Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 16, 2020 – Matthew 5:21-37 – Trinity, Winchester

In today’s Gospel, you may be tempted to hear Jesus throw out the Law of Moses in favor of a newer, more up-to-date version of God’s teaching. 

His speech does have that sort of pattern to it. “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .” “It was also said . . . but I say to you . . .” “Again, you have heard . . .  but I say . . .”

It sounds a lot like, “Not that, but this.”

While you may have heard it this way, it is my job to say to you, that this is not what Jesus is doing. He is not casting aside the old law in order to replace it with a new one.

He is reiterating established law and drawing deeper meaning from it. It’s not so much, “I am creating new law” as much as it is, “I am mining the riches of the law that God has already given you.”

Jesus gives several examples. The first is, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder;” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”

So far so good! This law needs no updating or replacing. Murder is bad. Killing people is wrong. Don’t do it.

Jesus continues, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

By adding the stuff that comes after the “but I say to you” Jesus unearths meaning that we at first did not hear. Not only is murder wrong, but so is undue anger, insult, and name-calling.

Why? Because all of these things devalue human life. To kill is to render life meaningless. It is to completely and utterly devalue God’s presence in another person.    

Most people aren’t murderers, but all people have a tendency to devalue human life. Who among us, when held hostage by outrage, has not begun spewing words of violence, hatred, or spite?

Insulting or cursing someone in a moment of fury is to discount their worthiness. It is to ignore them as bearers—as Jesus has said—of salt and light. It is to wish them dead, which, like killing them, devalues the sanctity of their life.

That’s what Jesus is getting at. Not “out with the old and in with the new” but “Please, remember this, too.”

Understanding that Jesus is augmenting, rather than contradicting, the law is a good thing, but a comprehensive sermon it does not make. To conclude the sermon here would be to reinforce this moral: it’s not just killing that will have you burning for eternity—it’s name-calling, too!

But that’s not quite right. Banishing us to the pits of hell really isn’t Jesus’ thing. That kind of fire and brimstone stuff was developed much later by preachers with a very different agenda.

Jesus’ overarching message is one of grace and peace, love and hope, forgiveness and redemption. If his words today seem particularly harsh to you, consider that that is because he wants your attention. 

He wants you to understand that it is possible to live in right relationship with God and your neighbors. He wants you to understand that anger and insults keep you from doing just that. He wants us to understand that unbridled lust can lead to depression and malcontent.

He wants you to understand that the sacred bond of marriage should not be dissolved on a man’s whim. He wants you to understand that there is no honor in making fancy promises that you cannot keep. 

Most of all, he wants you to understand that your previous sins do not prohibit you from standing now and ever more secure in the grace of God.

When discussing murder, and anger, and insult, Jesus offered the following advice. “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

These words may also seem a tad extreme, but rest assured. If Jesus isn’t in the business of scrapping Hebrew law, he certainly isn’t in the business of chasing anyone out of Church. This is to say, Jesus does not require everyone who momentarily recalls interpersonal strife to get up and proceed to the nearest exit.

However, by offering this image, Jesus does seem to be making the case for urgency when it comes to our habits of reconciliation.

Whenever you are reminded of a transgression that needs forgiving or a relationship that needs restoring—even if it is during a time so important as worship—take it seriously. Whoever you are, wherever you are, and whenever it is that you remember such a thing, Jesus calls you to the important work of reconciliation—right then!

Jesus’ advice is very pastoral. If ever you remember a fault of your own or the error of another, Jesus does not want one more second to go by without orienting your mind toward the healing power of reconciliation. It is a reminder that such things are not the end of the world; there is wholeness yet to come.

In keeping with this pastoral spirit, I want to say that there are circumstances in life, such as in the aftermath of certain broken marriages, when personal reconciliation may be neither appropriate nor healthy nor safe. Jesus understands and honors our individual contexts and personal situations. 

As for times when reconciliation is appropriate, Jesus believes that it’s what’s best. That’s why he says to get up and go. As far as he is concerned, the sooner that you experience the peace of reconciliation, the better.

So if you do choose to walk out and tend to something right now, that’s fine. But you always have the option to stick around and soak up even more Jesus, in the breaking of the bread and the prayers. 

It certainly can’t hurt.

