Sermon: A New Lawgiver

Sunday 12 February 2017
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

sermon-on-the-mountFor a third week, now, we have been reading from the section of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the best known and best loved pieces of scripture in the entire bible. Many consider it to be the very heart of the gospel message, the canon within the canon, the text by which all other texts are judged. The text that begins, “Beloved are the poor in spirit,” is itself a text much beloved.

And yet, it is a text that can be very confusing. It confounds many of the assumptions that we have about the bible. It disrupts many of the beliefs we have about the New Testament. It confuses many of the things we think we understand about Jesus.

Though many of us have been taught that Jesus came to free us from the law, to set aside the outdated rules of the Old Testament, the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount declares quite the opposite. In Matthew 5:17, he says, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.”

In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus proceeds to go through several of the Old Testament laws and comment on them. “You have heard that it was said,” he begins, and then quotes one of the old laws. And then he follows up with, “But I say to you,” and he gives a new law. If we think that Jesus preaches a new existence free from the old law, then we might expect Jesus to take the old law and soften it up a bit. We might expect Jesus to do away with some of the more archaic aspects of the law.

But to our surprise, Jesus does quite the opposite. For every law that Jesus quotes, he gives a harsher, more restrictive law in its place. The old law said don’t murder. Jesus’s new law says expressing anger is the same as murder. The old law said don’t commit adultery. Jesus’s new law says that looking with a lustful eye is the same as committing adultery. The old law allowed for divorce. Jesus’s new law does not. The old law said that anyone who swears an oath should keep it. Jesus’s new law says that no human should ever presume even to swear an oath. And while the old law only threatened death for those who do not obey, Jesus’s new law threatens the fires of hell.

If we were expecting a law-breaking, carefree Jesus, then we will be very much surprised.  Instead, we get a new lawgiver. We get a new Moses. Jesus comes down from the mountain, just as Moses did, and gives a new law, just as Moses did. And the law that Jesus gives is even more difficult to accept than the law of Moses. It is even more strict and unrelenting.

This sermon disrupts the way we usually think about Jesus, but it also disrupts the way many of us think about the bible. This passage from today is the proof that, whatever people may claim about the bible, no one actually reads it literally. Many people claim that the bible is the exact and precise word of God and there is no need for any interpretation because it says just exactly what God means it to say. But this passage is the proof that no one actually believes that. Because, of course, if we did actually believe that, then there wouldn’t be a single Christian in the world walking around with two hands and two eyes. Jesus says very clearly and unambiguously, “If your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.” Surely there is not one Christian in the entire world who has never sinned with their eye—looking on something they don’t have and wanting it for themselves—the sin of covetousness and greed. And yet I have never met any Christian who has plucked out their own eye, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the fires of hell. And surely there is not one Christian in the whole world who has not sinned with their hand—raising it against another in anger, or taking what belongs to another, or failing to reach it out in service and charity to one in need. And yet I have never met a single Christian who has chopped off their own hand, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the eternal punishment. We may think we read the bible literally, but none of us actually do.

And perhaps we are not meant to. After all, none of the apostles cut off his own hand that day on the mountain. None of the disciples plucked out her own eye. So what are we supposed to get out of this very strange sermon?

I think some of it has to do with the way we judge others and the way we have a tendency to think of ourselves as somehow qualitatively better than others. After all, we are Christians, aren’t we? We are blessed by God. We do our best to follow God’s laws. Surely that counts for something. Surely that makes us better than the unwashed masses who never have a care for anything that is good or right or just or Godly.

Surely I am better than a murderer, aren’t I? And yet Jesus says that anyone who lashes out it in anger is liable to the same divine punishment as the murderer. And there is not one of us who has never burned with unrighteous anger. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than a murderer.

But surely I am better than an adulterer, aren’t I? I have kept my marriage vows. And yet Jesus says that anyone who looks on another with a lustful eye is liable to the same punishment as the adulterer. And, as Jimmy Carter so truthfully pointed out, there is not one of us who has not committed adultery in our heart many times. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than an adulterer.

He seems to be saying something similar about divorce. If I get a divorce because I have found someone I think I love more, and if I refrain from physical union until after the divorce is final, that technicality does not excuse me from adultery. That’s the overall message of this section: we can’t think that we have avoided judgment simply because we have found some loophole in the law. We can’t think that we are better than the people around us simply because we have committed less visible sins than they.

Despite any outward appearances to the contrary, we are all sinners. We all carry around our enduring guilts, our secret shames. That is something that every human being has in common. We have all fallen short of the glory of God.

What Jesus’s words do is to hold together two contrary notions at the same time. Jesus’s words challenge us to do better, to strive for lives of perfect holiness. But at exactly the same time, Jesus’s words remind us that whatever level of holiness we may live, it cannot be the ground for boasting. Jesus calls us simultaneously to perfect obedience and to perfect humility, neither letting our obedience puff us up until we lose humility nor letting our humility break us down until we see no point in striving for obedience.

Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. If I strive for holiness, there are several different traps I might fall into. I might be so proud of my holiness that I think I am better than other people. I might hold myself to such an impossibly high standard that I constantly feel incapable and unworthy. I might fixate on a few kinds of holiness so that I miss many other important things I should be doing. I might use the standard of holiness only as a means of judging and condemning other people, while never holding the same standard up to myself. I might be so concerned with doing what is right that I forget about God’s grace, grace for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much pressure on myself and my own abilities to do what is right that I forget that true holiness comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me. Those are ways that striving for Godliness can end up running off the rails.

And humility is just as tricky. If I am striving for humility, I might end up just not trying, just doing nothing because nothing matters. I might end up constantly beating myself down, trying to make myself lower and lower, so that I don’t reach humility, instead I reach humiliation, self-loathing, and crippling depression. I might end up achieving a fair level of humility, until I come across someone who is boastful, and I end up thinking, I am so much more humble than he is. I might hold myself to such a strict standard of humility that I can’t honestly assess my own strengths, and I don’t ever end up using my talents for God. I might put so much pressure on myself to be humble that I forget about God’s grace, grace both for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much responsibility on myself to be humble that I forget that true humility comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me.

It may sound like just more rules, just more regulations, just more law. Why is Jesus making it harder for us? Why is Jesus stacking up more things that we have to do in order to be worthy of God? It may seem like just more law.

But in fact, it is more grace. By making the rules more strict, Jesus is making sure that none of us have the delusion that we can actually follow them all ourselves. We are in need of God’s grace. It’s not just the Class-A sinners that need God’s grace. We all need God’s grace. And there is plenty of God’s grace to go around. That is the first step: to realize that I am not perfect, and I can never make myself perfect, no matter how hard I try. I make mistakes. I am a sinner. I am in need of God’s grace. And God has plenty of grace to go around.

But it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with me recognizing that I am a sinner and asking for God’s grace. The strictness of the rules remind us that there is still a goal. And once I have accepted God’s justifying grace, God’s forgiveness, then I can begin to be open to God’s sanctifying grace, the Spirit’s continuing work in my life to make me holy. I can begin to let the Holy Spirit work within me, once I have accepted God’s grace. And God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with my neighbors, even though they too are sinners. God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with myself, even though I am a sinner. God’s Spirit can begin to work in my life, so that my actions move closer to the mark, so that I more fully embody the life that God wants me to lead, the self that God wants me to be. But I am not making myself acceptable to God. No, God’s grace makes me acceptable, and God’s grace molds me into fuller realization of that perfect goal. I work with God, and I allow God to work in me, but I can never do it on my own in order to please God. God’s grace forgives me, and God’s grace moves me on toward greater holiness, greater humility.

It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t travel in a straight line. There are times when I can really feel in sync with God, when I can really feel that God is working in me, that God is leading me  to avoid evil and do good. And there are other times when I stumble and fall into sin. There are other times when I try to take control and end up fouling everything up. There are other times when I stubbornly resist God. There are other times when I simply fumble around, trying desperately to find any sense of God at all.

It takes time. It takes active, patient endurance. It takes acceptance of myself and who I am. Not perfect, but a beloved child a God. A child in need of grace. A child of a God who has plenty of grace to share.

Sermon: The Good of Salt and Light

Sunday 5 February 2017
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:13-20

12OrdinarioA5Salad, silt, sausage, salary, salami, soldier, sauce, saline, saucer, salsa. They all have something in common. They all are derived etymologically from the same word: sal or salt. The Romans used salt to counteract the bitter taste of leaf vegetables, giving us the word salad. Silt looks a lot like salt, and salt can be found in it. Sausage is meat made by salting, and salami is a particularly salty kind of sausage. Roman legionaries were sometimes paid in salt, that is, they received a salary. The one who is paid in salt is a soldier. Saline is, of course, salt water. Sauces and salsas are flavored with salt, and they could well be served in a saucer. All of these seemingly disparate words are in fact cognates in English; they all derive their meaning originally from salt.

When we think of salt today, we think of a bad thing. Salt is something that we try to avoid. Salt leads to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and hearth failure. Foods advertise that they have low sodium, because everyone knows that sodium, salt, is bad for you. It may taste good, but it’s bad for you.

So, when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” what is that supposed to mean? Do Christians cause heart disease and strokes? Are we best avoided because we are bad for people’s health? Are we something that tastes good even if we’re bad for you? Is religion a guilty pleasure?

We live in a world that has ready and easy access to salt. We can buy it by the pound at any grocery store. It’s cheap enough that we can use it as a craft supply and not worry about throwing it out. And salt ends up in abundance in our food, even if we don’t want it there, in all kinds of packaged and processed foods.

