A Word On Perfection

February 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Epiphany 7, Year A
Texts: Lev 19.1-2, 9-16; 1 Cor 3.10-11, 16-23; Matt 5.38-48

“Be perfect,” he says. No pressure. You might recall that when Moses first delivered the law to Israel, he said, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30.11-14) As Jesus interprets this law, he seems to be moving it further and further away, making it less likely that we could ever do it. What good is a law that can’t be followed?

Moses presents the Ten Commandments, New York State Supreme Court Building

Moses presents the Ten Commandments, New York State Supreme Court Building

We have a saying in modern English: “Nobody’s perfect.” We are fully cognizant of the fact that despite—and even sometimes because of—our best intentions, we screw up. We humans are broken, imperfect beings, incapable of perfection; and yet, here is Jesus, the Son of the God who made us, telling us to do just that: be perfect.

How many of us in reading these last two gospel lessons have recognized our own failure to live out these commands? If you’ve been divorced, if you’ve ever been angry or looked at someone with “lust in your heart,” if you’ve ever been hurt and struck back in anger (either physically or verbally) then you know just how hard it is to keep these laws that Jesus gives. For us, they may as well be up in heaven; they are out of our reach. “Be perfect,” he says. Sure, Jesus, no problem…

Now, there are some interesting things going on in this sermon that our defensiveness before the text might keep us from recognizing. For example: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Since striking someone on the right cheek with the right hand is a backhanded slap, this is an insult more than an injury; it was given by a superior to an inferior: a master to a slave, a parent to a child, a Roman to a Jew. To offer the left cheek requires the striker to hit with either an open palm or a closed fist, the way one equal strikes another. Turning the other cheek says in effect, “Try again; your attempt to demean me has failed. I refuse to give you the power to humiliate me.”

Also: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Garments could be taken as payment for debt or penalty; but only the shirt (coat), not the cloak. To sue for somebody’s cloak was illegal, not least because if a defendant lost both shirt and cloak, they would be stark naked. Because of this, it is probably not intended to be understood literally. Jesus’ commandment here is more like a parable, like the story of Bishop Myriel in Les Miserables, who welcomes the shunned convict Jean Valjean with a feast set on his best silverware. When Valjean steals the silverware in the middle of the night and is caught, Myriel pretends that he gave Valjean the silver, and gives him also the candlesticks that he “forgot.”

Nevertheless, do not be fooled into thinking that we can soften or rationalize all these commands of Jesus and so be let off the hook. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus himself say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill… whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This sermon is Jesus’ first public speech that we hear in Matthew’s gospel. It is his inaugural address; it lays out the foundation of his teaching.

Throughout this sermon so far, Jesus has followed a formula: he has stated the law and affirmed it as good, and then expanded upon the law keeping the spirit of it, not just the letter. For example, “an eye for an eye” is a law given through Moses not to condone revenge, but to limit it. It was intended to restrict the use of violence to repay violence. Jesus takes the law a step further in God’s direction when he says “do not resist the evildoer,” commanding his disciples to reject any form of violence, even what is their right due under the law. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” is not just the last in a long line of impossible commands, it is the main thesis of this whole sermon.

If we read this sermon as a list of things we must do in order to be in good standing with God, we will forever find ourselves falling short. Instead, look to the preacher, the one who says, “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill…” Jesus is Immanuel—God-With-Us; and he is, like his Father in heaven, perfect. He preaches in this sermon about eschewing violence and not resisting evil, about being slapped, having one’s clothes taken, and being compelled to serve the Romans. At the conclusion of his own life, he makes his words concrete: he eschews violence (26.51-4), he does not resist evil (26.36-56; 21.12-14); he is struck (26.67); he has his garments taken (27.28, 35); and his cross is carried by one compelled by Roman order (27.52).

It is no accident that Jesus’ own death so neatly matches the pattern of his first sermon. He shows us that, in fact, these commands are not too far away from us; he himself does them, proving that they are within reach. To borrow the idea from Moses, we might say that he “goes up to heaven and gets them for us, so that we may hear and observe them.” Actually, he does not so much bring down the law as he brings down heaven itself.

