Monday, February 17, 2014

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 16, 2014 (Matthew 5:21-37)

Typically every week at the end of the gospel lesson, I confidently and boldly conclude the reading by announcing, “The Gospel of the Lord.” “Gospel” means “good news,” so it’s like I’m saying “Yes. This (which I just read) is the good news of the Lord!” The congregation’s response is meant to echo that enthusiasm, even if we often just mouth it absent-mindedly because we’re so used to it: “Praise to you, O Christ!”

Every once in a while, however, we encounter a reading where I feel like replacing that confidence and boldness with the tone implied by a timid question mark: “Um…the gospel of the Lord?” And you, after listening to words from Jesus that don’t sound like a Sunday morning moment of sunshine and encouragement, might want to respond with an appropriate amount of trepidation: “Uh…praise to you, O Christ?”

I don’t know about you, but for me this morning is one of those occasions. The chunk of Jesus’ teachings presented to us in this morning’s gospel lesson are a bit much. There’s no healing miracle here, no story about Jesus bringing hope to the masses or touching the wearied life of some person in need of grace. There’s no neat parable with fun characters acting out a worthy lesson.  Instead, it is a set of teachings, one after another, very difficult to understand, and touching on topics that likely make all of us a little uncomfortable. So I find myself saying: is this really the gospel of the Lord?

"Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount" (Gustav Dore)
One of my colleagues calls this “Country Music Sunday, which, in my book, might make it a little easier to swallow. He calls it that because this lesson talks about “lyin’, cheatin’, and killin’.” Just add a pick-up truck, and you’ve got all the makings for a good country music song.

In all seriousness, while this gospel lesson does address some of the very same topics that some of the most authentic country music does, Jesus isn’t singing a song, and we know it. He’s preaching a sermon, and this morning we’ve actually caught him in the middle of an extended portion about the Jewish law code and how to interpret it, a teaching meant for his followers and a crowd that has gathered around him who are just beginning to figure out how Jesus and the message he brings fits into God’s kingdom. Do you ever wonder about how Jesus fits into things? Do you observe Jesus in the Bible stories and wonder just how exactly his life is good news?

Sin = missing the mark?
As we ponder these things, we must remember that Jesus came as a first-century Jewish man who had inherited a particular way of life that involved obedience to all kinds of rules and restrictions that were enshrined in the Jewish law code. The core of that law, so you know, was formed by the Ten Commandments and the other laws directly associated with them which Moses had handed down centuries earlier to Jesus’ ancestors as they had wandered in the wilderness. Although they had been given as a gift to help God’s people live as a light to the nations, it had always easy to interpret them in a very legalistic manner, as if life were one big Olympics with judges standing by the sideline cruelly deducting points and enforcing boundaries and awarding medals to the quickest and the perfect.

When we try to figure out who Jesus is and figure out how he fits into this lengthy set of codes and rules, when we try to understand this good news that he brings, it’s tempting to think that he’d come to do away with all these rules and restrictions. That’s one common trap. We know him as a man of compassion and mercy and so we paint him as some hippie from the 1960’s, who essentially comes to lower the standards set down by the law, to make things a little less strict. We come to the conclusion that life in God’s kingdom will involve Jesus’ minimizing of everyone’s faults and viewing all our “lyin’, cheatin’ and killin’” as mere factors of our “humanity”…and be cool with it all.

However, it is clear after sermons like the one he gives today, Jesus isn’t going to take that approach. As it turns out, Jesus actually takes the law very seriously—in fact, he re-interprets it in a way that goes far beyond a legalistic reading, and he adds to it an overly-exaggerated system of consequences for what we should do when we disobey.

As an aside, I've heard it said that this is the one that really flushes out the biblical literalists from everyone else. If we take Jesus at his literal word, there’s not a one of us here this morning that wouldn’t be blind or maimed in some way!

