Sunday, February 26, 2017

February 26, 2017 - Last Epiphany A

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? You know, those events that somehow seem to be more real than ordinary reality? A moment where life doesn’t seem to be big enough to hold the experience? A few years ago I had the privilege of going to Israel; standing in the places where Jesus taught, died, and rose again were mountaintop experiences. The birth of our daughters were similar experiences. Perhaps you’ve had that sort of experience, too? Maybe when you saw a particular painting in the Louvre, maybe when saw the Grand Canyon out of an airplane window, maybe when attended Evensong, maybe when you fell in love? Mountaintop experiences are holy and memorable because they awaken us to the beauty, depth, and grandeur of life that we ordinarily overlook.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

February 19, 2017 - Epiphany 7A

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            What does it mean to be a Christian? That, I realize, is a big question. But it seems that we who gather on a Sunday morning in the name of God ought to be able to answer that question. I suppose the simplest answer is “Being a Christian means believing in the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But then we might ask, “what does it mean to believe,” and we’re right back where we started – struggling to articulate what our faith is all about. Both our readings from Leviticus and Matthew offer some insight into how we might coherently understand our faith and what it means to be Christian.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

February 12, 2017 - Epiphany 6A

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            So you’re walking down the street and you see a $20 bill on the ground. No one else is around, so you pick it up and give it to a charity. Then you go into a store, and see the cash register unattended, so you take a $20 bill and also give it to charity. Most of us would say that the first action is completely fine, whereas the second one is morally suspect, if not criminal. The action, taking a $20 bill that isn’t yours and giving it to charity, is identical. What changed was the context, and that context makes all the difference. This is a sermon on ethics and morality, and as evidenced by that simple example, it can be a complicated matter.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February 5, 2017 - Epiphany 5A

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
                “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah conveys the message that God intends to restore the people to the peace and righteousness that they are destined for. And furthermore, God intends that it is our godly behavior that will bring this about. Would that we be deserving of such a title – repairers of the breach.