Our conception of salt is completely unlike the way that people in Jesus’s time understood salt. For them, salt was a necessity and an unmitigated good. It was also expensive and hard to get your hands on.

Salt is essential to the metabolism of humans and other mammals. Muscles and nerves cannot function without salt. Animals that don’t get enough salt will start eating dirt, rocks, and wood to get it, and will lick the sweat off other animals. Salt-deprived chickens produce fewer and smaller eggs. Calves that are given salt supplements grow twice as quickly as those that aren’t. Salt is one of the five things that humans can taste. Early settlements and civilizations were typically located near salt supplies.

In addition to it’s basic metabolic function, salt is the world’s oldest food preservative. It was used to preserve meat long before the first human writing. Salt has driven trade all over the world. The first Roman colony was built near a salt mine, and the first Roman road was built to transport salt. Caravans cross the Sahara desert to deliver salt. Wars have been fought over salt. At times, salt has been traded at twice the value by weight as gold. Salt has been used as money. Salt can be used to condition water, to make better soaps, and to clean pipes and faucets. And of course, we remember at this time of year that salt can be used to deice roads and sidewalks.

Salt and salt taxes have played a role in major world social movements. Records from 1785 say that ten thousand men were arrested every year in England for smuggling salt in defiance of the salt tax. A few years later, English livestock started to die from lack of salt, and in the face of riots, Parliament was forced to repeal the salt tax. A royal salt tax was one of the main issues of the French Revolution of 1789.

Mahatma Gandhi’s first major act of civil disobedience in British-controlled India was defiance against the salt tax. He led Indians in a 24-day march to Dandi where he made salt from sea water in defiance of the British salt monopoly. This was the beginning of the Satyagraha movement that eventually won Indian independence. Gandhi was jailed for his leadership of the Salt March, along with more than 80,000 other Indians who were jailed in the Salt Satyagraha.

You are the salt of the earth. It doesn’t mean that we are a health risk, and it doesn’t mean that we are tasty. Being salt means being life-giving, having preservative and cleansing qualities, being valuable beyond measure. Being salt of the earth means bring life to the earth.

Jesus goes on to say that if salt loses its saltiness, it becomes worthless. It can’t be used for anything. Now, technically speaking, it is impossible for salt to lose it’s saltiness. Sodium Chloride is a stable element; it can’t lose it’s saltiness. But, Jesus may have been referring to impure forms of salt, if stored improperly, that could lose some of their salt to water.

What is interesting, though is how Jesus refers to salt losing it’s saltiness. He says, if salt is μωρανθῇ, if salt becomes moronic, if it becomes stupid, foolish, or speechless, then how can it be restored? It can’t. It becomes worthless and useless.

Salt may not be able to lose it’s saltiness, but what happens when we lose our saltiness? What happens when our faith becomes foolish or speechless? What happens when we get carried away with things that don’t matter, things that distract us from our true callings? What happens when we argue over petty things? What happens when we fail to open our mouths in witness? What happens when our message fails to address the concerns and happenings of the real world? What happens when we lose the will to engage with what is going on around, or when we lose the courage to speak out against injustice? What happens when we lose our saltiness?

Jesus uses a second metaphor to describe his followers. Not only are they the salt of the earth, they are the light of the world. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, it is put on a lamp stand and provides light to everyone in the room.

Light provides illumination, it provides clarity. Without light, we cannot see. We cannot tell where we are going or what dangers might be in our path. We cannot tell the difference between colors, or appreciate the beauty of the created world. Of all of the senses, sight is perhaps the one we rely upon most. We often equate sight with understanding. In the cartoons, when someone gets an idea or figures something out for the first time, we can tell because a lightbulb switches on next to their head. If I want to say that I understand something, I can simply say, “I see.” It was the same in ancient Greek. The word that means “I know” is actually an ancient form of the word for seeing: it literally means “I have seen.”

And light, like salt, is something that is not good on its own. If light is hidden, it isn’t good for anything. Light is only good if it is put somewhere where it can shine. Light is only good if it illuminates things for people to see. Salt, also, is not any particular good on it’s own. It is only good if it is consumed to facilitate metabolism, or used to preserve or season food, or spread to melt ice. It is only good if it is used.

Being a Christian is not about being good in myself. It is not about focusing on my interior life to the exclusion of everything else. It is not about being satisfied with myself and my learning, or my purity, or my holiness. Learning, purity, and holiness can be good things, but not if they are not shared, not if they are not put to use. Being a Christian is not a solitary venture. Being a Christian is always about our relationship with others, both those inside and those outside the Christian community.

