Through the Lens of Holiness

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on February 23rd, 2014
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany Year A

We are on Holy Ground.  Right here, this place; this is Holy Ground.  Now you may be thinking, “Well of course it is.  It’s a church.  The bishop came and consecrated it.”  But that’s not it.  This is Holy Ground because you are gathered here and you are Holy.

You are God’s holy temple. 

We heard Paul tell the people of the church in Corinth, “God’s temple is Holy and you are that temple.”  But they weren’t holy because they were incredibly mature in their faith or righteous in their actions.  We know this because the rest of the letter is about them being such infants that he must feed them spiritual milk instead of solid food.  He chastises them for their awful behavior.  No they aren’t holy because of what they have done; they are holy because God has made them Holy. The Holy Spirit dwells among them. 

Our reading from Leviticus is from the section sometimes called “The Law of Holiness.” The Lord commands Moses to tell the people, “You shall be Holy for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”  Their holiness is derived from God.  Moses then goes on to instruct them in how to live; how to behave toward one another because they are holy.

And finally, at the end of today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”  Now there is much debate about how to interpret this, but scholars seem to agree that it’s not about “getting things right’ like a perfect score on your spelling test, or being morally perfect. 

Some say it is more about “wholeness;” others that it is about being the person God created you to be.  Still others say it is a call to love fully, richly, abundantly, and completely – as God loves.  The New Jerusalem Bible translates it this way, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.”  That wholeness, that capacity for love is also given to us through the grace of God. 

I suggest that we use the lens of holiness to look at our scripture this morning.  Holiness is the starting point.  Because you are holy¸ Moses tells the people, this is how you should live; this is how you should treat your neighbor, because your neighbor is also holy.

You are the holy temple of God¸ Paul writes, and he will go on to correct their inappropriate behavior. 

Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven, portraying God’s vision, God’s desire for the world, for the people and all of creation that God so loves and has made holy.  And much of what he says is challenging.  It is so tempting to explain it away so we won’t have to follow it.

Today’s reading is in that realm and that is why I suggest we look at it through the lens of holiness.  

So often, these imperatives are used as weapons by those with some amount of power against those who have less power or who are already hurting or oppressed.

The purpose of the Old Testament formula of an eye for an eye was to place limits on retribution.  It was to stop the practice of killing whole clans as retribution for some crime.  And yet, even now, that is how most of our society sees “justice:” an eye for an eye.  Let the punishment fit the crime.  “Justice” is used to get revenge – have the state carry it out in an orderly fashion.  This value of retributive justice is pervasive.  Yet, Jesus says no, do not resist the evil doer.  

Am I suggesting that we tear down our prisons and let criminals go free?  No, but I am suggesting that we rethink the purpose of our system of justice and how we achieve that purpose.

And now I’d like to consider the other half of this antithesis because it is also used as a weapon.  “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus says.  How often have victims of oppression or domestic violence been told to turn the other cheek; to be patient; to put up with it?

Now, let’s look at it through the lens of holiness.  You are Holy, your neighbor is Holy, all of creation is Holy and God’s desire is for each of us to grow toward wholeness. Would you seek retribution, causing further harm to your neighbor?  Would you tell someone who is holy and is being abused or oppressed to stay and suffer, perpetuating the cycle of violence?  Of course not! 

Do I mean that we should ignore what Jesus is saying?  Of course not.  We hear it as a path toward the wholeness God desires for all – but not to the detriment or harm of others.  And so we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Holiness does not resist evil with violence. 

Holiness resists evil with love.
Holiness resists darkness with light.
Holiness resists despair with hope and faith.

The Sermon on the Mount is challenging.  Even with some 2000 years of Christianity behind us, we still find that discipleship is difficult.  We are still learning how to follow Jesus.  But the whole point of the Sermon is that the Commonwealth of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, is at hand; it is here.  We can begin living it now by the grace of God. 

We are on Holy Ground.  You, the gathered Body of Christ, you are the Holy Temple of God.  When you leave this building, you are still the Holy Temple of God, you are still on Holy Ground.

Go.  God has made you Holy.

Be whole and love abundantly as God loves. 

Live the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Shocking Words: Choose Life!

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on February 16th, 2014
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

They’re only words!

Has anyone ever said that to you?  Usually, I get it as an excuse for saying something shocking or vulgar.  It’s as if they’re trying to say “It’s your own fault if you’re offended by what I said.  The words themselves have no inherent power.”  Ironically, usually they have chosen to use those particular words precisely because of their power to shock and offend.

