Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Valley of Shadow


Propers: Transfiguration, A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

God always seems to be showing up on mountaintops. Part of this is because the land of the Bible is indeed quite mountainous. You’d be amazed how close things are horizontally, yet how distant vertically. You’re always either climbing up or coming down. But it’s also very natural for us to seek God atop the mountain. Up there the petty cares of the world seem to fall away, as we draw closer to nature and to nature’s God. Mt Sinai, Mt Zion, Mt Tabor—God always seems to meet us in that liminal space, halfway, where heaven touches the earth.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus leads Peter and James and John up a high mountain by themselves, and there they experience something wonderful. Jesus is transfigured before them, His face shining like the sun, His clothes a dazzling white. He looks for all the world like the divine Son of Man prophesied by Daniel centuries ago. The Shekinah, the cloud of God’s own presence, descends upon them, and the great heroes of old, Moses and Elijah, the prophets and leaders of God’s people, appear before them, conversing with Christ. And the voice of the Almighty Father proclaims: “This is My Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!”

So much is happening, so much going on. The Transfiguration recalls Moses receiving the Law atop Sinai. It recalls Jesus’ own Baptism, when the heavens were rent asunder. But most remarkably, it reveals to us Moses and Elijah—the great figures of the Law and the Prophets, famous for ascending mountains in order to speak with God—here again atop a mountain conversing with Christ. The message could not be clearer. The same God whom Moses and Elijah met upon the mountaintop appears now before them transfigured in the flesh.

It’s all so overwhelming that we nearly forget the timing of this miracle. The Transfiguration takes place during Sukkoth, the Old Testament Festival of Tabernacles. Now, tabernacle is a fairly common word in the Bible, as one might expect from a book written by missionaries, nomads, and shepherds. A tabernacle is a tent or a booth—any temporary dwelling—and they appear time and again in the Scriptures: God “tabernacles” with Adam and Eve in the Garden; Noah’s Ark is a type of tabernacle; Moses speaks to God in the great Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. And most notably, John’s Gospel begins by proclaiming that the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us.

Tabernacles, tents, are where God comes down to dwell with humankind.

The Festival of Tabernacles fell at harvest time, which was quite convenient, as little tents or booths allowed farmers to remain in the fields. It recalled the historical period of 40 years that the Hebrews spent wandering in the desert, sojourning from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But more than this, the Festival of Tabernacles recalled how God dwelt with Moses face-to-face, as it were, in the great Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. Someday, they knew, the Messiah would come and bring about the New Age, the New Creation. Then would everyone see God face-to-face, like Moses, in little tents of our own. Then would God dwell among us again, as He did in Eden, so long ago.

That’s why Peter blurts out, apparently at random, “Lord, I will make three tabernacles! One for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” To us his reaction seems crazy. Peter witnesses this astonishing revelation, and he starts babbling on about tents? But to a faithful First Century Jew, this response makes perfect sense. Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And when he sees Jesus’ glory unveiled, amidst the witness of Moses and Elijah, surrounded by the cloud of the Holy Spirit and the thunderous voice of the Father—well, naturally He knows that the end of the world has come! The Messianic Age is at hand! God has come to dwell on earth, and when God comes down, people who know their Bible expect to meet Him, as Moses did, in tabernacles.

It’s the end of the world, Peter says. Time to pitch a tent!

But then all of a sudden, as abruptly as it began, this vision of Transfiguration passes away. No more Moses or Elijah. No more cloud of the Spirit or voice of the Father. No more blazing skin or shining clothes. All of a sudden it’s just Peter and James and John and Jesus. And He says to them, “Tell no one of this vision until after I have been raised from the dead.” Then He sets His face toward Jerusalem—toward the Passover and the Cross and the tomb—and He descends from the mountain of glory down, down into the valley of the shadow of death.

Peter gets it right: the long-awaited Messiah has come. But not in the manner expected. His ways are stranger, deeper than that.

At either end of Lent there stands a mountain. Here at the beginning, on this last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we see the Transfiguration atop Mt Tabor, a vision of glory, Christ’s divinity revealed to the world. At the other ends stands Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where the King of Kings shall be crowned with thorns and enthroned upon a Roman Cross. These two mountains mirror one another. They are two sides of a single coin. The Transfiguration is the Crucifixion’s reflection, revealing it for what it truly is: the moment when God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, pouring out His life from the Cross, going all the way to hell and back, so that we His murderers might know forgiveness and salvation.

