Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, February 26, 2023

YEAR A 2023 lent 1

Lent 1, 2023
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
Psalm 32

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

I love how all three readings come together this morning in an act of solidarity.  And their combined message is a summary of our faith:  God’s grace is for everyone, because of Jesus.  Now I could just say “amen” and move on to the Creed.  But you’re probably expecting a little more detail than that.  But if you hear nothing else of what I say today, hold onto that: God’s grace is for everyone, because of Jesus.

So let’s start with the first reading, from Genesis.  You’ve heard this little story countless times by now, I’m sure.  Although Christians often call it “the Fall,” I personally don’t support that name for it.  Chiefly, because there is no Jewish view of anything like “the Fall,” and it’s not clear that this little snippet puts into motion our inclination to do bad things.  In fact, blaming my own sinful nature on the first man and woman is continuing the cycle of the man blaming the woman and the woman blaming the serpent.  Sometimes called kicking the dog, in family narratives.

Now, far be it from me to treat the first three chapters of Genesis as literal historical newspaper accounts, but let’s look at the text we have in front of us.  God says to the man that he will die on the day he eats of the fruit of one particular tree in the garden.  The serpent asks the woman if there are any restrictions on what they can eat.  And she says they can’t eat of this one tree or they’ll die, but she adds that if they even touch it they will die.  Interesting.

But we have God saying that on the day they eat they will die.  And we have the serpent saying, on the day you eat of it you will not die.  God says you’ll die; serpent says you won’t die.  They eat of the tree.  And on that day . . . did they die?  No they did not.  Nor did they die the next day.  You see the quandary here, right?  Turns out, the one who was telling the truth was . . . the serpent.

Could the serpent see the future?  Was God bluffing?  Are we missing something in the story?  Hard to say.  But I’ll tell you what I think.  As best I can see, this story is about God showing grace.  In fact, it’s the prototype of God’s Grace.  Grace 1.0, if you like.  The first story of the very first humans ends with God’s unmerited forgiveness.  It is like blueprint for how God will deal with human beings throughout the scriptures.  God sets up rules for our own good, we disobey those rules, and God’s grace appears and saves the day.  Saves lives, come to think of it, because on that day they did not die!

And, I hate to break it to us, but this is not how we run our society.  The existence of mandatory minimum sentencing is your first clue.  When we say people will be punished for breaking the law, we expect them to be punished.  All the parenting books tell us the same thing.  Don’t make threats you aren’t going to keep.  God said the people would die if they did the thing.  The people did the thing.  The people did not die.  That is pure undeserved grace.  And I dare say that we don’t like it, at least not when it happens to other people.  

And then let’s look at the second lesson, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the “for everyone” part of my opening statement.  Now, in classic Paul style, he uses way too many words to make a simple point, which threatens to make us miss the simple point he’s trying to make.  Back in my seminary Greek classes, when we struggled to translate Paul’s letters, my professor would say, “Sometimes the problem isn’t you; sometimes the problem is Paul.”  So let’s boil Paul’s words down to the point he is making . . .

Paul is suggesting here that death is a result of Adam eating that fruit we heard about in Genesis.  And, since Adam dies, everyone dies.  However, in this same way, the righteousness of Jesus is passed down to everyone as well.  And here’s the key phrase:  “Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”  Note that he says, “for all.”  Justification and life for all.  God’s grace is for everyone, because of Jesus.

And now we come to the “because of Jesus part,”--the reading from Matthew.  From the start, I want you to imagine yourself being really hungry.  I mean really hungry.  Like haven’t eaten for over a month hungry.  And then along comes this guy, The Tester, and he says, “Hey, wanna turn these stones into some bread?”  I confess to you, people of God, that my answer would be “Heck yeah I do!”  If I’m that hungry, and there’s the possibility of instant bread, I am all over it.  And so, in this way, I would clearly fail the very first test from The Tester.  

And don’t every get me started on giving in to the temptation to jump off the roof of the temple and have angels catch me in their arms!  How awesome would that be?!?  But thankfully—for everyone’s sake—this story is not called, “The Temptation of Fr. George.”  This is the temptation of Jesus.  It is not a story about me; it is not a story about you.  It is about Jesus.

And it’s important to note that these temptations of Jesus start with a word that is closer to “since” than it is to “if.”  Not if, but since.  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 so worried about?  That’s very different from a challenge 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.  That’s why he’s there, tempting him in the first place.  The temptation is to use his identity to do something to show off, to glory and revel in being God incarnate.

