Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Follow by Email

Sunday, March 26, 2017

YEAR A 2017 lent 4

Year A, 2017
Lent IV
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

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

I love this gospel story.  For a lot of reasons.  Not least of which is, because it’s funny.  I mean, the dialog is funny.  The man born blind gets all the best lines.  Like when the people are trying to figure out what happened, they ask him what happened.  He says, “All I know is, I was blind, and now I can see.”  And the people press him, “Well who healed you?  Where is the man who healed you?”  And he says, “Hey, people!  I was BLIND!”  (I always picture him sounding like Mel Brooks there.)

And the other really funny line is when the Jewish leaders are needling him for more information about who Jesus is, and how exactly he has been healed.  Exasperated, the man born blind says, “I already told you what happened and you didn’t believe me.  Why do you want to hear it again?”  beat beat beat . . . “What?  Do YOU want to become his disciples?”  So passive aggressive!

But, of course, we don’t have this lesson assigned the fourth Sunday in Lent because we need some comic relief.  There are also powerful lessons in this story, lessons we might miss because we get so caught up in the narrative.  And we need a little bit of religious context to understand why what happens is so extraordinary.  But first we need to deal with the age-old question, “Why me, God?”  Ever since Isaac Newton, we’re certain that everything operates by cause and effect.  We do one thing, and another thing happens.  We want that connection.  So we naturally want a reason.  Things don’t just happen, right?

Human beings have always thought this way, even before the Enlightenment.  Today’s story is a good example.  In Jesus’ time, a person wasn’t just born blind.  There had to be a reason for that blindness; and there would be two ways a person might end up blind at birth.  Either, a), their parents sinned before the child was born, and thus the blindness is a result.  Or, b), the child somehow sinned while still in the womb, and thus was born blind.  It was the way everyone saw the world, (or at least the religious people), and so it’s completely appropriate that the disciples would ask Jesus that opening question today:  Who sinned, the man or his parents?  Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”  The disciples, and anyone within earshot would have thought this answer was ludicrous!  Everyone knows that a man isn’t just born blind!  Then Jesus adds, “he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.”  He was born blind so that God’s glory might be revealed?

That last sentence tempts us to think God may just strike you blind in order to show God’s glory.  But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.  I think it’s more like this: Jesus says, neither the man nor his parents sinned, and I imagine the shocked look on the disciples’ faces makes him figure he’s got to offer some explanation!  So, he says, okay, this is not because of anyone’s sin, but since you need a reason for blindness, I’ll give you one: this is so that God’s glory might be revealed.  I picture the disciples muttering, “Well, that’s a new teaching, but at least it makes sense.  The world hasn’t gone completely crazy!”  Again, Jesus’ answer is sort of a stop-gap measure; God is not going to strike you blind in order to reveal the glory of God.  This “glory to God” explanation is a stepping stone; still a plausible reason for the blindness for the disciples, but at least getting them out of the realm of pinning it on someone’s sin.

BUT, to everyone else in the story, the man’s blindness comes from sin.  Either his sin, or his parents’ sin.  He would be a man “born entirely in sins,” as the angry religious leaders tell him.

Now along comes Jesus, and he heals the man.  On the Sabbath.  And just to drive home the point, he takes some mud, and mixes it with saliva to put on the man’s eyes.  Jesus didn’t have to do that to heal the man.  In other places in John’s gospel, Jesus says “get up” to heal someone, or even “go home, your son is healed.”  Jesus doesn’t need some kind of magic mud to heal this man’s eyes.  So why does he mix up the mud like that?

Well, technically, this mixing action would be kneading, or making clay.  Kneading like you do with dough.  Which is one of 39 specific tasks prohibited on the Sabbath.  To every good Jew who was watching, Jesus is intentionally sinning when he mixes this mud.  Clearly sinning.  Nobody had to get a rabbi’s ruling on this one.  Jesus is working on the Sabbath, plain and simple, making him a sinner . . . a sinner, like the man born blind.

Everyone in the story thinks Jesus is a sinner.  You and I know, obviously, Jesus is NOT a sinner.  And . . . everyone in the story thinks the blind man is a sinner.  Sooo . . . What might that tell us?  Maybe one of the huge lessons here is the point I’ve already mentioned:  Physical defects and personal setbacks and tragedies . . . maybe they’re not caused by sin.

Maybe people just are the way they are: some strong and healthy, some not so strong and healthy.  Some successful and smart, some not so successful and smart.  God creates all people, gives breath to all people, and God loves all people.  Your circumstances and your challenges are not punishments for sin.  I can’t say that strongly enough.  When you suffer or are pressed down, it is not because you are a sinner.  If you hear nothing else this morning, please hear this: Suffering is not God’s punishment for sin.  Not your sin, and not your parents’ sin.  Jesus says so.

