February 28, 2011

I want to be set free from worry - a sermon

You can listen to this sermon here - or read it below.

I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point during his sermon on the mount Jesus went from preachin' to meddlin'. It might have been at the end of chapter 5, the part we heard last week, when Jesus told the crowd to be perfect. It might have happened in the portions of chapter 6 that we skipped over when Jesus started telling people how to give to the poor, how to pray, and how to fast. If it hadn't already happened, then the shift most certainly occurs when Jesus starts talking to people about their money. It is commonly held that polite people shouldn't talk about religion or politics, but religion and politics become the weather and sports when you compare it to talking about money. Especially as that money relates to religion and politics. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
In effect, Jesus asks, “Who do you want to serve? You are going to be a slave to something or someone, so go ahead and make your choice now, do you want to be a slave to God or to mamon? What's it going to be?” Jesus doesn’t stop at meddlin' with our money, but goes so far as to meddle with every aspect of our lives; he wants it all. Several weeks ago, I mentioned somewhat offhandedly that the word, Christian, when literally translated means, “a slave to Christ”, but today that offhanded remark takes on new meaning. This morning, Jesus asks each of us, “Do you want to be a Christian, a slave to Christ, or would you prefer to be a slave to something else?” It is a decision we all have to make: a choice that most of us will be forced to make over and over and over again.
Are you a slave to your work? Is the need to get ahead in your career a driving factor in your life? Do you strive to always be the best? Do you work 60, 70, 80 or more hours a week to show the boss that you will give your life to your company? Does your family suffer at the expense of your work?
Are you a slave to your children? Have ball practices and dance classes and PTA meetings and wrapping paper sales come to define your life? Do you have to eat dinner through a drive through 5 nights a week to make it all fit? Has your relationship with your spouse suffered at the expense of your children?
Are you a slave to an addiction? Do you compulsively overeat, gamble, drink, or depend on the happiness of others to make you happy? Is your mind focused only on the next score so that the present moment is nothing but a blur of anxious waiting? Has your health suffered at the expense of your addition?
Are you a slave to money? Do you have so much money that you have become completely independent of the world around you? Do you have so little money that all you can think about is whether you will ever have enough? Do you strive for more in order to keep up with the Joneses? If, by chance, you've managed to attain the status of the Joneses, do you find yourself striving for even more so that you can keep up with the Trumps or the Gateses? Has everything else suffered at the expense of your seeking after wealth?
In the course of my life, I have been a slave to a lot of things, and this week I became a slave to this sermon. After taking Monday and Tuesday off to recuperate from working something like 25 out of 28 days, I sat down early Wednesday morning to take a look at the lessons and thought, “Oh no. This is going to be a tough sermon to preach.” Then I thought, “Oh no. This is a short week for me.” Then I thought, “Oh no. There is no way I'll ever get a decent sermon written for Sunday morning.” From that moment on, this sermon was the only thing I could think about. I read resource after resource in search of that one golden preaching nugget. I thought and prayed and contemplated. I wasn't paying attention to my family because my brain was fighting with this sermon. I wasn't paying attention while I was driving because I was distracted by this sermon. I became a slave to this sermon.
Do you know what happens when you become a slave to something other than Christ? You worry. Will I get that promotion? Will my kid make all A's? Where will my next drink come from? Do I have enough money? Will this sermon ever get written. By 3:17 on Thursday afternoon, my slavery to this sermon had become so overwhelming I was compelled to write a blog post entitled, “I'm worried.” By 4:30 that same afternoon the folks who run the Christian Century website had already picked up my post to publish on their site. By 6:15 my alma mater, Virginia Theological Seminary had posted a link to it on their facebook page. It seems as though I wasn't the only slave to the text this week. I wasn't the only one worried. Misery loves company, but that doesn't make the decision to be a slave to something other than God any wiser.
In choosing to serve this sermon as slave I chose worry over freedom, stress over comfort, and my own will over the things of God. Jesus says not to worry, but that was all I could do. Maybe you know that feeling too. You start to worry, but then you remember that Jesus said not to, then you worry that you were worrying. It is a vicious cycle that ends in frustration, guilt, and despair – three things that I am certain are not from God.
Jesus says not to worry about anything. Don't worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink. Don't worry about your body, what you will wear. As we've seen, however, this is a lot easier said than done. So how then do we keep from worrying when it seems to be such a natural reaction? How do we avoid worry when the money always seems to run out before the month does. How do we not worry when the news is full of violence, when the price of gas jumps 20 cents in a day, when the world seems to be in such disarray?
Jesus says, “Consider the birds of the air. They don't sow or reap. They don't gather into barns, and yet they are fed by God everyday.” There is an old poem that reads, “Said the robin to the sparrow: 'I should really like to know why these anxious human beings rush about and worry so.' Said the sparrow to the robin: 'Friend, I think that it must be that they have no heavenly Father, such as cares for you and me.'” Do we really believe that God gave us life? If so, why do we find it so hard to believe that he'll take care of that life? The birds use their God given abilities to seek out food and drink. Why then do we ignore our God given talents and instead work ourselves to death in the pursuit of more food, more drink, more clothing, and more money?
Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field; they don't toil or spin, and yet not even King Solomon in all his splendor was dressed as fine as them.” Men toil in the fields making sure the crops grow at a high yield. Women spin at the wheel creating usable yarn and beautiful clothing. Lilies do neither, but by way of their God given abilities they take energy from the sun and nutrients from the ground and make themselves into beautiful flowers that are often seen only by their Father in heaven. Why then do we ignore our God given talents and instead worry ourselves with the need to look as good as, or better than our neighbor?
Jesus says, “Don't worry about tomorrow because today is full of enough garbage of its own.” Why anticipate the troubles of tomorrow? Why double our trouble? If our worries never materialize then we've wasted a lot of energy on nothing. If tomorrow's troubles do arrive, then we suffer through them twice over. The really dangerous thing about worry is that it is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy. In worrying, we create the scenario in which tomorrow's troubles can flourish. I worried that this sermon would be hard to write, and lo and behold I was sitting in front of the computer at 5:05 yesterday afternoon and again at 5:30 this morning writing in fits and starts, my mind swimming with useless scholarly details, hoping that maybe, just maybe the Holy Spirit would overlook my lack of faith and show up to preach again this morning.
Jesus says, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all of these things will be given to you as well.” Here is the crux of it all. The key to a life without worry, seek first the Kingdom of God. When we are striving after our own goals: career, children, money, addiction – whatever, we are a slave to something other than God; a slave to something that will bring only frustration and destruction. But when we seek first the Kingdom, when we long to bring God's love to the world, when we aren't worried about better food, drink and clothing because we are too busy sharing what food, drink and clothing have with those who don't have any, when we become slaves of God, our creator, the giver of every good gift, then we can come to know what it is to live the life God dreamed for us in the Garden of Eden. When we choose to be slaves of Christ we are set free to enjoy the abundant life that he promises to those who love him. Jesus meddled in my life this week. He showed me the folly of my worries. He asked me again to choose his way over any other. I want to be set free from worry, and I hope that you do too. So we pray again:
Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