Words do have power.  The power to hurt or to heal; to offend or to forgive; to destroy or to create; to knock down or to lift up; to stir to action or to lull into complacency.

Sometimes when we hear Jesus’ words, they’re so disturbing, so shocking, we just wish he hadn’t said it at all.  We want to ignore it.  Maybe today is one of those days.

The gospel we heard today has some pretty shocking images.  They would have been even more shocking to Jesus’ audience.  The deformities he is talking about would not only deprive the person of their livelihood, consigning them to a life of misery and begging, those deformities would exclude them from the Temple; from the religious life of the community.  Pretty shocking.

So, why do you think he would make such outrageous statements?  Do you think he expected people to literally pluck out their eyes or cut off body parts?  Or maybe he wants to make them sit up and listen.  “Pay attention!  This is really important!”  So maybe we should pay close attention, too.

We’re in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ first major sermon of his public ministry.  In it he lays out his mission and message – the proclamation and inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven and what that means for the lives of people.  We’ve been working our way through this sermon for three Sundays now.  We’ll spend one more Sunday and Ash Wednesday with it and then the lectionary pretty much ignores the rest, although it goes on for another chapter in Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus begins the sermon with the Beatitudes, the blessing of the “unlikelies,” so to speak – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, etc.  We heard that bit two weeks ago.  Many people find comfort hearing these blessings.  Certainly the crowd gathered to hear him did.  Last week, we heard him tell those gathered that they are “salt of the earth” and “light for the world.”  And then he went on to proclaim that he would not be abolishing or even altering the Law or the Prophets.

And this week we hear him refining the requirements of the law; narrowing and tightening it..  He’s interpreting the spirit of the Law.  Now, as one commentator noted, within the Old Testament, the Law has an enduring heart or core, with an evolving, contextual edge.  Throughout the Old Testament, the Law is continually being reinterpreted and refined for new contexts.

Even as early as Moses, we find that the Law is not merely a set of arbitrary rules by which God can judge whom to reward and whom to punish.  In our reading from Deuteronomy we find Moses giving his farewell address just as the people are about to cross into the Promised Land without him.  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses, ” he says.  “Choose life… loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”  The Law is not about avoiding punishment.  It is choosing life, good life.

Jesus shows us this evolving, contextual edge with a series of six antitheses.  We hear four this week and will hear two more next week.  Each one begins, “You have heard it said that… but I tell you…”    In each case, Jesus starts with the obvious, concrete behavior addressed in the heart of the Law (You shall not murder) and then he expands on it, getting to the underlying spirit and reason for the law. 

And each time, what it comes down to is an overarching  awareness and concern for the well-being of our neighbor; the well-being of the community. 

It’s about living in the Commonwealth of God or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew calls it.

So let’s look a little more closely at the first one.  “You have heard that it was said…  ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.’  

He goes on to instruct them to be reconciled with those they have offended before offering their gift at the altar.”  Notice that he doesn’t say “Don’t be angry.”  Rather, unreconciled anger or resentment or any other wrong is harmful not only to the individual, but it’s harmful to the well-being of the whole community. 

You’ve probably had the experience of stewing about something that happened or something you did.  It eats away at you  until you do something about it.  This is why we pass the Peace right before the Offertory.  It is an opportunity to seek reconciliation with anyone with whom we may are at odds; whom we  harmed or whom we resent.  It is a sign of our willingness to be reconciled.

The other antitheses are just as significant.  I won’t take the time to go into detail about them today.  Perhaps it would be a good topic for Bible Study?

I wonder what Jesus would say about the evolving contextual edge of the Law today?

How do our choices save lives or kill; increase or diminish the well-being or misery of others?

Do we treat other people as objects to fulfill our needs or purposes?

How do we care for the vulnerable or do we leave them to fend for themselves?

Can others count on us to be true to our vows, our promises, our commitments?

What does it mean to be a person of integrity in all our relationships?  That is the heart of it.

 

May we always choose life and blessing.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the pure of heart for they will see God.

Today We Will Be With Christ in Paradise

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma Washington on November 24th, 2013
Feast of Christ the King (Proper 29) Year C

The first time I ever prayed “Thy kingdom come” and really meant it was after 9-11. Before that, I knew the world wasn’t perfect but it was good enough. Finally, I realized our only hope was divine help.

I had a similar feeling this week as I watched all the news coverage and television specials about President Kennedy; honoring the man on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I was too young to feel that way at the time; I was only in kindergarten. And then when his brother Bobbie and Martin Luther King were assassinated a few years later, I was in fourth grade.

