Sunday, April 30, 2017

Yep, we're dying again...

NOTE: with my sermons now being posted in a different, church-specific location, this blog can go back to being a blog.

In case you haven't been told lately, fellow mainline Christian, we're dying. Again.

In this case, the gloatingly gleeful evangelical writing the propaganda piece has been so kind as to offer a specific death date. As you can see from the title, we've only got twenty-three Easter seasons left to celebrate, not counting the one we are in now, I guess (although it's not clear if the mainline may pass away in the midst of that twenty-third Easter cycle). Plan your sermons and Easter musical services accordingly.

As you can guess, I am no fan of such garbage. The author may feel entitled to excercise godlike proclamatory powers over a tradition he scorns, but I don't find it that wise to proclaim anything about the future of any corner of the church, my own or anyone else's.

See, I can read statistics and see trends just fine, even if I'm not quite willing to put such a specific countdown clock on the end of my church.

(Note: before anybody tries to defend the author, whom I have no intention of respecting by calling him by name, I saw him try to claim he takes no pleasure in the claim he is making. He is not telling the truth. A person who took no pleasure in such a claim would not make it.)

If you're looking at statistics, mainline churches are on the decline, but they're hardly alone. The author's sainted evangelical tradition has come over the hill and, now that their trajectory is downward, they're picking up speed. To my knowledge the only church type that is growing or at least not declining is the independent or non-denominational church, one beholden to no one but its all-powerful pastor. I'm not sure that there's anything to celebrate here.

If the author is looking for a branch of Christianity to fix, he might consider starting with his own.

He is, after all, an acknowledged leader (for reasons beyond my comprehension) in that branch of Christianity which has most wholeheartedly participated in the election of the current occupant of the office of President of the United States. All (white) branches of the church in the US were complicit in this to some degree, but it had better be acknowledged that, between the endorsements and enthusiastic support of some of its most prominent pastors and the overwhelming vote support of its members, our current president is their doing. That particular immorality should frankly disqualify evangelical leaders from being taken seriously about anything, much less any other church's problems. While the Washington Post may have not quite stooped to the New York Times's level of capitulation in hiring a climate denialist as columnist, printing propaganda pieces like this is not to the Post's credit.

Mainline churches have problems, not least of which is the continuing evangelical urge to keep on kicking the mainline while it's down. But the mainline has gotta do better at being church.

If, as other batches of statistics suggest, the church's fascination with so-called "contemporary" worship is waning, mainline churches have got to do a better job of making the case for worship that doesn't ignore the other 1,950 years or so of the church's history and practice, invites (or even demands) participation beyond sitting or standing and watching, and has that unnerving habit of making people think. Frankly, it's time for the mainline to call into question worship practice that fails at these basic tasks in its proclamation of the gospel. If we are really going down, I say we go down swinging.

So this blog is being repurposed again, to this end.

After its chronicling of my seminary journey, and its period as a sermon repository, it's time for this blog to take up yet another "fool's errand": making the case for the church that everybody likes to pick on.

Evangelicals should probably move on. I have no interest in being lectured to, and I have no problem blocking the hell out of you if you are here only to parrot propaganda. Just shove off if that's you.

My audience is my fellow mainline. My corner of that is the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I was caught when I was falling out of the evangelical branch, having jumped before anybody had a chance to push me. Other mainliners are welcome to chip in. In words I believe were first uttered by Benjamin Franklin, "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

And I'm not interested in hanging, in twenty-three Easters or otherwise.

Remember, he was a mainliner.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: The Sword

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2017, Lent 2A
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39