Now two other things I want to point out in this story.  As my college English professor used to tell us over and over, when you’re reading a story, it’s important to “notice the name.”  Jesus sends the blind man to wash his dirty face in the pool called “Siloam.”  And just to be sure we “notice the name,” John translates it for us.  The name Siloam means, “sent.”  What John does not say, but I want to be sure we notice, is that Siloam does not mean decide, or find, or figure out on your own.  Sent, is a passive sort of word.  Like a passing of responsibility back to the one who sent you.  Someone at City Hall asks, “What are you doing here?”  You might say, “the Mayor sent me.”  Being sent is different from simply going.  The word “apostle” comes from a Greek word and means “one who is sent.”  The man born blind is sent.  He’s an apostle, in a way.  AND, he is sent before he is healed.  Interesting, isn’t it?

And here’s the second thing I want to make sure we notice in this story: the progression and the impact of the man’s testimony.  Or, maybe I should say the lack of impact in the man’s testimony.  But follow along with this . . .

The blind man gets healed, and his neighbors are astonished, so they begin asking him questions.  At this point his testimony consists of, I am the man who once was blind.  Jesus put mud on my eyes, told me to wash, and now I can see.  Just the facts, as responses to questions.

Then the Pharisees summon him, and ask him what happened.  He restates the facts: Jesus put mud on my eyes, told me to wash, and now I can see.  Then they ask his opinion of this Jesus.  And he ups his response to, “Jesus is a prophet.”  They deny he ever was blind, and call his parents.  His parents say, he’s old enough to speak for himself, you ask him.

So, the Pharisees call the man back a for second round.  But they start off by saying, “Give glory to God for your healing.”  They’re saying this because what they mean is, you cannot have been healed by this sinner, like you say.  Give glory to God, not Jesus.  (They want him to deny the facts, and the facts—you’ll remember—were his original testimony.)  He cannot deny what has happened.  And he tells the Pharisees, he will give glory to God, because this Jesus was sent by God.  And, of course, they throw him out.

Now, let’s review this apostle’s evangelism program, shall we?  He told his story, plain and simple.  He answered questions honestly.  He converted no one, he convinced no one, and the religious leaders threw him out of the temple.  As outside observers, we would say his outreach program was a total disaster.  His testimony changed no one.

But here’s the interesting thing . . . notice how his testimony changes him.  All he’s doing is telling people what Jesus has done, but in telling the story, he grows in faith himself.  At first, all he does is tell the facts of his experience.  I was blind, Jesus put mud on my eyes, told me to wash, and now I can see.  But then his testimony advances to, Jesus is a prophet.  And then his testimony increases to, this Jesus is sent by God.  Telling his faith story makes him more convinced, even if it does absolutely nothing to grow the church.  In short, the act of witnessing increases his own faith.

And then, after all this takes place, Jesus comes back to him.  The man says, “I believe you are the Son of Man,” and falls down and worships him.  He had been sent, healed, questioned, rejected, and then falls down and worships Jesus.  The order is not what we would expect.  Probably not the order of events that caused you and me to be here today.  Maybe you’ve been healed but not sent, or you are here to worship but not yet healed.  Or maybe you’re just here asking questions of the people who claim they have been healed.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter why you’re here.  Because being here means you are seeking to be in the presence of Jesus.  And you have come to a place where he promises to be . . . in the sacrament of his body and blood.  I can assure you, we are in the right place!  And in telling our own stories—whatever they may be—our faith will increase, and we will come to trust more and more in the one who opens our eyes, and leads us into the light.

Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

YEAR A 2017 lent 3

Lent 3, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

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

So one aspect of Lent is that it is a time of steadfastness and endurance.  That’s why we have such a long Gospel reading today.  To test your endurance and ability to concentrate.

Seriously, this is like five stories in one here.  We’ve got Jesus and the disciples, Jesus and the woman at the well, the woman and her neighbors, and Jesus and the disciples at the well, all of which are set in the context of hearing that story about Moses and the water in the desert, and also Psalm 95.  And we cannot possibly unpack them all, since that would most certainly go far beyond our endurance and ability to concentrate . . . or, mine anyway.

So, let’s focus on the main part of this story: The Woman at the Well.  The first thing to notice is that she never gets a name.  We know her “ethnic group,” and her gender, and in that culture those were two strikes against her.  Two very serious strikes.  As you probably know, men ran everything in Jesus’ day.  Women were generally considered unclean.  And it was expected that a man would not talk to a woman, and certainly not one to one as we see in today’s Gospel novella.  It was scandalous for a Rabbi to be talking alone to a Woman at all.  Which is why the disciples are so freaked out when they see it.  As we heard, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman,” meaning, “freaked out,” but no one said anything.

But wait, there’s more: she’s also a Samaritan.  Now when we hear that term, Samaritan, we probably go placing the word “Good” in front of it, since that’s the main reference in our society these days.  Good Samaritan has come to mean a person who goes out of their way to help us, which is exactly why the juxtaposition of the two words is lost on us.

