jesus would have been delivering this sermon.
For us moderns, salt is one of those tricky things that is both necessary to our health and harmful to our health if we get too much of it. Maybe some of you might have had your doctor tell you that you need to cut back on salt? Hmm?
Another precarious balancing act might be familiar to those of us who have lived in more northerly climes. Particular kinds of salt are among the easiest tools to attack the problem of an icy driveway or sidewalk, but too much of the stuff runs the risk of getting into the soil and (as noted above) doing damage to your vegetation, be it grass or flowers or whatever might be growing nearby.
Whatever all of these uses and dangers of salt mean, what is clear here is that Jesus means for his disciples to “be salty,” and that losing one’s saltiness risks being disposable – tossed out and trampled. When salt is being used properly and has not “lost its taste,” it does good things to that which it seasons. Food tastes better. Foods last longer.
In short, we really can’t talk about being “salt of the earth” without understanding that doing so means making the world better. There’s no neutrality about it; to be salt in the world is to improve the world. On the other hand, when we see Christians doing harm in the world, accepting or perpetuating injustice and hatred, it’s hard not to think that the salt has gone bad. We know what that means.
On the other hand, maybe that other property of salt might be part of the story too. If our saltiness in the world means that the weeds of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, or hatreds of any kind get snuffed out and can no longer grow, maybe that’s another part of being salty in the world. Who knows?
But none of this works, no matter how we interpret the meaning of this instruction, unless – what did we decide in the children’s sermon, kids? (wait for answer)
None of this works, we’ll never be the salt of the earth, unless we come out of the shaker. As long as we don’t come out of the container, as long as our light is hidden under a bushel, we’re not really living up to Jesus’s instructions. All our righteousness, all our saltiness isn’t making the world better if it never gets outside the walls of this church or any church. Being a follower of Christ happens out there, not just in here. If what we hear and do and say and sing here isn’t preparing us to go out and be salt and light, then let’s close up shop and go home.
We need to be salty, and we need to do it in a way that changes the world for the better. The world needs our saltiness, and needs it badly, and needs it now.
For the saltiness to which Jesus calls us, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#667      When Morning Gilds the Skies
#314      Longing for Light, We Wait in Darkness
#515      I Come With Joy
#746      Send Me, Jesus


Get out of the shaker...


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: Blessed Are...

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2017, Epiphany 4A
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed Are…