Jesus says that a city on a hill cannot be hid. Its light will reveal it even from far away. The phrase was famously used by President Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly spoke about America as a shining city on a hill. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase in reference to America. John Winthrop first used it in 1630 aboard to ship Arbello to tell the future Massachusetts Bay Colonists that the eyes of the world would be watching them. Their experiment would either show the world an example of Christian charity or it would show the world the colonists’ failure to achieve Christian charity and unity. President John F. Kennedy used it in the days leading up to his inauguration in the same way, to say that the eyes of world would be on America to see if we would succeed or fail at the great tasks ahead of us.

But Reagan used the phrase over and over, and he altered the wording a bit. Jesus spoke of a city on a hill that could not be hid. Reagan spoke of a shining city on a hill. And in doing so, he changed the meaning of the phrase. Winthrop and Kennedy were making the point that the world would be scrutinizing America. Reagan meant that the world was being drawn to America. It wasn’t just that America was being watched, or even that America was an example for the rest of the world. Reagan meant that the world’s peoples were being drawn to join America. For him it was a profound statement of America’s diversity, of our ability to welcome people from all nations, races, and religions. He explicitly said that shining city was indifferent to differences in race, religion, or political leanings.

In his farewell address, Reagan said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

That vision of America as a shining city on a hill is a far cry from how America is presenting itself in the world today. Now we are a nation defined by a border wall, a nation whose ports of entry are closed to those we see as different, those whose nationality, or language, or race, or religion do not conform to a certain mold. We are becoming more and more a nation of exclusion and division.

And it is in this context that we must struggle with what it means to be salt for the earth and light for the world. What is the truth we must speak, the saltiness we cannot afford to lose? What is the light we must shine, the situations we cannot allow to go unseen?

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to share God’s radical message of love and inclusion. We have an obligation to shine a light on injustice when we encounter it, an obligation to preserve what is good and just and life-giving in our world. We cannot abdicate our responsibility, hide our light under a basket, or allow our salt to become saltless. You are the light of the world, that is, of the whole world, not just part of it. You are the salt of the earth, that is, of the whole earth, not just a small section. We must be brave. We must be bold. We must share the love of God in every way that we can, taking courage from the one who calls us, the one who gives us light and life, Jesus the Christ.

Sermon: What the LORD Requires

Sunday 29 January 2017
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8

Whenever we look at a passage from the bible, it’s always a good idea to try to figure out what context the passage is in. The words from Micah are well known: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Chances are that most of us already know that slogan. What does the Lord require of you? But I for one didn’t know much about what the context was. I only knew the one verse: Micah 6:8. We memorized it in Sunday School. We sang it choir anthems. But I had never paid much attention to the verses around it. We just have to go back to beginning of the chapter to find it though, and the context is really quite extraordinary.

The context is a courtroom. In the ancient world, there wasn’t an independent judiciary. Whoever the ruler or official or elder in a particular place was would usually be the one to settle disputes among the people. So the place where justice was done would usually be the court of a king or ruler, not a court set aside just for the law. But if you want to imagine the courtroom of Judge Judy, that will probably do just fine for understanding this passage. This is a civil case with a plaintiff and a defendant.

The Lord God of Israel is involved in this case. Since God is the ruler and king of all, we would probably imagine that God is acting as the judge in this. But if we did, we would be mistaken. God isn’t the judge in this courtroom, God is the plaintiff. And God is bringing a case against his people, Israel. Israel is the defendant.

But then, who is the judge? Who would be competent to stand in judgement over God? God has stepped down from that usual role in order to put a case directly, and so God calls for a replacement judge to settle the matter. Who does God call to be judge? God actually calls a panel of judges. It’s the mountains:

Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
with Israel he will argue.

So now we know who all the players are. God is the plaintiff. Israel is the defendant. The ancient mountains of the earth have been called to be the judges. What are the proceedings going to be like?

God stands up to make the accusation:
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!”

If it were Judge Judy presiding, no doubt God would be scolded for addressing the defendant directly instead of addressing the court. But considering who this plaintiff is, perhaps a little more latitude is in order. God continues:

“I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,
and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!
Remember everything from the Shittim to Gilgal,
that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”

It’s the recounting of God’s mighty acts of salvation and liberation during the exodus of God’s people. God freed them from slavery in Egypt through Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. While the people of Israel were wandering the wilderness, the King of Moab, named Balak, was afraid that they might displace him. So King Balak went to the most powerful prophet in the land, Balaam, and offered him a great sum of money if he would curse the people of Israel for him. Balak took Balaam to three different hills, and on each hill he built seven altars, and on each altar he sacrificed a bull and a ram. But each time he did this, and asked Balaam to curse Israel for him, God appeared to Balaam and told him that he should not curse Israel, that he must bless Israel instead. And so that is what Balaam did. Much to the dismay of King Balak, Balaam would not accept his bribes and gifts. He would not do what the king commanded, because, Balaam said, he could not say anything other than the wishes of God, and God wished to bless Israel, not curse her.