In any case, one by one he goes through certain commandments—murder, adultery, bearing false witness—and extends their reach into the human heart. In Jesus’ view, it’s not just the outward action of taking someone’s physical life that counts as murder, but also the taking of their life through hateful speech and slander. It’s not just the act of illicit sex that makes someone guilty of adultery, but the thought alone of it. We thought we knew what lyin’, cheatin’, and killin’ was, but it turns out it’s much more than we thought.

This is the part of confirmation class that usually takes most of the confirmands off guard, and the part that is always the most humbling for me to teach, as well. All our lives we’ve thought we’re pretty good about keeping, say, the fifth commandment: You shall not kill. It seems pretty straightforward and something that most people could avoid doing—here’s the boundary, don’t cross it—until we read Martin Luther’s explanation of what it means in the Small Catechism which is entirely based on Jesus’ sermon here:  “We are to fear and love God,” Luther says, “so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help her in all her physical needs.” With that understanding of the law, we realize that each of us has blood on our hands at some point.

The segment on divorce is another one of those cases where we must make take into consideration what the religious and social connotations were in Jesus’ time. Divorce was allowed by the Old Testament law, but Jesus realizes that in his day, men were abusing this stipulation in the law in order to get rid of one wife so they could start sleeping with another woman, which in many cases they had already started doing. He names that practice for what it was: adultery. But then he expands its implications by saying such a man who does just that is guilty of making the woman guilty of the same. Rather than viewing a woman like she is some form of property, somehow beneath responsibility to the law, Jesus explains that a broken relationship with a wife is no different than a broken relationship with a husband.

Whether it’s sexual ethics or bearing false witness, Jesus expands the scope of all of these commandments, taking them from a very strict sense of the actions that our hands or eyeballs make and extends them into our heart, which is where our actions are ultimately rooted. And I imagine that comes as a quite shock for those who think that the good news of Jesus is that he comes just to be cool with us the way we are.

I think when we hear Jesus’ words, however, uncomfortable they may make us feel, we have a choice, not too unlike the stark choice laid out before the people of Israel in this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy. One, we can simply view these interpretations of the Ten Commandments as yet more ways we just don’t get it right, more ways we fall short and deserve consequences. We can hear them as examples of how religion, even at its self-proclaimed best is nothing more than a bunch of restrictions and regulations that essentially condemn the human experience or at least suck all the fun out of it.

Or we can choose to see them as good news. We can view them as evidence that God sees us as we are, flawed at every edge, darkness deep within, and still calls us to be so much more, to be help for our neighbor and light to the world. We can hear them and realize that these are not regulations handed down from some place on high, or dictated from the sideline but they are spoken by the lips of someone who is living with us, someone who dies with us, feeling every bit of brokenness himself. We can hear these words, as incriminating as they are, and still know they have the power of healing because we know ultimately that this Lord will not leave us, wagging his finger, when the commandments become too hard for us to bear. Instead, he will stand with us the entire way, and as it turns out, be thrown into prison—and pay every last penny!—have his body beaten, and descend into the pit of hell to have us choose the life God desires for us.

All the counselors at the camp I worked at during college quickly discovered that the best place to hold cabin devotions was by the lake at the foot of the large cross that stood at its edge. No matter how rough the week had been, no matter how much they had all torn the cabin community apart with bickering and rule-breaking, quiet time at that cross always seemed to restore some hope for the rest of the week, pull things back together. No words needed to be said. Simply the presence of that cross spoke volumes about the love God had for them—has for all of us—and about the better vision of ourselves God calls us to.

Simply the cross: when we’re thinking where Jesus fits in, that’s where Jesus always fits in best. This is where Jesus’ words lead us, today, one big human cabin community that we are, torn apart by bickering and rule-breaking. Torn apart, and yet being put back together by Jesus on the cross. And with that in mind, we can hear those hard words about being the light of the world. We can hear these challenging commandments and, knowing the one who speaks them comes with unconditional love, we can respond in boldness and confidence: Yes, this is the gospel of the Lord. 

