Saturday, February 26, 2011

8 Epiphany Yr A

We have been hearing the Sermon on the Mount now for a few weeks. Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom of God. Jesus has been telling his listeners what that kingdom looks like. Blessed are you, for you are a child of God. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Your relationships shall have dignity, your words have power, you need to live with each other with honesty and integrity. You shall love your neighbor. This is kingdom life. Today Jesus tells his listeners, and us, not to be anxious about earthly things. God takes care of the birds and the flowers of the field, and so God will take care of us too.

However, telling people in this day and age not to be anxious about anything is like telling people not to breathe anymore. It's almost ridiculous. What would we do with ourselves if we didn't have to worry? As a culture, we're anxious about everything. And, if we aren't, we have 24-hour news and color coded threat levels to help us along. We have instant reports of unrest in the world, and of earthquakes and devastation. We live in fear; fear of not having enough, fear of those who are different from us; fear of the other.

But, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount tells us that one of the prime values of the Kingdom of God is that we not be anxious, because God takes care of us all and, if we are in God's hands, what do we really have to worry about? So how do we live as Kingdom people, how do we follow Jesus in a culture of fear, in a culture where anxiety is sold on the evening news?

The whole Sermon on the Mount is a text that we need to seriously absorb into our lives. And, at times that absorption will be incredibly difficult, because it's values are so contrary to the values our world typically lives day-to-day. Blessed are you, for you are a child of God. God takes care of the birds and the flowers of the field, and so God will take care of us too. As my friend Larry posted on his facebook, if God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.

The difficulty for us is living in this assurance; the difficulty for us is living as citizens of the Kingdom in the midst of the conflicting messages, in the midst of the anxiety that is perpetuated everywhere we look. We are people who seem to be mightily afraid. However, anxiety is not unique to us in this particular age. Anxiety and fear have been recorded in history since history has been recorded. Anxiety is part of the sacred story of our people; anxiety is part of the story of each one of us. In Isaiah today, we are assured that God will not forget us, people may forget, but God does not forget, don’t worry about that.

Fear motivates us in strange ways. It is fear that helps us to protect our children from danger; it is fear that causes some of us to step into danger. We often fear that which we cannot change, and then ironically, we fear change. And fear causes us to hold on tight to what we have, whatever it is we have. Wealth, luxury, housing, one another. We are afraid of what tomorrow might bring. We hold on so tight to those we love; we can’t let them go to live their own lives.

This is what Jesus addresses in this part of the teaching. We hold on so tight to our money and possessions, what we consider our wealth, we can’t see beyond any of it to the abundance that God has for us, to the love that God pours upon us.

But fear only holds us hostage; it keeps us in bondage. What are you afraid of? What causes you to be anxious? The dark or the light? Having enough or having too much? Death or life? Growth and change, or the status quo? What is it that holds you hostage; that keeps you in bondage? What is it that gets in the way of your relationship with God? That’s what this passage is about. It’s about slavery to that which is not God. It is about the freedom that God offers.

It is about the priority of God’s gift of love, God’s gift of new life, God’s gift of mercy and compassion. Because Jesus was born into this world, because God came to be one of us, we are free to live fully and completely as a beloved child of God. We must remember, especially when we read a passage like this, which seems rather glib, that in the struggle, in the muck and the dirt, in the pain and suffering that is life, this God we trust in walks with us, by our side. That’s what incarnation is about. Only a God who is willing to be in this life with us, is a God in whom I can place my trust.

What does that mean to you and to me? It means we are free to be the people that God loves. It means that we live in the midst of God’s abundant love for us, even when we don’t feel that love all the time. It means that we live in the midst of abundance, not of scarcity. It means that we no longer have to spend our lives searching for whatever it is that will fulfill us, because God has already given us all that we need, God has given us new life. No longer do we need to look for love in all the wrong places, in money, in work, in power, in our 15 minutes of fame, because God’s love for us is enough.

It is so hard to trust in God’s abundant, extreme love for us, to not be anxious. But that is exactly what we are asked to do. In trusting in that abundant, extreme love, we are free. Not trusting in that abundant, extreme love, we remain in bondage; we remain afraid to really live.

The freedom of God’s love is freedom from being attached to status and honor and power. It is being freed from the slavery of making money just because we can, and spending money, just because we can. It is being free to make and spend and give our hard earned money as a steward of the gift of life and the gift of hard work.

The freedom of God’s love is freedom from being consumed by the worry about the value others assign to each of us. Value is not based on what we can produce, or on what we look like, or on what we consume, or on what we eat, or what we wear, or on how we sing, or dance, or our athletic ability. Value is based on being God’s creation, God’s beloved.

Strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Be free to be a steward of that abundance.

