Surprised by Grace

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

One of the more intriguing shows on television right now is The Good Place. In the first episode, Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in the afterlife and is informed she is in “The Good Place,” a utopian paradise into which only the most righteous individuals are admitted. Before long, however, she realizes that she is the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop: the one who actually belonged in the Good Place was a human rights activist during her time on earth; in her own estimation, the one who actually made it was “a selfish dirtbag from Arizona.” Predictably, Eleanor determines to keep her head down and pretend that she belongs, so as not to be sent to the Bad Place. As you can imagine, this situation yields a number of opportunities for comedy and raises some interesting moral questions, the most obvious of which is: what would we do if we were placed in a similar situation? I like to think of myself as an honest person: if the server at a restaurant forgets to charge me for something I ordered, I almost always call it to his attention. What happens, however, when the stakes are substantially higher? What happens when being honest costs us, not an order of chicken wings, but our very sense of self? I suspect that most of us would be inclined to follow her lead, concealing our suspicion that we simply do not belong.

Over the last three weeks, we have heard a series of related parables from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. On their face, these parables appear to be cautionary tales about responsibility and preparedness. The overriding message seems to be that we should avoid ending up like those bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra oil or the slave who buried his master’s talent in the ground. One could view this morning’s text through a similar lens: we need to avoid ending up like those people who failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. The underlying message of these parables appears to be this: at the end there will be those who are prepared and those who are not, and we should do as much as we can to be numbered in the first group, since those in the second group are in big trouble. As harsh as it can be, this interpretation has an appealing quality, because it assumes that our efforts to make our way through the world will be rewarded. If we prepare diligently, risk appropriately, and show some compassion every once in awhile, we will be successful in this life and in the life to come. If you think about it, this jibes pretty well with the way our faith is understood by shows like The Good Place. In the popular imagination, the Christian life is basically about holding ourselves to exacting standards in order to attain a heavenly reward.

The problem with this interpretation is that it misses the deeper point of these parables, and of the Christian faith in general. Under the surface, these parables have very little to do with preparedness. The key to understanding this chapter of Matthew’s gospel comes when the righteous, having been told that they would inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world, respond by saying, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food…or naked and gave you clothing?” If this series of parables is actually about preparedness, this exchange would look very different: the king would say to those at his right hand “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing.” And in this alternate version, the righteous would say, “Yeah that sounds about right!” Instead, we find that the righteous are not only ignorant of their righteousness, they are so surprised to be included among the sheep that they ask for documentation; they imply the king has made a mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop would have been furious; if you find that an error has been made in your favor, you do not call attention to the error! Yet, this unexpected moment is the key to understanding not only this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but the entirety of Jesus’ ministry.

It is tempting to read Matthew’s gospel as an account of Jesus establishing a new religious tradition, one that replaces justice with mercy by substituting one set of requirements for another. It would be easy to read this morning’s parable through this lens: to assume that God’s favor is contingent not on following the Jewish Law, but on caring for the least of these. The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the fact that the righteous were surprised by their inclusion in the life of the kingdom. More than anything else, the surprise of those at the king’s right hand reveals that this fundamental truth: there is nothing we can do to guarantee our place in the kingdom. This series of parables is the climax of an argument that Matthew has been making since the Sermon on the Mount: despite any pretensions we may have, we are unable to save ourselves. Now, this may not seem like the most relevant conclusion, since I suspect that there are not too many of us who worry extensively about our eternal destiny. But this message applies to our daily experience of the world. Even as we blindly pursue success or notoriety, Jesus reveals there is nothing we can accomplish that will truly set us apart from others. Believe it or not, this is good news. In fact, this is the very heart of the Christian faith. Recognizing that we can’t save ourselves disrupts our compulsion to conceal our true selves and frees us to take our inevitable failures not as measures of our worth, but as opportunities to acknowledge our dependence on God alone. This, by the way, is why stewardship is such a crucial component of the Christian life: giving allows us to recognize that even our hard-earned money, the ultimate marker of worldly success, is not going to save us. Moreover, realizing there is nothing we can do to save ourselves allows us to be honest about our vulnerabilities, to acknowledge that there are times that we too are numbered among the “least of these.” No matter who we are or where we come from, we are all muddling our way through life, stumbling upon triumphs and tragedies along the way.