Praise to you O Christ!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 9, 2014 (Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-9a)

On Christmas Eve, to make room for people to sit in the balcony, our hand bell choir moves all their equipment and music stands down to the right side of the narthex and plays from there. They set up all their hand-bell tables in a U-formation and Kevin directs from the middle. As it turns out, the sound reverberates in that space very nicely and since it’s not completely cut off from the sanctuary here we can hear the sound of the bells echoing throughout the church. The problem with this configuration has always been that during evening services that area gets very dark. In fact, it is so dark that the musicians have a hard time playing. In the past one ringer would always bring little lights for each music stand, but for whatever reason that was not available this year. So, what to do? It was, like, “Jesus, we know you’re the light of the world and all…but we can’t see our music.” Our property manager, overheard them talking about this one day in the office and on a trip to Home Depot came up with a brilliant solution: Miner’s headlamps! He bought about six of them and distributed them to the choir.

Now, I’m not a hand bell player, but I can’t imagine why they didn’t end up going with this option, can you? This would have been awesome! Apparently someone just brought in a floor lamp instead and they used that. But…check it out! Miner’s head lamps!  Imagine each person with their own, right there on their forehead, right about where a pastor’s oily finger once made the sign of the cross! It fits Jesus’ instruction almost perfectly: “Let your light so shine before others that you blind them with the piercing beam of your good works so that they may see their music and ring praises to your Father in heaven.”

Darkness was not just something the hand bell choir had to deal with on Christmas Eve. Darkness—and I mean pitch-black darkness—was an everyday reality for those who lived in Jesus’ time. In fact, I don’t think we in the 21st century can quite appreciate just how dark it was back then. I read an article recently about some research that suggests that until the dawn of streetlights in the 19th century, people typically went to bed around 8:00 every night. It was just too dark to do anything. Therefore, the presence of light—any light at all—was significant.

Moreover, most families lived in one-room houses back then. The stove and kitchen area was typically located outside but the eating area, the sleeping area, and the place where the animals could overnight was often one big space inside. In other words, there weren’t any interior walls or corners that could cast shadows. Therefore, you can see how the placement of one single oil lamp in the room would then illuminate everything, although that illumination would have still been weak. A simple oil lamp made of clay was not a miner’s headlamp, after all! By contrast, it provided a soft glow that probably didn’t give off enough light for anyone actually to do anything all that productive, but as long as no one obstructed the light, it at least allowed people to see the basic dimensions of the room in the dark—where the walls began, where any furniture was, where people lay sleeping. In a way, you could say the light gave the room shape and form, that it brought it to life.

Salt, the other metaphor that Jesus latches onto to explain what embodying his kingdom’s righteousness, functioned much the same way. Salt had many uses in ancient times—it was used as a preservative, as a fertilizer, and as something that gave flavor to food and brought out its best qualities. In addition to that, we know that pieces of stone known as salt plates were thrown into the dung pile, which is what was used in each house as fuel for the earthen stoves. These salt plates served as a type of catalyst to keep the dung burning. After a while these plates tended to lose their chemical properties—their “saltiness,” perhaps—and they’d be discarded. Bread bakers will assure you that salt is actually what gives bread its flavor. It’s not really the type of flour you use or the amount of fermentation the yeast provides that makes bread tasty. Those add to it, of course, but the key ingredient is the salt. So, regardless of which use of salt Jesus was referring to as he spoke about the kingdom, notice that salt is something that is added to something else in order to make it function better or taste the way it’s supposed to.

By using both salt and light as descriptions in his teachings, Jesus is saying that his followers’ life together—their ability to embody God’s righteousness—is the element that expands the world’s dimensions, an essential ingredient to the best life of the world. When they shine, for example, the world won’t be shrouded in darkness. The world will be able see what it really is, that it has a purpose and function. It can wake up and give glory to God. Their task, in other words, is not to become the room, the space, itself. Rather, they are live in a way that illuminates the room so that it may become visible and useful. Likewise, Jesus’ disciples aren’t expected to become the whole loaf of bread, or the whole dung pile, as the case may be. Instead, they become the element in the bread that makes it come to life. They give the world flavor; they enable it to live up to its true purpose. They become the catalyst in the burning fuel that helps the fire burn brighter and stronger.

