Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

YEAR A 2017 epiphany 7

Epiphany 7, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Imagine there’s no heaven.  It’s easy if you try.  No hell below us.  Above us only sky.  Imagine all the people, living for today.”  You’ve heard those lyrics before right?  John Lennon’s song, "Imagine?"  A big hit at some point, and vaguely sort of encouraging in a New-Agey, Socialist sort of way.  Very few stock traders on Wall Street are quoting those lyrics, even if they were once hippies, because socialism is bad for the stock market.  And a lot of Christians are opposed to this song too, because they’re afraid John Lennon might corrupt the morals of the children by suggesting we could get by without religion.  (I mean, the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, after all.) 

But for a few minutes, I’d like us to try to put on Lennon’s suggested vision of the world, because it might just help us see God’s vision for the world.  So, Imagine: no heaven and hell, no countries, no religion, no possessions.  Right.  Now, in this song, Lennon predicts the result would be brotherhood of man, sharing all the world, people living in peace.  I know some people’s hackles are getting raised now, because it sounds like I’m about to talk about a political agenda.  But my Bishop didn’t raise no fool.  I just want us to imagine John Lennon’s "Imagine" world.  No religion, no heaven, nothing but people, spread out across the globe.  Would it truly be peaceful?  I mean, assuming people actually could get along for more than five minutes?  Rodney King and John Lennon were asking the same question: Can’t we all just get along?   . . . Well . . . no; we can’t.

That first reading we heard today, the one from Leviticus, parts of it sound familiar to us.  There’s a little bit of what sounds like the 10 commandments in there, but there’s a bigger overall thing going on.  These are rules that God is giving to Moses, so that Moses can give them to the people.  And the justification behind the rules is the key to everything else that follows . . . and I do mean everything.  God says to Moses:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.  This message is intended only for a small group of humans at this point, living on the run and wandering around the desert, but it is the basis for how they will treat one another.  And it’s not a radical thing that the Israelites have a code of behavior.  All societies have codes of behavior; it’s what makes them societies.  Even outlaws have laws.  What’s the saying, there is honor among thieves?  The aspect that makes these rules in today’s reading different is the justification for them.  Because I am God, you will do this and this and this. 

The justification isn’t, because it’s the right thing to do, or because you should all get along, or because that’s what your parents would want.  The reason this little community gets these laws comes at the end of each one: I am the LORD your God.  But to get the impact of that, imagine with Lennon’s "Imagine" world.  Imagine having no real reason to share and be nice and play fair and help one another.  Imagine it’s just you and me and everyone else, living life.  In that kind of world, what is the reason for behaving in a given way?  No God, no religion, no nothing.  Just us.  What’s the reason for acting one way rather than another?  Imagining the world of "Imagine" is scary because of its meaninglessness.  It doesn’t really matter what you do, or how you act, because there is no overall plan, or method, or reason, or anything.

What makes this reading from Leviticus significant is this: God takes an interest in our daily interactions with one another.  How we treat one another becomes sacred, because God cares.  Our actions mean something because they mean something to God. 

The way we treat our friends and family is an act of devotion to God, because God tells us in this passage how to treat one another.  If you start with nothing—like in Lennon’s lyrics—the first question is, why do this and not that?  Why “not hate in your heart anyone of your kin?”  Because God cares.  Why not go around as a slanderer among your people?  Because God cares.  Why not steal, not deal falsely, and not lie to one another?  Because God cares.  The ultimate meaning of anything and everything is that same answer: because God cares. 

And the other side of this is also true.  Your pain and suffering have meaning for that same reason: because God cares.  God does not cause accidents, or bring you cancer, or send someone to break into your house.  The meaning is not in the suffering in your life.  The meaning is that God cares.  Your suffering has meaning because God cares that you are suffering.  God gives Moses a set of rules for God’s people because God has a vision of how things should be.  (Which, I guess, should be obvious, since God created it all in the first place.)  And God’s vision is not for a world without property or religion or countries.  In this reading from Leviticus, God starts close to home.  Here is how you are to treat your friends and your family.  Here is how you are to deal with your own little plot of land, your own household.  Here are the rules for this little tribe of wanderers, the ones I brought out of Egypt, through the Red Sea.  Here is how my people are to behave toward each other . . . because the Lord God cares.