            Because of the reality of human sin, brokenness has always been a part of our story. There has never been a time when we perfectly obeyed God’s law and lived without war or oppression. There is a gap between God’s loving purposes and the way we live our lives. That gap is the breach. It’s not that we need to find some golden-era of our history and make that happen again. Rather the work of our faith is to do our part to fill in that gap, which sometimes seems more like a chasm, between the love, justice, mercy, and peace of God and the violence, greediness, and selfishness in our lives.
            I’m younger than most of you, and so I don’t have your lived experience. But from where I sit, born in 1984, the breach that we seem to be in right now as a nation is wider than it has ever been. The anxiety, the dissention, the vitriol, the mistrust, the tension, the brokenness are all palpable. We wake up each morning and log-in to Facebook, open the paper, or turn on the news to see what it is that we’re supposed to be angry about today. It’s almost as if we’ve forgotten what peace or tranquility feels like. We’ve become so accustomed to scapegoating and raging that we can’t function when we don’t have an object to absorb our anxiety. This era that we’ve living in feels different than any other that I’ve lived through.
            As I said, I didn’t live through World War II, the Vietnam protests, or the Civil Rights movement. Maybe those of you who did live through those times have felt this societal tension and unrest before, I don’t know. But I do know that we can’t go on like this much longer. Our collective blood-pressure is too high, the tone of conversations is too caustic, the prospects for our future are too dim.
            In our text from Matthew, Jesus conveys the importance of the writings of the Old Testament. We would do well to take a cue from our Savior and focus in on the words from Isaiah this morning. This passage of Isaiah comes in a section of the book known as Second Isaiah. Chapters 40-59 were written after the Exile of Israel in Babylon, as the people were liberated from their captivity. As they return to the land, they sought to reestablish their religious rituals – fasts and sacrifices. But they were also returning to some bad habits – an inwardly focused religion, ignoring the needy, and constant quarreling with each other. If it sounds like the version of Christianity that seems to be prevalent in America, well, then all the more reason to pay attention to Isaiah’s prophecy.
            There really are two sorts of religion out there. One version focuses on the individual – God’s salvation to me and my allegiance to God. There is certainly some truth in this sort of faith, but it misses the larger point. It’s sort of like confusing one puzzle piece for the entire thing. God, through Isaiah, critiques this version of the faith, saying “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” God notes that the people are seeking to follow God, claiming to be a nation of righteousness, asking for God to bless their nation. The people even like to draw attention to their faith with public prayer services and picking religious fights with others, even saying to others “My sincerely held religious beliefs dictate that I tell other people how to live their lives.” They were becoming me-first nation, one that was closed off to others and focused on securing their borders instead of helping those in poverty. I want to be perfectly clear on this: I’m talking about ancient Israel – all of this stuff is in the Bible, you can look it up. If you find parallels to our modern situation, all the more reason to keep paying attention to Isaiah.
            But God isn’t swayed by this legalistic and uncompassionate sort of faith. The Lord says “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” God asks his people, “When did I ever ask you to make yourselves a miserable bunch people who spend all day judging each other and fighting with each other?” Rather, God has made it clear through Abraham, Moses, Ruth, and Micah that God chooses a fasting from injustice, a cessation of slavery, a stoppage of oppression. God isn’t as interested in the things that we do not do, but rather the things that we actually do. Instead of people saying “My faith tells me that action is immoral” and then forcing that opinion on others, God makes it clear that the sort of faith that God is expecting is the sort of faith that eliminates poverty, and homelessness, and breaches in community.
            And in our society you can see that these two sorts of religious understanding are still alive and well. I want to be perfectly clear, Republicans or conservatives are not to be identified with the self-serving version of faith any more than Democrats or progressives are to be identified with the justice-oriented version of faith. Political party or ideology is not a part of this conversation. The issue isn’t what beliefs you bring to the table. God’s altar is plenty big enough that there is room for everyone. The issue is what you do at the table.
            When you see someone who is hungry, do you share some bread? When you have an extra room, do you invite in the homeless refugee? When you see someone without a winter coat, do you give them one? When you encounter someone you disagree with, do you say “thank God I’m not like them,” or do you see them, first and foremost, as a child of God? This is what God expects our religion to be about – not following rules, but doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
            This is what St. Paul writes about in his letter to Corinth. He says “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” There were fierce debates in the early Church about all sorts of things – whether the faith was only for Jews, or if foreigners should be allowed in, or who was qualified to be a leader. Paul could have gotten sucked into this deformed version of Christianity. He could have weighed in with his opinions or thoughts. But he doesn’t. In another place, he says that he regards all of that sort of stuff as “rubbish.” All that matters is Christ crucified. And what does the Cross shows us but the realization that being right doesn’t count for anything, that those who seek to preserve their life will lose it while those who lose their life will find it, that compassionate action is preferred to pious thoughts.
            The Cross is so crucial because it repairs that breach between us and God, between God’s intention for us and our sin, between our divisions and God’s peace. Because Jesus was willing to stand in that gap of being forsaken, bloodied, and beaten, he becomes a bridge for us who are willing to follow his way.
            In Matthew, Jesus exhorts us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. It’s a question of what we do with light and salt. Do we put the light in a lantern or a lighthouse? The same candle can either be used selfishly, or for the good of the whole world.  Jesus knew what he was doing when he offered us these metaphors. The interesting thing about light and salt is that when you use them, they dissipate and dissolve. It goes back to the reality that faith isn’t to be self-serving. Sure, we can hoard onto our light and our salt, just as we can use our religion to validate our political agenda – that isn’t hard to do, we’ve been perfecting that approach for thousands of years. Light and salt though only become effective and find their purpose when they are given up to something bigger than themselves. This is what the Cross shows us, that because Jesus was willing to give up his life, we were able to see the love of God in a deeper way.
            Isaiah makes the choice clear: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness.” We have breaches that need to be repaired, we have dark places that need light. In Lent, we’ll focus on the breach of racism in our culture during our Wednesday night program.
            God trusts us and empowers us to do this work. Isaiah writes “The Lord will guide you continually… Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” If we are going to be deserving of these titles, if we are going to practice the sort of religion which God desires, then we are going to have to realize that Jesus was right when he said “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
            You’d think that after 2,000 years we’d have figured this out, but we haven’t yet. New life only comes through death. Resurrection only comes through the Cross. Salvation only comes through defeat. If our religion, or politics, is self-serving, focused on being right, or about following rules, we’ll never get to the hope of Resurrection.
            There are plenty of breaches to be repaired. It is up to us whether they grow wider or find healing and reconciliation. What sort of religion do we practice – one that draws people together or one that divides people, one that tells others what not to do more than it informs what we are to do, one that focuses on our comfort and security more than on the suffering and oppression of others? It is not my job to tell you what to believe, what to think, or what to do. I’m not in that business, because, God knows, I don’t have it all figured out.
            But here’s what I can tell you – as a nation, we need to decide what kind of people we want to be. Are we a nation with a priority of security and prosperity or a priority of “liberty and justice for all”? Do we want to be a lantern or a lighthouse? And as individuals, we will also have to decide what sort of person we want to be. Will we focus on ourselves or will we be the light of the world and the salt of the earth? Will we seek first our power, prestige, and comfort, or will we die to ourselves so that we might live for God? Is being right more important to you than being together? Will we repair the breaches of our world? Is your faith more about you or more about God, more about judgment or mercy, more about gaining your life or losing it?
            Whatever you decide, however you choose to live, whatever you choose to believe, whomever you choose to judge, how much you decide to love, whether or not you seek to save your life or to lose it – that’s your choice to make. Just make sure that you’re comfortable with that choice. We begin most Sundays with a prayer that acknowledges that to God “all hearts are open, all desires known, and no secrets are hid.” Make sure the choice that you make is the one you want to be judged by.