I remember my first teaching job. I don’t mean the kind of teaching one does as a graduate assistant; I mean my first real, away-from-grad-school teaching position with an actual title – Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology. At Texas Tech University. In Lubbock, Texas.
At this point in my life I had never driven past the Mississippi River, save for a few academic trips to LSU. But here I was, making the drive from Tallahassee to Lubbock for a one-semester teaching job. Julia was remaining in Tallahassee so the sense of displacement was heightened just a bit.
I drove through an ice storm in the Panhandle, spent a night in Shreveport, Louisiana, and then entered Texas, which, as the ads used to say, is like a whole other country. Once I got past Fort Worth all the green stuff stopped; it was as if I was driving off the edge of the world. A Mars rover was at that time sending pictures of that planet back to Earth, and having seen a few of those pictures in the news I thought I recognized what I was driving through. And between Midland and Lubbock my car actually got hit by a tumbleweed.
But I got there and it was time to get to work. First day of class, in this strange new place, with two different courses to teach, and it was time to begin. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more self-conscious day in my life. Is my hair going to stay out of my eyes? Do I have my lecture notes? Is the media equipment working? What am I forgetting? Man, oh man, my throat is dry…(that’s still a problem, sometimes…).
Eventually I got through it and ended up having a pretty enjoyable time that term.
“Firsts” can be rather nerve-wracking. Being conscious about doing your job but also about “making an impression,” or just trying not to embarrass yourself, can be exhausting. I invite you to remember such “firsts” in your own life as we begin to explore this, Jesus’s first public sermon as recorded by Matthew.
You might remember last week’s scripture, the last half of chapter four, followed Jesus setting up shop in Galilee, calling his first disciples, and healing a great many people – his first action, so to speak, which revealed Jesus as an upsetter of the order in which the people had been burdened and oppressed. This sense of revealing of Jesus and about Jesus continues a theme we can trace all the way back to the Epiphany story, when the child Jesus was visited by those eastern sages, being revealed to the world, so to speak. Continuing with Jesus’s very public baptism by John and the work of healing from last week, Jesus continues to present himself, or to reveal what his ministry is about, to an unsuspecting world.
The numbers of people who came for healing, from all around Galilee and beyond, meant that quite a crowd had accumulated around Jesus, and the presence of those crowds seems to have prompted Jesus to decide it was time to begin the long process of educating his disciples, and the people as well. He goes up the mountain (understood as a place of holy instruction at least since Mount Sinai), sits down (a position of teaching authority in that culture), and begins to teach and preach.
And the first words out of his mouth are “Blessed are…”
Just a few verses ago, back in chapter four, Jesus had been taking up John the Baptizer’s message, the one that started with the word “Repent…”
But now, “blessed are…”
Of the Beatitudes (as they have come to be know) much has already been said in Christian literature, sometimes not to best effect. I recall from my younger days a book, written by a preacher well-known from the televised program from his rather ornate church out in California, purporting to offer a practical application of the Beatitudes, with possibly the worst title possible for summing up their actual import: The Be-Happy Attitudes.
Um, no.
Before going anywhere with these eight statements, we need to get one thing straight: “blessed” and “happy” are not synonyms. Not remotely.
Let’s remind ourselves who is being blessed here: “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” and finally “you, when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
These are the ones who are called out as “blessed” here. But in the midst of any of those situations, “happy” isn’t very likely the dominant feeling going on. I don’t think any of you are typically “happy” in the midst of mourning, for instance. Being in the position of being a peacemaker typically means some kind of conflict is going on, and people who are happy about that are frankly awful people. And those who are somehow “happy” in the midst of being persecuted are frankly crazy people. And the blessings promised in each case, amazing and wonderful blessings all, you will notice are mostly paired with future-tense verbs – “will be comforted,” “will inherit the earth,” “will be filled,” and so forth.
These blessings are, to use a fancy seminary word, eschatological. In the future, maybe even in the end times. These Beatitudes are not about turning us into perpetually smiley-faced, shiny happy people all the time. If anything, quite the opposite is true: Jesus knows his disciples are going to face hard times just for being his disciples, and these blessings are part of getting through the hard times to come. Forewarned is forearmed, so to speak.
You see, each one of is most of these things at one point or another. I am going to guess that most of us have known mourning, all too frequently. I frankly hope you have longed, even hungered for righteousness, or have been in the position to need to show mercy. Frankly I hope you have not been persecuted for righteousness’s sake, but these days don’t rule it out.
At some point or other we find ourselves in many of these places. Jesus knew that those disciples were going to face these hard things, and his very first teaching to them is about preparing them for these hard things, and equipping them to remember that even in the midst of these hard things, they are blessed.
This probably isn’t what Andrew and Simon and James and John were expecting back when they jumped off their fishing boats as fast as they possibly could and followed Jesus. It’s hard to know what they were thinking, maybe thoughts of fame and glory, or of some kind of perpetual blissed-out existence, or maybe just anything but the backbreaking work of fishing, but probably not anything along the lines of “know that you are blessed when the hard things come.”
And yet that is precisely what these Beatitudes say to these disciples: know that you are blessed when the hard things come.
This leads to another point that we should take from the verses: the hard things will come, if you are truly following Christ.
If indeed you are submitted to the will of God, being led by the Holy Spirit, and striving to live in the way Christ taught and lived, hard times will come. You will be reviled and persecuted and have people utter all kinds of false things against you. And the most distressing part will be that, if your life follows anything like the path that Jesus walked, that reviling and persecuting and slander will come, and it will come from other people who call themselves Christians. And coming from your supposed brothers and sisters in Christ, it will be far more venomous and bitter than any Muslim or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist would ever be towards you.
But our call, our mission, is to follow, to be so submitted to Christ and so overtaken by the Spirit that we live up to these Beatitudes not because of our own effort, but because we as so following Christ that we don’t know any other way to live. The reviling and persecuting and slandering will come, it will come because when we live in Christ and are possessed in heart by Christ, when these words and others like the amazing words from the prophet Micah are written on our hearts, we won’t be able to keep quiet about rampaging injustice being practiced in the name of patriotism. We won’t be able to stop ourselves from receiving the stranger, no matter what country that stranger comes from. We won’t be able to sit still when prejudice is passed off as prudence and enshrined in law. And when we can’t shut up or sit still or stop ourselves, we will catch Hell, in the most theological sense of that word, and we’re pretty likely to catch it from others who call themselves by the same name we call ourselves. Hard to believe that meekness and mercy and hungering and thirsting for righteousness could be so divisive, but they surely can.
So there it is. This is how Jesus introduces himself to the world, by promising that those who follow him will be so contrary to the way of the world and the way of empire that they will live regularly in the crosshairs of the world. And he calls them blessed for it.
And then he tells them to rejoice, because the prophets before them were treated the same way. Like Micah, with those amazing words about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God, you’ll catch heat for it.
And you will be blessed, and yours will be the kingdom of Heaven, and great will be your reward.
For these utterly backwards blessings, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#749            Come! Live in the Light
#419            Lord, Who May Dwell Within Your House
#172            Blest Are They
#700            I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me