Later, at Shittim, God raised up a new leader to succeed Moses—Joshua—and commissioned him to lead God’s people conquering in the Promised Land. Gilgal was Joshua’s military base during the attack on Jericho. God is reminding Israel that God has, again and again, taken Israel’s side and fought against the other nations on Israel’s behalf. If God has shown Israel this undue favoritism, then how can God’s claim against Israel possibly now be unjustified?

What it is that God is accusing Israel of is not included in the few verses we read today, but the charges take up most of the rest of the Book of Micah. God accuses Israel of worshipping idols and following other gods, but this is not the greatest of God’s grievances. More than anything else, God is upset that the rich and powerful people have been taking advantage of the poor and the weak. Merchants cheat the people by using heavier weights when they are buying and lighter weights when they are selling. Judges take bribes from the wealthy and rule unfairly against the poor. The rich buy up all of the land so that the peasants no longer have power over the means of production, they have to work for the wealthy for wages, and the wealthy collect all the profits even though they aren’t the ones doing the work. These rich people, often simply called “the wicked,” come to the priests and give great sums so that they will be blessed. They are sure that God is on their side, that they are God’s chosen people. But they are going to be in for a big surprise when judgment comes. God is going to lift up the poor and grind the rich into dust. These are the charges God lays against Israel.

The mountains never get a chance to make their ruling. Faced with God’s charges, Israel decides to confess. They have been unjust to the poor. They have allowed the rich to have all of the power and prestige. They are guilty.

So they do what any shrewd defendant would do: they try to make a plea bargain. What do we have to give to God in order to get these charges dropped? That’s how justice usually works for the rich and powerful, right? They never have to go to jail. They can always make a deal. When Wall Street hot-shots knowingly break the law and steal the retirement investments away from hard working people so that the wealthy can make even more money, they don’t go to jail. All they have to do for their illegal and unjust practices is pay a fine. And the fine isn’t even as much money as they had made on their illegal trades.

That’s the kind of deal Israel tries to make with God. What will it take to make all this go away? Just give us a number. If we sacrificed one thousand rams, would that do it? How about a thousand gallons of fine olive oil? No that’s not enough? All right, I will sacrifice my own first born child. Would that appease you? Would that get these silly charges dropped? It’s right there in Micah 6:7. Israel actually offers to perform child sacrifice in order to get God to drop the case.

But God is too stubborn for that. God will not accept any plea bargain for the crimes of the rich against the poor. God is going to have justice. God is going to make sure that everything is set right. God’s attorney lays it out in Micah 6:8. “God has already told you, human, what is good and what the Lord requires from you.” Like Silentó, Micah says, “You already know what it is.” The defendant should already know what the law is. The defendant should already know what the sentence is going to be. They have already been told what the Lord requires. It’s very simple. Three bullet points:

No. 1: Do justice—stop cheating the poor and using the power that you get from your wealth in order to squeeze even more money out of them. You rich don’t need any more, but the poor are starving. Give them back the land and get rid of all that accumulated wealth that you should have been sharing all along.

No. 2: Love kindness—אַהֲבַת חֶסֶד.  We’re not just talking about politeness here. It’s the kind of loving-kindness that God has for God’s people. It’s care, compassion, mercy, charity, the kind of love that will not allow someone to be mistreated or degraded or taken advantage of. It is active kindness.

No. 3: Walk humbly with your God—It is the crime of the rich and powerful to be haughty, to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments. To think that all of the things they have gotten in life are on account of their own brains and hard work. God demands an end to that delusion. When I claim to have accomplishments, I put myself in the place of God. I declare myself to be a god. I should remember that all good things come from God alone. Everything that I think I have is not mine, it belongs to God. I am a steward, an agent, a manager for God’s riches, and I had best be sure that I use them the way that God would want them used. Walk humbly with your God. Walk in the way that God walks, and do it in humility, knowing that all good things come, not from us, but from God.

What does the Lord require of us? We already know what it is. We have already heard it before. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.

Weather Update

It’s 5:00 pm on January 7th, and the conditions here in town still seem passable to me. I know for those of you further out, they won’t be. The Annual Meeting tomorrow is cancelled. But I’m still planning to lead worship at 10:00 tomorrow morning. If it’s safe and reasonable for you to come, I’ll see you there. If not, stay home, warm, and safe, and we’ll see you next week.

Blessings,

+Pastor David

Sermon: Herod the Great

Sunday 1 January 2017
Epiphany of the Lord

herodEvery year at this time, the festival of Epiphany, we hear the story of the three kings or three wise men. And every year in the sermon, we hear a little different twist on the story. Maybe we hear something about the significance of their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Maybe we hear that they weren’t really kings at all, they were Iranian astrologers. Maybe we hear that there probably weren’t three of them, they just happened to bring three gifts. Maybe we hear something about how they defied King Herod and returned by another road.