It is good for us to be here

If I learned anything from my four days of slavery to last week's sermon (posted later today) it is this - the only place where real rest can occur is in the presence of the Almighty.  In the midst of confusion, fear, frustration, lonliness, or sadness rest and comfort can be found in the Lord.

Peter, James, and John (and the rest of the disciples for that matter) had experienced a lot in their time with Jesus, but the six days leading up to his transfiguration must have been among the most intense.  Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah put out into the open what they all had to have been thinking, and when something that has gone unsaid gets verbalized it becomes really real.

Jesus is the Christ.

For six days the disciples had to wrestle with what that meant. Was war in their future? What would his reign look like? Who would share his power? Who would train the armies? Questions, uncertainties, fears, and maybe a little back-biting and infighting were probably the name of the game for that week.

Filled with all that emotion, Pete, James and John head up the mountainside with Jesus and in the disorienting prsence of the Holy One, Peter is compelled to say, "it is good for us to be here."  And it was. It was good for them to get back in touch with the Creator of all things. It was good for them to find God's peace. It was good for them to get back in touch with the will of the Father.

I learned that lesson again last week, and like the disciples, I had to learn it the hard way. Be present, o Christ, and bring us your peace.

February 24, 2011

I'm worried

It is 3:13 on Thursday afternoon and I still have eight sermons bouncing around in my skull. I'm not so much worried about tomorrow, I'm certain this Friday will have enough worries of its own. I'm not even worried about Saturday evening's five15 because the conversation format means I don't have to have one direction nailed down when the service starts. I am worried about Sunday because that's what I do. Every weekend that I preach I worry about Sunday until it is over and then I say, "Why was I so worried? The Holy Spirit carried me through again, just like every other time."

Not that I ever dare step into the pulpit unprepared. I'm always prepared. Which, I suppose is part of the problem. I read so much, think so much, listen so much that by the time I put finger to keyboard I've got at least eight different directions bouncing around my skull.

I'm probably more worried this week because, come Sunday, I have to tell people why they shouldn't worry. Kind of hard to preach "do as I say and not as I do", but then again, I've done that before too (think - keep the sabbath, love your enemies, be thankful in all things).