The End of the Age is upon us; God walks again on the earth. But the glory of the Lord will not appear as we expect it to, all fanfare and shouts of Hosanna. And the coming of His Kingdom will not be the triumph anticipated by mortal eyes. No. It will be something far greater, far more terrifying, and far more wonderful. The Transfiguration has shown us the end, but the journey lies yet before us. We must descend now, brothers and sisters, from the mountain of glory down into the valley of shadows. We must follow our Lord into the 40 days of Lent.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Lent


Pastor’s Epistle—March, A.D. 2017 A

Once Upon a Time, the early Church celebrated two holidays: Sunday and Holy Week.

Later festivals popped up commemorating the deaths of martyrs or the consecrations of important church buildings. But most of the big ones—Christmas, St John’s Day, the Annunciation—fall when they do because they were calculated, however torturously, from the reference point of Holy Week. Holy Week is, as they say, Sunday for the year.

As the Church grew, it became customary for prospective members to go through a period of learning and discernment. These students were known as Catechumens. They would receive religious instruction in theology and the Christian life, while engaging in disciplines of prayer and service to the poor. Catechumens would attend Sunday worship, but stayed only for the first part of the service: the reading of the Scriptures, the sermon, and the prayers. They would be dismissed before the celebration of Communion.

When Holy Week drew near, the Catechumens would prepare themselves through fasting, almsgiving, and confession. On the night of the Easter Vigil, they would be baptized into the Body of Christ, so that on Easter morning they could receive the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord, for the first time.

That’s what Lent is all about. It’s the season of the Church year in which people prepare themselves for the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion. And it has long been traditional for the Church as a whole to join in fasting, almsgiving and repentance so as to kneel in solidarity with those preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The Catechumenate does not walk alone; all of God’s Church walks with them towards the Cross and empty tomb. We fast because they are fasting.

Lent lasts 40 days (not counting Sundays) because 40 is a highly symbolic number in the Bible. Think of the 40 days and nights of Noah’s Flood, or of Jesus’ 40-day Temptation in the Wilderness. Ancient peoples knew that it takes roughly 40 weeks for a pregnant woman to come to term and bear a child, and so the number 40 always represents periods of difficulty and trial—indeed, of pain and sorrow—leading to new life and new birth. We would do well to remember this whenever we come across the number 40 in the Scriptures.

This March we stride headlong into Lent, fasting and giving, confessing and praying. It is a time of preparation, of solidarity, and of repentance. But it is also a season of expectant hope, knowing full well that Jesus walks before us into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and that all the horrors of the Cross will be transformed to shouts of joy on that glorious Easter dawn just over the horizon. We drown in our sins to rise again in Christ.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Resist



Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Welcome to the resistance.

If there is to be any goodness, truth, and beauty in this world, if there is to be any justice, mercy, and grace, then it is imperative that we resist evil. Nowhere in the Bible is humanity given permission to be passive, to do nothing, in the face of abuse, injustice, or oppression. No, Jesus says, for inasmuch as you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for Me.

What then are we to make of Jesus’ sermon this morning? “Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak as well. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect, therefore, as Your heavenly Father is perfect.” At first blush, this seems like a formula for suicide. What would the world be like if we did not stand up to evil, if we did not push back against wickedness and cruelty? What would the world be like if Christians were all doormats and cowards?

But of course that’s not what Jesus is saying. Our Lord does not mandate peace at all costs. A soldier’s duty is to defend his country. A police officer is sworn to uphold the peace. And a private citizen has not only the right to self-defense but also the moral obligation to defend those who cannot defend themselves. “If you do wrong,” writes Paul, “you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain.” Rather, Jesus is talking about instances of abuse of power. Notice that His examples are those who strike you, who force you, who sue you—who have power over you.

Now, what is our natural response when we are wronged? Someone hits us, what do we do? Well, we have two very natural, very human, responses: fight or flight. Either we hit him back, or we get out of the way. This is how the world works, how it’s always worked: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Yet Jesus counsels a different tack, a Third Way, which is neither violence nor cowardice. His response is not so much natural as it is supernatural. He says that we are to love our enemies.