So let’s move to the next ring, then.  In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is finishing up his Sermon on the Mount.  We’ve been hearing this sermon stretched out for the past month or so.  And we’re coming to the wrap up, the big finish.  And the first thing we need to know is that this eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth thing is not just Revenge Gone Wild.  That type of retribution was actually meant to be a brake, or a limit on vengeance.  That tit-for-tat system of justice was the norm for all civilized cultures of the day.  It was a way of saying, justice is to be fair and impartial.  If your neighbor knocks out a tooth, you do not cut off her hand.  If someone breaks a glass in your kitchen, you don’t burn down their house.  An eye for an eye, and no more.  Period. 

But Jesus, talking to his disciples, says let’s take this further.  What if we said, a strand of hair for an eye?  What if we said, the response to violence is to stop the violence?  An eye for an eye stops us from dialing UP the violence; but imagine a world where we actually dial DOWN the violence.  Imagine there IS a heaven, and imagine a God who actually has in mind a world better than the one we can imagine.  What would it take to imagine a world where we move beyond mere punitive justice?  A world that looks more like the world God intends for us to live in?  That would require a world where we loved our enemies, as much as we love our friends.  And, let’s be honest, that’s completely unrealistic . . . Sorry Jesus . . .

Because what makes someone our enemy is the fact that we hate them.  One definition of an enemy is, “One who feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes the interests of another; a foe.”  Hatred is bound up in the very definition of an enemy.  In order for us to love our enemies, they would have to stop being our enemies.  And what’s the point of loving our enemies, Jesus?  Why would we want to even do a crazy thing like that?  And Jesus answers, “Love your enemies . . . so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

In other words, love your enemies because God does.  The reason your enemies have value is because God cares about them.  Here’s an interesting question to ask yourself:  Does God have enemies?  And does the sun shine on them, and the rain fall on their crops?  There are obviously people who hate God; and yet God loves them and treats them the same as the people who love God.  (Notice how this goes beyond an eye for an eye?)  If we are going to live out God’s plan for creation, part of what we’re going to be doing is loving our enemies.  Which, as you know, is completely unrealistic and impossible, no matter how much we try.  When it comes right down to it, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  Usually, we can’t even love ourselves!  Loving our enemies?  Sorry Jesus, but that is definitely beyond us.

Ah, and here is where the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians comes in.  Paul is writing to the church in Corinth, which has been divided and crazy and squabbling and actually, kind of out of control.  Paul has been yelling at them for three chapters by this point.  And the main issue, at least in today’s lesson, is their divisiveness.  The Church in Corinth is fracturing into little cliques and camps and factions.  Things are looking pretty hopeless in Corinth, because the people are divided.  For Paul to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” is not going to make any difference.  It would take a miracle to bind this church back together.  Lights up, stage right, enter Holy Spirit:

“Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? . . .  God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  The “you” in this case is the church.  It’s plural.  Paul is saying that the Church in Corinth is God’s temple, and God’s Spirit dwells in that temple.  The Spirit of God lives in the Church.  The Spirit of God, who knows what creation is meant to be, who knows how to let the rain fall on the friends and the enemies.  The Spirit of God who brought our Lord Jesus back from the dead is present in the Church.  We are the Temple of God.  And the Spirit who dwells in this temple will lead us into loving our friends and family, our enemies, and—yes—even ourselves.

The Spirit of God gathers the church, and together we are strengthened by word and sacrament to go out into the world, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And with God’s help, we live out God’s plan for creation.  Imagine there IS a heaven, and a God who rules over all creation, teaching us to love our enemies just as God does.  You may say I’m a dreamer.  But I’m not the only one.  I hope this day you’ll join us at this altar, and the world will live as one.


Amen

Saturday, February 11, 2017

YEAR A 2017 epiphany 6

Epiphany 6, 2017
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37
Psalm 119:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well . . . this gospel text is what we call, “a hard teaching.”  It seems like there’s not a lot of good news for us in the Good News today.  Jesus is saying, you’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t do this particular thing.  But I say to you, even thinking about doing that particular thing is bad.  You know, even if you think you’re living a good life, I just want to let you know . . . you’re not.  Sincerely, Jesus.