The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

7 Epiphany Yr A

We continue reading in Matthew the Sermon on the Mount. The setting is really much more like a hillside, with people gathered to hear the rabbi teach. Jesus is teaching about God’s inbreaking Kingdom, Jesus is teaching about what life as a citizen of God’s kingdom looks like.

There is a story that is part of NPR’s Story Corps, and it’s been floating around a bit lately. It’s about Julio Diaz, who stepped off the New York City subway platform after work one night; he was simply planning to walk over to his favorite local diner for a meal. But when a teenage boy approached him with a knife blade gleaming in his fist, Diaz, a 31-year-old social worker, knew the evening was about to take a more dramatic turn. The young man demanded Diaz’s wallet, and Diaz passed it over without objection. But just as his mugger turned to walk away, Diaz called after him: “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something.” The mugger turned around, surprised. “If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The teenager looked at Diaz in disbelief, and asked why he would do such a thing. Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.” He told the young man that he’d just been heading out for dinner, and that he would be happy for some company. The young mugger decided to take Diaz up on his offer, and they headed into Diaz’s favorite local haunt together. As they were sitting at the table, the manager, the dishwashers, and the waiters all stopped over to say hello to Diaz, and the young man was amazed at his popularity. “You’re even nice to the dishwasher,” he exclaimed.

“Haven’t you been taught that you should be nice to everybody?” Diaz asked him. “Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teenager replied. Thanks to Diaz, he was beginning to see that kindness wasn’t such a strange phenomenon, after all. When the bill came, Diaz told the teen that he’d have to get the check. After all, he still had Diaz’s wallet.

But the teenager slid the wallet back across the table without a moment’s thought, and Diaz treated him to dinner. Diaz also gave the would-be mugger a $20 bill to take with him –in exchange for the young man’s knife. “I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right,” Diaz said. “It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

The collection of scripture we have before us begs the question, what does the kingdom of God breaking into human existence look like? I think this story wonderfully illustrates what the kingdom of God looks like. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In the kingdom of God Jesus says, there is not a set of laws, there is not a rulebook. Children of God, citizens of the kingdom are called to love and to serve. Citizens of the kingdom are called to respond with mercy and compassion, healing and reconciliation in all times and all places. Matthew interprets the verses from Leviticus as kingdom life as well. You shall leave some grapes in your vineyard for the poor and the sojourner, the immigrant. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Kingdom life is different than worldly life, and kingdom life is not easy or even clear. There is not a time when we are relieved of kingdom life, and that is the very hard part. Kingdom life starts now, not some later date, and not after death. Jesus says, you have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. And then Jesus goes on to say, “for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” You see, we are all in the same boat here. We are all accountable to these standards. Not one of us gets off easy, just because we have money, power, popularity, or fame.

But the reality in which we live is that God’s inbreaking kingdom is happening right now, but we do live in this in between time, this time before the fulfillment of all time. So we are called to live in this now and not yet reality, we are called to life a kingdom life in this world as God affects healing and reconciliation.

So how does this picture of kingdom life form and inform us in this day? Most assuredly kingdom life calls us to walk to a different drummer. Kingdom life calls us to love, not to hate. Kingdom life calls us to treat everyone with mercy and compassion, not disdain and derision. Kingdom life calls us to respond to those who speak and act badly with concern and kindness.

In this world where those who speak the loudest get listened to, how do you use your voice for peaceful change? In this world where spending is about special interest and personal programs, how do we stand for moral budget making? In this world where justice is confused with revenge, how do we turn the other cheek, how do we speak about healing and reconciliation? In a world where forgiveness is unacceptable because punishment is the only acceptable outcome, how do we drop to our knees and approach our creator with humility?

You see, this sermon on the hillside is about us. We are the blessed, and we are those who mourn. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and we are the ones who loose our saltiness, and we are the ones who put our lights under a basket. We are the ones who come to the altar to bring our gifts, and the ones who need to leave our gifts at the altar to reconcile with our brothers and our sisters. We are the ones who turn the other cheek, and the ones who deliver the first blow. We live at one and the same time as citizens of the kingdom and as those who miss the mark. This is the reality of our lives, we are not perfect, perfection only comes as we live our lives enveloped in the love, the mercy, the compassion, of our God. We may not be perfect in ourselves, but we are not off the hook either.

The truth is that Jesus walks this road with us, to show us the way. The truth is that on our own, we tend to mistreat, to miss the mark. But we are children of God, and we are citizens of the kingdom, we are the peacemakers. We are called to avoid the violence and hatred that has crept into our social and political discourse these days. We are called to offer others a chance to escape the cycle of violence and hate that is so prevalent in our society. Our mission is God’s mission, healing and reconciliation, mercy and compassion because we are citizens of God’s kingdom.