Short version: Samaritans and Jews had common ancestors, until the Assyrians violently stepped in, in 720 BC and forced intermarriage.  As a result, the Samaritans were considered half-breeds, like muggles in the Harry Potter stories.  To make matters worse, Samaritans worshipped in the “high places,” meaning little altars and shrines in the woods, and on the wrong mountain, whereas the Jews worshipped in the Temple, you know, the Right Place.  So to Jews, there’s like a double betrayal in the Samaritans: Their blood is not pure, and their religion is totally messed up.  They are bad people, and everyone knows it.  In fact, most Jews would add a day’s journey to their trip and go around Samaria, rather than risk running into a Samaritan.

So, the Samaritan Woman at the Well.  That tells us everything we need to know about her.  She does not get a name; she doesn’t need one.  Woman and Samaritan.  What more evidence do we need that she is cursed and should be avoided?  The last thing a self-respecting Jew would do is talk to her, right?  Oh, wait, that’s not quite right:  Because the LAST thing a Jew would do is share food or drink with her!

"Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink'. The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?'  And just in case you’d been hiding under a rock since the Assyrians came through, John helpfully adds: "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans."  Which is kind of like British understatement, just for effect I think.

So, just to be clear: What makes this woman unacceptable to Jesus’ disciples is her identity . . . she is a woman of Samaria.

And then there’s that part that always strikes me as really awkward.  Like Jesus is doing some cheap television private detective work on the side.  "Jesus said to her, 'Go, call your husband, and come back'. The woman answered him, 'I have no husband'. Jesus said to her, 'You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband'.”  It’s like you expect a dramatic chord on the organ right there.  I don’t know why it feels uncomfortable to me . . . maybe because it almost seems like Jesus is showing off, when you first read it.  Like when a magician says, “You’re right that’s not your card, because your card is . . . in your pocket!"

But what’s worse is, many people make this incredible jump from that little detective work to the assumption that the woman is, you know, “loose.”  As though the reason she has had five husbands and a boyfriend is because she’s immoral.  But please hear me when I say, there is NO indication of that in this story.  Nowhere does Jesus judge her in this story.  Nowhere does he even say “You shouldn’t have had five husbands in one lifetime.”  And if Jesus doesn’t judge her, well . . . I think we know what that means for us, right?

The only thing we dare conclude is that she has had a string of bad luck, or bad judgement; maybe she has bad neighbors, or bad history, or something else.  But what we dare not do is make this five husband thing into a judgement of her morality, because Jesus is standing right there, and he does not do that.

Which leads us to ask, why?  Why do we get this little Columbo moment out of Jesus in this story?  Well, I think the answer comes in her response to Jesus: "The woman said to him, 'Sir, I see that you are a prophet'.”  And then in what she tells her friends and neighbors: "He told me everything I have ever done."

The Samaritan Woman has lived her entire life hoping no one ever knows what she has done, hoping no one ever really knows her.  Her biggest fear, it seems, is to be known.  She comes to the well at noon, when it’s like 150 degrees, a time when she knows no one else would be there.  She comes alone, expecting to leave alone, and to be left alone.  Instead, she is known, and according to her testimony, completely known.  "He told me everything I have ever done."

Now, maybe there was more to the conversation than what we heard.  Maybe she and Jesus talked for hours; we don’t know.  But what we do know is that, from the Woman’s perspective, he told her everything she has ever done.  Meaning, Jesus knew her completely.  And maybe, in this context, it just means that Jesus knew her big secret, or the reason she sought the anonymity of the hot noon sun at the well.  Sure, maybe it’s the five husbands, and maybe it’s not.  Whatever the conversation, she senses that Jesus knows everything she has ever done.

And. Does. Not. Reject. Her.

We all want to be truly loved.  And we all want to be truly known.  And we all secretly assume those two things are truly incompatible.  If you really knew me, you would not love me.  And if you really love me, you can’t possibly know me.  Not really know me.  Not actually know what keeps me awake at night, or what I wish I could change about my past, or what intimidates me, or worries me, or on and on.  No, part of keeping a civil society civil is knowing how to put our best foot forward.  We all carefully orchestrate how much we reveal in order to get the maximum amount of love with the minimum amount of risk.

This is why things like social media and Facebook exist in the first place: For each of us to broadcast a carefully crafted version of ourselves, scrubbed clean of the messiness of who we really are and what we really think.  Well, plus videos of cats and babies.  Facebook is the perfect environment to project a lovable persona in the guise of being truly known.  But, as we all know, being loved and being known cannot both be true.  We have to choose.

And that is what is so amazing about the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well.  Jesus proves that he accepts her, against all expectations of those around her.  (Remember the astonishment of the disciples?)  A Samaritan and a Woman, and Jesus is talking to her.  But those are just the false exteriors, the excuses people expect to use for not loving her.  And Jesus goes a step beyond all that; he shows that he actually really DOES know her, and yet he sticks around.

He did not go a day’s journey out of his way to avoid her.  He did not wait until the conveniently cool part of the day to look for her.  No, Jesus plunges into the midst of where she is, and what she is, and who she is, and he tells her that the Messiah has come . . . to her.  She does not go looking for him . . . quite the contrary, she trying to avoid him and everyone else.  And yet, here he is, embracing her in all the messiness of her life, and announcing that salvation has come to her little forsaken postage stamp of a town.  She does not have to become something else in order to be accepted, and she does not have to hide in order to be loved.