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 we can even build up lengthy explanations about how Jesus is calling us to stand tough against giving people free bread or food stamps, or not to tempt God’s willingness to save us when we hurl ourselves into dangerous situations.  But today's theme is, God’s grace is for everyone, because 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 the good behavior . . . of ourselves.  The temptations Jesus faced are completely 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 to be good enough every day.  And we get constant messages that we’re not good enough, that we’re not rich enough, thin enough, smart enough, blah blah blah.  And when we take in those messages for too long, we start to believe those things about ourselves, because we start taking that personally.

So let me remind you of 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.”  

God’s grace is for everyone because of Jesus.  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 possibly ask or imagine, and I hope you will take that personally.

God’s grace is for everyone, because of Jesus.


Friday, February 24, 2023

Shari Breyfogle

Burial of the Dead
February 23, 2023
Sharon Breyfogle
Isaiah 61:1-3
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6

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

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  It’s hard for us to do that today.  We gather here for the very reason that our hearts are troubled.  We cannot help it; it is the way we are.  When we don’t know where to turn, in our grief, and in our sorrow, our hearts are troubled.  And so we come together, for strength and solace, for healing and help, because our hearts are troubled.

But Jesus also says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  And this is important.  Because as a baptized child of God, Jesus has prepared a place for Sharon.  If it were not so, Jesus would have said, “I go and prepare a place for you . . . except not for her.”  There are many rooms in God’s house, and one of them has Shari’s name on it. 

We know that Jesus has prepared a place for Shari.  And we also know the way to that place . . . though we might not know that we know it.  In the reading we just heard, Jesus says, he is going to prepare a place for his disciples, and tells them “You know the way to the place where I am going."  And the disciples look at each other—probably with a very worried look—because they do not know what Jesus is talking about.  They don’t even know where he is going; how can they possibly know the way?

But Thomas speaks up.  The one we sometimes wrongly call Doubting Thomas, in fact.  He says, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  It’s a good question.  And one that we all might ask today.  Jesus has prepared a place for Sharon, and Jesus tells us that we will see her again, because we know the way.  But, like the disciples, we don’t even know where Sharon is going.  How can we know the way?”

Sharon is missed because there is no one to fill her place.  Nor should there be.  We miss Shari, and we mourn with Ed and the family because she is missing from our lives.

But . . . she is not missing.  She has not gone missing, though she is missed.  We don’t know exactly where she has gone, but we do know the way to where she is.  Because Jesus answers our troubled hearts today the same way he answered Thomas that day: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Jesus is the Way.  The Way to where Sharon is going.  The Way to where you and I are going.  Though we grieve, and though we mourn, and though we dearly miss our beloved Shari, I remind you of the words of Jesus:  do not let your hearts be troubled.  We know the Way.  

May God give us the faith to trust in the promises of Jesus, for Sharon, and for ourselves.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

YEAR A 2023 ash wednesday

Ash Wednesday, 2023
Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103:8-14

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

As with many of the most important days in the church year, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday does the heavy lifting.  Everything you need to know about the day is found in the pages of our prayer book.  Today is one of those times where the preacher cannot add much that matters, but can certainly derail things by saying too much.  And so I just want to give you a thought or two.  

The season of Lent is a good time to hit the reset button in our lives.  Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder that we are mortal. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  And remembering we are mortal, that changes how we view the world, and turns our attention to what we will leave behind when we are gone.  But then, can we even hit that reset button, when we are distracted 24 hours a day by the cares and concerns of this life?  This busy life we live, while still knowing we will one day leave it all behind?

Those constant distractions of life are why some people find it is helpful to give something up for Lent.  To refocus the attention on who we are, and who God is, and why we are here, and what happens when we’re gone.  These are the heaviest questions in the world, and it is hard to think about them when we are constantly distracted, acting as though we will live forever.  But deep down, we know we won’t live forever.  And we have Ash Wednesday as an annual reminder of that fact.  Having been given the miraculous gift of life means we will also one day pass on from this world, and back into the arms of Jesus.

So, here’s something to think about as we enter into these forty days together.  Lent is not a time for behavior modification.  (That’s what New Year’s resolutions are for.)  Lent is a time for mental modification: an opportunity to change our minds.  Some people find it is helpful to change their behaviors during Lent in order to change their minds.  But the point of Lent is to help us see life as it is.  And to see death as it is.  And to see the promise of the resurrection as it is.  Life, death, and resurrection are all of a piece for Christians.  