What we miss so often in reading this sermon is that it is given in light of the reality that God’s own Son has come among us and that, in his own words, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (4.17) The kingdom of heaven is one in which anger has no place, where destructive human relationships cannot endure, in which there are no enemies, only neighbors. These are true not because God forbids them, but because they are not what God has intended for creation. Under God’s reign, these things are not expelled so much as they are healed; and Jesus’ message is that this reign has already begun, brought near by Immanuel.

This does not change the fact that life is still broken and messy, but it does remind us that the broken messiness is not the ultimate power, nor does it get the last word. These words of Jesus are not commandments so much as they are invitations to live in the light of God’s dawning reign. Bishop Myriel did not give Jean Valjean his candlesticks because Jesus commanded it, but because he had something so much greater than those silly candlesticks, something that could not be taken away, something that he wanted desperately to share even with the man who had stolen from him: the joy of God’s grace.

In this sermon, Jesus is not merely laying out more rules to follow, he is describing what the reign of God looks like and inviting us to participate in it. When he says, “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” he’s not imposing an impossible standard for us to follow, he is offering us a gift. “Perfect” is, ironically, an imperfect translation of the word used by Jesus. The word in Greek means to be whole or complete or finished. It is Matthew’s Greek translation of the Hebrew word used in often in the Old Testament to describe what God requires of the Israelites: namely, that they serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in their loyalty and devotion to the One God, just as God’s own self is one.

When Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, he does not mean he has come to do it for us so we don’t have to, but rather that he has come to bring the law to perfection—wholeness—in us. “Be perfect” describes what God is doing to us: God perfects us—God makes us whole and complete, unafraid and unbound by the fear of anything that might happen to us or be asked of us because we know that we share in Christ’s resurrection. For us to “be perfect,” then, simply means to live out the reality of who we already are: we are children of our heavenly Father.

Jesus’ commands in this sermon are unreasonable and violate common sense because they point to another reality—the reality of God’s impending reign. What Jesus describes here is not what we must do in order to fulfill the spirit of God’s law; it is the Spirit of God’s law that is bestowed upon us, placed on our lips and written on our hearts at our baptism: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge of fear of the LORD, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.

Jesus is telling us what God is doing for us, not what we need to do for God. His commandments are a challenge and an invitation to trust in what God is already doing, to lean into God’s reign. He has shown us what awaits those who do these things: though it cost him his life, he rose to eternal life—life that he now shares with us. What he has given us so abundantly cannot be lost. To borrow a line from an old, familiar hymn: “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse; though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”*


*The line is from Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” based on Psalm 46

#Blessed

January 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio recording of #Blessed recorded during worship. (13:55)
Epiphany 4, Year A
Texts: Micah 6.1-8; 1 Cor 1.18-31; Matt 5.1-12

What does it mean to be blessed? It is a word that many of us use very frequently. We say we are blessed when things seem to be going our way, when we are feeling happy and lucky. People are described as blessed when they have fame, fortune, love, or success—the things we call blessings. We might tell a helpful person, “you’ve been such a blessing,” or we might think of all the things that enrich our lives and say we are “counting our blessings.”

The Greek word for blessing used in Jesus’ sermon has much the same connotations as our English word “blessed.” In Greek literature, it is often used to describe the status of the gods or of wealthy and powerful people. The Romans translated it into the word beatitudo, meaning “the state of being happy,” and which is why we call these the “beatitudes” (not because these are “attitudes” that we should try to “be”). Other English translations of the word include “happy,” “fortunate,” or “privileged.” However, it really doesn’t take a very close reading to see that these words fall short. Fortunate are the poor in spirit? Happy are those who mourn? Privileged are the persecuted? However, the challenge is not so much in the translation of the word as it is in its definition. In the beatitudes, Jesus is both teaching us about the kingdom of God as well as adjusting our idea of what it means to be “blessed.”