The Sword

Honestly, this just doesn’t fit.
We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. We sing a whole lot, particularly around Christmastime, about peace – “Sleep in heavenly peace,” or “Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,” or there are songs like “I’ve got peace like a river” or any hymn based on St. Francis’s prayer, “Make me an instrument of your peace.” In fact, if you go to the back of the hymnal and look at the indexes, you’ll see that in the Subject Index “peace” actually gets two different sections – “Peace, Personal (Spiritual)” and “Peace, World.”
And it’s not as if Jesus doesn’t have plenty to say about peace: earlier in this gospel, one of the Beatitudes plainly stated “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (5:9). John 14:27 records Jesus’s words to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” And in almost all of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the gospels, one of the first things Jesus says is some variant of “Peace be with you.”
And yet, there’s verse 34 in today’s reading, with Jesus saying plain as day, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
A sword?
Not what we want to hear.
Even another gospel writer, Luke, seems to be in agreement with us. When Luke records this teaching, he replaces the word “sword” with “division.” Now that sits uncomfortably enough in our ears, but “a sword”? We can’t bear to hear that.
But Matthew pulls no punches. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace,” Jesus says. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And he doesn’t stop there, but goes on to suggest that families will be divided – man against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law – and flat-out upends what we would call “family values” altogether. The final sentence seems hardest of all: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The modern church has built up a veritable cottage industry around being peacemakers and generally promoting the idea that peace is the way to live. But Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience with that idea here. Before we despair too much, though, it’s a good idea to back up and hear what has brought Jesus to this point. What sounds like a total renunciation at first turns out to be a simple statement of fact.
This passage we have heard today is part of a larger unit of teaching with a specific purpose. Jesus is, from the beginning of chapter 10, preparing his twelve disciples to go out and do the teaching, preaching, and healing that he himself had been doing. This teaching and sending is not described here in the same degree of detail as it is in other gospels – Matthew never does record the disciples’ return from this commissioning, for example – but this commissioning does have parallels in the other gospels. On the other hand, Jesus’s teaching in those other gospels is not quite so stark and pointed as what Matthew records.
Already in verse 16 Jesus has warned the disciples that he is sending them out as “sheep in the midst of wolves” and that they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” which suggests that their experience will be a bit more challenging than your average Vacation Bible School. Verse 22 makes the warning more explicit: “you will be hated by all because of my name.” So when Jesus says in verse 24 that “a disciple is not above the teacher,” he is making clear to his disciples that they should, if they are truly following him, expect the same kind of attacks and slander that he has experienced.
What we often forget or overlook here, though, is that the attacks and slander Jesus has experienced and will experience, and that Jesus warns his disciples that they will experience, aren’t from random strangers. Jesus isn’t being challenged by “the world,” that generic boogeyman we in the church love to conjure up; Jesus is being challenged by the religious authorities of his time and place. Beginning in chapter 9 Matthew records the Pharisees, the great advocates of cultic and personal piety and purity in Jesus’s day, increasingly turning their questioning towards Jesus, culminating in the strange accusation in 9:34, after Jesus has cast out a demon, that “by the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” In short, they’re charging Jesus with being in league with the devil.  And Jesus rightly points out in 10:25 that if the religious authorities are willing to say that about Jesus, the disciples can’t expect to be treated any differently.
In the midst of this uncertainty, Jesus takes pains to remind his disciples that for all the likelihood of false accusation and defamation, betrayal and hatred, they are watched and cared for by God, the one who cares even for those two-for-a-penny sparrows. Even that comfort seems a bit late, when Jesus’s idea of reassurance is that the disciples be less concerned over “those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” and more over the one who can kill both. I’m guessing that by now the disciples are wondering what they’ve signed on for after all. Even after the Sermon on the Mount and the healing episodes Matthew describes in chapter 8, this commissioning speech must have felt a bit jarring to a bunch of fishermen. Being scorned as poor dumb fishermen was one thing, but family turning on you? Being attacked by the Pharisees? They couldn’t have expected this.
Then the hard sentence, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” which makes sense in the context in which Jesus has already spoken – if you follow me, if you truly follow me and do the will of God and live into the kingdom of Heaven, the sword will find you. Even if you’re living into that beatitude about “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the sword will find you. But you are not abandoned, any more than those two-a-penny sparrows. And even the losing of one’s life – whether in a literal sense or in the sense of one’s life being truly absorbed into following Jesus in genuine and submitted discipleship – will end with life, true life, real life found, not lost. On the other hand, those whose life is caught up in the world, congruent with the world’s standards – or even the standards of the empire-accommodated church so prominent these days – will find their lives are truly lost.
In the end, then, that hard sentence is just practical advice – know what you’re getting into, know what’s coming, know that the sword will find you. And follow Me anyway.
For the One who cares for us even when the sword comes, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#829            My Faith Looks Up to Thee
#478            Save Me, O God, I Sink in Floods (Psalm 69)
#718            Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said
#661            Why Should I Feel Discouraged?

Credit: (consider it a word of caution...)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sermon: Don't Eat First

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 5, 2017, Lent 1A
Matthew 4:1-11

