Monthly Archives: February 2017

Sermon: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Below is my sermon from the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer.  The lessons can be found here.  The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website.  The manuscript is also included below.  As always, comments and feedback welcome. 

 

Nearly three years ago, I found myself sitting in the common room at Yale Divinity School for Admitted Students Day. The day’s formal activities began with remarks from the YDS Dean and President. I have, I’ll admit, forgotten most of what Dean Sterling had to say on that April morning, but there is one thing that has stayed with me. I remember hearing about the school motto: Faith and Intellect

divinity_1At our very best we live each day in the balance of Faith and Intellect. We study with world-renowned scholars. We take seriously our call to common worship. Even our architecture is governed by Faith and Intellect. As you stand at the foot of our quad and look out on that lovey Jeffersonian architecture your eye is drawn to a grand marble staircase that leads to the doors of Marquand Chapel. And lest we loose sight of the balance of Faith and Intellect, directly below those large white doors of the chapel is the main entrance to the library. In our schedule, in our community life, in our architecture we are Faith and Intellect.

This is YDS at its very best.

Now if you’ve spent any time in any institution – school, church, or otherwise – you’ll understand what I mean when I say: very best is often very far from reality.

There is tension in faith and intellect. There is a struggle for priority. Chapel gets skipped for a little extra study time. Parish internships take priority over paper writing. There is an instinct to use the power of the mind to rationalize, justify, even minimize any question of faith. I don’t understand, I don’t agree with, I don’t like what the Church has believed for centuries; what Jesus teaches in the Gospels so let me problematize it, let me ignore it, let me explain it away. Let me use human knowledge to make sense of God.

So when I read today’s epistle, having lived in this tension for nearly three years, I can’t help but get a knot in my stomach.

Paul writes: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I love being at YDS. The formation in Faith and Intellect I have received there has been instrumental in forming me into the person of faith I am today, and God willing, the priest I will be in the future. But I cannot help but wonder, what if Faith and Intellect misses the point.

In writing to the community in Corinth, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to think more clearly about what it means to be the Church. He is writing to a community that is struggling, and focused on internal fighting. They are weighed down by misdirected priorities, and cannot agree on whom the head of the Church is. The Church in Corinth lacks unity.

Just as Paul reminds the Corinthians, we too are reminded that the foundations of our lives are not to be determined by our preferred political or religious leaders – the foundation of our life is Jesus Christ. No matter where we fall in the debates that preoccupy our lives we are to be unified because we all share one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. We are all built upon that foundation which is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is urging the Corinthians to live with a particular sense of intentionality that stems from their foundation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is urging them to be mindful of their unity and the importance of living as a community of faith. When a community lives into this foundation, the wisdom of God – that which is seen as foolishness to the world – can be found. This is where Faith and Intellect come into tension for Paul and the Corinthians.

The Corinthians lived in a time and place where eloquence stood in a place of great honor. The eloquent were deemed the wise of society, and their rhetoric was their gift. Corinthian wisdom was grounded in human intellect, while Paul’s wisdom was grounded in the Cross. This human intellect and this faith in the cross of Christ cannot be balanced together. How can we make sense of God who honors the death of a condemned criminal of the Roman State by using it as a means to bestow redemption and eternal life on humanity? Instead of balance there is tension.

If we can, even if only for a little while, put our human inclination towards intellect aside, we might be able to glimpse the wisdom of God. We might be able to see more fully the reality of the Cross. For in God’s wisdom – in the Cross – God’s love is found.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not the only place where human intellect and reason must take a back seat to God’s wisdom. Both our lesson from Leviticus and our Gospel reading from Matthew draw our attention to God’s wisdom as opposed to our natural human instincts.

Leviticus is one of those Biblical Books we do not read from very often on Sundays. In fact, Leviticus only appears twice in the lectionary cycle and on both occasions we read the same passage. The words we heard today are the only words we hear from this book, which leads me to think that there must be something important for us to hear in this passage.

This passage is part of what is known as the Holiness Code – a list of laws that tell the Israelites how they are to live and act in the world – a way of being that honors their relationship with God. What we hear today is in many ways the summation and culmination of the entirety of Israelite theology.

In everything they do, Israelites are reminded of their relationship with God. More importantly they are reminded that as a result of that relationship, how they behave is an indictor of how they understand God to act in the world:
When you reap the harvest of your land . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not steal . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . . I am the Lord.

