Comeback

Sermon on Acts 1:6-14 offered to the people of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Midland, TX.

imgresF. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”  You’ve probably heard this quotation before; members of the media love to trot it out whenever a disgraced politician makes a comeback.  Reporters will repeat the quotation and then say something like, “But clearly, Fitzgerald never met—fill in the blank” (Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer; the list goes on and on and on).  The rhetorical point is clear: though F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was impossible to make a comeback in America, these people seem to buck the trend.  This interpretation, however, actually misses Fitzgerald’s point.  Kirk Curnutt, the vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, points out that the quotation originally appears in an essay called “My Lost City.”  In it, Fitzgerald writes, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  In other words, while one might be inclined to conclude that comebacks are impossible in America, the example of New York points to the contrary conclusion.  Another interpreter points out that the second act of a play is when the protagonist has to deal with difficulties and challenges before things are resolved in the third act.  Fitzgerald may have been implying that in American life, there is no messy second act; things seem to get resolved with out too much complication.  In the case of either interpretation, the point is clear: the comeback is a crucial part of the American narrative, not only for disgraced politicians, but also for military veterans, sports franchises, and cities.  As Americans and as human beings, we tend to find comeback stories very compelling.  One of the striking features of most comeback stories is that the person or the team or the city that has come back usually looks very different.  Sometimes it is challenging to recognize people experiencing a second act because so much about them has changed.  They have a new appreciation for life, a new ambition, a new understanding of their place in the world.

imagesThis morning, we heard about the Ascension, one of the stranger moments in the post resurrection life of Jesus, which is saying something, when you think about it.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard about Jesus being raised from the dead (which is pretty strange in and of itself), appearing to his disciples after passing through walls, and disappearing from their sight after being made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  All of this is pretty bizarre stuff.  The Ascension, however, is even more perplexing than any of these other stories.  It is so strange that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the only evangelist who bothers to include it in his account of the life of Jesus.  In both the gospel and Acts, the story is pretty similar: Jesus gathers his disciples, makes some promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is carried away into the sky until he disappears behind a cloud.  It is a strange story, not just because it’s about someone being taken up into the sky, but also because it is difficult to understand why it is included in the story of Jesus at all.  Most events in the life of Jesus point to some significant truth about the nature of God.  The Ascension doesn’t seem to have a significance beyond, “Hey, remember when that happened?  That was weird.”  And yet, Luke mentions the Ascension two separate times; in fact, it seems to be the pivot point between his gospel and his account of the early Church.  Moreover, the Church fathers thought the Ascension important enough to merit its own clause in the Nicene Creed.  That’s more than you can say for any of Jesus’ teachings.  So while it is one of the more perplexing aspects of the life of Jesus, the Ascension remains an important part of the Christian faith.

This leads us to wonder why.  What is significant about the Ascension?  What does it tell us about Jesus Christ and the nature of the God we worship?  One of the most conspicuous elements of the Ascension is that it is characterized by absence.  Think about the ending of the gospel according to Matthew for a moment.  Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain and charges them to make disciples of all nations.  Jesus then tells them, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Those are the final words of Matthew’s gospel.  The last thing that Matthew wants us to remember is that Jesus is present with us in some way.  Contrast that to Luke, where Jesus does not promise to be present with the disciples, but instead, vanishes from their sight.  For Luke, the Ascension is noteworthy because Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, because Jesus is no longer present, because Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building.  For Luke, Jesus needs to be elsewhere, needs to be interested and engaged with creation, but on a remote level.  The reason for this is revealed to us by those mysterious men in white robes.  After Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, Luke tells us that they continue to gaze at the sky.  Two men approach them and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  The logical response to this question is, of course, “Duh!  We just saw someone carried away into the sky!”  Before the disciples can offer this obvious response, however, the mysterious men in white say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Luke emphasizes the absence of Jesus in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus.  The Ascension, in other words, is less about Jesus’ departure and more about his coming again.

When we hear about the return of Christ, the image that comes to mind tends to terrifying and violent.  Thanks to the apocalyptic imagery found in parts of the gospels, the book of Revelation, and works of popular fiction like the Left Behind series, many of us have come to regard the Second Coming of Christ as something scary.  Christ will return from heaven like a conquering warrior, leading an army of heavenly hosts and slaying the wicked and unrighteous.  In fact, the words of the mysterious strangers in today’s gospel account seem to support this fearsome understanding of Christ’s return: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Through much of Christian history, the prevailing way to read this prediction was as a physical description: Christ went into heaven through the sky and will come back from heaven through the sky.  Charles Wesley embraces this view in the great Advent hymn: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending; once for our salvation slain.  Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”

imagesBut what if the prediction of the two men in white is not a physical description, but something much more significant?  What if, by saying that Jesus will come in the same way, these mysterious strangers are not saying “Jesus is going to return from the sky,” but are instead saying, “Jesus will return in the same way he originally came,” that the Second Coming of Christ is going to look similar to Christ’s first advent?  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, he will return as one who cares for the poor, reaches out to the downtrodden, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that in his second act, Jesus will be unchanged, that he will continue to be passionate about justice, compassion, and love.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, we will recognize him.