Don’t Eat First

“When going to hide, know how to get there.”
“And how to get back.”
“And eat first.”
That exchange comes from the finale of Stephen Sondheim’s highly popular Broadway musical Into the Woods. In that show, a mashup of numerous fairy tales, “the woods” are clearly a place of trouble, danger, and even (in the case of one character) death. In the course of the show the characters – the likes of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel (and her mother the witch) – have gone into the woods twice, each time facing the challenge of giants making their way down the aforementioned beanstalk. Whether simply for comic effect or as a demonstration that these characters really didn’t learn much, those lines slip in amidst the patter of a number of similar bon mots of supposed wisdom gained from going into and coming out of the woods.
Taken on their own, those lines suggest that success in the woods is all about preparation: make sure you know where you’re going and how to get back when it’s all over, and make sure your physical needs are well supplied beforehand – “eat first.” By such fairytale standards of wisdom, Jesus’s journey into the wilderness in today’s reading from Matthew was doomed to be a spectacular failure.
Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and we do mean “immediately.” If there were such a phrase as “very immediately,” it would apply here. He certainly didn’t “eat first,” and by the standards of that fairytale wisdom he paid for it, not eating for forty days and forty nights.
And waiting at the other end of that forty days and nights is none other than the Devil, the Accuser, the Tempter as Matthew calls him here. And of course the Tempter goes straight for the hunger: “If you are the son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Our fairytale folk might just be tut-tutting by about now: “See, there you go, you didn’t prepare and you’re right into the trap. Shame about that Jesus boy, he had potential.”
Except, of course, Jesus was prepared after all.
However hungry Jesus might have been he could still remember Deuteronomy 8:3, and thus shut the devil down. The Tempter tried again, with the temptation of putting on a great show amplified by his own biblical allusion (thus giving us the quote “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”), only for Jesus to refute Psalm 91:11-12 with more Deuteronomy, this time 6:16’s injunction against putting God to the test. Finally the test of ultimate power is all that the Tempter has left, which of course isn’t really all that tempting to one who, well, already has ultimate power. With one more Deuteronomy verse (6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”) the Tempter is brushed aside and angels appear to minister to Jesus, who, after all, still hasn’t eaten in forty days and forty nights.
We get confused about wilderness experiences. We tend to use that phrase “wilderness experience” when we are facing the consequences of our own actions, of our own falling into temptation, rather than for the act of facing that temptation. We have relied on our own preparations (“know how to get there…and how to get back”) instead of letting our preparation be in our reliance upon God, our immersion in God’s teaching to us, our trust in the Holy Spirit. It does make a difference.
These trials Jesus faces in the wilderness speak not just to immediate temptation to fill immediate need, but they reflect temptations or challenges that were repeated throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry: how to meet the needs of those to whom he ministered (he wouldn’t make bread out of stones for himself, but he’d feed thousands off a few loaves), how to save himself (ultimately, not; Jesus did not flee even the cross), how to draw all people to himself (by being lifted up on that cross, not by bowing down to that Tempter). The wilderness experience was less a moment of temptation, as we often tend to experience it, than a preparation for a lifetime. God’s preparation for us is not our way of preparing for the worst. Yet Jesus comes through, and in just a few verses is healing multitudes in Galilee, even if he didn’t eat first.
Yes, it’s a little ironic that this sermon comes as we will be coming to the table in just a few moments. Here, though, the bread broken and the cup shared point us to that Jesus who faced the wilderness armed with the teaching of scripture and trust in God. The bread here comes as gift and sacrament, not as temptation, that indeed we together might be fed on the stuff of eternal life rather than relying on empty processed foods for our spiritual fortification. For indeed, real wilderness experiences will come, whether we have “eaten” or not.
For the wilderness, and a God who would prepare us for it, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#392            Jesus, We Are Here
#833            O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
#525            Let Us Break Bread Together
#167            Forty Days and Forty Nights

Credit:, and yeah, I feel this one...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Message: Be Reconciled

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2017, Ash Wednesday  A
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Be Reconciled