This does not mean what we probably think it means. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean that we have shiny happy feelings about them. It doesn’t mean that we pretend they aren’t our enemies, or that we should do whatever they like in order to make them happy. No. In the Bible, love is not a feeling, and it certainly isn’t passive. Love is when we put someone else’s needs before our own, when we do what is best for them even at cost to ourselves. In this case, loving our enemies means enabling them to see their own sin, that they might repent and be saved. Jesus is laying out His blueprint for active, nonviolent, Christian resistance.

A little background may be in order. Keep in mind that the Sermon on the Mount is being preached to the downtrodden and dispossessed, the people of a conquered country occupied by the superpower of its day. Rome rules Judea. But Rome has rules. The Empire craves order above all things, and for that she needs soldiers who are strong but also well behaved.

“If anyone forces you to go one mile,” Jesus says, “go also the second mile.” Romans were meticulous about marking miles on their roads; you can still see these marker stones scattered all about England today. A soldier of the Legions could, by right, force a local to bear the soldier’s burdens for up to and including one mile, but no more. Recall Simon of Cyrene, who was pulled from the crowd and made to bear our Lord’s Cross. Going a second mile could get the soldier in trouble. He would be liable to the magistrate or to his commanding officer. He would be forced to confront the injustice of the situation; he would be forced to ask you to stop. It would now be on him to liberate you from the servitude that he himself placed upon you.

“If anyone takes your coat,” Jesus says, “give your cloak as well.” Now, a poor man’s coat, in this context, was an outer garment that doubled as his bedroll for the night, rather like wearing a sleeping bag. A farmer or shepherd in the field needed his coat to keep warm after dark. The cloak, as this translation puts it, is really a man’s tunic, or undergarment. So if some wealthy landowner seizes your coat, pull off your clothes and throw them at him! Here you stand, naked in public, but the shame is not yours. Your opponent now finds himself in an odd reversal, begging you to put something on, to cover your nakedness. His injustice has been revealed for all to see.

And then we have that infamous turning of the other cheek. Specifically the right cheek, Jesus says. Someone striking a social inferior—an officer striking an enlisted man, a master striking a slave, an abuser striking his wife or child—will almost inevitably strike with the back of his open right hand. It is a very natural gesture of contempt, an act of degradation. Turn your face, and he cannot slap you with the back of his hand. He cannot shame you, as it were, offhandedly. He’ll have to come at you the other way, with a punch. Thus is the victim’s dignity asserted, and the abuser’s brutality laid bare.

This is how a slave stands up to his master, a local to his occupier, and a social inferior to his supposed better. It is a blueprint for loving your enemy by resisting his evil, by showing him the ugly truth of his own thuggery, and refusing to pretend that you are anything less than human in the sight of those about you both. It is a call to action against batterers, bullies, and abusers. They may have the bigger stick, but you will show everyone the nobler, unbroken soul.

And it works! Jesus’ Third Way of active, nonviolent, Christian resistance has toppled empires the world over, beginning with Rome. It was easy for the Legions to crush the insurgents, the terrorists, the freedom fighters of ancient Judea. But it was the witness of the martyrs, the preaching of the saints, the freeing of slaves and forgiveness of sins that allowed the Christian Church to conquer Rome. The Empire that murdered Christ was powerless against His love.

This was the Third Way used to such powerful effect by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Desmond Tutu. Stories abound of Jesus’ Third Way shaming oppressors and bringing them to conversion, without violence and without compromise.

A white man in apartheid South Africa spat in the face of a black woman walking with her children. “Thank you,” she told him. “And now for the children?” He found himself unable to respond.

Bishop Tutu encountered a white man walking toward him on the same sidewalk. “I don’t give way to gorillas,” the man snarled. Bishop Tutu stepped aside with a flourish. “Ah yes,” he said, “but I do.”

Chinese students, forbidden to demonstrate against Communist Party policy, carried signs proclaiming, “Support Martial Law,” “Support Dictatorship,” “Support Inflation.”

Authorities refused to fumigate a squatter community that had been overrun with lice. People gathered up their lice-infested blankets and dumped them on the floor of the administrator’s office, eliciting immediate action. Such is the power of the Third Way.