The stupid Collect for Sunday isn't helping either. We pray to be preserved from FAITHLESS fears, and WORLDLY anxieties. We announce to God that his will for us is to give thanks for ALL things, to fear NOTHING but the loss of him, and to cast all of our cares upon him who cares for us. Yikes.

So, now it is 3:20 on Thursday and I'm still worried. Worried not that I won't have anything to say come Sunday, I will, I always do. Worried instead that I'll be typing those words at 11pm on Saturday night. Worried that what I do say will be vapid or, worse yet, trite (stupid Bobby McFerin stuck in my head).

Preacher friends, are you worried? Non-preacher friends, do you pray for your preachers that they might be relieved of writer's block and pulpit anxiety? If you don't, if you wouldn't mind starting now, it would be greatly appreciated.

February 23, 2011

Perfection redefined

You can listen to this sermon here. Or, if you'd rather read it, here you go.

Jesus looked at the crowd that was gathered before him and said, without an ounce of irony or sarcasm, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Boy do I wish he had never said those impossibly simple words. Be perfect. That's all we're called to do. It couldn't be more simple, just. be. perfect. And yet it couldn't be more impossible. Have you tried to be perfect? Most days, I can't make it to breakfast without a slip up of some sort: complaining that I didn't get enough sleep, remembering that thing I was mad about three weeks ago and getting angry all over again, feeling envious that Cassie gets to sleep in, worrying about how to pay for the new tires the car needs. Seriously, being perfect is impossible.
I wish Jesus had never uttered those words. In telling the crowd to “be perfect,” he handed the naysayers their ammunition. In calling us to be perfect he opened the door for the classic argument of the non-church goer. “They're just a bunch of hypocrties.” And, on some level, we are. We expect perfection and though we never achieve it, we continue to expect it, especially from so-and-so who really needed to hear that sermon. As Jesus will say later in his Sermon, “we worry about the speck of sawdust in our brother's eye while ignoring the log in our own.” I really wish Jesus had never said these words. “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Why? Why did he say it? I have to assume that most of the time, Jesus didn't just haphazardly shoot from the hip. Certainly not in this central teaching episode on the side of the mountain. His words were carefully chosen, calculated, and spoken with purpose. So why? Why would Jesus go from setting the bar absurdly high, to making it impossible to even see? Why tell his disciples to be perfect when he knew it was impossible to do?
I really struggled with the question of why this week. This call to “be perfect” seemed like the work of an angry and impulsive god who rather enjoyed watching us human's squirm. It just didn't seem like something that my God would do. Then came Wednesday. On Wednesday morning, I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to take a half-day fishing expedition with none other than the great Bob Potts. Wednesday was to be the day for this first, exploratory trip for the spring crappie season of 2011. I had a borrowed crappie pole, and two other rods setup for bass fishing ready to go when my alarm went off at 4:30am. I awoke, hit the “go” button on my coffee pot and prepared for the long day ahead. I dressed in layers upon layers. I put on sunscreen. I found my hat. I brushed my teeth (for which I'm sure Mr. Potts was extremely grateful). I poured my coffee, and arrived in Bob's driveway promptly at the appointed hour of 5:15am. When we pulled out of Bob and Mary's driveway at about 5:30 with the truck thermometer reading 50 degrees, and we were all set for a great morning of fishing. Perhaps the thick-as-pea-soup fog should have been our first warning to the contrary. We made our way slowly up to the Baldwin County Park System's Cliff's Landing public boat launch on the Tenesaw River. We stopped to buy shiners where the wise old lady tending the bait shop assured us that the crappie were hitting. As we arrived at the launch, the thermometer that had read 50 in Foley, now said 43. The fog that had long since burned off to the south was still thick-as-pea-soup on the delta. And the sun was already on the rise. We launched Bod's self-described “medium-go-fast boat” and began to head up river toward Miflin Lake, but the fog demoted the boat from “medium-go-fast” to “not-go-fast” in a hurry. Bob decided we should wait out the fog by doing a little practice along the east bank of the river. Our practice finished and the fog lifted we began to move toward the western bank to look for the entrance to Miflin Lake when as strange noise came from the motor. Wolom.
Being a novice boater, I knew that sound, we had hit shallow water and bogged down the prop in some mud. I've done that before, I know that sound. And that was Bob's conjecture too, until he noticed the depth finder reading 10 feet. Hmmmm. Then the motor didn't want to turn over too well. Then once it did it didn't want to wind up too fast. Even when the throttle was laid flat out, it ran slow and smoked and chattered. Not good.
Not wanting to waste the trip, Bob suggested we slowly work back down river, crappie and bass fishing along the way. We worked both sides of the river bank all the way back to the launch and managed to catch zero fish with zero bites in our 3 hours on the water. Bob and I ate our lunches in the driveway behind the Bass Pro Shop while the service techs prepared the bad news on the repairs.
All in all, it was a terrible day of fishing, and an awful exploratory mission, and yet as I reflected back on the morning, I would still describe it as perfect. Bob might use other words, but I would borrow from Jesus and describe the day as perfect.
When Jesus looked at the crowd and called on them to be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect, Matthew translates Jesus' Aramaic as teleios, the Greek word for goal, end, or purpose. In Eugene Peterson's translation, Jesus says, “Live out your God-created identity.” Jesus isn't calling us to be morally flawless (though that is a good idea). He isn't demanding that we immediately remove all sin from our lives (though that too wouldn't be a bad thing). As the only sinless human being, Jesus isn't asking us to do the impossible; instead he is calling the crowd and us to be who we were created to be, to live out God's dream for our lives, to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
My day on the water with Bob was perfect because my goals for the day were to enjoy Bob's company, learn some lessons on fishing, and to enjoy a part of God's creation that I had never experienced before. I never thought I'd catch any fish; as I've said before, I'm not a very good fisherman. And so for me, Wednesday morning was perfect because all of my goals for the morning were fulfilled.
If we can let go of the the guilt ridden need to be perfect in that abstract, philosophical, metaphysical way most of us were taught to be perfect, then maybe we can live into the freedom that comes from being perfect, teleios, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Free to the person who God created us to be. Free to love our enemies. Free to give away our cloak. Free to go the extra mile. Free to be perfect. William Barclay calls this perfection “unconquerable benevolence and invincible goodwill: the very image of God in which we were created.” Who doesn't want that? Unconquerable benevolence and invincible goodwill? Yes please! A double portion for me!
But that perfection doesn't end with us as individuals. Jesus didn't look at the crowd and say “you [Tom, Mary, Joe] be perfect.” He looked at the crowd, the thousands who were following and listening and said “all y'all, the whole lot of ya, be a perfect community. Be the people, the community, the nation that God created you to be. Live out the law radically, especially as it relates to how you treat those who are different from you and your enemies.” To borrow language from one of the disciples who was there with Jesus on the mountain, in his first letter, Peter writes, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness. Share mercy because you have been shown mercy. Care for the poor and the aliens. Don't be unjust. Be a temple for God. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Go above and beyond for your God and for your neighbor because your God has gone above and beyond for you. Be perfect.
Jesus has made an impossibly simple request of us. Don't get bogged down in the details. Don't fret when things don't work out like you intended. Don't get weighed down by your self-inflicted guilt. Just be perfect. Be the person and the people that God created you to be. It is just that simple. Amen.