Right after this parable, Matthew begins his account of the passion, which at its heart is a grim reminder of what human beings are capable of. When given a clear choice, God’s people rejected God, proving their inability to save themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus went willingly to the cross and redeemed their betrayal in the Resurrection. Ultimately, this is what it means to acknowledge the kingship of Christ. It is about putting our lives in the proper perspective, recognizing that Christ reigns even in the midst of our foolish decisions and deliberations. The Christian faith is not about performance, nor is it about appearing to belong; it is about acknowledging our dependence on a grace that takes us by surprise.

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On Mozart, Baptism, and Changing the World

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Kansas on the occasion of my goddaughter’s baptism.  To view the scene from Amadeus, click here.

Every once in a while, a scene in a movie perfectly encapsulates the rest of the film.  In Amadeus, it is a scene that illustrates how Mozart’s outsized talent completely dwarfed that of his contemporaries.  For those who haven’t seen it, Amadeus is the Milos Forman film that chronicles the deadly rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.  Though the story is largely fictional (Salieri and Mozart were actually friendly), it accurately depicts Mozart’s incredible talent and demonstrates how his work in many ways represented a new musical language.

During the scene in question, Salieri and several other courtiers have been summoned by the emperor, who wants to commission an opera from the young Mozart.  Salieri, who is the court composer, tells his employer that he has written a “March of Welcome” in Mozart’s honor.  As the talented young composer enters the room, the emperor doggedly stumbles through Salieri’s pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable piece on the piano.  After negotiating the commission, the emperor reminds Mozart not to forget the manuscript for Salieri’s “Welcome March.”  Mozart demurs, claiming that he has already memorized the piece.  Incredulous, the emperor insists that the composer prove himself.  Of course, Mozart proceeds to play the piece flawlessly.  It is what he does next, however, that sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Mozart improvises a variation on Salieri’s piece that is compelling, memorable, and brilliant.  It incorporates the themes of the original piece but transforms them into something completely new.  In one scene, the movie illustrates that Mozart was not just talented, but transcendent.  In one scene, Amadeus reveals that Mozart was not just making music; he was changing what music could be.

The lectionary this morning gives us a similar scene from the gospel according to Mark.  It was only a few weeks ago that we heard about John the Baptist’s ministry by the banks of the Jordan.  This morning, we return to our old friend, who is still up to his old tricks: wearing camel hair, eating bugs, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Once again, we hear John predict that one more powerful than he is coming after him.  This morning, however, we hear about how that promise is fulfilled when Jesus of Nazareth is baptized.  The baptism of Jesus is one of the few events that is attested to by all the gospel writers, and all of them imply that it is enormously important.  As Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, we get a sense that the gospel writers see this moment as turning point in the life of Jesus and the life of the communities to which they wrote.

In spite of the weight that the gospel writers and the Church give to the baptism of the Lord, it is a little difficult to discern why it is so significant.  Even though the evangelists treat it like a major biographical touchstone in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of his ministry.  In fact, the fact that Jesus was baptized by John never comes up again.  Even when John reappears in the gospel narratives, his baptismal relationship with Jesus is not addressed.  If the baptism of John is as important as the evangelists imply it is, it stands to reason that they would mention it more than once.  Instead, the baptism of Jesus by John is a non sequitur; it feels more like a piece of trivia than anything else.  Not only that, it’s hard to know why Jesus was baptized in the first place.  As we all know, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins.  But if Jesus was sinless, as the Church claims, being baptized seems a little redundant.  Matthew, of course, attempts to deal with this problem by describing that byzantine exchange between John and Jesus: “You should be baptizing me,” “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness,” “No, after you, I insist,” etc.  While this exchange acknowledges the tension, it doesn’t do much to resolve it.  And so we’re left in a bit of an awkward place: the evangelists and the Church insist that the baptism of the Lord is crucially important to our understanding of who Jesus is, even though it seems to have minimal impact on the rest of his life and work.