And so, in this season of Lent, my prayer is that God will grant us the clarity of mind to acknowledge that we are mortal, and the faith to believe that we will one day be raised to immortal life with those we love, and the courage to go and tell others this good news.


Sunday, February 19, 2023

YEAR A 2023 absalom jones

Absalom Jones, Feb. 19, 2023
Isaiah 42:5–9
Psalm 126
John 15:12-15

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

Today—with the Bishop’s permission—we are honoring Absalom Jones at both our services.  As you know, February is Black History month.  The purpose of Black History month is not so that Black Americans can celebrate their own separate history.  It is, rather, so that everyone can recognize the important contributions of people whom history has tended to skip over, oftentimes quite intentionally.  And the fact that most Episcopalians don’t know the name Absalom Jones kind of proves the point.

Abasalom Jones was the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, ordained in 1802.  He died on February 13th, which is why that is his feast day.  Now, there was another man, named Wright Walker—a member of St. Timothy’s Church—who died on February 18th, 1921.  If Wright Walker had a feast day—which he should—it would have been yesterday.  So we are honoring both of these important men today.

In honor of Absalom Jones, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has asked that clergy solicit contributions to two schools this month—you’ll see a flyer in your bulletin explaining this.  But Michael Curry is not our Bishop; the Right Rev. Mark Hollingsworth is our Bishop.  Presiding Bishop Curry has no authority over me, or this parish, because of the way the Episcopal Church is structured.  Since I just finished writing an article on Apostolic Succession for our diocesan Church Life magazine, allow me to take a moment to explain how this all works.

The organizing unit of the Episcopal Church is the Diocese—not the congregation, and not the national church.  The people of each Diocese periodically choose someone to lead us as Bishop; and 20 years ago, we chose a priest from Massachusetts and ordained him our Bishop.  Technically, Mark Hollingsworth is your priest—which is why he always presides at the Eucharist when he visits us.  But since he can’t be here every week, St. Timothy’s Church calls a Rector to fill in as priest the other 155 Sundays between Bishop’s visitations.  And, right now, that’s me.

The Presiding Bishop is chosen by the national church to lead the House of Bishops when they meet.  You know, to preside at their meetings.  Bishop Curry is the face and figurehead of the Episcopal Church, but he has less actual authority than Bishop Hollingsworth.  The point is, the Presiding Bishop is no Pope, you see?  Essentially, he asked Bishop Hollingsworth to ask me to ask you for your support of these two Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in honor of Absalom Jones, and so I am asking, and I hope you will consider contributing, as Cristin and I will be.

As I did three years ago, I want to read you a couple of things about Absalom Jones and Wright Walker, and then offer just a closing thought.

From Lesser Feasts and Fasts: Absalom Jones was born on November 6, 1746, as a house slave in Delaware. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave, and purchased her freedom with his earnings. Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for its black membership. The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased black membership at St. George’s. The alarmed vestry decided to segregate blacks into an upstairs gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday service when ushers attempted to remove them, the blacks indignantly walked out as a body.

In 1787, black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized Afro-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar black groups in other cities. In 1792, the Society began to build a church, which was dedicated on July 17th, 1794. The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1. that they be received as an organized body; 2. that they have control over their local affairs; 3. that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.

In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802. Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” But it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas Church, Philadelphia, grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God and in the church as God’s instrument. Jones died on February 13th, 1818, in Philadelphia.

Now, flash forward seventy years his death, and we find this, from St. Timothy’s Parish History:  In January, 1888, [St. Timothy’s Rector] Mr. Kemp began a ministry among the black people of Massillon. . . . He helped them to repair an  abandoned  church on Oak Street, and began holding regular Sunday afternoon services there.

After the congregation had been using the church for about a year, they learned that it belonged to the AME Zion Con­ference.  They surrendered  the building to its owners, and began meeting in the Sunday School room at St. Timothy's until new quarters could be found. 

At first, the Vestry discussed the possibility of  building a chapel on the  church grounds. Then A. J. Ricks, the Senior Warden, offered to donate a lot on Wellman Avenue, [which is a few blocks north of here]. Grace Chapel was completed in February 1890. Approximately one­ third of the cost was raised by the  blacks, an­other third  by the members of St. Timothy's, and the rest was given by citizens of Massillon and outside friends.  