In all that they do, they are to remember that they are to be in the world the way God is in the world. For “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” This declaration of their holiness – by virtue of their willingness to live as God’s people in the world – distinguishes them from the rest of the world. In their likeness to God they are set apart as otherness to humanity. In being faithful witnesses to God they defy what human intellect begs them to do.

As Moses speaks to all the congregations of the people of Israel, Moses also speaks to us, and it is not just Moses who calls us to model our lives on God. For Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Here is Matthew Jesus sets up parameters that turn societal norms upside down.

“Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you.” Jesus takes a system that is set up to make sure retribution is equitable and tells the people of God to give up their right to retaliation.

I can imagine these words causing significant anger in those who heard them. They are living in a world of political unrest; a world where they are being oppressed by the Roman authorities. Instead of fighting back, Jesus calls on them to leave vengeance to God. Jesus was not calling them; Jesus is not calling us, to give into evil. By resisting the urge for retaliation, by keeping away from ourselves that self-destructive bitterness, we join Jesus is breaking down the very system that allows oppression to exist. These words are meant to shock the imagination and instill a more profound insight into God’s intention for the world.

Jesus’ commands do not stop there – Jesus calls us to go further. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Just as was true with the first set of commands, this command is not aimed at the goal of self-protection. This is not to be a plea to God to change the enemy’s mind; it is an invocation for God to transform our own lives. That the scales might fall from our eyes so that we can see everyone – even those we despise the most, even those who persecute and oppress us – the way God sees them: As beloved children.

We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors – those we like, those we cannot stand, those who wish us harm. We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors so that we might understand love more profoundly than human intellect can even imagine. This is what it means to be perfect. It is not some call to live by contemporary standards of perfection; it is a call to see the world as God sees it. To believe all people, no matter how evil the acts they commit are, are beloved children of God. It is to see the world from the foot of the Cross.

The parallels we see in Leviticus and Matthew today point to the reality that all people who choose to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – are called to live by a standard deemed foolish to the wisdom of the world.

There is nothing wrong with striving for faith and intellect – as long as we do not use our intellect to create a faith suitable for our desires instead of Gods. In those moments where we find ourselves experiencing the tension between our faith and our intellect – between what our human nature compels us to do and what God begs us to do – we must take the bold, counter-cultural, abnormal stance of faith. From that place we can use our gifts and intellects to build with care upon the foundation of Jesus. We do all this, not with the hopes of explaining away all the difficult things Jesus calls us to do, but with the hope that we might reach the foot of the Cross and finally know what true love is.

AMEN.

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Sermon: Thomas Bray

Below is a recording of the sermon I gave at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer on Wednesday 2/15/17 – The Commemoration of Thomas Bray.  The lessons for the evening were Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 102:15-22; and Luke 10:1-9.

thomasbray

 

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Sermon: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Below is my sermon from the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at St Mark’s Warwick.  The lessons can be found here.  A recording of the sermon along with the manuscript can be found below.  As always, comments and feedback welcome. 

 

temple

20th century Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple is often quoted for saying, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”

In this sentence, Temple has articulated a deep and profound reality of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. From the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry to this moment in 2017 this is the abiding truth of the Church. As the catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Now I’ll admit, these two phrases sound a bit like lofty ideals put forward by academics, bishops, and church councils, which is exactly what they are, but at the heart of these words are the very words of Jesus.

Today we hear from Matthew’s Gospel. We continue along this five-week journey through that most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. The journey began last week as we heard those familiar words of the Beatitudes, and continues this week as we hear Jesus announce our identity – we hear Jesus tell us what it means to follow him – we hear Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth . . .You are the light of the world.”

These words are familiar. They have inspired the hearts and minds of artist, poets, and musicians for centuries. They have seeped into the cultural imagination of our world, and friends they can even be found on bumper stickers.

I wonder if I am the only one who started singing to myself, “hide it under a bushel NO, I’m gonna let it shine” as the words, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” were proclaimed from the Gospel.

We know these words, and that is where the danger lies.

The danger lies in the complacency of the familiar. The danger lies in becoming numb to just how powerful these words are. We must wake up and see the fullness of what Jesus is really calling us to this day.

So what does it mean to be salt?