Part of the reason for this is that our image of the baptism of Jesus tends to be very static: Jesus rising from the water, the Spirit descending beatifically as a dove, and the voice of the Lord resonating from heaven.  It is a scene almost tailor-made for a Caravaggio painting, one that can be hung in a museum and forgotten.  But if we look at the language that Mark uses to describe the baptism of Jesus, it is anything but static.  Mark is notoriously straightforward, even abrupt, and we get a sense of that in this passage.  Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and there is no polite exchange between John and Jesus; Jesus comes from Nazareth and is baptized during the course of one sentence.  As he emerges from the water, the heavens are literally torn open when the Spirit descends.  It’s a dynamic, violent image, one that recalls Isaiah’s plea that God would tear open the heavens and come down.  It is an image, in other words, that points to something utterly new.  And indeed, Mark tells us that the life and ministry of Jesus represent a complete departure from what has come before.  Just a few verses after the passage we read today, Mark tells us that Jesus also begins preaching repentance.  While Jesus drew on the same themes as John the Baptist, his proclamation of repentance is fundamentally different from that of the one who baptized him.  John the Baptist preached repentance as a way for sins to be forgiven; Jesus preaches repentance as a way to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  For Jesus, repentance is less about being sorry for one’s sins and more about living a transformed life.  Through his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus inaugurates a new way of being, one that is shaped by the reality of God’s presence among us.  Just as Mozart changed the way people thought about music through one improvisation, Jesus changes the way we understand repentance, sin, and grace through his baptism.  This event at the Jordan is less a significant moment in the life of Jesus and more the announcement that this world has been and will be transformed by the grace made known to us in Jesus Christ.

In just a moment, we will baptize Kason and Eirnin into Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  Our hearts will melt as one Fr. Funston welcomes a new member to his parish, while another Fr. Funston baptizes his granddaughter.  Babies will coo and cry, parents will beam, and if history is any indication, godparents will fight back tears.  It will be a beautiful moment, one that will be captured on our cameras and in our memories.  But we must not be distracted by the loveliness of this moment.  Just as Jesus’ baptism is about far more than his immersion in the Jordan, Eirnin’s baptism, Kason’s baptism, our baptism is about more than the moment someone pours water over our head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As we baptize Kason and Eirnin today, we are affirming that something new is happening in their lives and the lives of their families, that they are citizens of God’s kingdom, that God is empowering them to live transformed lives of grace and love.  Baptism is not an isolated event, a piece of trivia that gets added to our biography; baptism is the acknowledgement that our lives have been and can be fundamentally changed through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a celebration that God is changing what the world can be.

Invited to Participate

Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon can be found here.

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This was the only moment during the trip that Muir wasn’t pouting.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt invited John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, to accompany him on a trip to what would ultimately become Yosemite National Park.  Though this trip was the catalyst for the creation of more than a dozen national parks during Roosevelt’s presidency, Muir was not terribly excited about the prospect of guiding the President through the California wilderness.  He initially wanted to decline the invitation, but a friend told him that one must always accept an invitation from the president.  While this offended Muir’s populist sensibilities, he eventually relented, allegedly quipping, “I suppose I shouldn’t refuse just because he happens to be president.”

As John Muir learned, there are apparently specific rules around when it is permissible to refuse a presidential invitation.  According to a guide published in 1880, one should only refuse such an invitation when one has reasons that are sufficiently “grave.”  In 1988, Miss Manners herself cautioned, “Only illness, a death in  the family, or hardship in making the trip are legitimate excuses for declining such an august invitation.”  The expectation is pretty clear: if the president invites you to go somewhere, you go.