Credit: agnusday.org -- and that's a REALLY GOOD QUESTION, isn't it?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: Undoing the Empire

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2016, Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-25

Undoing the Empire

Empire is bad for your health.
Odd statement, perhaps, but one that historians have increasingly come to accept (albeit stated in different ways), particularly in regard to perhaps the most famous empire in history, the one seated in Rome – not coincidentally, the one in which we find Jesus inaugurating his public ministry in today’s reading from Matthew.
For one thing, outside of the privileged class of society, one had little other way to make or keep a living besides grueling physical labor, without even the most rudimentary labor-saving devices we know today. Furthermore, due to the inefficiencies of distributing such basic needs as food and medical care in such a far-flung empire, maintaining the health and strength required to do such physical labor was extremely difficult. Poverty was endemic; sanitation and hygiene, even in Rome itself, were poorly understood and not well executed; water quality and availability was poor; social stresses were frequent and high. Such conditions also made raising children extremely difficult, and many did not survive infancy or childhood. The extraction of heavy taxes for imperial purposes – somehow always levied on those who already didn’t have enough – only made matters worse.
The rich had it better, to be sure, but decadence has its own health risks, including obesity and other diseases. Soldiers were probably the most well-cared-for in Roman society, aside from, of course, the whole thing about fighting wars. In short, as suggested above, the Roman Empire, like other empires, was bad for your health.
Maybe this helps us understand why the accounts of Jesus’s acts and miracles of healing in the gospels, Matthew included, are often characterized by descriptions of great crowds coming to see Jesus and be healed, particularly from far-flung geographical locations across this particular corner of Roman territory. The list of regions or territories from which people come to Jesus seeking healing is impressive, second only to the varieties of diseases and pains they brought, all of which – “every disease and every sickness among the people” – Jesus healed.
It’s a disruptive way to announce your presence, in the face of an empire that responded to sickness and disease with whatever the Latin equivalent of “tough, get over it” or “that’s just the way it is” would be. It’s a challenge, not only to the power of Rome, but also to any basic claim of goodness it might have held over the poorest of the poor. It exposes the emptiness of human power and might.
This last chunk of today’s reading seems almost a throwaway, squeezed in as it is between Jesus taking up John the Baptizer’s message (“repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”), the calling of Jesus’s first disciples and the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Up to this point Matthew has been up to something that is a major theme that you can find all through this gospel. You might notice how Matthew includes in verse 14 the phrase “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled…” It’s even possible that might have sounded vaguely familiar to you; if so, good – you’ve been paying attention. So far in this gospel we’ve encountered some variant of that description in 1:22 (about the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy), 2:5 (the scribes confirming to King Herod the Messiah being born in Bethlehem), 2:15 (about the family returning from Egypt after Herod’s death), 2:17 (about the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem), and 2:23 (about the family settling in Nazareth). You can also see Jesus making a somewhat similar statement in 3:15, exhorting John to baptize him “, 2:15 (about the family returning from Egypt after Herod’s death), 2:17 (about the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem), and 2:23 (about the family settling in Nazareth). You can also see Jesus making a somewhat similar statement in 3:15, exhorting John to baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.”
Here the “fulfillment claim” is applied to the territory in which Jesus ministered. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the many sons of Jacob, whose names were in turn given to the distinct regions of the Promised Land in which their descendants had settled. Situated as they were in the northern reaches of the land, those two ancestral lands had been among the first to suffer when the Kingdom of Israel experienced conquest and captivity in the decades after King David. In effect, there really hadn’t been a distinct territory of Zebulun or Naphtali in centuries. Matthew is summoning up the people’s most ancient history, using this citation from Isaiah 9:1-2, both to acknowledge the darkness that was and still is prevalent in the land, and to highlight that no less than “the Light of the world” is now come to them.