Jesus and Inigo Montoya could have been buddies

Read more…

Polished Arrows

January 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Epiphany 2, Year A
Texts: Isa 49.1-7; 1 Cor 1.1-9; John 1.29-42 

In the Bible, names are important. They often have a special meaning, and say something about who the person is who bears that name. Daniel means “God is my judge;” Ezekiel means “God strengthens;” Jesus means “The LORD is salvation.” Because a person’s name says something about who they are, when somebody receives a new name we sit up and take notice.

When God came to Abram and made a promise to him that he would be the ancestor of a nation, God renamed him Abraham, which means “Father of many.” When God came to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, and wrestled with him, Jacob left the match changed, and with a new name to match: Israel, which means “One who wrestles with God.” When Jesus came to Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul was transformed, a new man with a new name; no longer Saul, but Paul.

Alek Rapoport.

Alek Rapoport. “Judeo-Christian Apostles Simon-Peter and Saul-Paul,” 1995.

Simon’s new name is no different. Simon no more than shows up when Jesus gives him a new name: Peter, which means “Rock.” This is probably the most passive Simon ever is in any story of the Bible: he is not preaching or teaching, he takes no leap of faith onto the surface of the lake, he makes no profession of faith about who Jesus is, he is not wielding a sword or skulking around a fire: he simply shows up. And before he even has the opportunity to introduce himself, Jesus gives him a new name, and a new identity.

Epiphany is a season that is all about identity; specifically, it is about Jesus’ identity. All through this season, we hear stories about Jesus that help us to understand who he is. We know all the titles: Son of God, Messiah, Rabbi, Lamb of God… but what do they mean? What we begin to see today is that whenever we learn something about Jesus’ identity, we are also learning something about ourselves, both as Christians and as the Church.

The fact that Jesus gives Simon a new name as soon as he meets him says as much about who Jesus is as it does about who Simon is. By renaming Simon, Jesus is claiming the authority of God to give somebody a new name and a new identity. When Jesus gives him this name, it isn’t because he already knows who Simon is, but because he already knows who he will ask Simon to be.

In the poem from Isaiah, the speaker describes how God has formed him from his birth to be God’s Servant. In the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he identifies both himself and the community to whom he writes by the calls they have each received from God: Paul to be an apostle, and the Corinthians to be saints—God’s holy people. When Jesus sees Simon, he gives him the name Peter because he is calling him to be the Rock upon which the Church is founded.

We get these stories today not only to remind us that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, but also to remind us that like the Servant, like Paul and the Corinthians, like Simon Peter, we have each been called by God for a specific purpose. We are each of us a polished arrow in God’s quiver—each designed by God for a specific purpose and each called by God to fulfill that purpose.

We need to be reminded of this because it is easy to forget. Unlike an arrow that is loosed and either hits the target or doesn’t, the way God works through us is seldom if ever so obvious. We all have times when we feel like we are not living up to the work God has given us to do, or like the work itself is meaningless. There are times when we wonder what difference the gospel makes at all for us or for the world around us, or whether God’s kingdom ever will come. Like the Servant in Isaiah, we may cry out, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Like Peter, we may find ourselves saying, “I don’t know the man, I’m not his disciple.” Especially when situations seem hopeless, when we feel forgotten or despised or abhorred, it is easy for us to forget or ignore who we are and what we have been called to do.

That is one of the main reasons why God has formed us into this community. When things seem bleak and our efforts seem insignificant, we need to be reminded that we are not alone, that there are many other arrows in the quiver with us; more importantly, we need to be reminded that there is an archer who knows how to handle a bow.

I think we sometimes either consciously or subconsciously believe that the Church is a community for people who have arrived spiritually: people who have found Jesus and are always confident and strong in their faith. We begin to feel out of place when we doubt God ourselves, thinking that we should not be here when we are not sure what we believe anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes, our job in the Church is to be John the Baptist, pointing others to Jesus and proclaiming loudly, “Behold the Lamb of God;” but sometimes, we gather as the Church so we might be pointed toward Jesus ourselves; to simply show up and have Jesus call us by name.

We gather together as a community because these two things—faith and doubt—go hand-in-hand. They are two sides of the same coin; they are not opposites, they are complements. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Faith and doubt together make our community stronger, and we are, as Paul says, “enriched in Christ in every way… not lacking in any spiritual gift.” I’ll bet you never thought of doubt as a spiritual gift before!