This was Jesus’ plan from the beginning: to lay bare the truth of sin and to offer the healing balm of repentance and new life. It proved so powerful, so unstoppable, that He soon found Himself executed by the powers that be in the most public and humiliating manner that their devious little minds could devise. Yet even that didn’t stop Him. Why, it barely slowed Him down. Three days later He was up again, giving to His Apostles the Great Commission, to go forth into all nations and baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. He loves His enemies so much that He drowns us in our sins and raises us to new life in Him.

So turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Give your cloak as well. Love your enemies, dear Christians. Love them so much that you show them a better way than either fight or flight: the Third Way of goodness, truth, and beauty: the powerful, light-bearing, life-giving resistance of Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



The examples of nonviolent resistance above are taken from Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus' Third Way, by Dr Walter Wink.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Beauty of Law



Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Law is given for the flourishing of life. We must never forget that.

In the Bible, the classic formulation of the Law is found in the Ten Commandments, given to God’s people at Mt Sinai:

I am the Lord your God; you are to have no gods before Me.
You are not to use the Name of the Lord your God in vain.
You are to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
You are to honor your father and your mother.
You are not to murder,
nor to commit adultery,
nor to steal,
nor to bear false witness,
nor to covet.

Do this, God says, and you will prosper and flourish and be righteous in My sight. Do this, God says, and you will finally be what you were always meant to be: truly human.

Now, there are 613 Commandments in the Old Testament, but 603 of those are really just case law, specific attempts to apply the Ten Commandments to everyday life in ancient Israel. It all boils down to those original ten. And Jesus boils it down even further. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment,” He says. “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

St Paul points out that even the Gentiles know this. Even the pagan nations, to whom God has not revealed Himself in the ways that He revealed Himself to Israel, understand that we are to love God and love our neighbor. “When Gentiles, who do not possess the Law, do instinctively what the Law requires,” Paul writes to the Romans, “these, though not having the Law, are a Law unto themselves.” Love of God and love of neighbor are written on every human heart, available for discovery to every person of reason and goodwill.

A lot of this is common sense. Anyone should be able to discern that a society based on idolatry, murder, adultery, jealousy, and lies will not outlast a single generation; whereas a community founded upon piety, lovingkindness, faithfulness, respect, and truth will endure. The Law is given for the flourishing of life.

But on a deeper level, we must confess that the Law convicts us. If we love God perfectly, and love our neighbor perfectly, then we ourselves shall be perfect, shall be righteous in the eyes of God! So—how are we doing? Show of hands, who here loves God perfectly, with all their heart and soul and mind? Who here truly and perfectly loves their neighbors as themselves?

Oh, man. We are in trouble, aren’t we? We had one job, people! One job!

The Law reveals to us God’s original vision for human life, the beauty of the world as it ought to be. But in doing so, it also reveals to us how very far we’ve fallen. At first glance, the Commandments seem simple enough: don’t murder, for example. I mean, I’ve largely managed not to murder anyone for some time now. But on a deeper level, the Commandments are all about loving God and loving neighbor, and we can’t do that. Not perfectly. Not in any deep and abiding sense. We’re too fallen, too broken, too emaciated for that. We’ve been away from the Light for too long.

“If you choose, you can keep the Commandments,” Sirach says. Well, we do choose. Every day we choose. And we choose, oh, so very poorly. “You have commanded Your precepts be kept,” sings the Psalmist, and we want to, truly we do. But in the words of St Paul, the good that we would do, we do not do; and the evil we would not do is precisely what we end up doing. And so the Psalmist must fling himself upon God’s mercy: “Do not utterly forsake me!” he cries.

We need God’s grace. We need God’s mercy. We need God to forgive us when we are unforgiveable, to cure us when we are incurable, and to raise us up when we are unraisable. And that is precisely what Jesus has come to do. Where we have failed, God in Christ succeeds. And He does so freely, generously, purely from His love for us. The Law reveals that we cannot earn forgiveness, we cannot claw our way back into Heaven. But the Gospel tells us that we don’t have to. And so the Law, intended for life, kind of kills us, convicts us of our sin. And the Gospel of the One who died because of us raises us up to new life in Him.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is preaching to a crowd who doesn’t understand this. They don’t understand what the Law is for, and so they cannot comprehend what the Gospel is offering them. They have had the Law for a thousand years and more, and they honestly seem to think that they can keep it! They honestly seem to believe that they can perfectly love God and perfectly love their neighbor all on their own, thank you very much.