But this Sunday, we’re going to focus on something completely different. We’re going to focus not on the magi, the heroes of the story, but on King Herod, the villain. And after all, the bad guys are usually much more interesting than the good guys anyway. In particular, we’re going to focus on just one line of Matthew’s account. After the magi come to Herod and ask him where they can find the newborn King of the Jews, Matthew tells us, “Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Why was Herod frightened by the news the magi brought, and even more important, why would all of Jerusalem be frightened along with him?

Herod was born at a time when the whole area of Palestine was still an independent Jewish Kingdom, ruled by the Hasmoneans, who were heirs of the famous Maccabees from the Hanukkah story. Herod’s father was one of the officials in the royal court and worked for the king. But the Jewish kingdom during Herod’s childhood was very unstable. Judea was in a near-constant state of civil war as various members of the royal family fought over which of them was rightfully king.

At about the same time, the Roman Republic was expanding its borders, and Pompey the Great swept in to clean up the mess, formally establishing Roman rule in 63 BCE. The Romans kept a Jewish king on the throne, but they were never far away, in case more violence were to break out. Herod’s father gained influence in the royal court, and was able to get Herod appointed as governor of Galilee when he was only 25 years old.

During the next decade, the political situation got crazy. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, everything started to slip into chaos. Rome slipped into civil war, then went to war with the Parthians.  Herod’s father was murdered. Members of the Judean royal family were at it again, trying to fight their way onto the throne in Jerusalem.

In the midst of all the upheaval, Herod convinced Mark Anthony that he would be an ideal choice to be king. In 40 BCE, the Roman Senate declared Herod to be the King of the Jews. Within three years, Herod had managed to take back Judea for Rome.  He ruled in Jerusalem for the next thirty years. He kept a tight rein on the Jewish people and wiped out any potential rebels and rivals to the throne. But he also led Judea into a time of great prosperity, rebuilding the Temple and turning Jerusalem into one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. Herod had to walk a fine line, keeping both his Jewish subjects and his Roman overseers happy at the same time. But by all accounts, he excelled at his task and kept Jerusalem at peace.

So toward the end of his reign, when a group of Iranian astrologers showed up at his door saying that they were looking for the newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been marked by the rising of a star, Herod knew he had a problem. There was some baby out there who was a potential rival for his throne. It’s not just that Herod was jealous. It’s not just that he wanted to keep the title “King of the Jews” for himself. No, there were much larger issues at stake. Having someone else out there claiming to be the King of the Jews was not just a problem for Herod, it was a problem for the whole Jewish people.

You see, if Herod’s power were to slip, if someone else challenged him as King of the Jews, then Judea would certainly slip into civil war. Herod could remember what that had been like, and so could the people of Jerusalem. No one wanted to go through another round of upheaval and bloodshed.

But now the problem was even bigger. Because as soon as it looked like Herod might be losing control, the Romans would march down from their base in Damascus and take direct control of Judea. And if that happened, things could get really bloody. The Romans would not hesitate to punish the whole Jewish people for any act of rebellion against the Empire. There would certainly be mass crucifixions. And the Romans, once they were in Jerusalem, would probably violate the Temple, God’s dwelling place on earth. No one wanted that to happen. Herod had to keep control or they would end up with an even harsher Roman governor. Best to wrap this problem up quickly, find this so-called newborn king and get rid of him before anything dangerous happened.

That’s why Herod is frightened and all Jerusalem with him. They don’t need anyone proclaiming themselves king or Messiah. Jews might have some concept of a spiritual Messiah, but as soon as the Romans hear the word Messiah, they’ll think of a king, a threat to Roman authority, and they will come in and tear everything apart. The people of Jerusalem are afraid that some pretender will bring the Roman legions down on their necks.

And that’s precisely what ended up happening. When Jesus was proclaimed Messiah, the Romans were able to solve the problem quickly by executing him under the charge, “King of the Jews.” But when other Messiahs arose in CE 66, 115, and 132, it led to all-out war with the Romans, huge casualties, the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion of every Jew from Jerusalem, the complete transformation of the holy city into a pagan stronghold, legal persecution of Jews across the Empire, and the beginning of anti-Semitism in Western culture, that echoes still today. Herod and the people of Jerusalem were right to be afraid, not so much of what Jesus might do, but of what the Romans would do if they were to find out about this newborn King of the Jews.

But somehow, even though all of Herod’s worst fears were eventually realized, God was still able to bring something good out of chaos. No one knew it at the time, but that little boy the magi sought would grow up to be the savior of the world, the one whom two billion people today claim as their lord.