The hard work of the Gospel

Commemoration of Thomas Bray – February 15, 2019 – Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 10:1-9 – Chapel of the Apostles, Sewanee

It is always a joy to have the opportunity to preach to a seminary community, even if, or perhaps especially when, the subject matter is a bit tricky. 

When I first noticed that we were commemorating Thomas Bray today, it took me a minute. Then it came to me, “Oh, right, the SPCK guy.” That is, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. You know, like the “book depot” down in Cowan. 

It turns out, Bray’s story is bigger than a book store. In 1696 he was invited by the Bishop of London to oversee the Church of England’s work in Maryland. Though Bray was only in America briefly, he founded 39 lending libraries and numerous schools, recruited priests to work in local parishes, advocated for the ordination of a bishop for the American church, and championed the need for educated clergy and laity. This is to say nothing of his work for English prison reform and the abolitionist movement.

But that’s not all. In 1701 Bray founded yet another society–this time the SPG, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Among its goals: to promote Christianity abroad and to bring Christianity to the non-Christian races of the world. If that language creeps you out, good. It should. 

Reading Holy Women Holy Men gives one the sense that Bray was a simple country parson who happened to have a deep concern for and understanding of “Native Americans and Blacks.” That language should make you uncomfortable, too.

Once you understand the baggage associated with evangelizing slaves and saving the souls of native peoples, the feet of those messengers Isaiah mentions don’t seem quite as beautiful. 

Unfortunately, Christianity has long been a vehicle for enforcing Western ideals on people who already have their own traditions, values, and norms. No person or culture is a “blank slate” waiting for a missionary to come write down the name of Jesus. 

Pausing to commemorate Thomas Bray gives us the opportunity to be honest about the somewhat sordid history of Christian mission. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel owned slaves, mutilated their bodies, and exploited their labor. 

To ignore past exploits like these is to deceive ourselves. Worse than viewing our history through rose-tinted glasses is forgetting to take those glasses off. Soon they become blinders that keep us from seeing our own sins.

We’re not in this business to ignore hard truths, past or present. We’re in this business to do the hard, complicated, often ambiguous, but powerful work of the Gospel. God has given us the Gospel of Jesus, and God has called you to proclaim it. Our past sins don’t excuse you from doing that. In fact, they make it all the more necessary. 

It’s hard to be a Christian. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have to evangelize! Yet, here we are, ready to go out in the midst of wolves, even from house to house, proclaiming the peace of the Lord. Some folks think we’re crazy, but I like to think of it more as being faithful to a God who is faithful to us. 

So get up, and go out to do the work that God has given you to do. When you fail, be honest about it, come back, present yourself at the Holy Table, and receive the grace of God. 

One such child

18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018 – Mark 9:30-37 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

After hearing today’s Gospel passage we may be tempted to dwell on the image of the child. Young, sweet, innocent. Imagine the little ringlets of hair, the brilliant blue eyes, and the curious little fingers. The image of the child sticks with us for good reason. There is a lot to admire about childhood. It’s largely carefree. 

In one of my favorite TV shows, 30 Rock, Pete says to his cranky coworker Liz Lemon, “I hope you’re happy!” “Not since I was a child,” she replies.

Adults often long for the simplicity of childhood. No bills to pay. No working day. No headaches or office cubes under buzzing florescent lights.

Bring a child into the hustle and bustle of everyday life and everything gets better, even if just for a moment. A mother brings her newborn the the office to visit her daddy and it provides a nice break for everyone. “Oh my gosh she is so cute.” 

Take a baby into a nursing home, stand back and soak in the smiles and the memories cast on the faces of the elderly residents.

Whenever we see a child we get that beautiful feeling. Their energy is rejuvenating. Something in their rosy cheeks offers us a an escape. 

We’ve all seen the woman in the grocery store pushing her cart down the aisle. When she see a young father pushing his baby she stops to smile and wave, lost in infant’s gaze.

Maybe this is why so many stained-glass windows depict Jesus with children. They add freshness to our mundane lives. (At least as long as we’re not with the all the time.)

I really do think we idealize childhood. But—make no mistake about it—Jesus does not. Don’t let yourself get caught up in childhood sentiments. Pay attention to the rest of the story. Jesus is lifting up the virtues of childhood for a very different reason than sentimentality. 