So, obviously, we’ve got to look deeper to find the good news in this gospel text.  We’ve got to figure out why this should encourage us, rather than make us want to throw up our hands in despair, or crawl under the covers.  And let’s start with a reminder.  As I tell you, every chance I get, the God we worship is not Zeus, with a long white beard and throwing thunder bolts at people who don’t measure up.  God does not lay down laws for the purpose of punishing those who break them.  And when we think of God that way—as the Great District Attorney in the Sky—it gets us into trouble, on this particular Sunday, especially.

Because if the purpose of the 10 Commandments is to punish those who break them, then the words from Jesus this morning mean that a whole lot more people are going to be punished.  You have heard it said, “You shall not murder.”  And the majority of people can figure, well, that’s probably not something I have to worry about doing.  “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, if you insult a brother or sister, if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  And your pulse got a little quicker there, right?  I mean, I seriously doubt I will ever murder anybody.  But anger?  Insults?  Calling someone a fool?  Liable to the fire of hell?  As I say, this is what we call, “a hard teaching.”

And when we have a hard teaching, it’s always good to go back and look at the original Greek.  (I don’t mean you have to; that’s my job.)  As you know, there are many translations of the Bible.  The earliest texts we have of the Gospels and the letters in the New Testament are in Greek.  So they have to be translated, for better or for worse.  The King James Version—from during Shakespeare’s time—is the only valid translation, in some people’s minds.  In the Episcopal Church, we typically use the NRSV.  And there are many others.  And each time, translators need to make decisions about which word best suits the meaning of the original Greek word.

So the word I want to bring to our attention this morning is the word, gehanna.  (Technically, transliterated from the Hebrew word, but let’s not get distracted.)  In most texts, gehenna gets translated as “hell,” which then creates certain fiery images in our minds because of Dante’s “Inferno.”  However, gehenna was an actual place outside the city walls of Jerusalem, which is now called the Valley of Hinnom.  This place has some scary history in the days before Jesus, and the long/short of it is, saying you will be destined for the “fires of gehenna,” as Jesus does this morning, is like saying you’ll be sent to the garbage dump outside the city.  You would be accursed and cut off, and sent to the place of disgrace and isolation.  That’s bad, yes, of course.  But it is not a pit of burning sulphur and pitchforks.  The point is:  When we hear “liable to the hell of fire,” it is not about some eternal punishment at the hands of Satan.  Jesus is saying that behaving in this way leads to separation and disgrace, which is something completely different than whatever we might think of when we hear the word “hell.”

The second main point I want to make has to do with the purpose of commandments of God, and the added amendments we got from Jesus this morning.  God cares about people, more than rules.  The purpose of the law is to make life better for us, not to punish those who break them.  The 10 Commandments are often called a gift from God, because they provide a way for us all to live a better life.  We have these rules because God cares about people.  As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  Of course, we often think God cares more about rules than about people.  We all do it, even if only unconsciously.

We carry around this framework in our heads where we are blessed when we behave, and we are cursed when we break the rules, because that’s how our legal system works.  It’s a handy way to explain away suffering as punishment from God, and it reminds us to give thanks when things go well . . . though if you go too far down that rabbit hole, you can see that it is thanking God for blessing us because we are so good.  Our Bible study group is looking at this very conundrum in our reading of the book of Job.  Turns out, bad things happen to “good” people, and good things happen to “bad” people.  Which should be just the proof we need to see that our relationship with God is not based upon whether or not we follow the rules.

As we heard in the first reading today, from Deuteronomy, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  Moses is talking about a new covenant between God and the people.  They can choose life and prosperity; they can choose to follow God’s commands and get along with each other.  Or, they can choose death and adversity.  And not because God brings punishment on them.  It is a warning, but not a threat.  Like saying, “If you jump off this building, you will die.”  Not punishment, but more like, “Trust me; I’ve seen it around.”  When people jump off buildings, it doesn’t end well.