“I don’t keep any false idols,” they proclaim. “I keep the sabbath holy. I haven’t murdered anyone or committed adultery or lied about anything for years! Well, months, anyway. And cross my heart, I don’t even covet. Nope! A veritable saint am I! Now—what’s wrong with all you other losers who can’t keep up?”

See, if you think that you can keep the Law, not only does this cause self-righteousness to fester like gangrene, it also leads to you judging everybody else. You did it, so why can’t they? Well, clearly, it’s because you’re special. You’re holy. You’re God’s gift to humankind and they don’t even realize what it is they’re missing.

We still do this today, mind you. Oh, we may not strut around boasting about how we keep every jot and tittle of the Old Testament’s 613 Commandments. But we try to prove our righteousness in other ways: through our political opinions, say, or our embrace of fashionable causes. We try to prove our righteousness, our innate superiority, in our diets, our exercise regimens, our checkbooks, our houses, our idyllic vacations, our shiny happy children, and so on, and so forth—anything that makes us feel like we’re better than others, anything that lets us judge other people as inferior to ourselves.

And Jesus is having none of it. There are no loopholes in the Law. “You say that you don’t murder,” He says. “But have you been angry with a neighbor? Have you denounced someone as a fool? Then you already have murder in your heart! You say that you are faithful in your relationships. But have you looked upon another in lust? Have you treated a person as though she were a thing, a commodity for your consumption and disposal? Then you’ve already committed adultery at heart!”

And then there’s that line about divorce and remarriage, sure to convict many of us here. Keep in mind that in Jesus’ day, a woman was fully dependent upon her husband for survival. And a man had the power, simply by dint of being a man, to cast his wife out in the street, where she would be reduced to penury and shame. “Just because you write it out on paper,” Jesus says, “doesn’t absolve you of your betrayal.”

The Law convicts us. Every single one of us. Not because the Law is harsh or wicked but precisely because the Law is good and true and beautiful and we are not. We do terrible things to one another. We say and think and post on social media terrible things about each other. We do not love God with all that we’ve got. We do not love our neighbor as ourselves. Lord, have mercy! Do not utterly forsake us.

And so the Law humbles us with the truth. It breaks us in our pride. But it does so in the same way that the plow breaks rough and hardened earth: that we might receive the seed of new life and be fertile ground for the Gospel! No, we cannot earn God’s love, but He loves us all the more! No, we cannot claw our way back up into Heaven, but Heaven now comes down to us! And this perfect love, so freely given, fulfills all the Law, in us and for us and through us, and so we flourish—we flourish as we were meant to flourish all along!

And we will continue to flourish, rejoicing in the beauty of the Law and the mercies of the Gospel, throughout our pilgrimage here on earth, and far beyond into the eternal life of Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Note on Suicide


One of our youth texted me to ask, "Where do you go when you commit suicide?" Apparently they're doing a project for Health class and want some different points of view. (Her father asked my permission before giving her my cell number.) Rather than text, I dashed off a quick e-mail:

Dear B---,

The question of suicide can be a delicate one, but it is of great importance. One of the things that set Judeo-Christian ethics apart from that of their neighbors in the ancient Middle East and Roman Empire was a consistent ethic of life. Human beings were believed to have been made in the Image of God; His love for every person is reaffirmed time and again in the Bible; and Christians believe that Jesus Christ died for the redemption of all people and every individual.

In a culture that considered slaves, foreigners, criminals, the very young and very old to be disposable -- to be less than fully human -- Judaism and Christianity spoke out for the innate value of every human life. Bloodsport, human sacrifice, and infanticide were condemned in the strongest terms. And so too was suicide.

Suicide was often considered a noble death in Roman culture. Christians disagreed. Suicide was, after all, a form of murder, which the Commandments expressly forbid. Moreover, it was seen as something of a betrayal of duty: a Christian taking his or her own life was like a guard who abandoned his post. There was a period in history when most Christians agreed that suicide brought about automatic damnation: a grave sin committed without time to repent.

Pastors such as Martin Luther, however, argued that people who committed suicide were often victims of depression, anguish, and the devil's lies. Did not God have mercy on sinners? Were not those who committed suicide seeking, in some unfortunate way, for a better (after)life, free from suffering? As our understandings of depression and mental illness have grown, we have come to view suicide as more terrible tragedy than crime.