And that goes for you and me as well.  Jesus comes to us, knowing us fully, and loving us completely, and holding nothing back as he offers himself in the meal at this Altar this morning.  Jesus knows you, and Jesus loves you, and no matter what anyone else says, that is what makes you welcomed by the One who created you.  You are truly known and you are truly loved.

Truly, this must be the Messiah!

Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

YEAR A 2017 lent 2

Year A, 2017
Lent II
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

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

Have you ever been someplace really dark?  A place where you can’t see any light; you can’t see where you’re going; you can’t tell which way is up; where it seems every step you take is filled with danger; you can’t figure out where to go, or what to do.  A . . . really  . . . dark  . . . place.  You wonder if you’ll ever see light again.  Wonder if you’ll ever see anything again.  It’s scary, and lonely, and you would give anything to get out of there.

Now a question is forming in your mind, I’m sure.  You’re wondering, “Does he mean like a dark night of the soul?  A place where my grip on life and sanity is being challenged, and the heavy weight of the unknown is crashing down on the very core of my being?  Or . . . is he talking about a camping trip? 

Hard to know isn’t it?  And the first one, the deeper one, the existential darkness, makes you sit up and take notice.  That’s where we might find some true insight, and maybe some wisdom, and maybe something that speaks to a deep longing for knowledge and truth.  But the darkness of sitting outside a tent looking up at the stars . . . well . . . It’s the difference between metaphor and fact.  And, as you may have noticed, metaphor sometimes conveys more truth than facts do.

If someone says your eyes are like diamonds sparkling in the light, it gets your attention.  If someone says your eyes are holes to let in light in a measured way so that your brain can interpret the light waves bouncing off the objects in your field of vision . . . well . . . hey thanks, Casanova.  There is often more truth in a figure of speech than in a list of facts.  And when we get caught up in just facts, life can get awfully flat and dull.  I’m not saying we should do away with proof and facts and the scientific method.  I’m not advocating “truthiness.”  I’m just saying, metaphors and similes are what give us poetry, and insight, and the ability to see beyond what simply is and into what might be.

John’s Gospel, the one we just heard from, is packed with metaphor and symbolic language.  From the opening verses we hear, In the beginning was the Word.  And, the Word was God.  And light has shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.   A whole host of metaphor and symbolism packed into the opening few verses of John’s gospel.  Compare that to this description: “At the beginning of the universe, the space was completely filled with matter. The matter was originally very hot and very dense and then expanded and cooled to eventually produce the stars and galaxies we see in the universe today.”   Factual, yes, but I might have to wake you up if I read it again, right?

So . . . in today’s reading from John, a man named Nicodemus—a Pharisee, a leader among faithful Jews—comes to Jesus.  He comes to Jesus by night.  In the darkness.  Hmmmm.  And he says to Jesus, essentially, we know that you are sent from God because you have been doing all these miracles.  You know, the proof is in the pudding, or what have you.  Nicodemus says, no one could do what Jesus is doing if God was not with them.  Thus, Jesus must be sent from God.  The facts add up to that conclusion for Nicodemus, who comes to visit Jesus in darkness.

And Jesus’ response is, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Now in fairness to Nicodemus, I need to tell you that the Greek word used here (anothen) means “above,” and also means “again” and “anew.”  How is Jesus using this word?  Well, of course we don’t know for sure.  But based on his reaction to Nicodemus, it seems clear that he doesn’t mean physically “birthed again,” which is how Nicodemus takes it.  Here’s a case where the metaphor is totally lost on someone.  Nicodemus is looking for a map, a flat two-dimensional grid of facts, and Jesus is pointing up.  They’re talking past each other.  Nicodemus is looking for facts, and Jesus is speaking symbolically.  Jesus says you must be born from above, and Nicodemus can’t wrap his mind around that, assumes Jesus means “born again,” and goes on to ask, “how can a man be born a second time?”

Jesus explains that the Spirit blows where it will.  The Spirit of God is not contained in facts and figures and rules and laws.  The Spirit of God is above and beyond what our feeble minds can grasp.  To be born from above means to receive that Spirit, to see beyond the ordinary world around us, to see with the eyes of God.  And Nicodemus is dumfounded, and asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus answers him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  It’s like the blind leading the blind.  This man living in darkness is responsible for leading others into the light, but can’t see the light in front of his face.  Hmmm . . . a serious metaphor alert for pastors and priests, right?

But what comes after that is the very good news of this passage.  I don’t mean the John 3:16 part: I mean what comes before it and what comes after it. Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”  We are not called to rise up into heaven and understand these things.  Jesus did not tell Nicodemus to get a tall ladder and start looking for heaven.  So, where is Nicodemus supposed to find these truths?  If Nicodemus can’t climb up into heaven, or be born again here on earth, how can he gain access to these truths he doesn’t understand.  We see him rubbing his chin and staring off into the distance.  If only there were a way to have contact with someone who came from above, I might be able to get a clue as to how I can be born from above. Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”  Ta-Da!!!