The youth minister at my Field Education Parish had a pet peeve about the word "anxious."  It bothered him that people used it incorrectly. It bothered him even more that people used it incorrectly almost universally.  I'll be you've done it; I know I have.

"I'm anxious to get home and sleep in my own bed."

"Really," he would ask, "you are nervous about going home?"

Nope, not anxious at all.  Excited. Ready. Thrilled, but not anxious.

I wonder how anxious came to be misused so universally. I wonder what it says about the way we live that our default mode is anxiety, even if that isn't what we mean.

Jesus said not to worry, but that makes me anxious.  I worry about how much I worry. It isn't a lack of faith, necessarily, that leads me to worry. I trust God in the the things with which I think he's really concerned, but I don't know that God cares about a lot of the stuff I worry about because most of it is superfluous.  Seems like the only thing that God really cares about is having a relationship with us and the rest will sort itself out in the wash.  And maybe that it. Maybe the key to a lack of anxiety is realizing that the crap I worry about is just that. Crap.

Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.  The rest is just superfluous garbage.  Sure, you need to have food and shelter and clothing , but that's the small stuff - don't be anxious about the small stuff, be ready for the Kingdom of God.

February 17, 2011

be self-actualized... kind of

Perfection is out.
Holiness is out.
Being a Temple is out.

So what are our scriptures saying this Sunday?

As much as I hate to say it, they are kind of saying, "be self-actualized" or "live your best life now." Before you think I've fallen off the deep end here, let me explain.

In talking of perfection, Jesus isn't saying we should be sinless (though we should strive for it).  He isn't saying we should seek after some sort of philosophical perfection (though that wouldn't be bad either).  Jesus calls the crowd to be teleios - complete, mature, perfect.

Be the person that God created you to be by loving God and loving neighbor.  Be self-actualized... kind of.

The other note here is that Jesus uses the plural you.  Be the people (community, nation) that God created you to be by loving God and loving neighbor.

Our self-actualization - our living into the fullness of God's dream - doesn't happen in isolation. We can't be perfect without others. It can't happen when we remove ourselves from community. How do you seek perfection? Who do you seek it with?