So the short answer might be that once the Church did preach that suicide victims went to hell. We did so as an attempt to remain true to the staunchly life-affirming ethics of the Church. Today we hope and pray for the grace of God to redeem the soul of one who has taken his own life, and to heal those of us who have been left behind to grieve.

Yours in Christ,
~Pastor


Thursday, February 2, 2017

To Blave



Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is no truth without love and there is no love without truth.

If you have a friend or loved one who is deluding himself, it is not loving of you to encourage his delusions. You can be a friend or you can be an enabler, but not both. There is no love without truth. Yet neither can this be an excuse for haughtiness or cruelty. I’ve recently been introduced to the term “nean,” a portmanteau for someone who claims to be nice by being mean: that is, they speak hard truths bluntly. Yet we needn’t be mean at all. For there is no truth without love.

In the mid-twentieth century a movement arose called “Death of God” theology. This movement argued that the Church could either speak the truth, or be loving, but not both. To be loving, they insisted, meant that all people were to be accepted without condition and without judgment. And since truth claims always carry within them an implicit judgment, the Church had to abandon all claims to truth, even to bedrock truths of the faith such as the love of God and the dignity of the human person. To follow Jesus, the Church would have to abandon God—indeed, the Church would have to die.

“Death of God” theologians thought that truth and love were at odds with each other, and that therefore we must pick either love or truth. But that’s insane. Love without truth isn’t love at all—it’s just some deracinated political program of blind progressivism without neither goal nor end in sight. And truth without love doesn’t work any better. In fact, it’s the very thing the Bible so often condemns.

“Shout out, do not hold back!” God commands the prophet Isaiah this morning. “Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to My people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins!” Boy, that doesn’t sound terribly loving, does it? “They ask of Me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. Yet why do we fast, but You do not see? Why humble ourselves, but You do not notice?”

God’s people want to know why God appears to be ignoring their petitions. They’re fasting, they’re praying, they’re making all the proper sacrifices according to the Law of Moses given to the people at Sinai. They’ve crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s. Why then is the Lord displeased?

“Look,” God says in reply, “you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and He will say, Here I am.”

The people know how to go through the motions. They know all the proper pieties and practices, all the feasts and the fasts. And indeed these are things that are good and true, things that God has given to humanity for our flourishing! But the point of such external signs is to inculcate within us the Spirit of love, the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of compassion and mercy and justice. Without love, our truths are no longer true. We’re just a bunch of idiots miming mumbo-jumbo.

Our Gospel reading this morning says much the same thing as regards the unity of truth and love, yet from the opposite pole. “Do not think,” Jesus says herein, “that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Love does not do away with truth; rather, love fulfills truth.

In this, Jesus defies lazy caricature. On the Right, we often have this image of Jesus as the bloodthirsty conqueror—no more Mr. Nice Christ—who will return one day to bathe the unrighteous in fire and blood, as though He’d undergone some sort of brain transplant since His previous advent. On the Left, we find the corresponding cartoon of Jesus as laid-back hippie, preaching the Gospel of Anything Goes. In real life, Jesus calls all peoples to Himself, including sinners and tax collectors and foreigners, flummoxing conservatives. But rather than saying to the assembled crowds, “I’m okay, you’re okay; you do you,” He instead commands us, “Go and sin no more,” baffling liberals. The Jesus of love and the Jesus of truth are one and the same.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. “You are the light of the world.” Now, salt and light are powerful images. These days we summon light with the flick of a switch, and if we’re at all concerned about salt it’s that we have too much of it. But 2,000 years ago, salt and light were rare, precious, and indispensable for life. In a world without refrigeration, salt was the only thing that could preserve perishable foods; in a world without electricity, even the light of a single lamp saved lives.

That’s our job now, Jesus says. We are to be salt for the earth, light for the world. We are to preserve and provide for life, as salt does; we are to illumine and reveal reality as does light. The salt is love, the light is truth, and the two are inseparable. “But what good is salt that has lost its saltiness? And what good is light hidden away beneath a basket?” At first these questions seem absurd. How can salt not be salt? And who would bother to light a lamp only then to conceal it? But if Jesus is talking about truth and love, then we already have our answer. Truth is no longer true if it’s separated from love. Love no longer loves when it is separated from truth.

