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.

*Some* good

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 9, 2020 – Matthew 5:13-20 – Trinity, Winchester

The Church is, in the ever so descriptive words of the famous preacher Tom Long, “a colony of the kingdom of heaven placed in the midst of an alien culture.” [1]

The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is not only a far-off eternal vision, but a salient, earthly reality of which you and I are blessed to be a part.

As members of the Church, Christ’s body on earth, we are called to be agents of God’s reign. Christians are, in a sense, heavenly emissaries, kingdom citizens instilled with God’s divine essence so that we may be bearers of that essence right here, right now.

Nowhere is our calling more apparent than in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God became flesh, revealing that flesh is not simply material made for simple pleasures and sinful desires, but for the real, honest-to-goodness purposes of the kingdom.

In a world that ignores the needs of many, we Church folk are the few who turn our attention to the lost, the lonely, the suffering, the weak. 

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we—the Church, members of the body of Christ—are salt. Like salt, Christians add a divine flavor to the world by witnessing to God’s unconditional love and mirroring that love in our own lives.

The fact of the matter is, the Church is not as large as it once was. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only thing that the Church increases in from year to year is cultural irrelevance.

What good is the body of Christ in a world where leaders still lie to distract us from their ineptitude? What good is the body of Christ in a world where children still die because prescriptions cost too much money? What good is the body of Christ in a world where practices like predatory payday lending still persist in lining the pockets of the already-wealthy and further impoverishing the poor?

What good, really, is the Church to a society that so consistently rejects its offer of grace and love and reconciliation in favor of those old standbys, fear and doubt and divisiveness? 

Well, the answer is: some. The church is some good.

That might sound worrying, but take heart. Some good accounts for a whole lot of lives altered, perspectives changed, and fences mended. Just like some salt flavors the entire stew, some good done in Jesus’ name flavors the entire world with the grace of God. It has always been this way—a wicked world flavored by flecks of God’s grace.

A couple of cans of shredded chicken in the food pantry for a single mother whose kids need protein. A few dollars to pay down her electric bill so she doesn’t have to give the baby a bath by candle light again tonight. A winter coat to protect the oldest from the spine-stiffening wind that awaits her at the bus stop each morning.

Some good really is worth it. I’m not saying that the most good wouldn’t be better. For a time, the Salvation Army used the slogan “Doing the most good.” I wasn’t aware that it was a competition, but I take the point.

The “most good” does seem like the best kind of good, and it is a great goal. But some good is important, too. It’s real. It’s here. It’s now.

Jesus calls—and empowers—each of us to bring the kingdom of heaven ever closer to earth, and to do so with all that we have, with all that we are, in all the ways that we can. I believe that.

However, from time to time, the good news of God’s kingdom may get lost in the bad news you read on Facebook just like the sugar overshadows the salt in the birthday cake. But the truth is that the salt, like the good, is still there doing the work it needs to do just as steadfastly as ever.

Just because you don’t taste the salt, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Any recipe worth its salt has a small amount of salt proportional to the rest of the ingredients. That small amount is all it takes to make a huge difference. For the result to be good, there must be salt.

We’ve got to remember that if God’s people on earth ever are discouraged or distracted from living the kingdom life, then, as Jesus says, the Church will no longer be good for anything. It might as well be trampled underfoot.

For instance, if our mission becomes reinforcing the cultural status quo, then the Church is doomed. Like salt that does not, that cannot enhance the taste even of itself—throw it out! Like a flashlight without batteries. It doesn’t matter whether you hide it under the bed or put it on the nightstand—it’s useless! (Like a Eucharist without a sermon—what’s the point, right?) Jesus is clear about this, not to trouble us, but to keep us mindful of why we are here. 

The point is simply this: do not be discouraged when what you have to offer doesn’t seem like enough. Holy Mother Church, the Body of Christ—you included—is doing good. 

The temptation will always be to second guess, to doubt, to trouble our minds needlessly with daunting questions about our worth. Is this enough? Is that enough? Am I enough?

When that time comes, remember, the answer is: yes. You are the salt. You are enough because God made you enough and the presence of God in you gives the world the flavor of grace.

[1] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 51-52.

Faithful response to God

Wednesday in Proper 6C – June 19, 2019 – Matthew 6:1-6,16-18 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

It’s been almost a week since I last saw you, and we’re still hearing from the “Sermon on the Mount.” Today Jesus instructs us not to practice our piety before others. He gives us three examples of what not to do, and three tips that can lead to healthier and more reverent practices. 

“Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you . . . But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

“Whenever you pray, do not . . . stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that [you] may be seen by others . . . But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door.”

“Whenever you fast, do not look dismal . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.” 

It never fails. Every time I hear this passage I think about stewardship and evangelism. In my own naïveté, I tend to hear Jesus’ teaching as counter to everything I have learned about sharing my faith with others and tithing 10% of my income to the church. 

Jesus’ instructions about almsgiving tell us that discretion is best. He tells us not to let people see us give money. But don’t we want people to be a part of a culture of giving? If people see others give, won’t that encourage them to give, too?

Jesus also warns us against praying in public places were we will make ourselves a spectacle. But, what about not hiding our light under a bushel basket and all that? Aren’t we supposed to make our faith known? 

Jesus urges us to keep our fast in a way that does not draw too much attention. But what about Ash Wednesday? Does that mean no more ashes on my forehead? Do I need to go straight home and wash them off? 

No, none of that is quite right. Jesus isn’t telling us never to give, or pray, or fast in public. He’s using public examples to tell us not to do these things for the wrong reasons. 

Jesus is specifically taking to task those who lord their piety over others. To hear, “Don’t do these things in public . . .” is to miss half the message. It’s more like, “Don’t do these things in public . . . for the sake of impressing other people.” 

We give, pray, and fast because these things are part of a genuine, faithful response to God’s presence in our lives. Attending church only because it’s good for business is very disingenuous.

However, setting an example of responsible tithing for friends and neighbors who don’t quite understand it yet can be a very responsible Christian witness. Likewise, thanking God for your food, even in a restaurant or school cafeteria, can be a very sincere way to recognize God’s abundant grace. And fasting, no matter what the appearance of your face, can be a very meaningful and appropriate way to respond to a merciful God. 

Sometimes important things need to be explained clearly. Thank God for a sermon! The Sermon on that Mount, that is, in which Jesus teaches us not to give, and pray, and fast in order to impress others, but in grateful response to God’s presence in our lives. 

But wait, doing such things in response to God’s presence in our lives requires us to be aware of God’s presence in our lives in the first place. Well then, perhaps that’s where we’ll end today, at the beginning of this whole process—step one: Look for God’s activity in the world, and when you see it, name it.

Then you can be grateful and respond.