Still, nothing from Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel.  So Jesus reminds him about the serpent on the pole, a story which Nicodemus would know.  But let me refresh our memories here:  In the Old Testament book called Numbers, the people are being bitten by snakes, and they come to Moses and say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he might take away the serpents from us.”  So Moses prays for the people. And the LORD says to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  Moses makes a bronze serpent and sets it on a pole. And if a serpent bites anyone, they would look at the bronze serpent and live.

That’s the story Jesus is referencing.  Nicodemus would know that story well.  And so then Jesus says to him, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus has made all the connections for Nicodemus, and for us as well.  It’s not about having the facts and figures and physical evidence that Jesus is sent from God.  Instead, you must be born from above, the place the Spirit comes from.  The place Jesus comes from.  The healing power of God is right in front of us, lifted up on a cross, like the serpent in the desert.  When the people of Israel had been bitten by snakes, they looked to the one lifted up and they were healed.  Now watch how important it is to move beyond facts and figures . . .

Think about that serpent story for a moment.  Think about when you’ve been “bitten by snakes” in your own life.  Think about times you have needed healing and didn’t know where to turn.  Have you ever found healing comfort in looking to Jesus?  The One who came down and was lifted up?  The fact that you’re here this morning suggests that has happened in some way, at some time in your life.  Maybe you can explain it with a strong and powerful testimony, an actual conversion event in your life.  Or maybe, like so many of us, you find yourself using metaphors, and similes, and stories about something else, that point to the same truth that you have experienced firsthand.

Or maybe you’re coming to Jesus at night, in darkness, not knowing what you expect from him, but like Nicodemus you have made the connection that only someone sent from God can do the miraculous things you have heard about.  And maybe, for you right now, you’re needing a whole lot of miraculous in your life these days.

But no matter what your story or situation right now, it might help to look at John 3:16 without “the world” getting in the way, and bring Jesus’ words back to you, personally.  So hear this:
God so loves you, that he gave his only Son, so that you would not perish, but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn you, but in order that you might be saved through him.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that you may have eternal life. And today, in this place, Jesus will be lifted up again in the Sacrament of His body and blood.  Come and look to the One who is lifted up at this Altar, and be healed.  Even if you come in darkness, you are welcome, because, in the One who comes from above, we are born from above, and in him we find healing, and the gift of eternal life.

Amen.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Massillon Ecumenical Lenten Service

MACA 1st Lenten Service, 2017
Matthew 5:1-3
Preached at First Baptist, Massillon, OH

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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

My name is George Baum, and I am the new priest at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church here in Massillon.  I’ve only been in town since August, but am already deeply impressed by how active and involved the Massillon Area Clergy Association has been for so long in this area, and I am honored to be with you tonight.  Fair warning: Episcopalians have notoriously brief sermons.  And I do not intend to disappoint.

When a group of us clergy types sat down to plan out these Wednesday night Lenten services leading up to Easter, they told me that the new pastor in town always preaches first, which is probably just to set the bar comfortably low for the sermons that will follow.  When we discussed what we should all preach about, we decided to focus on the Beatitudes, as recorded in the 5th chapter of Matthew.  So this first week, we get the first verse, one I just read:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

At the same time, since this is the first of many nights we will be gathering together, I want to take a few moments to discuss the Beatitudes as a whole, to sort of set the stage for our Lenten journey together.  And if my taking that liberty is way off, well, Pastor Steven Gower can fix things next Wednesday night.

So, The Beatitudes, right.  You’ve heard them before: in pieces and in whole.  They’re part of our culture.  If I say, “Blessed are the meek,” you’re automatically thinking something about inheriting the earth.  Since the Beatitudes are so familiar, we sort of tune out when someone starts reading them.  And tuning out is fitting in a way, because Beatitude is where the Beat Generation gets its name.  Beatnik comes from Beatitude, Beatific, that kind of thing.  It suggests a bit of disengaging the mind, and living in harmony and understanding.  The Beatitudes have lost much of their power for us, because of their familiarity, and also because we don’t often think about what they mean, or what they imply, or how they apply to us.

Or, worse, we think of them as a list of things to try to achieve in order to get the promised result.  We switch them around, focusing on the promise as a reward for the suffering.  We put the cart before the horse, and then realize the horse is not worth pushing the cart.  For instance, we think, if we want to inherit the earth, then we have to be meek.  Or, if we want to receive mercy, then we have to be merciful.  Or, if we want to have the kingdom of heaven, then we’ve got to be poor in spirit.  I blame this thinking on math class, personally.  You know, if 2 plus 2 equals four, then 4 minus two equals two.  We’re trained to reverse a process since, all things being equal, that should also work.  But, of course, all things are never equal, no matter what your math teacher may have told you.