The reason for these stringent rules about presidential invitations is that it is so very easy for refusals to be construed as political. A handful of people from history have famously declined opportunities to spend time with the president.  Nearly all of these individuals intended their refusal to broadcast their personal dissatisfaction with the president or their disapproval of his policies.  In other words, refusing a presidential invitation is less about one’s availability and much more about what one thinks is important.

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel intimates that there are consequences for declining more than just presidential invitations.  Matthew uses the phrase that ends today’s reading (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”) several times during the course of the gospel narrative.  In most of these cases, the punishment appears to fit the crime: those sent to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness are wicked, unfaithful, hypocritical, or disobedient.  It is only in this parable that someone is sent into the outer darkness for wearing the wrong outfit to a party.  This is a terrifying proposition.  Is there anyone here who hasn’t misinterpreted “business casual” and ended up wearing a polo shirt while everyone else was in a suit?  The way this parable is constructed, it seems as though this kind of faux pas could have eternal implications.  It doesn’t seem fair at all.  This guy didn’t even know he was coming to the wedding feast until he was dragged from the side of the road and brought into the hall.  How on earth was he supposed to be appropriately attired for this event?  But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, given this king’s track record of overreaction.  In the first part of this parable, he literally orders the execution of those who decline his invitation to the wedding banquet.  Sure, they made light of the invitation; sure, they mistreated his slaves; but did the king really have to destroy the whole city?  It seems as though the message of this parable is that we had better be on our toes, because God is capricious and willing to consign us to hell for offenses that most would regard as merely impolite.

Part of the challenge of this parable is that it is easy to become distracted by the king’s overreaction (as I did a moment ago); the punishments are so unreasonable.  If we remember, however, that this story is a parable, we can recognize that the punishments are not the point of this story; they’re simply intended to make it more vivid.  When we recognize this, we can pay attention to the other details in the parable, particularly to those who refused to attend the wedding banquet.  I think our assumption is that these people were simply unavailable, that they had too much going on and would have loved to attend the wedding but could not fit it into their schedules.  But the text tells us that the king sends his slaves to call those who had already been invited.  They had already agreed to attend; they had already committed themselves to participating in this celebration.  Nevertheless, Matthew tells us that they kept refusing to come. Even in the face of this obstinacy, the king sends another set of slaves who are instructed to say “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”  In other words, “this is what you have been waiting for; why on earth would you reject this offer?”  Once again, the guests refuse the invitation.  Like those who refuse presidential invitations, these guests made a profound statement about what was important to them by saying “no” to the king.  These guests affirmed that their own petty concerns were more important than God’s call.  Their self-centeredness led them to stay on the periphery instead of experiencing the fullness of God’s redemptive love.  Their refusal to participate led them to turn away from God and consign themselves to self-destruction.

The same dynamic is at play with our robeless friend.  There is some scholarly division about the reference to the wedding robe in this parable.  Some scholars suggest that in first-century Middle Eastern culture the host was expected to provide a wedding robe to his guests, while others contest that there was no such thing as a wedding-specific robe in the first place.  In either case, it’s pretty clear that the man is not to blame for his robelessness.  What he is to blame for is his failure to participate.  Notice that when the king asks him “how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” the man is speechless; he refuses even to answer the question, in spite of the fact that “what are you talking about” would apparently have been a legitimate response.  Ultimately, this man is consigned to the outer darkness not for his failure to wear a wedding robe, but for his refusal to participate in the banquet to which God has invited the whole human family.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Council released a survey about religion in American life, the results of which were alarming to those who are part of religious institutions.  In short, religious engagement and participation in this country have taken a nosedive during the past several decades.  Perhaps the most striking statistic to emerge from this survey is the rise of the so-called “nones,” those who profess no religious preference whatsoever.  These are not people who necessarily deny the existence of God; these are people who, when asked if they had any religious conviction, could muster no more than a noncommittal “Meh.”  It seems to me that a significant reason for the rise of these “nones” may be our failure to engage with the gospel proclamation.  As a community, we have been called to live our lives in light of the fact that God has redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And yet, we have behaved like the people invited by the king: happy to have an invitation, but not particularly interested rearranging our schedules.  Or we have acted like the robeless wallflower at the banquet: willing to attend the wedding, but uncertain about participating.  We have been invited to a wedding banquet, yet too often we live our lives as though we have something better to do.  If the gospel doesn’t matter to us, how can we expect it to matter to anyone else?  This parable reminds us that God calls us not to be spectators, but participants.  We are called to engage with the gospel and allow it to transform our lives.  We are called to participate in the life of the Church and help it to reveal God’s glory.  We are called to embrace what is truly important: to accept and share the invitation God has extended to each and every one of us.