If we are going to recognize Jesus when he returns, this leads us to wonder if Jesus will recognize the Church.  This, I think, is the reason Luke repeats the story of the Ascension in both of his books: he intends this question to be at the back of our minds as we read about the beginnings of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospel, we are told what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, how he cared for the poor, reached out to the downtrodden, healed the sick, and welcomed the stranger.  As we hear the stories of the early Church, Luke wants us to ask: are the apostles living up to the example of their Lord and Master?  By repeating the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, Luke ensures that Jesus’ example and his promise to return are at the back of our minds.  Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles striving to follow Christ’s example by caring for the widows and orphans, healing the palsied and disabled, and expanding their understanding of God’s justice as they begin to include Gentiles into the Church.  In other words, we see the apostles striving to make the Church recognizable to the Jesus who will return in the same way he came.

Would Jesus recognize the Church today?  On one level, this is a silly question.  The Church has evolved significantly over the last two thousand years.  Jesus would probably have a hard time recognizing our hierarchical structures, our liturgies, our vestments, our preoccupation with committees, our buildings, and even our creeds, for that matter.  But, would Jesus recognize our passion for justice, compassion, and love?  Would Jesus recognize our efforts to provide for the poor, reach out to the downtrodden, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger?  Would Jesus recognize our attempts to follow his example?  Too often we get distracted from our call to follow Christ’s example by our slavish devotion to our Church structures.  We assume that we are not the Church unless we hold to just the right doctrine or use just the right liturgy or embrace just the right hierarchy.  But what the disciples show us in the Acts of the Apostles is that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more passionate about justice than dogma.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more concerned with compassion than structure.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is more interested in sharing God’s love than being right.  The Ascension reveals to us that Christ is the same, yesterday and today; we are called to embrace his changeless example and allow it to shape our lives and the life of the Church.

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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.

Reconciled

Last week, we explored the theme of reconciliation.  We remembered that Scripture assumes our sinfulness and thus our need for forgiveness from God and others.  We explored how forgiveness often requires us to forget the pain we experience when we are wronged.  We noticed how difficult it is to forgive those who are notoriously destructive of community.  And we observed that the Christian faith trusts that it is ultimately God who is reconciling us to himself and one another.  To conclude our series on reconciliation, I thought that we could examine a real-world example that illustrates many of these features of reconciliation.

One of the great injustices of the recent past was South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation known as apartheid.  The system organized South Africa’s population into racial categories and separated the population on the basis of these labels.  Established in 1948, apartheid was designed to keep the Afrikaner-dominated National Party in power essentially by removing the majority from the political equation.  Under apartheid, the government segregated residential areas, education, medical care, and a variety of other public services, to the end that South Africa’s majority black population was relegated to second-class status.  The government’s intractable support of racial segregation led to constant internal strife, occasional violence, and outcries from the international community.  Apartheid was officially repealed in 1990, but it was not until 1994 that multi-racial elections were finally held, sweeping Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress into power.

The end of apartheid left South Africa with a challenging question: what was the new leadership supposed to do about the wound that apartheid and its supporters had inflicted on the country?  Millions of people had been treated unjustly for more than forty years; everyone agreed that something had to be done.  One option would have been to enact retribution and punish those responsible for subjugating the black majority.  This would have at least given the appearance of justice.  Instead, South Africa chose a far more difficult and a far more controversial path forward.  In 1995, the government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a body headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu designed to give those who had been victimized an opportunity to tell their stories and those had committed injustices an opportunity to confess their crimes.  The most astonishing part of the TRC is the fact that it offered amnesty to those who had participated in apartheid’s work of subjugation and injustice.  For the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the most important part of their work was to allow the truth to be told and to find a way forward for a country that had been divided for so long.  The TRC’s primary purpose, in other words, was reconciliation.

5943Some of those who criticize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission complain that people who had confessed to crimes were not punished; others worried that the “truth” was obscured by the spectacle of the Commission’s work.  While these concerns might have some legitimacy, the reality is that South Africa could have descended into racially motivated violence after the end of apartheid as those who had been oppressed sought vengeance on their oppressors.  Instead, South Africa engaged in an process of seeking reconciliation and restoration, enabling the country to move forward.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu summarized that reconciliation presents: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

I can’t help but believe that part of the reason for the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that its leader trusted that it was God who was reconciling people who had been estranged from each other for so long.  Archbishop Tutu trusted Jesus Christ’s mandate to forgive those who sin against us because he knew that it was the only way his country could move forward.  And ultimately, Archbishop Tutu understood that it is only by engaging in the hard work of reconciliation that we can begin to hope for transformation.