On Ash Wednesday, 1890, the first service was held in the chapel, which was the first black Episcopal church in the Diocese of Ohio. On July 6 of that year Bishop W. A. Leonard dedicated the chapel and confirmed a class of six. [Our Rector] Mr. Kemp held services in the chapel regularly every Sunday afternoon after that, with Mrs. Kemp playing the organ.

From 1890 to 1893 the chapel's membership remained fairly steady. But after 1893 only a few communicants were added to the rolls, not enough to offset the inevitable losses in membership

After Grace Chapel closed, several of its members transferred their affiliation to St. Timothy's. Among them was Wright Walker, a former slave who came to Massillon with the Jarvis  family, and amassed a small fortune before his death [Feb. 18] in 1921. The bulk of his estate was left to Tuskegee Institute, but he also left a bequest to St. Timothy's. He is buried in the church lot in the Massillon cemetery.

As most of you know by now, it is my wish to be buried in the vacant plot right next to Wright Walker.  I have even lay down there on the ground to consider the view, and it is lovely.  But, not anytime soon, God willing.  Wright Walker was an exemplary man, and a pillar of this church and community.

And, you may be wondering, “What is this Tuskegee Institute to which he gave this small fortune?”  The Tuskegee Institute is another Historically Black College, located in Alabama.  Mr. Walker did not go to college, but he did once visit Tuskegee so that he could meet his hero, Booker T. Washington, one of the school’s founders.  Having been born a slave, Wright Walker did not even learn to read and write until he moved north and then to Massillon.  Although he himself did not attend Tuskegee, he saw its value.

In the March 1931 edition of the Tuskegee Journal, they devoted several pages to Wright Walker.  The main article about him in this issue is titled, “Born a Slave—Died a Prince.”  They say that his two hobbies were reading and going to church.  Going to church right here, in this very same building.  In fact, he paid for those choir pews, which we still use every Sunday.  The ones on the south side (soprano and alto) are dedicated in memory of  the  Rev. John Swan, our first rector, and those on the north side (tenor and bass) are in honor of the Rev. Edward Kemp, for his work among the black community of Massillon.  I encourage you to note the plaques on the front of them sometime.

The Tuskegee Journal also writes, The influence of the Jarvis family accounted for Mr. Walker’s becoming identified with the Episcopal Church.  This is the only way to account for his church affiliation, as the late Booker T. Washington often remarked that when you found a Negro other than Methodist or Baptist, you could be assured that some white man had tampered with his religion.

Ouch!  Be that as it may, they also write that The congregation of St. Timothy’s appreciated him not only for his contribution and attendance to its services; but as one who exerted a great influence upon its members because of his pious and devoted life.

At the time of this special edition, Wright Walker’s gift to the Tuskegee Institute was “the single biggest gift Tuskegee received from a Negro.”  They continue, “It is significant that a man who had been denied the privilege of an education could recognize the need, and deem that the best expression of his love for his race could come from leaving so large amount of his estate for the cause of education.”  Significant is an understatement.

These two remarkable men, Absalom Jones and Wright Walker, are a testament to love, in the face of . . . what is not love.  And that same struggle continues, even as advances are made.  As our closing hymn today asks, “Yet, with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our parents sighed?”  It is a determination to meet resistance with love.  Because God is in love.  God is always in love.

In today’s gospel reading:  Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  From Absalom Jones and the Episcopal Church, to Wright Walker and St. Timothy’s Church, we have seen this love, and I know that generations to come will see this same love.  It is a very specific kind of love, the love that can only come from God, who is our Strength and our Redeemer.  Again, from that same hymn: “Thou who hast by thy might led us into the light; keep us forever in the path, we pray.”
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.


Sunday, February 12, 2023

YEAR A 2023 epiphany 6

Epiphany 6, 2023
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.

Today we got to hear about anger, hatred, lust, adultery, murder, and hell.  This reading is our ex-vangelical friends worst nightmare.  And for those of us who grew up in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the latent anxiety is palpable.  And that’s because, in some sectors of the church, the Bible is considered infallible and inerrant.  The literal Word of God without error or fault.

But here in the Episcopal Church, we take a different view.  And you can see that view in the presentation at the Ordination of  a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, where the candidate professes to believe that the Old and New Testaments "contain all things necessary to salvation.”  The Bible contains all things necessary to salvation.  The Bible doesn’t stand for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”  It is not a literal roadmap for how to live your life.  It is not a science textbook.  The Bible contains all things necessary to salvation.