Breaking the Rules

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon can be found here.

rachel_mcadams_mean_girls_20080813_02In 2004, Paramount Pictures released Mean Girls, a comedy about the perils of attending high school during the first decade of the new millennium.  Starring Lindsay Lohan before she became a tabloid headline, Mean Girls is, in many ways, a typically trite teen comedy; the protagonist succumbs to the temptations of cliques and cattiness only to realize that the coolest thing she can be is herself.  What sets Mean Girls apart from other films in its genre is the writing.  The movie is endlessly quotable, and nowhere is this truer than the scene in which Lohan’s character eats lunch with the popular clique known as “the Plastics” for the very first time.  One of the other girls, Gretchen, explains the rules that members of this clique must follow: Plastics wear pink on Wednesdays, Plastics can’t wear tank tops two days in a row, Plastics can only wear ponytails once a week, Plastics can only wear jeans or track pants on Friday.  After reciting this litany of requirements, Gretchen warns about the consequences of violation: “If you break any of these rules, you can’t sit with us at lunch.”  This scene is meant to show the audience the superficiality of the Plastics; the ludicrousness of excluding someone from a group for wearing sweatpants is supposed to make us laugh.  And yet, if we’re honest, every group establishes rules that members must follow in order to remain part of the community.  Establishing such rules is a way of ensuring that the community can function properly, a way of reducing conflict, a way of understanding who we are.

We see an example of a set of such rules in our gospel reading for today.  These rules deal with the management of interpersonal conflict among the group of first-century Christians to whom Matthew wrote his gospel.  Now, Matthew’s was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted.  With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable.  As we all know, it is difficult for a community to function when members are clashing with one another.  There are a variety of different strategies that leaders use to deal with this kind of conflict.  As the leader of a church community, Matthew, like the Plastics, seems to assume that those who persistently and unrepentantly disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community, though he is concerned with offenses more significant than not wearing pink on Wednesday.  The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, our Lord spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it.  If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him.  If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Jesus, in other words, seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful.  Far from the pettiness of a high school clique, this whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community.  Not only that, excommunication requires a rigorous due process: the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right before they are shunned by the church.  In Matthew’s community, people are not excommunicated for light and transient causes.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

There’s a level at which I think we can really understand this.  We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community.  There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, who piggybacks on other people’s successes and shifts blame when he is at fault.  There’s the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships and somehow manages to make every gathering a symposium on her personal problems.  There’s the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him.  Often, these people will continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg.  It seems that Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues.  In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can live and work in harmony.

But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Now, this seems like a fairly definitive condemnation.  After all, for a Jewish audience, Gentiles and tax collectors are among the most hated people in first-century Palestine.  Labeling someone as a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel.  But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles.  Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Chapel-window Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enjoins the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.”  Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.  For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there is always an opportunity for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors to be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s body.