This is a great shirt, isn’t it? (Note: see below) Upon receiving it from Mabel Tuma on Sunday I knew it was the coolest piece of clothing I’ve ever owned. Direct from Cameroon.
I am forced to confess that before coming to this congregation and meeting the Tuma family, I didn’t really know a lot about Cameroon, and didn’t really think much about it. When I did notice it, it was mostly around the quadrennial World Cup in soccer, if their national team (the Indomitable Lions – that is an awesome team name, people) made a run in the competition.
As a result, I was never particularly aware of the country’s nearness to the ongoing struggle against the violent group Boko Haram, kidnappers of young girls. I certainly knew nothing of the increasingly strained relations between the country’s French-speaking and English-speaking populations. No clue.
Cameroon would hardly be the only country of which this was, and still is, true for me. I know there is internal conflict in Myanmar, but next to nothing about it. There is also ongoing conflict, with acts of terrorism, in Peru, and Colombia is trying to work out a fragile peace with paramilitary rebel groups in its own borders. Ukraine is dealing with pro-Russian rebels, ongoing civil war in South Sudan, drug war in Mexico...if it isn’t in the Middle East, we can pretty easily ignore it. And we certainly don’t want to look at acts of violence in this country, including that shooting too near my old hometown back in Kansas a few days ago, that we would call terrorism if they happened anywhere else in the world.
We could talk about “white privilege” here – we good Americans don’t have to be concerned with these things, because, well, we’re good Americans. We could talk about a lot of things, but I wonder if we need to be listening to Paul here, and concerning ourselves with being reconciled to God.
This is how this reading from Paul begins – “be reconciled to God.” That’s pretty straightforward, or so it seems. But the context for this instruction is anything but. Paul, a founder of this church in Corinth, had found himself tossed aside as that body fell under the sway of fancier, more uppercrust self-proclaimed evangelists who filled the ears of the Corinthians with something like a first-century equivalent of prosperity doctrine, who presented themselves as classier, more sophisticated, more erudite, more elite leaders than Paul. That had to hurt.
Having earlier in the letter vented his frustrations at the Corinthians, Paul now turns to the crux of the matter, and he has enough wit to know that before charging off to try to patch things up with the Corinthians, it was necessary to remind them of the indispensible and irreplaceable thing; to be reconciled to God, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Of course, Paul then goes right to making his case before the Corinthians as to how he and his colleagues had conducted themselves in their work in Corinth.
But being reconciled to God, really being the righteousness of God because of Christ’s work on the cross, changes us – not just in individual personal ways, but us as a body of believers, us as the body of Christ. When we are seeing the world through the righteousness of God we see all the world, no longer obliterated by our more immediate concerns. We are reconciled to all God’s children, not just the ones in this place or the downtown church or the church out in the county.
We feel with God the grief or the sorrow for warfare, conflict, injustice, and oppression in all places where they happen, not just the ones that show up on our nightly news. Our compassions don’t stop at the city limits or county limits or state line or national borders. We see the world as God’s, and we realize the world’s mortality is our mortality, the world’s suffering is our suffering, the world’s cry for justice becomes our cry for justice.
No, this isn’t your usual Lent theme about ashes or giving something up, except in the sense of perhaps giving up our insular mindset or tunnel vision. Being reconciled to God means everyone matters, and that’s not an easy thing to learn. But perhaps that might be the kind of Lenten fast that would make a difference in our world fraught with conflict and strife. To be so reconciled to God that we see the world as God sees it, we see each other as God sees us all: now that is a challenge for Lent. To live as though Cameroon and Peru and Ukraine and Olathe, Kansas matter; there is a worthy fast.
For real, genuine, eye-opening reconciliation with God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#165 The Glory of These Forty Days
#421 Have Mercy, God, Upon My Life
#166 Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

The shirt in question. Best garment I have now.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: Epiphanies and Cloudy Mountains

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2017, Transfiguration A
Exodus 24:12-18: Matthew 17:1-9