His disciples argue about who is the greatest, and he gives them a reality check. The greatest is not the biggest or the strongest or the smartest. The greatest is the one who welcomes a child such as this. Jesus does not show off the kid because the kid is adorable. Jesus redefines the cultural hierarchy of his day by dramatically elevating the status of the child. 

“If you welcome a child you welcome me.” These words turn the value system of the day upside down. In ancient Palestine children didn’t have rights. A father could sell or trade his own child with no repercussion. 

This is not to say that parents didn’t love their children. I’m sure the opposite was true, but there were different economic realities. People didn’t have kids simply for procreation, they also needed people to work on the family farm or in the family trade. Jesus turns this child, much more than a helping hand, into someone who is honored and revered.

Today we may be more sentimental when it comes to kids, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we still have a tendency to devalue childhood. As far as our culture is concerned children exists to grow up. They are simply biding their time until they can function as productive members of society. They are in training for the “real world.” 

When someone fails to mature fast enough we criticize them. “Oh grow up!” “Get your head out of the clouds!” “I’m not always going to be here to clean up your mess!” “If you can’t even put your name on your paper how are you going to get a job?”

However, Jesus helps us reimagine the value of childhood.He doesn’t do it by highlighting their adorable characteristics or exploiting our emotions. Instead, Jesus illuminates the virtues of childhood. Jesus shows us that children are the receivers in life. They receive their life from others. Literally. 

They exist because others make it possible for them to exist. I new mom once who told me, “All I remember about the ride home from the hospital is how nervous I was.” The child completely depends on them. Sure, the parents create the child together but they also continue to give it life after it is born: fresh milk, clean diapers, loving touch. 

Adults are the givers life. They are the ones in control. They change the diapers and warm the milk. Adults earn the money, keep the lights on, make the beds, and drive the carpool. Parents offer punishment: Time out. No dessert. “Go to your room.” The grown ups are in control. But the children do what they are told. They can’t even walk for almost a year. 

Jesus reminds us in the presence of a child what it truly means to be child-like. It’s not about being cute and naive; it’s about facing the reality of our dependence.  To be child-like is to depend on others. 

We all depend on others. The farmers that grow our food, the teachers who teach us how to think, the friends who support us when we are alone. Even the water treatment plant workers, the electrical linemen, and most of all, God. 

If you want to be at the top the hierarchy, if you want to rank first in the kingdom of God, then you have to remember that you depend on others.

My mother has had the rare experience of her own mother becoming like her child. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and can’t care for herself like she used to. My mom to prepare her meals, dresses her, and combs her hair. 

Do you remember what it was like to depend on others? To really rely on others and be completely at their mercy? It may be a time when you were extremely sick or broke your leg and you couldn’t do anything for yourself. 

Jesus is urging us to remember what it was like to receive help from others so that we will will in turn be quick to serve others in return. 

Jesus says, “If you want to be greatest, don’t focus on yourself, focus on those in need. You need to recognize the holiness of the people on the bottom rung of society. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to serve others because people depend on you.”

A really good way to remember that is to remind yourself that you depend on others. “If you really want to welcome me, you’ve got to welcome this child. Not because the child is innocent, not because he child is cute or sweet, but because the child depends on you.”

A child of God is anyone who depends on others for survival. When you serve those who depend on you, you serve God. Serve all of God’s children in need. Anyone who is hungry, or thirsty, or naked. Serve anyone on the receiving end of life. Serve all who are controlled by others. Serve the powerless and manipulated. Serve the slaves. The widows. The orphans. The oppressed. The poor. The outcast. The refugee. The criminal. It is in the prison cell, the refugee camp, and the Social Security line that you will meet the God who himself ended up completely at the mercy of others.

So make haste! We don’t have much time. Even now we are passing away. We are people of a servant Lord who stooped to wash the feet of his disciples and in so doing taught us that whenever we wash someone’s clothes or buy someone’s lunch or help someone change a flat tire that we are serving Him who first served us. The One who taught us that by feeding our 88-year-old mother we might glimpse the One who gave himself to be food for others.

This is our loving God: the one we meet these beautiful moments of self-sacrifice. The very God that they disciples could not yet recognize, but that we have known all our lives. The very One who gives us greater joy than even the cutest little baby.