Who are the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives?  Who have we excluded because of their repeated failure to meet our expectations?  Is it the lazy coworker, the selfish friend, or the shameful family member?  Or is it someone else?  Have we excluded ourselves because we believe that what we have done cannot be forgiven?  The gospel calls us to look within ourselves, to discern who we are excluding from our lives, and to reach out to those people and open ourselves to the possibility of reconciliation.  We may not get anywhere, we may be rejected for our efforts, but we worship a God who reached out to us while we were still sinners, while we were rejecting God.  We are called to be persistent, to remember that Christ does not willingly exclude anyone from the fellowship of his body, to live our lives deeply aware of how inclusive God’s love really is.

Worry

Today is Saint Joseph’s Day.

imgresMost of the information we get about Joseph comes from the first chapters of the gospel according to Matthew.  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man who had great respect for and devotion to God’s law.  Matthew’s gospel also indicates that Joseph is of the line of King David; he is the means by which Jesus is connected to Israel’s storied monarchy.  Finally, the First Gospel makes a pretty strong connection between our St. Joseph, who is told in a dream to hide the Messiah in Egypt, and Joseph the son of Jacob, the dreamer who saves his people by bringing them into the land of Egypt at the end of Genesis.  The Gospel of Matthew, in other words, paints Joseph as a noble and righteous protector, the first-century equivalent of a knight in shining armor.

So it’s a little surprising that the gospel reading appointed for St. Joseph’s Day comes not from Matthew’s gospel, but from the gospel according to Luke, in which Joseph is a parenthetical character at best.  The reading is the one story canonical story that describes the young life of Jesus: when Jesus is twelve, he and his parents go to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  On the way home, Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not with them and they return to Jerusalem, only to find Jesus holding forth among the elders in the Temple.  Mary scolds him, saying, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  It’s striking to me that in this gospel reading appointed for his feast day, Joseph neither says nor does anything of significance.  The only thing we are told he does in this particular situation is worry.

I can't see why they were worried...
I don’t know why they were worried…

When I was a kid, I had a tendency to wander.  Most notably, I got lost at the State Capitol building in Connecticut and at the cliff walk in Newport, RI.  None of these incidents ever seemed like a big deal to me; after all, knew where I was the whole time.  Needless to say, my parents did not feel the same way.  When I finally turned up after these unaccompanied sojourns, my parents would greet me with that strange mixture of relief, anger, and concern that is typical of worried parents.  As I’ve entered adulthood, I’ve come to understand that the worried emotions my parents exhibited stemmed entirely from love.  I think this is why the lectionary appoints the reading from Luke’s gospel for Saint Joseph’s day.  Joseph’s anxiety is typical of all worried parents who would rather die than see something bad happen to their children.  This is particularly extraordinary when you consider the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth.  In spite of the fact that Jesus was not technically his son, Joseph loved Jesus as his own.  This sacrificial love is emblematic of the love that God has for each and every one of us.  We put our trust in a God who worries for the creation he loves, who is concerned those who are his children by adoption.  And the ultimate message of Lent is that God would rather die than see something bad happen to God’s children.

Loaves

On this first Sunday in Lent, Christians around the world will hear Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  The movements of the story are familiar: the tempter makes an offer to Jesus three times, and three times Jesus rebuffs him.  Today, I wanted to take a moment to focus on the first interaction between Jesus and the devil:

The tempter came and said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”  (Matthew 4:3-4)

Jesus’ response is packed with meaning and recalls an important moment in Israel’s history.  After the tempter suggests that Jesus turn stones in to bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, recalling God’s provision of manna in the wilderness.  Jesus indicates that when we are in the wilderness, we are not meant to rely on cheap parlor tricks, but rather on the grace and mercy of God.  One also can’t help but hear echoes of Isaiah in Jesus’ response to the devil: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2).  Jesus points away from the empty and easy promises of mere satisfaction and toward the true fullness that comes from a relationship with God.