In our world today, there are still things that scare and trouble us. There are still things that frighten our President and all America with him. Actually, part of our fear these days is that we have both an outgoing and an incoming President, and they seem to be frightened by very different things. Foreign meddling in our elections. The threat of radical, Islamic terrorism. The increasing power of China and Russia in world affairs. New threats to civil liberties and worries about equality and inclusion. Growing national debt and consumer debt. A seemingly intractable conflict in Syria that involves so many different factions, it’s nearly impossible to figure out who is fighting with whom and for what; but no matter which faction is winning, the people always seem to be losing. 400,000 dead, 4.8 million refugees, and 6.6 million displaced Syria. There are reasons to be afraid. There are real threats in our world.

But in the midst of our fears, I wonder where God is working right now, unbeknownst to us, bringing about something good out of chaos. When our history is written, where will future generations see the hand of God at work to bring grace and peace where we, caught in the midst of it, can see only threat, trouble, and tragedy? And when God’s work becomes clear, will we have been a part of it? Will we have been working along with God, even in the face of danger, even in the face of anxiety, to bring about a greater good? Or will we have been with those who feared the worst and only made things more terrible? I pray that we will find ourselves working against the common wisdom, in the places where God’s most exciting work is being done; searching for light in darkness, searching for hope in uncertainty, searching for the movement of God’s Spirit in our world.

Sermon: No Place for Them

Sunday 25 December 2016
Christmas Day

Of all the familiar stories in the bible, the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke is perhaps the most familiar of all. In fact, it would be entirely possible for someone to have this passage memorized, even if they had never set foot in a church and had never cracked open a bible. Because if you know that Lucy pulls the football out from under Charlie Brown whenever he is about to kick it, you know that when Charlie Brown wants to know the meaning of Christmas, Linus gets out on the stage, dims the lights, and begins reciting from the King James: “And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” All you have to do to be familiar with this passage is to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. And since it has shown on network TV at least twice every year for the last fifty-one years, that is something nearly every person alive in the US has done at least once.

And when a story is as familiar as this one is, it is easy for us to forget just how strange it is. This is a very strange story. For one thing, most of us have it rattling around in our heads in the antiquated words of the King James version. What are swaddling clothes, anyway? What is a heavenly host? What does it mean to be sore afraid? But even if clear up some of the confusion by updating our language, it is still a very strange story, even by the standards of the bible. So let’s take the time to walk through it again, a little more slowly, and to notice some of the details that we usually let slip past us in the poetry of it all.

Even in the original Greek, this story is written in an antiquated style. Luke writes it to sound like one of the ancient tales from the Old Testament. He wants it to sound old-timey, to sound like scripture. So maybe reading it in the King James isn’t so far off, after all, at least in terms of style.

The story begins not with Mary or Joseph or the shepherds, but with the emperor, Caesar Augustus. He was the first Roman emperor, who rose to power through a series of political machinations and civil wars to become the undisputed most powerful man in the world. Western Europe had become accustomed to living under a republic, a republic which despised kings and tyrants. And yet, now the entire Mediterranean world was ruled by one man. When he was born, he was named Gaius Octavius, but by the time of our story, his name had legally been changed to: Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus—that is, Conqueror Caesar, Son of a God, Worthy of Religious Veneration. That’s where Luke starts the story of Jesus’s birth: with the most powerful ruler in the world, a man was considered to be the Son of God in his own lifetime, a man who was worshipped by his people in temples across the empire.

Augustus enters the story in order to do one thing: order a census. A census is not just a mundane, administrative affair. Even today it has tremendous political consequences. It determines the makeup of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, it helps determine how funds are allocated for roads, schools, public health, job training, community improvements, and services to the elderly. And you can certainly find groups in America who are outraged by the census and how it is a government conspiracy to limit liberty. In the ancient world, a census was definitely about domination. Most importantly, it was about taxes, assigning how much in taxes would be levied from each group of conquered peoples. Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible actually forbids any earthly ruler from calling for a census. According to the bible, God is the only one who is allowed to order a census.

It’s the census that causes Joseph to have to leave his home in Nazareth in order to be registered in his ancestral homeland, Bethlehem. Why exactly Mary has to come along with him is unclear. But the fact that they can find no room once they are in Bethlehem is telling. Most of us have been taught that there was no room in the inn. But that’s not actually very accurate. There wouldn’t have been an inn or hotel in the sense that we think of them. Instead, houses would have had a guestroom for visitors and travelers, especially in a town as small as Bethlehem: only a few hundred people. And if Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, then he could have reasonably expected to be put up for free by one of the villagers, whether they were direct family or not. That would have been the cultural expectation of hospitality. The fact that Mary and Joseph cannot find a room indicates that they are being snubbed. Either there are more important guests already there, or they are being shut out for other reasons, perhaps because of the shame of Mary’s unexplained pregnancy. In any case, it leaves Mary to give birth to Jesus in the room where the animals are and to make a bed for him in the feed trough.