Are there myths and allegories in the bible?  Yes.  Are there mistranslations, and cases where some monk changed the name Mary to Martha?  Yes.  Are there added portions, like in the 16th chapter of Mark?  Yes.  Is there a hidden message in the King James Version of Psalm 46 for William Shakespeare’s 46th birthday?  Yes.  And, most importantly for us today, are there times where the separation of time and culture make it nearly impossible for us to understand the magnitude of what Jesus is saying?  Yes.  The Bible is not the inerrant, infallible, literal Word of God, but it does contain all things necessary to salvation.  If you are looking for salvation, it’s in there.  If you are looking for a science curriculum, it is not.

So let’s start with the first reading, from Deuteronomy.  Moses says to the people, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  You can obey God’s commandments and love God, or you can ignore those commandments and turn to other gods instead.  And then he says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life . . . .”

Choose life.  He tells them they can choose life or death, and suggests they go with life.  Good choice.  But it’s important to notice how matter of fact this presentation is.  It really is simply about making good choices, not about punishment for walking away from God.  It’s more like, you can choose to jump out the window, but that way leads to death.  Choose not to jump out the window, okay?  But what if we can’t choose life?  What if the way we are, or the way life has treated us, makes us unable to choose life?  What then?  We’ll come back to that.

Let’s jump ahead to the good news from Jesus.  You know, the part about anger, hatred, lust, adultery, murder, and hell.  We could say that this entire section of Matthew is about relationships.  All of these sayings with the construction, you have heard it said, or you have heard it was written, and then “but I say to you,” which feels like a tightening noose in some ways.  Like, Moses gave the 10 Commandments, and Jesus is saying, “and it gets worse!”  But that is an overly simplistic way of viewing this passage.

Because if our base level for morality and how we treat others is just the 10 Commandments, well, most of us can do pretty okay there.  Chances are pretty good that you’re not going to kill anyone, for instance.  So, I can proudly walk around with my head held high, safe in the knowledge that through my own effort and strength I have not killed anyone.  Today.

But what is missing from my achievement of doing the absolute bare minimum of not committing murder is any relationship with another human being.  There’s a law on some piece of paper or some tablet of stone and I have not broken it.  So what?  Does that have anything at all to do with how I treat other people?  With seeing others as beloved children of God?  No.  I’m just avoiding violating the letter of the law, and ignoring the spirit of the law.

And so we can look at all these statements from Jesus as taking the Law of Moses and turning the spotlight to, “What does this mean in community?  What does this mean in relationships?”  Thou shalt not kill is the letter of the law; don’t nurse your anger at your neighbor is the spirit of the law.  Do not commit adultery is the letter of the law; do not objectify other human beings is the spirit of the law.  

And look at the relationship in the section about leaving your gift at the Altar.  I have always misread this as saying, if I’m angry at someone, or if I have an issue with someone, I should go and settle that before I come to church.  But look at what it actually says: “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you . . . first go and be reconciled.”  Remembering that I have something against someone else is a corrective to my own spiritual health.  But remembering that someone has something against me is about a relationship.  It’s not my personal spirituality; it’s about my relationship with my sisters and brothers and siblings.

And of course, we have to wrestle with the bit about divorce and remarriage and adultery.  This is an uncomfortable topic, to be sure, and different branches of the church have different views on what it all means.  One sticking point is that we don’t know exactly how Jesus is using the term “adultery” here.  But one thing is certain is that we are far removed by time and culture from what life was like for women in Jesus’ day.

You and I live in a patriarchal society, yes, but we ain’t seen nothing compared to first-century Palestine.  So the best construction I can put on this section is that it is meant as a protective hedge around women being divorced and abandoned in a society in which divorced women had no rights or security.  And that puts us right back to comparing the letter of the law with the spirit of the law.  Yes, the law says you can hand your wife a certificate of divorce on a whim, but I say to you, women are beloved children of God, and people are meant for relationships.  And the damage you cause with your indifference spreads to other people you don’t even know!

And then, let’s go to hell.  In our translation of this text, the word “hell” comes up 3 times.  And it probably conjures up in your mind some scene from Dante’s Inferno, or last week’s Grammies, with flames and a guy with a pitchfork in a costume from Halloween City.  But the actual word in the text is Gahenna, which was an actual location outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem.  (Not to be confused with Gahanna, the location of the Columbus airport.)