Those were formative years in my life. Through those three events, I formed an image of America as a place where political assassinations were not uncommon – it was part of who we were as a nation. If I had actually understood the import of that image, it would certainly be reason to cry out, “Thy kingdom come.” But I didn’t, I just accepted it as the way the world works.

Today, we celebrate the feast of the Reign of Christ, also known as Christ the King. As we celebrate, I suggest we ask what kind of king is Christ? And what is the Reign of Christ like?

It’s worth noting that the Anglican church, our church, was born out of empire. In fact it is the result of two of the strongest empires in the world at that time, battling it out for power – the British Empire under King Henry VIII and the Vatican.

The Prayer Book and much of our hymnody is also the product of empire, with roots in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. We find there an emphasis in the language, metaphor, and imagery on the portrayal of God as that kind of king – majestic, powerful, removed. In our prayers. God is often attributed with many characteristics of human kings.

Christ was born into empire, too, but on the underside of empire. And there we have our first clue about the kind of king Christ is. His family was relatively poor and his people lived under occupation of a foreign, imperial power – Rome. And as long as they behaved, so to speak, life would be at least tolerable. But if not, Rome could and would crush them.

Last February, Wes and I visited New Zealand and we went to the Anglican church on Sunday. Their prayer book used the phrase, the commonwealth of God. Well, that made me stop and think. To me, commonwealth conveys a sense of God with us, of working together for the common well-being of all; all of humanity, all the earth, all of creation. It’s an image that resonates with my soul. What images or metaphors of Christ and Christ’s reign resonate with you?

Let’s take a look at some of the images from our readings today, because this is not only a day to praise and celebrate Christ as King, but, as I said, to reflect on what kind of king is Christ? What would the reign of Christ be like if it were fully manifest in our world right now?

Throughout much of Israel’s history, they had lived under the threat from or actual occupation or rule of foreign superpowers: Powers such as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. At the time of Jeremiah, the northern kingdom has already fallen to Assyria and the people scattered throughout the empire. Now, Babylon is threatening the southern kingdom and Jeremiah is prophesying to his people – the nation he loves.

The shepherds in this prophecy represent the kings – those who have been entrusted with the care of God’s people. They have not only failed to care for the flock, they have scattered it. God promises them a new king – one that will be a good shepherd; who will properly care for the flock, the people. Many of us understand this to be a prophecy of the coming of Jesus. This image, however, is a far cry from a majestic, judging, powerful, and distant ruler.

Moving on to the reading from Colossians, Paul begins, praying that they be strengthened by Christ’s glorious power and our minds may conjure up a picture of the splendor of a Roman Emperor. But a few verses later, he reminds us that it is in the man, Jesus – whom we have seen as an itinerant prophet, teacher, and healer; it is in him that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through whom all things are reconciled to God. Not splendor but poverty; a man who hung out with all sorts but especially with folks that much of society dismissed, disdained, or even discarded.

Then the lectionary drives home the point in the gospel lesson. Christ is the King who stays and is humiliated and crucified rather than saving his own skin and abandoning us. A king who forgives those who torture him. A king who assures a thief that he is welcome in Paradise.

The reign of Christ is not one where might makes right; one in which power overpowers and conquers. Rather it is where power is given up and compassion abounds. The king is a shepherd, living with and caring for the people. It is a reign that may seem more like commonwealth than empire.

This is what we celebrate today – not as a promise for some distant future, but as a reality today. We talk about the reign of Christ as already but not yet. It is already here; it is at hand, but it is not yet fully manifest.

A few weeks ago Bishop Sandy was here and he, too, talked about the kingdom of God. And he focused on the Beatitudes; about taking them to heart and living them as a way of life a way of living in the kingdom. I won’t try to repeat it all here, but I’ll remind you, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – those who recognize their dependence on God. “Blessed are those who mourn;” Those who truly mourn the brokenness of the world, and mourn with those who grieve or suffer. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – who seek and work toward right relationships with God, with each other, and with all of creation. “Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers” and so forth.

When we live as if the reign of Christ were already fully manifest, the reign of Christ is revealed to the world and it grows and it becomes just a little bit more fully realized.

There is much in our world that may cause us to cry out in desperation, “Thy kingdom come, O Lord!” The Good News – the Gospel – is that the Reign of Christ has begun. The Commonwealth of God is at hand. Today, even if only for a moment, today we will be with Christ in Paradise.