In spite of this, it’s hard not to fault Jesus in this situation.  After all, there are lots of hungry people in the world, and most of them are probably more interested in bread than they are in the words that come from the mouth of God.  Isn’t Jesus indulging in an unaffordable luxury by refusing to create food when he has the opportunity?

Just a few chapters after we hear Jesus refuse to make bread for himself, Matthew relates the story of the feeding of the multitude.  The striking thing about this story is not its miraculous nature, but the fact that Jesus shifts the perception of the gathered crowd.  When Jesus asks his disciples what they can share with the hungry people, they say, “Nothing…except for two fish and a few loaves.”  Jesus invites the people gathered in that wilderness to look at what they have in a new way, to understand that even when we have limited resources, we can share them with those in need.

imgresUltimately, Jesus does not turn stones into bread because that would accomplish very little; it would not feed anyone except Jesus.  But the next time he is in a deserted place and food becomes an issue, Jesus invites his disciples to share their meager lunch with the gathered multitude.  Jesus indicates that feeding the hungry is not an individual enterprise; it requires relationship.  In the same way, the process of becoming a faithful person is shaped within the context of community.  This morning, the Curate at Heavenly Rest reminded us that we’re not meant to go through Lent by ourselves, but rather within a community of people who are also struggling to be faithful.  When we gather around the bread of the Eucharist, I pray we will remember that our lives are not sustained only by loaves of bread, but by relationships with God and one another.

Saltiness

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 9, 2014.

images When I first learned to cook, I was scrupulous about following recipes.  If a cookbook told me to heat something over medium-high heat, I would carefully turn the knob on the stove so that the arrow rested on the precise midpoint between “medium” and “high.”  When a bread recipe instructed me to knead dough for ten minutes, I would set a timer and press that dough against the counter until the precise moment the bell rang.  Most importantly, when a dish called for a teaspoon of salt, I would pour salt into a measuring spoon, careful not to add even a few extra grains to the dish.  After all, I didn’t want the food I prepared to be too salty.  For the most part, this scrupulosity seemed to pay off.  The results of my first attempts at cooking were mostly edible, and some were even moderately successful.

But when I watched more experienced people cook, I noticed that they tended to be less wedded to the recipe.  When my father heated something on the stove, he would turn the knob without carefully examining the place it landed.  When my mother kneaded bread dough, she wouldn’t set a timer to tell her when to stop; she would know how the dough was supposed to feel after it had been kneaded.  Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that when my parents cooked, they didn’t carefully measure out the salt they added to dishes.  In fact, they grabbed what appeared to be huge handfuls of salt and used those to season whatever they were preparing.  The first time I saw this, I shouted, “What are you doing?  It’s going to be too salty!”  Giving me a knowing smile, they said, “Just wait and see.”  Of course, those well-seasoned dishes were not salty at all; in fact, they were far more flavorful and complex than those dishes that I had assembled so scrupulously.  It gradually dawned on me that the primary purpose of salt in cooking is not to make food salty; it is to make food taste the way it is supposed to taste.  The purpose of salt is to make a dish what it is supposed to be.

Today, we hear one of the more interesting passages from the Sermon on the Mount.  Part of the reason I think this passage is interesting is that it seems so disjointed.  Just after Jesus preaches the beatitudes to the crowds, he jumps into these two metaphors, telling those listening to him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is the kind of teaching we expect from Jesus; he’s making us feel good about our Christian vocation to go make the world a better place.  It’s no accident that upbeat songs like “This little light of mine” draw on the images that Jesus uses in this passage.  But just after Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he brings down the hammer: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”  In other words, it seems that Jesus is saying, “If you thought that being my follower was going to be easy and free of rules and regulations, you’ve got another thing coming.”  In fact, he concludes the passage we read today by saying, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Yikes.  Just so we’re clear, the scribes and the Pharisees were known for their righteousness under the law, known for their ability to keep all of the rules and regulations prescribed under the Law of Moses.  Jesus is setting an extremely high bar here: “unless you are more righteous than the most righteous people around, you are not fit for the kingdom that God is bringing into being.”