That right there is quite a contrast. We have already been introduced to Augustus, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the son of god, who lives in luxury, commands legions of soldiers, and rules over myriads of peoples. Then we have Jesus. He is homeless. His parents are too unimportant or too shameful to warrant a guestroom, even on the night Mary is going to give birth. He spends his first night in a room full of animals. What kind of a life is that for the Messiah? What kind of life is that for the Son of God? How could it be that there was no place for the Son of God?

The scene changes, and we move from the little town of Bethlehem to a group of shepherds out in the fields. Sometimes shepherds were romanticized. King David was. The 23rd Psalm imagines God as a good shepherd. But generally speaking, shepherds were part of the underclass. In this period, they only rarely owned their own flocks. They were usually hired hands. It was dirty work. And because it kept them out at night, it was dishonorable work. They weren’t home at night to protect their families. No one would have aspired to be a shepherd. It was the kind of work that polite, reputable people didn’t want to do. Like many of the jobs today in the agricultural industry, shepherding was vitally necessary work, but it was not the work that stable people wanted to do.

But on this one particular night, as this particular group of shepherds is out in the fields with the sheep, something happens. One of God’s messengers shows up. That’s what angel means: messenger. The emperor had angels too, messengers who would go from town to town proclaiming the good news of the empire. We aren’t told what God’s angel looked like, except that he was was shining with God’s glory, and something about him made the shepherds feel terrified.

The angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid. Just like one of the emperor’s messengers, he has good news to share. The emperor’s good news, the emperor’s gospel, would be stories like Rome’s military victories, or the birth or wedding of someone in the imperial family, or the proclamation of some kind of festival or games. Imperial good news was supposed to impress the people, to make them feel grateful for being a part of the empire, or at least to make them feel like the empire was too strong to be resisted.

So what kind of good news does God’s messenger bring? Well, it’s surprisingly similar to the emperor’s gospel. A new ruler has been born. He will be a savior of the people. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king. This is good news for all the people. And the sign that this message is true is that you will find this new savior, messiah, king lying in a feed trough.

And then what happens? The great multitude of the heavenly host. And when we talk about a heavenly host, we’re not talking about someone who welcomes you at the door and leads you to your table. We’re talking about a much older meaning of the English word host. In this passage, host means army. What appears before the shepherds is a heavenly army. And not a small one either. It is a great multitude of God’s heavenly army, decked out for war. That’s actually how the bible pictures angels. Not cute cherubs with harps and wings. That’s medieval imagery. In the bible, angels are otherworldly soldiers. No wonder the shepherds were terrified.

God’s army delivers its message: Glory to God and peace on earth. Then they go back to heaven. And the shepherds hurry into town. And they find Jesus there in the manger, and they tell the story of what they have seen. And everyone is amazed.

It is a very strange story with striking contrasts. On the one hand the most powerful man in the world, the Son of God, the savior, the conquerer, the bringer of peace, of the Pax Romana, Caesar Augustus. On the other hand, a newborn baby boy, homeless, lying in a feed trough because his parents don’t warrant a room, because there was no place for them, Jesus. On the one hand legions of powerful angel-soldiers, lighting up the night’s sky with the light of the glory of God. On the other hand, poor, dirty shepherds living on the margins of society, with no honor or power to speak of. How could it be that the homeless baby in the feed trough is of more significance than the emperor ruling over the world? How could it be that legions of angels take their message not to the Senate, not to the Sanhedrin, not to the temple, not even to the city forum or to the village square? How could it be that legions of angels take their good news to ragged, poor shepherds living in the fields? What could that possibly mean?

It can mean nothing else except that God makes a place for those who have no place. God makes a home among those who have no home. God looks over emperors and empresses, kings and queens, princes and princesses, and chooses a young, poor, homeless couple huddled among the animals. God looks over senators, governors, generals, town councillors, priests, scribes, and soldiers, and chooses marginalized agricultural workers living in the fields.

And God continues to make a home among those who have no place. Among the homeless looking for shelter from the cold. Among the orphan looking for a family. Among the unemployed looking for the stability and dignity of a job. Among the sick and diseased looking for healing. Among the disabled looking accommodation and respect. Among the victimized looking for justice. Among the marginalized looking for a place. Among the despised looking for acceptance. Among the scapegoat looking for fairness. Among the immigrant looking for a home. Among the refugee looking for peace. Among the brokenhearted looking for restoration. Among the depressed looking for hope. Among the anxious looking for confidence. Among the dying looking for comfort. Among the grieving looking for assurance.

This is where God lives. God appears not in places of greatest strength, but in the places of greatest weakness. God find a place among those who have no place. Among an unwed mother like Mary. Among dirty, poor shepherds. Among all those who by their very need of God are able to be a home for Emmanuel, God-with-us.