Epiphanies and Cloudy Mountains

Back on Wednesday I had to do a bit of driving around. It was not too much, but it was made better by the fact that Wednesday was a mostly cloudy day, on which the sometimes-oppressive Florida sun was not able to make the car time quite as miserable as it might be otherwise. No squinting, no fumbling for sunglasses. Easy.
I know this is a little bit heretical to say in this state, but sometimes cloudiness can be a good thing.
In the Old Testament a cloud can in fact be a very good thing: it can, on occasion, be a manifestation of the presence of God.
It happens in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is making ready to go up the mountain called Sinai to receive instruction from God. Even from the moment the Israelites had first come to that mountain after their deliverance from Egypt (back in 19:9), God had made his presence to Moses there known by the appearance of a thick and dense cloud, from which God’s voice might be heard by the people. Even before that, during the Exodus from Egypt, a pillar of cloud had been the manifestation of God’s protection of the people as they traveled by day, with a pillar of fire taking its place by night.
There are other accounts in Hebrew Scripture of cloud as manifestation of God, but my personal favorite is a little-known account from the little-read book of 2 Chronicles. In this account in chapter 5 the great Temple was being dedicated under King Solomon. At the climax of the dedication the Temple was filled with a cloud, “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” I mean, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool. (There is a parallel account in 1 Kings 8, but I prefer the Chronicles version because in that story, the cloud fills up the Temple only after the trumpeters have played and the choir has sung. I am a musician of sorts, after all.)
So when we get to the account from Matthew’s gospel today, along with the account of going up a mountain, and the actual glowing transfiguration of Jesus, the bright, welling cloud as a manifestation of the glory of God would not have been unfamiliar to those to whom Matthew was writing. It is a scene in a gospel, but like so much of Matthew’s gospel it contains a host of echoes and resonances with Hebrew Scripture.
Still, though, there is something interesting about a cloud as a manifestation of the presence and glory of God. Clouds, after all, aren’t exactly known for their revealing properties. Clouds aren’t translucent; they obscure. The whole reason that the cloudiness made that drive the other day so bearable is that it obscured the sometimes-oppressive February summer sun (that’s a phrase that only applies in Florida).
And in the account from Exodus, that’s exactly what happens. The voice of God could be heard by the people, but God could not be seen, and when Moses went up the mountain to receive the commandments of God he also disappeared. Not that the people minded; already they were quite content to keep their distance; as early as Exodus 20 they were afraid that if God spoke to them directly – face to face, so to speak – they would die. In their minds, the cloud was protection.
(As for that lovely story from 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with a cloud was indeed enough to bring the dedication of the Temple to a halt; “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” as verse 14 describes. Not sure if it means the priests were physically unable to stand or simply couldn’t stand it.)
In Matthew, the cloud seems a little different. This event is taking place six days after Simon had made the great breakthrough confession of faith recorded in 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus had followed up this confession by giving him a new name – Peter – and by launching into an extended piece of instruction on his forthcoming death. The newly-christened Peter had taken Jesus aside to rebuke Jesus for such talk, only to get the rebuke back ten times over – “Get behind me, Satan!
Despite that rebuke, Jesus took Peter up the mountain, along with James and John, where this Transfiguration took place. As it happens, as Jesus himself is transfigured and glowing and shining and dazzling, and then as Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets, so to speak – appear with him, Peter steps into a role many of us might recognize, maybe, from times of great excitement or stress or fear in our own lives: the person whose mouth immediately starts running despite the fact that his brain is supplying absolutely nothing useful for his mouth to say.
And then, when Peter is fumbling around about building booths for Moses and Elijah and Jesus as if this were the ancient Hebrew festival known as the Feast of Booths? That’s when the cloud appears.
The cloud “overshadowed” them. And, as it was back in the days of Exodus, a voice (the voice of God?) spoke from the cloud, to the effect that the disciples fell to their knees in fear (not unlike their Hebrew ancestors at the prospect of the voice of God). What the voice said sounds familiar – “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” is an exact echo of what the voice from Heaven – from the clouds, so to speak – says at Jesus’s baptism, back in chapter 3. But there is added a command: “Listen to him!” (And don’t miss that exclamation point.) Only at the touch of Jesus (“Get up and do not be afraid”) do they look up to see the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah gone, and Jesus – “Jesus himself alone” in Matthews’ emphatic construction – is there. The cloud, the glory of God, has removed the distractions of Moses and Elijah, the safe and comfortable heroes of the faith Peter and James and John knew, and left them with “Jesus himself alone,” whom they have just seen as they had never seen or heard or understood him before.
You might notice that at the beginning of each service lately I have referred to that day as the second or fourth or fifth or seventh Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany, of course, marks the occasion of the visit of the Magi to welcome and bring gifts to the child Jesus, an event that theologically can be taken to refer to a revealing of Jesus not just to the people of Israel but to all the world. Not everyone is big on the idea of a “season” of Epiphany, but reviewing the scriptures we’ve heard does seem to suggest a theme of Jesus being revealed:
--Jesus is revealed at his baptism by John, who reluctantly baptizes him so “that all might be fulfilled”;
--Jesus is revealed as he begins his public ministry with acts of healing, so that so many came to him from all across the region to be healed;
--Jesus is revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, in the teaching about being salt and light, in his declaration that he comes “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law and yet overturns everything we thought we knew about keeping the law, challenging us instead to fulfill the law.
And now in the Transfiguration Jesus is revealed again, in a glory his disciples had not comprehend and we do not comprehend. We see Jesus transfigured; we see Jesus glorified; we see Jesus in his eternal-ness.
As the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes in his The Faith of the Church:
Eternal does not mean "that which has no end" but "that which belongs to the world to come". Eternity is not defined by its unlimited characteristic but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious kingdom of God.

That which belongs to the world to come."
At a challenging time for the disciples, when Jesus insisted on his own death and severely rebuked those who could not accept it, these disciples are given a glimpse, however fleeting, of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. At a nearly impossible time for us, we receive this glimpse of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. Death does not, cannot, have the last word, no matter how dark our despair might seem, how much madness might seem to hold sway in the entire world, no matter how bleak the night. The clouds pull back and conceal what is not eternal, revealing the One who is eternal. And that, strange and puzzling as the story might be, is why the Transfiguration is a day of great hope.
This is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased.
Listen to him!
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#634            To God Be the Glory
#11              Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
#189            O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair
#156            Sing of God Made Manifest

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, 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