And from today’s Psalm that we read together a few minutes ago:  “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”  Because accepting the gift from Mt. Sinai, living into the Covenant with God, makes for a happy life.  Breaking God’s commandments does not result in eternal damnation because God is angry; but it does result in death, disgrace, and despair.  Your soul is not in jeopardy, but your happiness is.  And the happiness of those around you.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment’.”  That is, your neighbor ends up dead, and you end up on trial.  Bad for everybody.  “But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  Anger, and jealousy, and lust, and hatred are all about relationships.  We don’t get specific rules from God about those in the 10 Commandments.  But since God cares more about people than about rules, Jesus is showing us a better way.  You will not burn in hell for being angry at your neighbor.  But you will be accursed, and cutoff, and sent to the place of disgrace and isolation.  The fires of gehenna await us when we treat one another that way.  Accursed and cut off, and sent to the place of disgrace and isolation, but no less saved by the grace of God.

I’m sure you all know someone who is what we called “estranged” from a sibling, or a parent, or some other relative.  And if that's something you've experienced, you know how painful that can be.  And almost always, it seems, that estrangement comes from some little slight, long ago, that never got addressed.  In my own family, when I was growing up, my two grandmothers never got along.  Years of bickering, and snide remarks, and insults—imagined and real.  And at some point, Grandma Baum told me the origin of this animosity.  It was at my parents’ wedding!  A crazy silly story about how she went to get the beer ready and missed the receiving line, and blamed it on Grandma Spaulding.  I kid you not.  Decades of uncomfortable holiday meals, and refusals to do something if she would be there, all because of the timing of some refreshments.  The small thing ruined the larger relationship, and it never got resolved.  The fires of gehenna await us when we treat one another that way.  Accursed and cut off, and sent to the place of disgrace and isolation, but no less saved by the grace of God.

Jesus says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  First be reconciled, then come to worship.  It is more important to Jesus that we love one another than that we offer gifts at the altar.  They’re both important, of course.  But we cannot worship God with a pure heart if our heart is filled with hatred toward our brother or sister.

But here’s the thing I really want to say today.  If we view God’s commandments merely as laws we are trying to avoid breaking, then what Jesus tells us this morning is simply piling more laws on top of the old laws.  Jesus is making it harder to avoid getting in trouble, to end up in Dante's version of hell.

On the other hand, if we view the commandments of God as a gracious gift to help us live together in peace, then what we heard from Jesus this morning are concrete ways we can stop the madness before it begins.  Jesus is telling us how to get a little closer to the world God means for us to live in.  The world God created, as God intends it to be, on earth as it is in heaven.

And now, may God give us the grace to trust that God wants what is best for us, to be reconciled to one another, and to come with thanksgiving to receive the gifts of life and salvation, at the table God has prepared.

Amen

Sunday, February 5, 2017

YEAR A 2017 epiphany 5

Epiphany 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today, Jesus talks about salt and light.  Salt and light.  You know ‘em, you love ‘em, you can’t live without them.  You and I need salt to survive.  And every tear and drop of sweat has salt, as does our blood.  Blood, sweat, and tears . . . salt.  The human body contains about 10 tablespoons of salt.  Two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered with saltwater.  Before refrigeration, salt was the only real preservative.  And salt is all over our language, from salty dogs, to salt in your eye, to a grain of salt.  The salt metaphor goes on and on, twisting and turning all over the place.

When it comes to food, salt stimulates taste buds.  Of course, you have certain taste buds that detect saltiness.  But the reason we judge that salt makes something “taste better” is because salt stimulates all your taste buds, by removing bitterness, meaning the flavors of the food are enhanced, because you’re experiencing them more fully.  As a child, I learned this important lesson without knowing it, because salt does NOT make peas and lima beans taste better . . . in fact, quite the contrary!  It brings out the full flavors in all their nasty wretchedness.  Salt does not improve the taste of food; salt decreases bitterness, and improves your ability to experience the full flavor of food, for better or worse.  We’ll return to salt in a minute.

Light is another great image.  We obviously need light to see things, to read, to recognize our location.  But you can push it further and consider that light is the why we have any food to put our salt on.  In today’s 10 second science lesson, the reason we humans have to eat food is only because we cannot directly process the energy given off by the sun.  Everything we eat in the food chain is a food source for us because the sun’s light shines on it, or on what it eats.  It all starts with light.  And, going back to Genesis, the first thing God creates?  Light.  And it was good. 