The phrase, “the salt of the earth” has been normalized into our cultural vocabulary to mean really good, down to earth people. Because this phrase is so familiar we miss out on recognizing just how bizarre this would have sounded to those present with Jesus. Imagine instead if Jesus said, “You are the red hot chili peppers of the earth.”

You add zest. You add spice. You enliven. You shake up and unsettle the world.

This is what the disciples are called to do.

The way they are to engage the world should have profound consequences for the behavior of humanity. But in order to do this they must stay vigilant. That is why Jesus warns about salt that has lost its saltiness.   The danger for the disciples is that they might lose that capacity, by forgetting that they are to disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, by caring for those who suffer loss, by seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what they believe. Jesus is clear; disciples who do not engage in such practices that humanize life and restore the dignity of humanity are bland, and fall into the trap of following the ways of this early kingdom instead of the ways of God.

Today we are called to be red hot chili peppers. Today we are called to be salt.

The second metaphor used to instruct the disciples in their newfound identity as followers of Jesus is light.

It is important to note here that the disciples themselves are not the light.

There is only one light. The light that shines in the darkness. The light that enlightens the nations. The light of the world is Jesus.

So when Jesus says to the disciples, “You are the light of the world,” Jesus is saying to them that you are to be windows through which the light of God passes through and shines on the world. The gathered community of the disciples are to be so transformed by the light of God which passes through them, that they become beacons that burst forth the image and reality of God’s justice, God’s mercy, and God’s love.

Today we are called to be windows. Today we are called to be light.

After Jesus finished his metaphors of salt and light, he interjects with a clarification about the connection between this new thing that he is doing and the tradition that has been handed down to them.

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is being explicit here, that the law and the prophets stand until they have been accomplished – until the prophecies have been fulfilled. So these words from Jesus force us to connect what it means to be salt and light with the prophetic message we hear from Isaiah.

Today’s passage from Isaiah draws our attention to the true meaning of worship. Throughout the beginning of the passage, the prophet is calling out the people of Israel for making their worship about themselves. They say to God, “why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” After pointing out the problems with the Israelites behavior the prophet goes on to say:

Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Worship, when it is only about us, is not true worship. True worship is that which brings us closer to God and inspires us to go out into the world and live into the fullness of that relationship.

I want to be clear. There is nothing wrong with worship and ritual as long as we are not participating in those things for their own sake or out of some sort of obligation. Worship is not the end, but a vehicle to something more.

Worship should push us, it should make us uncomfortable, it should trouble the complacency in our hearts for worship is the primary way we build a deeper and more honest relationship with God. From this place of discomfort we should be moved to go out and act – to go out and make real the fast the Lord has chosen.

So, when Jesus says not one letter of the law or prophets will be erased until they have been fulfilled, Jesus is saying the work of my disciples – the work of salt and light – is to loose the bonds of injustice; to let the oppressed go free; to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to not cast anyone aside; to welcome all people into the community that is the followers of Jesus; and to not rest until the realms of justice, peace, freedom and love prevail.

Over the years as I have come to know this community; as I have heard stories from some of you, from Deacon Joyce, and from Mother Susan I have come to see just how many windows there are here at St. Mark’s. I have come to know just how well you allow the light of Christ to shine through you. Every month over one hundred people come to your doors to be fed, to share in fellowship, and to take food home with them from your Community Lunch. You knit prayer shawls. You’ve established a relationship with the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center. You do all this and so much more. Here at St. Mark’s you are working hard, as a gathered community of disciples of Jesus, to build the kingdom of God, which is already and not yet.

Today as we once again here the invitation of Jesus to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world we are invited to discern how we can live into this identity more fully. We have the opportunity to imagine how we can better live into the sentiments of Archbishop Temple that, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” In this historical moment it is our responsibility as disciples of Jesus to seek out the lost, the left behind, the broken, the stranger, the scared and welcome them to be among us. To care for them. To love as Jesus loves us.

In a world of increasing anxiety and fear it can be hard to have the courage to keep doing these things.

It can be hard to continue in the righteousness of Jesus.

It can be hard to not be overwhelmed by it all.

In those moments we can turn to the words of the psalmist, who reminds us that the righteous have no reason to fear.

In those moments we can turn to our worshipping communities and pray together.

In those moments, we take all that holds us back and place that into the arms of the loving, life-giving, and liberating God.

Once we are set free from that burden, we can continue on with our work of being salt and light – we can continue on with our work of being the Church.

AMEN.

 

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