And this way of approaching the beatitudes is like saying, aspirin cures headaches, so I’d better get a headache.  If Jesus had said, “Blessed are the homeless because they get blankets,” it shouldn’t make us want to be homeless, in order to get a blanket.  The promise of the resurrection doesn’t make us want to die . . . hopefully.  These sayings of Jesus, these Beatitudes are messages of hope.  They are not threats, and they are not ethical guideposts.  They are reassurances for those who are suffering.  Reminders that the present state of things is not going to last forever.  Appeals to keep our minds on a heavenly system of judgment, rather than allowing ourselves to be co-opted by society’s evaluation of what matters.  (You see why the Beatniks loved these?)

And let me just point out what the text does NOT say.  Nothing in these Beatitudes suggests that the merciless will NOT obtain mercy, or that the rich in spirit will NOT obtain the kingdom of heaven.  These are not backhanded judgments about how we are to behave.  They are statements of hope, for those who need to hear a bit of good news, and the good news is that God’s kingdom is a totally different way of being, with a totally different set of values.

Blessed are you when you’re down and out, with your back against the wall, when you’ve got nothing but hope to cling to . . . because nothing is stronger than hope.  If you have hope, you can get through anything.  And without hope, you can’t get through anything for very long.  That’s why some of the richest people in the world still commit suicide, and some of the poorest people in the world are smiling every day.  Hope is what makes the difference.  Hope is what comforts those who mourn.  Hope is what helps us endure suffering and persecution.  And hope comes from the promises of Jesus.  What appear to be insurmountable odds are nothing in the face of hope, because we put our hope in the promises of Jesus.  And when we trust God’s promises, anything is possible.

These Beatitudes are hope for those who suffer.  If everything is absolutely great in your life, this text is not for you.  If your world is perfect, and your heart is not broken by the suffering of others, and you’ve never been persecuted for standing up for what’s right, I guess you don’t need to hear these beatitudes.  For the rest of us, this is a gospel of hope, not judgment.  A gospel that says in the presence of Jesus, what looks insurmountable is surmountable.  What seems like a deficit, or “handicap,” is made perfect.  And in the present, what we are is made useful to God, no matter what the world tells us.

My friend Bart’s father is a public speaker who travels around, speaking.  Which is what makes him a public speaker, I suppose.  One of my favorite stories he tells goes like this . . .

A friend of mine out in Hawaii told me about a young man who was in a horrible automobile accident and lost his left arm.  He was so depressed, so his father, trying to cheer him up, said, "Can I do anything? Is there anything I can do for you?"

The boy said, "Yes. I would like to take judo lessons. I understand you can do judo with one arm."
The father got him a sensei, a teacher, to teach him judo. After learning the basics of the art of judo, the sensei concentrated on one move, just one move alone. That one move over and over and over again, day after day, week after week. After two and a half months, the sensei said, "We're entering a tournament."

The young kid says, "You've got to be kidding. I've only been taking judo for two and a half months. I only have one arm. My left arm is gone and I'm going to be in a tournament?"

They go to the tournament and the boy wins the first round, the second round, the third round. He can't believe it. He keeps on winning right up until the final. He wins the final. On the way home, he says to his sensei, "I don't understand. How is this possible? I've only been taking judo for two and a half months. I really only know one move. How could I have just beaten the champion of the state?"

The Sensei says, "You won for two reasons. First, the one move you do know is the most effective move in all of judo. The second reason why you won is because the only defense against that move is to grab your opponent’s left arm."

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  It is easy to look around our little town of Massillon and find ourselves poor in spirit.  There is a lot of suffering.  A lot of pain.  Poor in spirit is an easy place to end up when we think that it’s all up to us.  It’s easy to lose hope when we forget that God is also here in Massillon.

But I just want to remind you that when we face what may seem like insurmountable challenges—because you’re a small church, or because you rent another church’s building, or because you’ve only got a part-time pastor—these challenges may just turn out to be the things that make us unbeatable, when it comes down to it.

Just as the sensei had faith in the one-armed judo student, God has faith in us, because God is with us.  Our imperfections become perfect in the presence of Jesus.  God has called each one of us into our little communities of faith . . . at least for today, at least for right now.  And God will guide us each into carrying out our unique role in the kingdom: as part of congregations here in Massillon, and as part of the larger body of Christ in the world.  God strengthens us for that journey when we continue meeting together, and praying together, and eating together.  God calls us together to strengthen us for the days ahead.

God is calling the poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger, and the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.  God is calling you.  For yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Amen.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

YEAR A 2017 lent 1

Lent 1, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

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

When someone uses the word “personal” in their set up, you know you’re about to be insulted.  A co-worker stops by your desk and says, “Hey, nothing personal, but uh . . . “   Or you go out to eat with a friend and they say, “I hope you won’t take this personally, but . . . “  It’s the adult version to adding JK after an insulting text.  Adults just put it on the front end of the sentence, since it’s good manners to give you fair warning.  “Personal” is a red flag for “insult ahead.”  And we even see echoes in the famous breakup line . . . “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Don’t take it personally.  This isn’t about you.  It’s supposed to be reassuring, but it usually means watch out.