The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

5 Epiphany Yr A

What we hear today in the gospel of Matthew is truly exciting. And it is a continuation of the blessings that we heard last week. Matthew shows us and tells us what it means to be the blessed child of God. Blessed are you, you are called and named salt of the earth and light of the world. Being salt of the earth and light of the world is part of the blessing. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Your value is already stated. As a disciple of Christ, you can’t help but be salt and light. You have no choice in the matter, Jesus says, this is who you are. You can’t help but make things livelier and shed light on the matter. So what do we do with that? How do we respond to that? What does it mean to be the salt and the light for the sake of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world?

You are blessed, you are salt, you are light. This is who and how God has created. It is the truth, nothing can change that. Being salt and light means that something happens when we, Jesus’ disciples, go into the world for the sake of God’s mission. And yet, so much of the time we spend believing something else. What does the world say we are? Irrelevant, ignorant, hypocritical. Too old, too young, worthless, useless. But God says we are blessed, God says we are salt and we are light. No matter what we do, and we do try hard, we can’t shake our saltiness or lose our light. It’s what God has made us to be. We need to listen to what God names us, not what the world names us. We need to know what is already true, and in knowing that, we can put it to the best possible use, being salt and light for the purpose of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world.

Recently we wanted peanuts, in the shell. So we bought a huge bag of them, and got them home and opened them up and realized that they were unsalted. How disappointing. Salt enhances and adds flavor to so many foods. We are the salt of the earth, how do we flavor the world? How may we be the salt of society, preserving, reconciling, adding taste, giving meaning where there is no meaning, giving hope where there is no hope?

Nelson Mandela said in his 1994 inaugural speech. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” We are the light of the world, how do you enlighten the places and people you encounter?

There are two really important things we need to hear from Matthew this morning. First is that we are salt and light, we are children of God, we are named blessed, we don’t do anything to get that designation, it just is. Secondly, as we fully inhabit that truth about ourselves, when we bring our saltiness, our light, and our blessedness into all of the parts of our life, into our work and our school and our play, we are the agents of God’s mission that we are called to be, agents of God’s healing and reconciliation, agents of mercy and compassion. Now, as much as and maybe even more than ever, we need to be salt and light.

That said, I want to tell you a little about the meeting I was at in Charlotte North Carolina this past week. I am on the Council for Life-long Christian Formation, formerly known as the Episcopal Council on Christian Education. We changed our name to more closely say that we believe that discipleship is a lifelong endeavor, there is never a time when we are done. The Council for Life-long Christian Formation is a council of advice, support, and implementation connected to the person who holds the job for Life-long Christian formation at our Church Center, and the team of four people who make up Life-long Christian formation, Youth Ministry, Young Adult Ministry, and Camping Ministries. I tell you all this because it is always important for us to remember that we at St. Andrew’s are connected to the greater church, nationally, provincially, in our diocese, in our deanery, and locally as well. Very briefly, our diocese is a geographical grouping of Episcopal churches that happens to be all of South Dakota. Our province is a geographical grouping of Episcopal dioceses that happen to be all states as well, MN, IA, ND, SD, NE, MT, WY, and CO. I say happen to be, because that is not the case for all dioceses or provinces. Our deanery is a geographical grouping of Episcopal churches here in the Black Hills, and we meet as such once or twice a year, which is to say that we are all connected, and related in various ways.

Part of my job, as the Provincial representative to the Council on Life-long Christian formation, is to tell our particular story about the joys and the challenges of teaching discipleship and forming 21st century Episcopal Christians, and to listen to the stories that others have in their own contexts. One of the challenges we face in all areas is refigured budgets. Rather than looking at our budgets as bad news, I think we are presented with opportunity. The opportunity is that we can wiggle out of our cocoon and be more nimble. One opportunity is to use and share technology. For example, there are people working on an application for your phone that would not only locate an Episcopal church for you, but also provide the means to download the entire service so you have it right in the palm of your hand. Another example is meeting by webcam instead of in person, as you know it is much less expensive that way. But it’s not all about technology; I want to assure those of us who feel maybe technology is leaving them in the dust. We definitely have a mind toward older adult ministry, as we experience more and more baby boomers in our congregations.

This is all to show you the vital and exciting movement of our church as institution, and as body’s of people on the local level. We, as individuals in the Episcopal Church, and as one part of the universal and catholic church, are salt and light in the world. Another example is that our Presiding Bishop was just named to the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

So today, and as we re-gather later for our Annual meeting, I leave you with the question again, how are you salt in the world? How are you light in the world? How do you participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world?

The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come let us adore him.