Be perfect my friends. Be holy. Be a Temple for the Holy Spirit. Just be it all with other faithful people.

February 15, 2011

Be holy

So, if being perfect is impossible maybe we should take a step back.  If you'll recall, Jesus is rescuing the law from those who would water it down in order to make it more palatable. Fortunately, this week in our Old Testament lesson we have a portion of that law.  And while our lessons end withe Jesus saying, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect," they begin, simply enough with these words from Leviticus, "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy."

So perfect is out, but at least we can strive to be holy, right?


Well... holy seems a little on the difficult side too.  Holy as in set apart for God. Holy as in not defiled. Holy as in fully devoted to loving God and loving neighbor.  That doesn't seem too easy to me.  I often forget that, as Paul puts it, I'm a temple for the Holy Spirit.  Usually I'm too busy pumping that temple full of coffee, french fries, diet coke, and beer to remember the Temple part of me.  Defiled? Yeah, probably. Fully devoted to loving God and loving neighbor - well sometimes, but often I'm too busy pumping myself up to remember the other two.

So I guess I can't be holy either.  At least not on my own. So back to God, I guess, for more strength, for more blessings, for more forgiveness, and for more of his Spirit.  Without that stuff, holy ain't gonna happen.

February 14, 2011

Be perfect

As we continue through selected portions of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a simple enough statement to the crowd gathered, "Be perfect..."

Be perfect.

Be... perfect...

This really isn't that simple at all.  Truth be told, it is rather impossible to be perfect.  When FBC was as young as six months she was already manipulating us in order to get what she wanted. As much as a I hate to admit it, even she isn't perfect.

I'm back to the question I raised last week (I think, I'm sorry I didn't post much last week) "who then can be saved.  If the standard is "be perfect" then we are all in a royal mess.  Just look at some of the ways of living that are lifted up by Moses, Paul, and Jesus in our lessons for Sunday.
  • leave the gleanings for the poor and the alien
  • don't steal
  • don't deal falsely
  • don't lie
  • don't swear falsely
  • pay your laborers at the end of each day
  • don't be unjust
  • don't show partiality
  • don't slander
  • don't hate your kin
  • be a temple for God
  • turn the other cheek
  • give away your cloak
  • walk the second mile
  • pray for your enemy
  • be perfect
As Keith said in his sermon on Sunday, the bar was high to start with, but Jesus lifted it to the point of absurdity.  For the second Sunday in a row we are forced to deal with the reality that grace doesn't come without judgment.  We have failed to be perfect, if not from birth, then at least from age 6 months, and so we are in desperate need for a savior.  We can save themselves? No one.  Who can be saved? Everyone.

Thanks be to God for the life, death, and resurrection of his only Son, our savior, Jesus Christ, who was indeed perfect.

February 9, 2011

glad I'm not preaching

With all due respect to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, some of the stuff he said is down right impossible. Take, for instance, the entire Gospel lesson for Sunday, Matthew 5:21-37. Jesus sets the bar so high for his followers that it seems impossible to reach. I'm left feeling like the disciples after the Rich Young Man walks away sad, "Who then can be saved?"

Certainly not me.

Since FBC was born, I've gotten fairly good at holding my tongue.  I don't yell in traffic as much, I don't mutter at Wal*Mart gawkers, I try to not be as vocal about my obvious superiority as I once was.  (There really needs to be an agreed upon sarcasm font.) But I still think some of these things in my head and in my heart.  As I said in my sermon on Sunday, I  use, with some regularity, the word "moron" to describe my fellow human beings.

And Jesus says that condemns me to the fires of hell.

Divorce, slander, adultery, oath making, the list of stuff Jesus deals with in this section of the sermon on the mount is wide-ranging. Wide-ranging enough that it hits us all.

Who then can be saved?

There are no easy answers in the Gospel text for Sunday. No magic grace wand to wipe it all away. No happy clappy 1960s "I'm OK, you're OK" garbage to point to.  Just a really high bar that everyone is expected to use as a starting point.

I'm really glad I'm not preaching.