In giving these instructions, Jesus wasn’t really saying anything new to God’s people. Ancient Israel, you see, was supposed to live as a light to the nations. From their very beginning they had been called out of relative obscurity, given a life as an often scrappy little group of people and yet placed on the lampstand of Jerusalem for all to see. Their goal was never to try to take over the world and expand their borders so they might include everyone. It was to live in holiness and righteousness in such a way that others may know that their God was the real Sovereign who loved the world and wanted to save it. Their light would shine when they embodied the mercy and lovingkindness of God’s law. 

The prophet Isaiah points out what that looks like very clearly this morning: when they, for example, share their bread with the hungry and do something to take care of the homeless and needy. It isn’t pious acts of religiosity or efforts at world domination that will be salt and light. It is humble living out of God’s rule of justice and peace for everyone. It is that kind of righteousness that makes them the key ingredient, the bright light, for creation.

This is the pattern that Jesus lays out for his own followers in his teachings, in his life, and ultimately through his death on the cross. The truth of this community’s relationships with God and then with each other—how they deal with conflict, for example, how they practice forgiveness and mercy, how they care for the least among them, how they lay down their lives for each other—would shed light on what humanity could be. It would disperse the shadows of sinfulness that had been lurking for so long.

There are a lot of challenges to being salt and light for the world, but one of the greatest is fighting that urge to become the whole room or the whole loaf. This is not to say that Jesus’ community should not welcome new followers or grow in size and influence. But it does suggest that we need to focus on ways to be in the world rather than withdrawing from it to exist to ourselves or dominating it in order to create some type of Christian super-state. Those are temptations that the Church has all too often given into. Jesus words are a good reminder that even though he calls us to what seems like minority status, we should not feel small and insignificant and ineffective. God still has given those in his kingdom the ability to function as that which allows the world to see God’s glory and be blessed by his righteousness. That all seems kind of obvious, but it’s critically important to remember that God’s light does not just shine as we do ministry and tend to the needs of each other when we’re in these four walls. The life we share in Jesus Christ is not just something we pass back and forth with each other in a self-serving manner.

As a pastor, I love it, of course, when there are a lot of kids at a youth group event or high participation in some service project one of our teams has organized. And I’m thankful for the support from parents and other family members that have allowed our youth programs at Epiphany to expand and include more and more people. However, Jesus words about salt and light are a strong reminder to me that Jesus doesn’t just call us to participation in church events. After all, that was one thing the scribes and the Pharisees were probably really good at: church attendance. Rather, Jesus calls us to be salt of the earth and light of the world. If a youth is unable to attend a particular event, it may be that person is called to be a little salt on the football team that day. Or shine a little light of Jesus’ righteousness at play practice. Or add a little of God’s good flavor at band rehearsal.  It means to shine in that cubicle at work, to practice acts of faith and sacrificial love throughout the day, wherever we are. 

Did anyone watch the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics the other night? I could take or leave the fancy choreography of the floor show, but I do always like to see how they light the Olympic flame. There’s always some kind of dramatic pageantry that goes along with it. I’ll never forget the games in Barcelona where the archer shot a flaming arrow into the cauldron. That’s why the way they staged the flame-lighting in Sochi the other night caught me a little off-guard. The Olympic flame was cleverly placed outside the stadium where the opening ceremonies were held. When the time came for the flame to be lit, the torch bearers simply left the stadium! Rather unceremoniously, they walked right out the doors and into the open area outside. All those thousands of spectators were left back inside by themselves. 

It wasn’t a very dramatic end to all the torch-passing at all, but it certainly served as an example of what God intends for his followers to do with this light of righteousness: it’s meant for the world. It’s eventually meant to go out there. We share the Lord’s light with each other here. We are replenished by the bread and the wine and the font of new life. But, ultimately, we are the light of the world, too. And whether it burns in you like a small oil lamp…or a the piercing beam of a miner’s headlamp…the point is to carry it out there, to open their dimensions, and let the world know who has created it and what it really is called to be.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.