In Jesus’ time, Gahenna was essentially a burning trash heap.  But prior to that, it is thought to be the place where children were sacrificed to other gods.  So in people’s minds, in Jesus’ day, Gahenna was a place of blasphemy and corruption and isolation and despair.  It was a literal dumpster fire.  But it was not a place of everlasting torment and damnation with special levels of hell reserved for the worst sinners.  It was a giant garbage fire, with a sordid past, outside the community of God’s faithful people.  Not hell, but you can see it from there.

So why does Jesus keep mentioning Gahenna in this reading?  I mean, he’s clearly using it for effect.  Essentially conjuring up the worst thing people could think of.  Because Gahenna means being cast out and cut off, living outside the community, and beyond the reach of relationships.  As I said, all these examples Jesus is giving are about relationships.  About how to treat other human beings.  About living in community.  About choosing life over death.

Which takes us back to that reading from Deuteronomy.  Remember the questions I mentioned earlier?  Moses says, “choose life.”  But what if we can’t choose life?  What if the way we are, or the way life has treated us, makes us unable to choose life?  What if the people around us consistently choose the letter of the law over the spirit of the law, and we end up angry and divorced and beat down by the struggles of life?  Moses says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life . . .”  What if we can’t choose life.

And this is where we find the good news in these readings.  Because God always chooses life.  When we choose anger over love, God chooses life.  When we treat other human beings as a means to our own selfish desires, God chooses life.  When God walks among us in the person of Jesus, and we condemn him to death on a cross, God chooses life.

No matter what we choose, God always chooses life.  May God help us to also choose life over death, to choose people over rules, and to live in a world where there is room for every beloved child of God.


Sunday, February 5, 2023

YEAR A 2023 epiphany 5

Epiphany 5, 2023
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.

I love when this gospel reading comes up, because I get to talk about two of my favorite things: salt and light.  Salt and light.  You and I need both salt and light to survive.  Every teardrop, every drop of sweat, and each drop of blood has salt.  Blood, sweat, and tears . . . 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 throwing salt in your eye, to taking things with 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 lesson the hard way, because salt does NOT hide the taste of peas and lima beans.  In fact, quite the contrary!  Instead of smothering the flavor, salt brings out the full flavors of peas and lima beans, in all their delightful 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.

And light is another powerful 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 why we have any food to put our salt on in the first place.  In today’s 10 second science review, the reason we humans have to eat food at all is because we cannot directly process the energy given off by the sun.  Everything we eat in the food chain is food for us because the sun’s light shines on it, or shines 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 there.  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.

But, 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 “Blessed are the poor . . .”  You know, the Beatitudes—which we didn’t get to hear last week, because we were celebrating the Feast of St. Timothy.  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 that means, as a disciple of Jesus, you are salt and light.

But lately, there’s been a movement among some Christians to try to be salt and light in the culture.  It’s usually a way of interpreting these verses in a condemning or adversarial 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.  This call to go become salt and light is a call that typically challenges the world, lays down firm ethical standards, and shows other 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 here’s an important thing:  this 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 already are, not what you go and 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.  Jesus says, 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 somehow become light through your own efforts.  You do not become light the world; you are the light of the world.  

And when we look at today’s first reading, from Isaiah, there’s an interesting little gem hidden in there.  The prophet writes that what God commands is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.”  And then what?  If we do all these things, what?  God will love us more?  We’ll get a gold star for doing what God commands?  No.  If we do these things, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

Your light shall break forth like the dawn.  You see what that means?  The light is already in us.  Doing these deeds to help those who need us lets that light break forth, and to shine like the dawn.  It’s what we already are; it’s just a matter of letting that light out into the world.  Not covering it up.

Now back to the two points I left hanging a few minutes ago.  Keeping in mind that you already are the salt of the earth, consider this . . . One of the things salt does is wake up our other taste buds.  Salt on our food increases our appreciation of what’s already there.  Salt gives us the full flavor, the nuances of what we eat.  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 since Jesus says you already are the light of the world?  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.

So 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 use our salt to sting people’s eyes.  And it could mean we shine our light on things that embarrass and shame those we meet.  Salt and light can do those things, sure.  But salt and light do these 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.  Helping others to see and taste the goodness of life.

Again, we do not have to do something in order to become salt and light in this world.  Jesus has already declared that we are salt and light.      

But, since Jesus brought it up, how do we keep our saltiness?  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 is what makes us the light of the world.  Our light shines before others simply by being his disciples.  And here’s a little 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.