Why is that?  Why can we be pretty sure that hearing the warning not to take it personally is going to mean something unpleasant is coming?  Some hard truth we don’t want to hear.  Some criticism of our work or look or hairstyle.  It’s almost as if the phrase “Don’t take this personally” is like when the doctor says “you’re gonna feel a small pinch.”

Well, psychiatrists will tell us that it all starts back with infancy.  To an infant, the world is all about ME.  I cry, people come running.  I have needs, they are fulfilled.  But there’s also that inability to step outside ourselves in our early years.  Toddlers assume that all perspective is the same as my perspective.  Little kids in high chairs don’t understand that a right-side up picture is upside down to the person across the table.  Infants take everything personally.  And the rest of life is a slow progression of  learning not to do that.  We are hard-wired to make everything about ourselves, and it is only by effort and experience that we develop empathy and understanding that it’s not always about ME.

So, in today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis, we have Adam and Eve in the Garden, disobeying God’s command about the tree.  And in the Gospel reading from Matthew, we see Jesus being taken over the place and tempted by Satan.  Now, please don’t take this personally, but neither of these stories is about you.  Nope.  Hard as that may be to hear, these are not stories about you.  And THAT is the best news you are going to get all Lent, I tell you.  These are stories about God, and they are not stories about you.  Amen.

Okay, you probably want a little better explanation than that.  So let’s start at the beginning, literally, with Genesis.  The entire canon of the scriptures we have received starts with the phrase, In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, or something like that, depending on your Hebrew skills.  Point being, you see how from the opening sentence it is a story about God?  It does not start out with “Human beings showed up in the garden one day.”  No, it starts with God creating stuff.  And then eventually, we get to the part where God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  It is not a story about Adam and Eve; it is a story about God.

And . . . well, don’t take this personally . . . it’s actually a GOOD thing that it’s not a story about you and me.  But, don’t get me wrong: all sorts of people want it to be a story about you and me.  Many of people want to use this story as a means to oppress women, and blame one gender for the evil in the world.  But this is NOT a story about Adam and Eve.  And I would point out that the Jewish faith has no concept of what Christians often call “The Fall.”  This is not a story about humanity.  This is a story about God.

We don’t get the ending of this Garden story in today’s little snippet, but you probably remember it.  God looks for the people in the garden and they are hiding because they are ashamed.  If you’ve always imagined yourself hiding in the fig leaves when you hear this story, try stepping out of that role and imagine yourself in God’s role, just for a minute.  Imagine yourself as the one who puts the infants in the garden and then sees the big mistake they make.  Imagine sending them out into the world with a promise of children and new life, wanting what is best for them, despite their bad decisions.  When we get the focus on God rather than Adam and Eve, the story shifts, doesn’t it?  It becomes a story of hope and promise rather than mistakes and blaming others.

And then look at the Gospel reading from Matthew that we just heard.  Here we have Satan, or The Tester, zipping Jesus around to temp him into misusing his power.  It’s important to note that all the setups start with a word that is closer to “since” than it is to “if,” in the Geek at least.  The temptation is not to prove that Jesus is the Son of God.  No, each one is a temptation to misuse the power of the role, to reject the calling on Jesus’ life.  You know, since you’re the Son of God, why not make these stones into bread and feed all those hungry people you’re always worried about.  That’s very different from a challenge to show his power in order to prove who Jesus is.

The test is not to get Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God.  The Tester knows full well that Jesus is the Son of God.  The Son of God can do anything he wants to do.  The temptation is to misuse this freedom to do something to show off, to glory and revel in being who Jesus is.

And—don’t take this personally, but—you are not Jesus.  This is a story about Jesus, not you, remember?  It is easy, and dare I say tempting, to put ourselves in the place of Jesus here.  To make this into a story about how best to avoid Satan when he comes to tempt us into doing wrong.  And if we keep on that way, we can even build up lengthy explanations about how Jesus is calling us to stand tough against giving people food stamps, or to abandon personal power, or not to temp God’s willingness to save us when we hurl ourselves into dangerous situations.

Well, nothing personal, but this is not a story about you and me.  This is a story about Jesus, not us.  And therein lies the danger of going around asking yourself “What Would Jesus Do?”  Because what Jesus would do is exactly what Jesus does, and it is all stuff that you and I are never going to be able to do because . . . wait for it . . . we are not Jesus.  A better question to ask ourselves is, “What would I do given what Jesus has done?”  Or, even better, “What would I do if I really believe that God loves me?”  We are not challenged to be more like Jesus in this reading.  We are challenged to trust that Jesus is up to the task of saving us.  We are challenged to trust that God loves us, and blesses us despite our foibles and missteps.  We are challenged to walk with the one who knows where we are going.

In that reading from Genesis, maybe it’s helpful to look at it from a literary perspective.  Just notice how one-dimensional the people in story are.  We’re like three chapters into the book of Genesis, and it’s all been about God creating stuff, right?  And then God plops these two cardboard figures into the Garden in order to show how God responds when they get it all wrong.  Essentially, the whole story of the Garden is a way of showing God saying, “I can work with that.”  It’s almost like we’re better off not even thinking of Adam and Eve as actual people.  They’re certainly not a scientific/journalistic description of the origin of human beings.  They’re props, see?  And trying to wring some drops of morality out of the Garden of Eden is going to leave you ethically parched, is what I’m trying to say.  Ignore Adam and Eve and watch what God is doing.  Don’t take it so personally.