Why is Jesus setting this impossibly high standard?  Doesn’t this insistence on the Law seem inconsistent with what we know about Jesus?  To answer these questions, it might be helpful for us to think about the purpose of the Law.  For the Jewish people, the Law was the lens through which they understood their relationship with God.  During the Babylonian captivity, Israel was unable to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and so the Law became what defined them.  It was a way of continuing to be God’s people even though they had been driven from the land God had given to them.  The Law retained a central role even as the Jewish people returned from captivity and dwelled in the land promised to them by God.  There were, however, some who regarded the Law not as a way to be in relationship with God, but as an end in itself.  There were some who were scrupulous about keeping the law so that they would be blameless, so that they would be perfect, so that they could look in the mirror and say, “Boy, I sure am righteous.”  In other words, there were some who regarded the law as a recipe for righteousness, who said “as long as I set the burner at precisely the right temperature, as long as knead the dough for just the right amount of time, as long as I add just the right amount of salt, I will be righteous under the law.”  Jesus, however, comes along and tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law, to remind us of its primary purpose, to return our focus from following the recipe to being in relationship with God.

This is where we see that those two metaphors that Jesus uses at the beginning of this passage are far from unrelated to his meditations about the Law.  Jesus tells his hearers that they are the salt of the earth and that they are the light of the world.  Notice what Jesus does not say.  He does not say, “If you follow the Law, you will be the salt of the earth” or “If you abide by these beatitudes, you will be the light of the world.”  Rather, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  Right here.  Right now.  Moreover, Jesus is very specific about who he is talking to.  We don’t get the sense of it in English, but the Greek makes it very clear that Jesus is talking to everyone in front of him: “All y’all are the salt of the earth.  All y’all are the light of the world.  Each and every one of you is called to enlighten this world and help it to be what it is supposed to be.”  This is how our righteousness is meant to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. imgres While they are focused on following the recipe and reaching the goal of making themselves righteous, we are to realize that we are already who God has called us to be.  Our righteousness does not come from our successful completion of the Law’s requirements; our righteousness comes from the God who loves us and desires a relationship with us.  Our righteousness does not come from following the recipe; our righteousness comes from realizing that we are salt, that we are called to season the world and make it what God desires it to be.

It is clear that our identity as the salt of the earth is meant to shape our lives.  But this begs the question: how do we live our lives with the understanding that we are salt?  Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, but immediately adds a caveat: “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  The way that the question is worded indicates that once it has lost its saltiness, salt’s taste cannot be restored, that it is now worthless and needs to be thrown away.  This seems to imply that if we are not careful, we will lose our saltiness and become worthless in the eyes of God.  But here’s the thing: if you ask a scientist, she will tell you that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Sodium chloride is a remarkably stable compound that will not lose its flavor even after being stored for many years.  So is Jesus saying that unlike real salt, we can lose our saltiness?  That just doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of this passage.  In the very next metaphor, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, implying that any attempts to conceal the light are going fail.  It seems far more likely that Jesus is saying that even if we think we have lost our saltiness, we are still salt.  Even if we feel as though we have abandoned our call to bring God’s savor to the world, we are still who God has called us to be. Even if we think we are worthless in the eyes of God, God still loves us and desires a relationship with us.

Whether you nurture your life of faith on a daily basis or you feel that your faith has been dormant for a long time; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you have been here every Sunday for the past thirty years or this is the first time you have ever been inside a church building; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you embrace the life of this community or you have turned away from it; you are the salt of the earth.  No matter where you have been or what you have done, you are who God has called you to be.  In light of this identity, in light of who God has called you to be: Jesus Christ invites you, Jesus Christ invites all of us to be salt.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by bringing God’s savor to a world that craves compassion and justice.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by seasoning a world that is hungry for hope and beauty. Above all, Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by filling the world with God’s love and helping the world be what it is supposed to be.