Love and truth, justice and mercy, judgment and grace: we are often told that these things are polar opposites, but in fact they are one and the same. They do not cancel each other out, but they fulfill one another. Perfect justice is mercy; perfect mercy is justice. And perfect love is truth.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. And together we are called to spend every moment of our lives seeking the truth in love, loving each other in truth. And we live in this way, as Christians, not because we seek to earn a place in Heaven, but because Heaven has already come down to dwell among us, and to dwell within us, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

I tell you this because I love you. I tell you this because it’s true.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



Monday, January 30, 2017

A Light in Darkness


Propers: Candlemas, A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome: the Light to reveal God to the nations, and the glory of His people Israel.

Life is not a struggle between good and evil, between darkness and light. It is often presented as such, as though there were two opposing forces making up our world. But in truth, there is no such thing as darkness. It has no substance, no material to it at all. Darkness is merely the absence of light, an illusion. There is no “thing” there, literally nothing.

The idea that there’s a light side and a dark side, a yin and a yang, is the conceit of evil, claiming that evil is simply another position, another pole, another extremity in a world that must be balanced between the two. But there’s nothing there. Just as cold is the lack of heat, lies the lack of truth, and sin the lack of love, so evil is simply the lack of goodness, truth, and beauty—in short, the lack of God. Evil cannot overcome goodness any more than lies can falsify fact or shadows smother light. All the darkness in the world cannot overcome the light of a single candle.

The Zoroastrians once believed in two competing gods, one good and one evil, struggling for final control over the cosmos. The symbol of their faith was a flame, and any flame, they claimed, always casts a shadow. But that’s not true. Light a match and hold it up to look at its shadow on the wall, and you will see the matchstick held in your hand—but not the flame. Light has no shadow.

The devil would have us believe otherwise. He would like us to think that the world is a struggle between two opposing gods, between Satan and Jesus Christ. But Satan is no god. He’s not even an anti-god. He’s just the twisted, broken wreckage of a creature that once was beautiful. And he tries to cast himself as the tragic hero, or as the monster challenging God, but he’s no more a challenge to God than are shadows to the sun. Like so many sinners, he tries to pass off his empty failure as noble accomplishment.

Let us remember this, in our brokenness, in our sorrows. Let us remember how the light of a single candle dispels all darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Jesus Christ has come into the world to bring us light and warmth and life eternal, to pour out upon us the infinite Goodness and Truth and Beauty that are God. Christ is the Light of the world, and He has proclaimed that you are the Light! No one lighting a lamp hides it under a basket, but sets it high upon the lampstand so that it gives light to the entire household!

So it is with you. The world often seems dark and cold, but the Light of Christ burning within even one single soul illumines all the world around her. Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Candle Blessing:

The Phos Hilaron is the earliest known Christian hymn outside of the Bible. Let us pray:

O Gracious Light, Lord Jesus Christ
In You the Father’s glory shown
Immortal, holy, blest is He
And blest are You, His holy Son

Now sunset comes, but light shines forth
The lamps are lit to pierce the night
Praise Father, Son, and Spirit: God
Who dwells in the eternal Light

Worthy are You of endless praise,
O Son of God, life-giving Lord;
Wherefore You are through all the earth
And in the highest heaven adored. Amen.

Before the throne burn seven lamps of fire, which are the seven spirits of God. Brothers and sisters, we are gathered this evening to give thanks to God, and we seek His blessing as we set apart these candles to the glory of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray:

O God, who revealed to us the vision of Your Son in the midst of candlelight, and of Your Spirit in seven lamps of fire before Your throne, how often do we kindle light during vigils of community grief and on occasions of community celebration. Grant that these candles, to be used for Your glory, may be to us signs of Your presence, of the promise of eternal Light, and of Christ, the Light of the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Accept this Easter candle,
A flame divided but undimmed,
A pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God
For it is fed by the melting wax
Which the mother bee brought forth
To make this precious candle.
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
And continue bravely burning
To dispel the darkness of this night!
May the Morning Star which never sets
Find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
Who came back from the dead,
And shed His peaceful light on all humanity,
Your Son, who lives and reigns forever and ever.
Amen.