Going back to Matthew, and the temptation of Jesus, I would encourage you to see this for what it is: the Temptation of Jesus.  This is not the temptation of you and me.  We have our own temptations to be sure.  And one of those temptations is to try to make ourselves into Jesus.  To think of ourselves as the ones who are going to save ourselves by our proper actions and good behavior . . . of ourselves.  The temptations Jesus faced were far different from the ones you and I face.  But knowing that Jesus did not give in, that he did not stray from his actual mission of saving you and me from the power of death . . . well, maybe that can encourage us to trust enough not to take it personally when we hear that it’s not about us.

Perhaps the biggest temptation you and I face is exactly that:  The temptation to take it personally.  And by that I mean, the temptation to think it’s all up to us, that it’s all about us, that we somehow have to work at getting God to love us.  We all face this temptation every day, when you think about it.  We get constant messages that we’re not good enough, that we’re not rich enough, thin enough, smart enough, etc etc.  And when we take in those messages for too long, we start to believe those things about ourselves, because we start taking it personally.

But let me point us to one place where it is personal.  A time when it really is all about you.  You’ll see it again this morning, when you are invited to this altar to share in the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, given FOR YOU.  Jesus comes to meet you here this morning in the Sacrament.  God shows up in your own two hands saying, “I can work with that.”  No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, God’s forgiveness is given freely, with no strings attached.  God loves you more than you could ask or imagine, and I hope you will take that personally.

Amen.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

YEAR A 2017 ash wednesday

Year A
Ash Wednesday, 2017
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Cor 5:20b-6:10
Mat 6:1-6, 16-21

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

Such a collection of readings . . .
There is not a lot that needs to be said tonight, nor anything worth adding to these readings, especially when coupled with the powerful imagery of ashes, followed by sharing the Eucharist together.

But the question I hear every year on Ash Wednesday has to do with irony of using this gospel text while putting ashes on our foreheads.  Why read the specific verse where Jesus says “Do not disfigure your face” on Ash Wednesday?  Why hear that we should pray in private when we gather to pray in public prayer?  Why hear give alms quietly when we always pass around offering plates?

Well, the easy answer is, as Episcopalians, we don’t get to choose the readings to suit our own purposes.  But there’s obviously more to it than that.  And by way of answering, I want to leave you with three short points tonight . . .

First: the examples in this gospel text are on a continuum.  There is one extreme and there is the other extreme.  There is fasting quietly, or making a big show.  There is praying silently, or announcing it on the street corner.  There is quietly offering to help the poor, and there is publishing your contribution in the Repository.  We get both extremes in each of these, and I am guessing that none of us is at either extreme, and that each of us is somewhere on the continuum. I mean, how can you write out a check if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing?  And, quite frankly, praying in your closet is just a little weird. 

Secondly: Jesus is not saying, “Take on a whole bunch of new practices.”  There is only one day of fasting in Jewish law, and it is for the Day of Atonement.  Notice that he doesn’t say, “You need to start fasting, or giving alms, or praying .”  The assumption is, people are already doing these things.  No, what Jesus is telling us is to look at why and how we do the things we do.  I would suggest that the earthly rewards you might get from telling everyone you are fasting are not worth fasting in the first place!  And I think Jesus says something similar: those who do things for their neighbors to notice have received their reward, and it is a paltry reward.  Does that mean if the public notices, then God does not?  Of course not! 

The point here is this: as we enter Lent, we enter a time of self examination.  A time when we pare down, burn away old growth, prepare for new growth.  It is a time of self-examination, a time when we look at why and how we do what we’re already doing.  If we radically change our behavior during Lent, we might miss this very crucial opportunity.  It’s quite possible that we can get so distracted by the new personal challenges, or the lack of food or sugar, that we run the risk of completely missing the call to self-examination. 

Maybe you’ll take on some Lenten challenge, or give something up for Lent, and that’s great.  I applaud that.  But I also offer this as a suggestion, based on this text: try to find time for self-reflection over these next 40 days.  Look at why and how you do the things you already do.  That may be more important than starting some new behavior that is out of the ordinary, which you’ll stop doing on Easter morning.

Thirdly and finally: Jesus’ words here are not goals or rules for us to follow.  The response to this gospel text should not be to head for the closet to pray.  Nor should the response be to wash the ashes off your head before you go out in public tonight.  These words of Jesus should direct us to the cross, and our response should be to come to this table.  Not a set of goals to live up to, but rather a list of reasons why we need to rely on Jesus, and on the grace of God, and on the sustenance that comes from this sacrament.  God calls us to a holy Lent of self-examination; but that is only because God has already called us to the cross of Christ, through the renewing waters of baptism, and to the life-giving Eucharistic meal, which we gather here to share.

Amen