Jan van der Venne (fl. 1616–1651),

Jan van der Venne (fl. 1616–1651), “The Denial of Saint Peter”

This is the community that helps us remember our baptismal calling, the new name that we have received from God and the new identity as members of God’s family that goes with it. It is in this community that Jesus feeds and nourishes and equips us—body, mind and spirit—for the work that we have been called to in baptism. It is in this community that we find others who have experienced the same doubts and the same reassurances, the same joys and the same fears that we ourselves have experienced in this walk with Christ. Nowhere else besides the Church will we find people who know the ups and downs of following Jesus.

It is easy to forget who we are, to forget what we are worth. Like the Servant, God has called each of us individually and all of us together to do something huge: to bring God’s salvation to the end of the earth. Do you feel qualified for that job? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of that responsibility, like we have failed, or to feel like we don’t even know how to begin. That’s one of the biggest reasons we need each other: so that we can remind and be reminded by one another that while we are the arrows, the disciples, the saints, God is the archer. God is the one calling and sending us. Surely, our cause is with the LORD, who has formed us for the work to which God has called us, who gives us the name by which we have been called: Beloved.

We aren’t all able to be Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa or Dorothy Day, spending our whole lives and our whole selves working tirelessly for God’s kingdom, but that does not mean that each of us does not have an important and unique role to play in the work God is doing to create the world in God’s image. We have each been called in baptism, we are each fed at this table by Jesus’ body and blood, we are each being equipped and prepared through the teaching and love of this community to do our part in bring God’s salvation to the end of the earth. We are each of us an arrow in God’s quiver, a tool in God’s belt, a worker in God’s kingdom, a child in God’s family. When we but show up, Jesus calls us by name and helps us become the people God created us all to be.

Plaque on the plinth of St Peter's statue in Westminster Cathedral. Latin translation of Matthew 16:18,

Plaque on the plinth of St Peter’s statue in Westminster Cathedral. Latin translation of Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church.”

Sic Semper Tyrannis

December 24, 2016 1 comment

Audio recording of “Sic Semper Tryannis” recorded during worship. (15:16)
Christmas Eve
Texts: Isa 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Lk 2.1-20

It’s a cute little story, isn’t it? A quaint, Christmas-card-esque scene of a momma and a daddy and a baby, snuggled into a warm, cozy stable with polite shepherds and lots of fuzzy animals. It’s so familiar to us; as I read it, how many could almost say it along with me? Because this is such a familiar story, it is hard for us to really hear it. If we are to come to this story with an open mind and receive what it has to tell us, we have to be able set aside all the sentimentality, all the time-honored tradition, all the familiarity. We have wade through all the sermons we have heard and look past all the nativity scenes and Christmas specials to look at the story again with fresh eyes, and not all of us want to do that.

We would prefer to have our candle-light service with the same, familiar Christmas story that we have known since our childhoods, worn smooth over the years that we have carried it with us in our hearts, taking it out once or twice a year to admire before tucking it safely back into its pocket.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds,” Gerard von Honthorst

If you are willing to be brave, to risk breaking open the snow-globe around this cherished nativity scene, tonight you will see this story in a new light. The story of Christmas that Luke shares with us tonight is not primarily a story about friendly beasts or beautiful angels or awed shepherds. It’s not even primarily a story about a family seeking shelter in a stable because there was no room at the inn. Luke’s story of Christmas is a political manifesto; it is a story of treason and sedition because it dares to suggest that God’s kingdom might just have a place outside of the sanctuary. Read more…

A Flesh-and-Blood Promise

December 18, 2016 Leave a comment

Advent 4, Year A
Texts: Isa 7.10-16; Rom 1.1-7; Mt 1.18-25

Time is a funny thing. It seems to speed up and slow down, it will drag intractably until you turn around and realize how much has passed. Because time is so funny, it can be hard for us to grasp it.