February 7, 2011

Don't be a moron

You can listen to this sermon here.
Good morning and welcome to week number two of Discipleship 101. I'll be co-teaching this course with Father Keith, but I'll be teaching from up front here. This five week course is based on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's Gospel. As Jesus began his ministry, the crowds that followed him began to swell to the thousands of disciples and so, very early on, Jesus took the time to lay out, in detail, what it meant to be a follower of his teachings. He started, as Keith told us last week, by flipping their worldview upside down and pronouncing God's blessings upon a lengthy list of losers: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers and those who are being persecuted.
This morning, we hear the continuation of Jesus' great sermon, and more lines that are familiar to us all. “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” “Let you light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Many of us have heard these words repeated so often that we don't even pay attention to them anymore. Worse yet, they have come into such common usage, that they have lost their meaning. Ever hear someone refer to a group people as being “real salt of the earth type folks”? This usually refers to a humble and unpretentious group of people. Certainly Jesus would lift up these qualities as noble, but it seems clear that humility and lack of pretense is not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke this famous phrase.
As I said before, what Jesus is doing throughout this Sermon on the Mount is laying out a way of life for his disciples, his students, his followers. Lessons on how to live as a part of society are some of the earliest lessons we receive. Who taught you how to be a member of society? Certainly your parents and grandparents. As you grew, your relationships with your friends helped develop your sense of right and wrong. Eventually, you found yourself in school where your teachers took on the task of teaching you how to live as a member of civilized society. Many of us subscribe to the philosophy of poet, Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten.”
Share, don't hit, clean up, say you're sorry, watch out for traffic: these are the rules of a civilized society. Rules that we all are supposed to live by. But as we all know, many people don't think the rules apply to them. There's the guy in the black Honda Civic who weaves in and out of traffic doing 75 miles an hour down highway-59. There's the lady with what seems like a thousand items in the ten-items-or-less lane at Winn Dixie. Sixty cans of cat food do not equal one item. Then, of course, there's anything you might see on MTV or read in the pages of People Magazine. Some people just won't play by the rules, and we all have names for them. Names like jerk, idiot, or Charlie Sheen. My name of choice is “moron.” In just a minute, I'll share with you why I think moron is a Biblical term, though in next week's lesson, Keith will probably tell you why you should never, ever use it. Something about Jesus saying, “if you insult your brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, 'You fool' you will liable to the hell of fire.”
“Y'all are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to the crowd assembled. He doesn't say, “if you do this, you'll be salty” he says, quite plainly, “y'all are salt, period, end of story.” As ubiquitous as salt is on our dinner tables and in modern medical journals, salt was a highly valued commodity in the ancient near east. Roads were built because of it. The Greeks considered it divine. The Romans used to say “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.” When Jesus raised up this image of his followers being the salt of the earth he opens up for them four very distinct qualities. In no particular order they are: purity, preservation, and seasoning, and wisdom.
First, purity. Salt is pure sodium chloride and in its pure form coming from the Dead Sea, it is a dazzling pure white. Salt was used by both the Romans and the Israelites during ritual sacrifices. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to purify them from the dangers of life. Second, preservation. Before the invention of refrigeration, the most common means for keeping meats from spoiling was to salt cure it. Without salt, meats would putrefy rapidly, but the liberal addition of salt would keep the meat from becoming corrupt. Third, seasoning. We are most familiar with salt as a seasoning agent that sits in a shaker on our kitchen tables. Jesus' disciples would have known that use for salt too. Food without salt is awful. Salt engages electrical pathways that allows our tongues to taste flavors not available without it. Finally, wisdom. The Rabbinical literature of Jesus' time readily used salt as an image for spiritual wisdom that was to pervade all of life. Once the salt of wisdom was added to the soul it could never be taken away. In telling his disciples they are the salt of the earth, Jesus says, “y'all are the examples of purity on earth, y'all will keep the world from rotting away, y'all give life its flavor, y'all have the spiritual wisdom for God's good creation.”
And then he goes on to say, “but what would happen if salt could lose its taste?” We can ask right back, can salt possibly become unsalty? None of us has every poured salt from the shaker only to find a flavorless white crystal sitting atop our mashed potatoes. Pure Sodium Chloride, at least according to what I've read, cannot become unsalty. So what is Jesus talking about here? There seem to be two popular answers out there in Biblical Scholar land. The first is that salt has some insulating properties and so it was used to line the walls of ancient ovens. Over time the salt would break down and lose that quality. Eventually, the walls of the oven would have to be scrapped clean and the useless salt thrown out the window to be trampled on by men and women. The second popular answer has to do with the source of salt in ancient Palestine. I guess they didn't mine it like we do today, rather they collected it as it evaporated out of the Dead Sea. A white ring would form at the edge of the water and that white ring was collected and used as salt. Sometimes, however, that white ring was nothing more than a collection of random minerals as a rise in the water level caused the salt to dissolve again into the Sea. Collecting this mineral concoction thinking it to be salt, many folks found themselves with rotting meat and tasteless food because their “salt” had lost its saltiness and so it would be thrown out to be trample on by men and women. My guess as to what Jesus is saying here is a less popular third option. Matthew records Jesus' words as, “what happens when salt becomes “moronos” moronic, foolish?” What Jesus is doing here is breaking down his own metaphor. Salt can't become unsalty, but we most certainly can quit following the rules. We can join the ranks of the moronic.
What happens when disciples stop living as disciples. What happens when we refuse to be examples of purity? When we lower our moral standard in the name of what is easy? When we allow ourselves to be made impure by the wants and desires of this world? We act like morons. What happens when we quit preserving the world from corruption? When we cease to share in God's dream for this world? When we open the door for others to live a life of sin? When we abuse the good earth that God has given us? We act like morons. What happens when we quit giving life its flavor? When we walk around with sad looks our faces for fear of having too much fun? When, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “we turn people away from Christ by looking and acting like undertakers?” We act like morons. What happens when we cease to be wise? When we choose on whim and not on Spirit? When we chase after foolish goals? When we know the right answer and do the wrong thing? We act like morons. When we fail to live the life that God intends for us, we are living a moronic life.
“Y'all aren't morons,” Jesus says, “but if you're fixing to start, don't, because if you do, how on earth can you become salt again?” All of us, I'm willing to bet, have failed to live the life God had in store for us. All of us have quit playing by the rules. All of us have acted moronic at some point. So how do we become salt again? The first answer to that question is that on our own it is impossible to become salty again, but thanks be to God, he refuses to leave us living as morons, and so he offers us forgiveness. Through repentance and the forgiveness of sins, God can restore our saltiness, return us to purity, use us for preservation, put the seasoning back in our lives, and offer us his wisdom.
Most of us know the rules for life; we learned them long ago. All of us have failed to follow them from time to time. All of us have given up our saltiness, but God offers it back. Most of the time, y'all aren't morons. If you're fixin' to start, don't. If you already are, quit and ask for God to make you salty again. Let your saltiness and your light so permeate this world that everyone can see it and give glory to your Father in heaven. Amen.

