Holy, Perfect, The People of God: A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

 

How many of you have ever read the book of Leviticus? Did it make sense? Did it put you to sleep? It’s a difficult text because it’s primarily legal material, and I’m guessing that even the lawyers among us don’t find state or federal statutes easy or enjoyable reading. Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It’s complicated and confusing and while there are a few bits of narrative, it’s mostly like the material we just heard, a series of laws or instructions. What’s more, much of the material has to do with temple or tabernacle rituals, and priestly behavior. It’s only very occasionally, as in the verses we just heard, that the laws relate to daily life and ordinary people. Continue reading

You have heard it said of old: A sermon for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

 

“You have heard it said of old…  but I say to you…”

Laws, rules, regulations. We don’t like them. They cramp our style, make life more difficult, arouse guilt and shame. For example, how many of us actually drive the speed limit? In fact, how annoyed do we get we when we encounter someone who is driving at or under the speed limit?

Who of us waits for the walk signal before crossing the street? I remember how amazed I was in 1980 in Germany to see university students waiting for the walk sign as they returned to the dorm after a night of drinking. There wasn’t a car on the streets, but still they waited for the walk sign before crossing. Continue reading

Whenever You Pray–Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

This evening, we’ll be looking at Matthew 6, especially vss 1-14. I’m always struck when I encounter texts in different contexts and the liturgical uses of these verses are powerful and foundational for the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer is also our prayer, recited in the Daily Office and at every Eucharistic celebration. Its familiarity is both blessing and problematic. When said consciously and meditated upon regularly, it offers the possibility of helping us shape our discipleship and faith. It helps to create a relationship with God that stresses our dependence on God for the necessities of life as well as our purpose and end (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done). But it’s also easy to allow the words to roll off our tongue unthinkingly. Sometimes that’s OK; for example when we need to pray but can’t find words of our own. Sometimes it may be an example of the sort of external piety that Jesus criticizes in the first verses of the chapter.

Those verses are always the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. In that context they are problematic and challenging, especially of the piety we display on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard not to think about how our actions look to others, whether we’re walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our forehead or attending church on Sunday morning when our friends and neighbors are drinking coffee and reading the paper or out on a bike ride or run. But hiding our piety for the wrong reasons is also a problem. Jesus criticizes “hypocrites” for wanting others to know about their donations and fasting. He isn’t addressing those of us who hide our actions or faith because we are slightly embarrassed of our quaint habits.

Perhaps most important is something implied rather than directly stated here: that our prayers and other practices should be sincere and come from the heart. Prayer is not about others or about ourselves; it is about God. Bonhoeffer has this to say:

Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action

 

Salt, Light, and the Law: Reflections on our Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

Last night at our Lenten Bible Study, we focused on Mt. 5:13-32. I had hoped to get all the way through chapter 5 but that was not to be. We began by exploring the saying about salt. The scientists among us pointed out that salt can be adulterated but it can’t not be salt. Then we sought to understand the saying about salt via the saying about light. Both seem to be sayings directed at the disciples (Jesus first uses “you” in v. 11: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you”). This seems to suggest that the disciples by definition change the world, that their very presence and manner of life witness to the Reign of God.

Someone offered the parables as comparable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of the seeds…” I find this helpful because Jesus is holding up the disciples as members of the new community he’s calling into existence, a new community that is intended to usher in and witness the Reign of God.

We struggled with Jesus’ language in these verses. What should we understand as metaphorical; what should we take literally? That’s especially true when dealing with passages like vss 29-30: If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off. But if we are meant to understand this metaphorically, what about other things Jesus says, like love of enemy and turning the other cheek? Might Jesus be talking about our priorities here, what we ought to give up in order to follow him?

Next week, we’ll try to make it through chapter 5 and get into chapter 6.

Who are the “poor in spirit”?

That was the burning question last night at our first Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. We began and ended with the Beatitudes, exploring what they meant in the historical context, in the context of Matthew’s gospel, and in the context of our own lives. The behaviors and attitudes Jesus blesses (declares happy), are they things to which we should aspire?

We struggled most with “poor in spirit.” What does  that mean? One powerful suggestion was that it refers to those who are beaten down by life, dejected, depressed, hopeless. Perhaps it refers to those who are spiritually empty, or empty themselves spiritually to receive God’s grace.

Frederick Buechner proposes that the poor in spirit “are the ones who spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive …” That fits with another theme in Matthew’s gospel, the emphasis on the weakest, most vulnerable, “the little ones” (cf Mt 18:6).

In Christian communities, our tendency is to do just what we do in the rest of life, distinguish between the proficient and the struggling, the powerful and the weak, the successful and those who fail. God’s reign entails a reversal of values. We’re somewhat comfortable when the values that are reversed are material, there’s plenty of biblical precedent for that. What if God’s reign entails a reversal of spiritual values, too? What might that mean?

Blessed are you… The Beatitudes and Discipleship

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as I prepare for our Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure when I last spent any time with this Christian classic (25 years, 35 years?). Coming back to it after all those years, it’s striking both in the way it reflects its historical context and the ways in which it transcends its time and still speaks to us decades later.

For example, after going through the beatitudes, explaining them and showing how they speak immediately to the situation of Jesus’ followers in the first century, Bonhoeffer asks whether the community described in the Beatitudes exists anywhere on earth. His answer:

Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the Cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it is found all. From the cross there comes the call “blessed, blessed.”

The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified!

Earlier, he points out that Jesus called his disciples blessed in the crowd’s hearing and that “the crowd is called upon as a startled witness.” From this he posits the essential unity of disciples and people. In his discussion of the Beatitudes, Bonhoeffer tends to emphasize the tension between Jesus’ followers and the world but here he stresses the commonality. It’s easy to read him (and to some degree the Beatitudes themselves) and place ourselves on that same grid. We hear a lot these days about the persecution of Christians in American, for example. But I wonder whether the perception might change if the emphasis were on the ways in which the people of God are meant to be a blessing to the communities and world in which they live.

In this week’s lectionary reading from Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai out from Haran into the Promised Land, telling them, “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” It’s easy to recoil, raise our defenses, withdraw or try to fight back when we encounter opposition. The world sees plenty of that from Christians. What might it be like to offer oneself and one’s community of faith as a blessing to its neighborhood and the world?

 

Resist not Evil: A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

I cannot hear or read the words of Jesus in today’s gospel without thinking of my past. Most of you know that I grew up in the Mennonite tradition. It’s not something I talk a great deal about because for most people the word Mennonite conjures up images of plain clothes and horse and buggies. The Mennonite community in which I was raised had abandoned those markers of identity and separation decades before I was born, although one could detect certain vestiges of traditional dress among some of the elderly of my home congregation. These outward symbols of difference may have faded away but for most, the teachings of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition were, when I was a child, still closely followed. At the heart of those teachings were Jesus’ words here, “Resist not evil.” Continue reading