One of the things that highlights the slipperiness of time is the Beloit Mindset List. Every year since 1998, three Beloit College professors have put together a list of cultural touchstones that shape the lives of the year’s incoming college freshman class. Each year, this list shows in human terms what 18 years looks like. Here are some highlights from this year’s list. For the class of 2020:

  • There has always been a digital swap meet called eBay
  • West Nile has always been a virus found in the US
  • Tony and Carmela Soprano and the gang have always been part of American culture.
  • Books have always been read to you on audible.com.
  • John Elway and Wayne Gretzky have always been retired.
  • Michael J. Fox has always spoken publicly about having Parkinson’s disease.
  • The United States has always been at war.

It’s an interesting way to think about how long a time 18 years is, but the list and those 18 years become even more real when you put a face on them. Many of us here know Jessica Bigger. She was the lone high school graduate from our congregation this year, making her one of the freshman class on whom this list is focused. The list takes on new meaning when we put her name on it: The Sopranos have been around as long as Jessica Bigger. Jessica has never known Michael J. Fox without Parkinson’s disease. For Jessica, our country has always been at war.

Suddenly, we can look at a real person and see exactly how long some of these things have been around or have been happening, and our perspective shifts. When time is measurable in flesh and blood, it becomes more real. That is why God gives us the sign of Immanuel. Read more…

Repent, or Be Repented

December 4, 2016 Leave a comment

Advent 2, Year A
Texts: Isa 11.1-10; Rom 15.4-13; Matt 3.1-12

During Advent, we look ahead to the coming of Christ. This means we not only look ahead to Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth in the stable at Bethlehem, but we also look ahead to his return to earth to fully establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. This is the kingdom of which the gospels speak: The kingdom of God is like a pearl of such surpassing value that when the merchant finds it, he sells all that he has to buy it. The kingdom of God is like a little bit of yeast that a woman might mix into a giant batch of dough so that it will leaven the whole loaf. The kingdom of God is like a sower that scatters seed—much is lost among the rocks and weeds, but what does grow yields a hundred-fold harvest.

The kingdom of God. The very phrase stirs the imagination. It is this kingdom that we long for in the midst of suffering and evil. Isaiah imagines God’s kingdom as an existence in which justice and peace reign, so that even predators lie down beside their prey, everyone eating straw* together. He sees children playing over the dens of poisonous snakes with no fear of being bitten because nothing will kill or destroy.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edwards Hicks (1834)

He imagines this kingdom being ruled over by a perfectly righteous king, one who does not govern or judge by why he sees or hears, but by the wisdom and guidance of God. “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,” Isaiah writes. We see the fulfillment of this hope in Jesus, which is why we await his return and spend this season of Advent intentionally focused on that waiting. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love, God’s own self made flesh and living among us. We celebrate Christmas not because we love to give gifts and light up trees, but because we recognize that Christ is the incarnate love of God come down to earth to establish the peaceable kingdom for which we yearn, the kingdom in which the wolf and lamb lie down beside one another.

But is this really what we want? Read more…

What Happens Next?

November 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Feast of The Reign of Christ (Christ the King Sunday), Year C
Texts: Jer 23.1-6; Col 1.11-20; Lk 23.33-43

It has now been almost two weeks since Election Day. Undoubtedly, some of us in this room are pleased with the outcome, while others of us are disappointed. What I think we can all agree on is that Jesus was not on the ballot this year. Each time we gather to elect a president, his name is conspicuously absent from our list of choices, except perhaps for a few write-ins. It’s good for us to remember that neither candidate—neither the new president-elect nor his opponent—is Jesus; neither has the power to save or to destroy us. The outcome of this election took many by surprise on both sides of the political spectrum; for many, the shock has yet to wear off.

Unfortunately, something else that has not worn off—that has in fact become worse—is the wave of hateful incidents following the election. Across the country, there are stories of people being harassed, children chanting of “Build The Wall,” women having hijabs ripped from their heads, hateful graffiti and slurs, even some violence. Right here in Gig Harbor, in a grocery store parking lot, a boy was called by a hateful name because his skin is black. Regardless of which way we cast our votes—or didn’t cast our votes—we can all agree that these acts of malice and hatred are sickening and sad. It would appear that there are some sheep in the flock who are already taking after their new shepherd. Read more…