February 3, 2011

The Fast God Requires

Last week we heard those iconic words from Micah 6:8, "What does the Lord require but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

In case we didn't hear it then, this week the message is reinforced; this time by one of the big guns, the prophet, Isaiah.

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am."

Loose the bonds of injustice
Let the oppressed go free.
Share bread with the hungry.
Bring the homeless poor into your house.
Cover the naked.
Do not hide yourself from you own kin.

As we move our way toward Lent, and people begin to ask, "what will you give up?" Allow me to challenge you to not give up chocolate or ice cream or even smoking, but to work for justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your God. There are plenty of chances from the Sudan to Egypt to China and back, but there are even opportunities to work for justice in your own hometown. One of the ways we do it at St. Paul's is by having a volunteer in every Kindergarten classroom where we help the teachers offer the one-on-one support to the students who begin their education sometimes years behind. Helping to get these children up to the first rung of a quality education helps break the cycle of poverty and thereby let's the oppressed go free.

What sort of fast will you offer the Lord?

February 2, 2011

The Feast of St. Groundhog

You can listen here.

Today is one of those days that comes by many different names, and the name you associate with February 2nd has a lot to do with where and how you grew up. I grew up a low-church Episcopalian in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, so for me today is Groundhog's Day. Early this morning, Punxatawny Phil was pulled from the safety of his fake tree stump and asked to make his annual weather prediction. If he had seen his shadow, it would have meant 6 more weeks of winter, and the ire of snow and ice bound folks from Dallas to Memphis to Boston. But he didn't, so an early spring is on its way. Actually, in Lancaster we had a competing groundhog named Ochtorara Orphy, but he never starred in a Bill Murray movie, so I'd say his chances of usurping weather control from Phil are slim to none.
Maybe you grew up in the Roman Catholic Church in, say New Orleans, where today you didn't care much about the weather, February 2nd has always been Candlemas. Pre-1967, you probably just went to Mass. Post-Vatican II you probably met in the Parish House where the priest blessed new beeswax candles for the year to come, maybe even handing some out to your family for use at home in daily devlotions. Maybe you came of age in a middle of the road Episcopal Church and know February 2nd as the Feast of the Presentation, which is the name on the official Church calendar for today.
Perhaps you grew up a high Church Episcopalian and have known February 2nd as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which, as much as I hate to admit it, is probably the best name for it. The Feast of the Presentation makes it sound like today is about Jesus, and it is, but really it isn't. After Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were required by Torah to fulfill several different obligations.
At eight days old, the first time Mary would have been able to receive guests, Jesus was circumcised. Evrybody came to his house for this sacred event. Circumcision was a home ritual. It was also the time of naming the child. That is, during the service of circumcision, the child was given his name, which in this case, was the name Jesus. They asked the question, “How shall this child be named?” His name shall be “Joshua.” In Greek, Yeshua. In Hebrew, Joshua. Circumcision, itself, was a sign of the covenant between God and the person being circumcised dating back to the days of Abraham.
Then at thirty one days old, if it was a normal process, he would have been brought to the temple in Jerusalem for the service of dedication because it was the first born male. When he was thirty-one days old Joespeh was required to go and kill the first born of his cattle, the first born of his sheep, and offer them as a sacrifice. Then he would have taken the first born male child up to the Lord to dedicate him to the Lord. For this child was to be the head of the family, the primary heir of the family inheritance, the future number one authority in the family for all disputes. In a patriarchal society, it was a special position to be the first born male. Jesus was the first born male and he would have gone through that ritual of dedication. To my ears, the Feast of the Presentation is easily confused with the Dedication of the First Born.
Today, then, is the fortieth day after Christmas, and the third ritual of childbirth. This ritual had to do with Mary, and it is called the Rite of Purification. Mary needed to be purified. She gave birth to a boy, so she was unclean for 7 days and was to spend 33 days “in the blood of her purification. Essentially, she was to stay at home for forty days and not come out of the house. If she had given birth to a girl, she would have remained at home for eighty days. According to the Jewish law, after the birth of Jesus, Mary was to come to the synagogue on the fortieth day. The law told her to offer a sacrifice of a lamb or if she could not afford a lamb, she was to offer two turtle doves or two pigeons. Luke tells us that she sacrifices two turtle doves or two pigeons which indicates that Jesus was raised in a poor family.
So the reason they end up at the Temple isn't really about Jesus, but once they get there the story shifts. Luke tells us of Mary and Joseph running into two of the old guard. Good, long-standing members. Prayer warriors. The folks who showed up whenever the doors were opened. Or, in the case of Anna, those who never left. Simeon and Anna were watching and waiting for the Messiah. They longed for God to restore his chosen people, Israel. They prayed and prayed and prayed, and God heard their cries.
Simeon can't help himself at the sight of the long awaited child, and sings out with joy. The Morning Prayer service in our BCP holds onto these great words of Simeon as a song for all of us who long for God to continue his work of restoration:

Lord, you now have set your servant free * 
    to go in peace as you have promised; 
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, * 
    whom you have prepared for all the world to see: 
A Light to enlighten the nations, * 
    and the glory of your people Israel.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: * 
    as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

No matter what this day means to you: Groundhog's Day, Candlemas, Presentation or Purification, my prayer is that you seek the savior, the light of the world, the glory of God's people. Amen.


When we first started to post audio versions of our sermons online, TKT suggested that while it was easier to post them by Sunday of the Church Year, nobody is going to be drawn to listen to "Sermon for Epiphany 5A."

I get that, so now they get some sort of title. I try to make it catchy. I try to make it fit the sermon itself. But I'm always doing it after the fact, and every other week, I'm making up a title for TKT's sermon, which is probably a bit disingenuous. I should probably ask him what he wants his sermon to be called.

Anyway, this week as I've been studying for my upcoming sermons, I've been drawn toward a title first. Three versions came to mind yesterday and as I shared them on Twitter and Facebook, the feedback was positive.

1. "Quit being morons"
2. "Y'all! Quit being morons"
3. "Y'all aren't morons, but if you're fixin' to start, don't"

I'm drawn to Matthew 5:13 - "Y'all are the salt of the earth; but if salt become foolish (mornaino), how can it be made salt again?" In first century Palestine, salt had three main connotations: purity, preservation, and seasoning. In order for it to be "foolish" or "moronic" or to use the idiom preferred by most scholars "lose its saltiness" then it would have to be impure and therefore useless for preservation and seasoning.

As the salt of the earth, made pure by the grace of God, we are expected to carry on the work of preservation and seasoning in God's good creation. When we don't, when we know better but act deviantly, then we are, quite frankly, morons. Not in the old psychological model of one whose IQ is low, but in the modern parlance of "a person who is notably stupid or lacking in good judgment."

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus implores his followers not to be moronic, not to act in poor judgment, not to give up their saltiness, but rather to live fully in to what they were created to be: pure salt, capable of great seasoning and preservation.

Now, how to preach this without sounding like a moron? Better get back to work.

February 1, 2011


You can skip the part where he's advertising for a specific brand of kosher salt, and just listen to the first 35 seconds to begin to understand just how important salt really is.

He doesn't mention the key bit of information though, WITHOUT SALT WE DIE.

Now I know that many of us eat entirely too much salt, and I know that just yesterday the Feds lowered their recommended intake from 1 teaspoon to 1/2 for almost 50% of Americans, but never will they channel their inner Milton and say, "no salt."

We need salt to survive, and Jesus says the Church needs salt too. But the salt of the Church is you and me. Some of us are the seasoning that spices up the life of faith. Some of us are the preserving agents that keep the Church from rotting at its core. Some of us are in the background, creating the electrical spark that allows the world to taste and see.


You are salt, Jesus says, now live into it.