Next of course comes the calling of Jesus’s first disciples, the two sets of brothers would ultimately make up the “big four” in terms of how much notice they get in the gospels (aside from Thomas, famous mostly in the gospel of John, and the betrayer Judas). First Andrew and Simon (the name “Peter” comes later), and then James and John are called from their fishing boats, and their response is instant; “immediately,” Matthew says, they left their boats (and their father, in the case of James and John) and followed Jesus. It’s hard for us to comprehend, so easily and so quickly abandoning everything they know; if you were to film a movie scene of this there would not be nearly enough drama or tension to make the scene work at all. They just…leave.
And the first thing they see, as Matthew tells it, is Jesus going about Galilee teaching, preaching, and (especially) healing. His fame spread well beyond what might be called Jewish territory, into Syria and across the Jordan. We have no evidence that anyone was being turned away for being of the wrong religion; all who come – all who come – are healed, of whatever debilitating or embarrassing or wasting disease they suffered.
Jesus isn’t performing these miracles for the top 1% of Roman society. These are the outcasts. These are the poorest, the most neglected or forgotten or abused peoples caught in one of the most neglected or forgotten abused corners of the Roman Empire. As noted at the beginning of the sermon, empire is bad for your health, but Jesus is announcing his presence to the people by undoing the damage caused by an empire that vacillated between neglectful and abusive of those caught up in its borders.
Empire is bad for your physical health, to be sure. It’s also bad for your mental and emotional health. Empire doesn’t tell you the truth; it tells you what it wants you to believe and what you darn well better believe if you don’t want to get hurt. Empire glorifies its Caesar, no matter how decidedly un-glorious he (and it was always he, remember) might be, how corrupt or venal or cruel or incompetent. The Caesar turns up on coins, on frescoes on walls, in statues or busts, and even in shrines of worship. And if you don’t to get hurt, you’d better pay homage to that Caesar, no matter what your personal beliefs might be. You’d better be sure you honor and revere Rome First, you might say.
To a people who had been relentlessly hammered down by the heavy hand of empire, ignored when not being exploited, Jesus interrupts like a blinding flash of lightning. Quite likely the people had no clue what was going on; they only knew that their body was no longer broken, no longer withering, no longer diseased or wracked with pain.
This is the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; undoing the pain and suffering in which the people had lived, and nicely exposing the weakness of empire in the bargain. But physical healing wasn’t going to be enough. The lies of empire, the glorification of corrupt human authority and unrelenting propaganda had also been doing their damage for ages, and Jesus will undo that harm as well, starting in chapter five (right after today’s reading, the one we’ll read next week) with a few statements about who is truly blessed in God’s sight.
Matthew’s gospel needs to be heard always in this light – undoing and healing the damage imposed upon “the least of these,” whether by empire or other forms of human corruption. In such a context even acts of healing are acts of insurrection – a rejection of status quo, a rejection of “deal with it,” a rejection of anything that decides that any person or any group or anyone exists only to be subjected to or abused by anyone else. And if we truly want to claim to be followers of Christ, participants the kingdom of Heaven, then we’re part of that rebellion, that resistance to empire, no longer tolerating or acquiescing in the oppression of women or people of color or any people that empire tells it’s OK to abuse or suppress.
There’s no middle ground; there’s no accommodation; there is the way of Christ or the way of empire, the way of human corruption, the way of greed and dishonesty and oppression. And that is the choice Jesus puts before us – dare I say demands of us? – every day. Even today.
For a Jesus who undoes oppression, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#620                        Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven
#841                        God Is My Strong Salvation
#721                        Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore
#720                        Jesus Calls Us