Skip ahead to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, In the beginning was the Word . . . “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  An interesting thing about light is that it shows us what is there, rather than what we think is there.  The obvious example is our fear of the dark: we’re afraid of what we think is there, not what is.  Shining a light shows us what is really there . . . a bathrobe hanging on a closet door, a stuffed animal on the floor.  Light shows us things as they really are.  We’ll return to light in a minute too.

So, back to Jesus . . . The 5th chapter of Matthew begins like this: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying . . . the Beatitudes—which we didn’t hear last week, because we were celebrating St. Timothy Day instead.  The Beatitudes are what comes right before today’s Gospel reading, which we picked up at verse 13, where Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”  And at this point, Jesus is talking to the disciples.  They are gathered around Jesus, and he is teaching them.  And he is telling them that they are salt and light.  The disciples of Jesus are salt and light.  And as a disciple of Jesus, that’s you: salt and light.

There’s been a movement among some Christians in the past few years to try to be salt and light in the culture.  It’s usually a way of interpreting these verses in a condemning way . . . from what I’ve seen at least.  Their point is that Christians are called to be salt and light in the world, and need to get out there and be salt and light in the world.  This call to go out and be salt and light is a call that challenges the world, lays down firm ethical standards, and shows people their inability to measure up.  And it’s always a call to do something in order to be salt and light: go and become this salt and light.

But that is not what Jesus says.  He does not say go and be, or go and become, or why can’t you just be salt and light in the world?  No, Jesus says you are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  It is what you are, not what you do.  Salt does not make itself into salt.  It is salt.  Its “saltiness” is because of what it already is: salt. 

And, in a similar way, light shines because that is what light does.  You are the light of the world.  You are a city on a hill.  You can cover your light under a bushel, or try to poof it out, or you can let it shine . . . all around the neighborhood.  But what you cannot do is go and become light.  You do not light the world; you are the light of the world.  As Madge says, you’re soaking in it.

So, Jesus declares that his disciples are salt and light.  What are the disciples doing when Jesus tells them that?  Listening.  They’re sitting at his feet on the mountain, listening.  They are gathered around Jesus, hearing the Word of God, proclaimed and proclaiming.  As best we can tell, what makes the disciples salt and light is following Jesus.  Listening to what he has to say.  Asking questions, no matter how basic or complex.  If you want to be salt and light, then just be a disciple of Jesus . . . like the people gathered in this place, at this moment, on this morning.  Salt and light.

Now back to the two points I left hanging a few minutes ago . . . One of the things salt does is wake up your other taste buds.  Salt on our food increases our appreciation of what’s already there.  Salt gives us the full flavor, the nuances.  Salt brings out the flavor by helping us to be fully alive to what’s going on.  Salt increases the joy of food, the pleasure of eating, the gift of a meal fully appreciated and a life well lived.  You are the salt of the earth.

And light?  Light shows us what really is, rather than what we think is real.  Light exposes dangers and dirt and decay, yes.  But light also shows us color, and beauty, and acts of kindness.  Light takes away fear and doubt.  Light gives energy and courage and confidence.  Light, as God declared in Genesis, is good.  Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.  You are the light of the world.

What does that mean for us?  What does it mean for the people of God to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world?  Well, it could mean that we sting people’s eyes and shine our light on things that embarrass and shame them.  Salt and light can do those things, sure.  But salt and light do all those other things so much better.  Bringing out the flavor and appreciation of God’s gift of creation, shining light on forgiveness and reconciliation to those who need to see it.

We do not have to do something in order to become salt and light in this world.  Jesus has already declared us to be salt and light.    

But, how do we keep our saltiness?  (I mean, other than swearing all the time?)  We keep our saltiness by sitting at the feet of Jesus, as his disciples.  How do we keep our light shining?  We stay close to the source of all light.  Being in the presence of Jesus is what makes us salt and light.  And Jesus is present where he promises to be: in the sacraments, and in the community of the gathered people of God.  And that means here, today.

Being in the presence of Jesus makes us the light of the world.  Our light shines before others simply by being his disciples.  And here’s a secret:  being the disciples of Jesus naturally brings out good works in us . . . especially the good works of waking up the world to the abundant flavors of life, and shining a light on what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ.  You are salt;  you are light; and the world needs you.
Amen