Credit: agnusday.org; those of you with long memories, enjoy.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon: Partners

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 15, 2017, Epiphany 2A (Elder Ordination)
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Partners

On the surface it doesn’t seem much of a text from which to preach. It is the opening of a letter from Paul, directed at the church in the city of Corinth. It’s a fairly typical greeting at that, both in the context of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean formal practice of the time and among Paul’s letters. Nonetheless it speaks greatly to Paul’s way of working with and communicating with the churches in which he was involved, and might just be instructive to us as well on a day when we are commission some of our number for a particular role in the life of this church.
Even the very first verse of this greeting has something to tell us. If you’ve looked at all at the New Testament, or heard any sermons on it, you have some idea who Paul is. The great missionary, set apart by his experience on the Damascus Road, high-powered preacher and church planter and frequently persecuted Christian leader, author of a large chunk of the New Testament. Paul, we know.
But who is Sosthenes?
This does help make a worthwhile point about Paul: he doesn’t work alone. Of the letters we can confidently attribute to Paul, only Romans does not include some kind of co-author indicated in the greeting – and Romans is a rather different book in Paul’s output; but we’ll get to it later this year. Anyway, sometimes the co-correspondent is a more familiar name, like Timothy (in 2 Corinthians), or sometimes it’s a more collective general reference (as in Galatians, referring to “all the members of God’s family who are with me”.
Sosthenes, on the other hand, only seems to appear one other time in the New Testament, but the context in which he appears does seem to fit with his appearance here. In Acts 18:17, a synagogue official named Sosthenes was seized and beaten by a mob after a local tribunal had refused to hear their accusations against Paul. This occurred in the city of Corinth, while Paul was staying there. The idea that Sosthenes was a local Jewish official who converted and later became one of Paul’s co-workers isn’t hard to get to from there.
At any rate, such a greeting does make a useful point for us to remember, that even Paul didn’t “go it alone.” This constant presence of ministry partners, in Paul’s travels in Acts as well as Paul’s letters, should serve as a reminder to us that the church, this church or any church, is not a playground for superheroes. We need each other to help get things done around here. The fact that we’re going to have a fancy liturgy in a few minutes and lay hands on Annette McGee is not going to turn her into any kind of super-saint who is going to singlehandedly save Christianity (or even singlehandedly save Grace Presbyterian Church, for that matter). That’s not how it works. Whatever number of elders any church chooses are not that church’s “saviors” – only Jesus gets to be that. What they are, in Presbyterian practice, are the folks who are set aside to do, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what it takes to keep the church going and working and ministering in the way that Christ calls us to do. And they need each other to do that, and they need all of the church to do that.
So Paul’s greeting goes on, and verse 2 makes another good point; no one church is in it alone. Paul addresses the church in Corinth, but also takes in “all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Not only do we not go it alone in this individual congregation, we as a church are not cast off by ourselves in this world or even in this community. We work together, or at least we should be working together, with other congregations or communities of faith to accomplish what God calls us to do and to become the world God calls us to be.
Maybe the larger key is in verses 5-6.

For in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you hear that? Not lacking in any gift.
Now the reasons Paul goes into this start to become clear in verse 10, after today’s reading, when Paul starts to work over the Corinthians about how they’ve used those gifts, and that’s a good reminder that when we get into behaviors of spiritual pride about our own gifts and abilities, or pride that dismisses the gifts and contributions of others, we are not in God’s will, pure and simple.
But here the point is made that God gives us what we need, both as individuals and as the church, to live into God’s will as we await being reunited with Christ. Every gift.
But that does mean all of us together, not just a select few who get ordained. What we do in a few minutes, ordaining Annette and installing her along with Karen and Lois, is by no means any kind of sign that you are off the hook for the next three years. We are a church that truly needs everybody’s gifts and abilities all pulling together if we’re to be anything like what we are called to be. Nobody gets to ride the bench.
I know what you’re already saying under your breath or in your head. I can’t do it anymore. I’m not physically up to it. I am on the road a lot. I have trouble getting here.  None of those things mean that you have nothing to contribute. It isn’t necessary to serve as an elder in order to serve. Do what you are able to do.
You haven’t been on a committee before? Find one and join. You haven’t been on one in a while? Same thing, find one and join. Find what God has given you that you can do and find the way to use it so that this church can be the witness it is called to be. And there is one thing that anybody can do. Anybody can pray.
Elders, this has a message for you, too; your role isn’t about going it alone, or being a hero, or anything like that. Find partners in the work. Delegate. Find what help others are able to give, and receive it gratefully.
If you are here, you have something to contribute. And there are plenty of people who aren’t here today who also have something to contribute. In whatever understated, mild-mannered way, you have something. Find that thing and do it.
That sounds like a goal, doesn’t it? Maybe even a New Year resolution.
In a few moments, as we are ordaining Annette and installing Karen and Lois, I invite you to hear the questions they are asked and the responsibilities with which they are charged, and take them to heart yourself. We all have a vocation in this congregation, whether we are ordained or not. And we are partners in that vocation, all of our gifts and abilities and talents and passions working together to be Christ’s church, Christ’s body, in God’s world. Let us all know and believe that we are, all of us, called today.
For partners in ministry, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#298            Lord, You Give the Great Commission
#651            I Waited Patiently For God (Psalm 40)
#417            How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord
#837            What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine




Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sermon: To Fulfill All Righteousness

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 8, 2017, Baptism of the Lord A
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

To Fulfill All Righteousness

As is the case in Mark and Luke as well, Matthew makes Jesus’s first adult appearance in his gospel the occasion on which he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptizer. While the Gospel of John does record Jesus going out to where John was baptizing, and John witnessing the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, it never does record an actual baptism of Jesus by John, as the other three gospels do.
Matthew’s account is most similar to Mark’s – the one that was most likely written first – but there are a couple of noteworthy differences between the two narratives. One is a simple matter of wording; while Matthew’s account of the post-baptism descent of the Spirit merely says that the heavens were “opened to him,” Mark goes for the much more dramatic suggestion that the heavens were “torn apart” for the Spirit to descend. Now that’s a difference you could make sermons from, but I’m not sure it’s the most important difference from the perspective of reading Matthew’s gospel.
No, the difference in Matthew’s gospel, the one that makes this account unique, is that brief exchange between John and Jesus in vv. 14-15. It is for some an answer to a thorny theological question, but it is also a tremendous clue to what it means, way back in chapter 1 of this gospel, when Matthew starts setting up Jesus as the one who is to be called Emmanuel, or “God-with-us.”
As Jesus approaches John, the Baptizer is hesitant, reluctant in a way that is not at all like the brash character presented in the first twelve verses of this chapter. That John the Baptizer is relentless in message – “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near – and outright hostile to the Pharisees and Sadducees who show up, not to mention the camel-hair clothing and locusts-and-honey diet. That John,…it’s hard to imagine him hesitating one way or the other about his task.
But as Jesus comes forward, John suddenly is reticent, recognizing the “one who is more powerful than I” he had just mentioned back in verse 11. His words – “I need to be baptized by you” – are remarkable for the self-awareness of his own sinfulness; that this one comes to him – him! – to be baptized is more than John can bear.
And in truth, John has a point.
John says it plainly in verse 11; “I baptize you with water for repentance.” The first word of his message is “Repent.” The people were coming out to the Jordan for John’s baptism, as verse 6 says, “confessing their sins.” Even his chastisement of the Pharisees and Sadducees challenged those religious authorities to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” in verse 8. Clearly, the principal point of John’s baptism is repentance of sin.
But what, exactly, does Jesus have to repent?
In the later words from the book of Hebrews, we hold that Jesus was “tested as we are, yet without sin.” Back here in Matthew we can see that “testing” played out in the temptation of Jesus, for one, but those final words – something that John recognized in this Jesus who now stood before him – do raise a perfectly acceptable question; if Jesus really was “without sin,” then why would he submit to John’s baptism of repentance of sin? What’s the point?
Actually, we could argue that there are a couple of points. One potential point of Jesus’s human baptism has to do with his relationship to God the Father, and the other with his relationship to us.
In coming down to be baptized, Jesus is on the one hand showing his complete submission to the task set before him in his human ministry. Simply put, Jesus’s action is in accordance with God’s will, and is an initial demonstration that all of Jesus’s actions – be they deeds or words, teaching or ministry or dying or rising again – are going to be in accordance with God’s will. You could also argue that in doing so Jesus presents a model for us to follow, but in this case the act of obedience still holds up whether we follow it or not. Jesus will do God’s will, no matter what. And in the vision that follows Jesus’s baptism, with the heavens opening and the Voice proclaiming him “my beloved son” for all to hear, God confirms Jesus’s obedience and identity for all to hear.
On the other hand, Jesus’s presence at John’s baptizing spot also speaks very directly to how Jesus relates to us, providing at the very beginning of his public life and ministry a demonstration that Jesus is, as Matthew called him way back in chapter 1, “God-with-us.”
Sinless though Jesus is, he nonetheless comes to us in our sinfulness, in our desperate need for repentance. He is with us at the Jordan, standing in solidarity with us sinners that we are, because that’s being God-with-us. Jesus as Son of God will tolerate nothing separating us from him. That’s a huge part of Jesus being God-with-us.
No matter how low, God-with-us; no matter how lost, God-with-us; no matter how estranged or separated, God-with-us.
Even at his very beginning Jesus is, before the temptation, before the Sermon on the Mount, before the teaching and healing and trouble with the authorities and crucifixion and resurrection, God-with us.
And Jesus always is to be God-with-us.
For God-with-us, no matter what, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#375                        Shall We Gather at the River
#164                        Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways
#688                        Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
#480                        Take Me to the Water


Credit: agnusday.org. Hmm, good question...