Mercy Wins: The Hardest Teaching

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I don’t know about you, but those words strike fear into my heart every time I read them.

Be perfect? And not just perfect, but as perfect as God the Father? Has Jesus met us? How could he ask this of us?

It’s an incredibly high standard, at the end of a long list of standards, one more difficult to achieve than the next.

Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. Go the extra mile. Give to everyone who begs or borrows. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

And last and seemingly least attainable, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus always seems so loving and gentle, but here he seems to morph into the strictest taskmaster possible, demanding something of us we can never achieve.

It is very easy to go wrong with this passage and get ourselves tied up in knots. Continue reading

I Am the Disciple Who Runs and Hides

Bishop Cate has asked us to join in with the national Episcopal Church today to observe the International Day of Prayer for South Sudan.

She’s asked us to use the readings from the feast of the Martyrs of the Sudan, which commemorates some Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishops who were martyred in 1983. Since it’s a feast of martyrs, we have our red paraments and vestments, and our hymns and prayers reflect the theme as well.

South Sudan is in political and military crisis right now, a situation more dire and costly to life than any since the days of civil war between north and south that rocked the nation from 1983-2005.

South Sudan as a country is only three years old, just barely getting on its feet as an independent nation.

Internal conflict between the president and vice-president of South Sudan has mushroomed into armed violence that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands, rendering them refugees within their own country.

Old ethnic rivalries and conflicts have reared their heads. With the northerners no longer serving as a common enemy, the country that looked toward the future with such hope just a short time ago is now splashed across the headlines with words like “human rights violations,” “war crimes,” “rising death tolls,” and “mass atrocities.”

Part of what makes this, and so many other conflicts around the world, hard to deal with is the fact that no one party holds the moral high ground, and no one party is unprovoked.

All are justified in their outrage, and all have responded with violence. This is not a black and white issue, and we prefer issues to be black and white when it comes to moral judgments.

The gray areas are the hardest to navigate when it comes to moral discernment, whether those gray areas are in geopolitics or in our own personal lives. Continue reading

Salt and Light

Salt and light.

That is what Jesus calls us today, what Jesus calls us to be today, so we want to spend some time exploring what he’s asking of us.

Being called the light of the world is suitably flattering and the symbolism makes immediate sense.

Being called the salt of the earth, well, that one takes some doing to figure out what Jesus might have been talking about.

We notice that Jesus seems to be teaching in this passage about our role in society, how we as Christians impact the larger human family.

He calls us not just salt and light for ourselves, or salt and light of the church, but “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”

He’s teaching us that our commitment to discipleship is important for way more than just our own personal spirituality. Continue reading

This Is How Brave We Have To Be

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, a feast that only happens on a Sunday once every decade, so it’s worth paying attention to.

There are four feasts relating to the birth of Jesus. The first, of course, is Christmas. Then there is the Feast of the Holy Name on January 1, eight days after Christmas, when Jesus was named by his parents and circumcised according to Jewish tradition. On January 6 we have Epiphany, when the wise men arrived to worship Jesus.

Then we have today, the Presentation, also known as Candlemas because on this day priests used to bless candles for people to burn in their homes throughout the year.

If anyone wants me to bless your iPhone flashlight, just let me know.

The Presentation is always celebrated on February 2, exactly forty days after Christmas, because this is when Mary and Joseph were prescribed by the law of Moses to present their firstborn child in the temple and offer a sacrifice. This was also Mary’s opportunity to be purified after childbirth.

It’s worth noting that of the sacrifices Mary and Joseph could have offered in the temple, they offer a pair of turtledoves and two young pigeons. That’s specifically the sacrifice that’s written in the law of Moses for poor people to offer.

It’s the only concrete evidence we have of Jesus’ economic status as a child, and it’s a powerful characterization of Mary and Joseph.

It tells us that they only had the money to offer the most humble form of sacrifice, but that even given how poor they were, they prioritized making the journey to the Jerusalem temple because it mattered that much to them to observe the rites of their religion.

We call this the Feast of the Presentation, and we use our white vestments and white paraments.

We usually think of feasts as joyful times.

But as one of the members of my sermon group pointed out this week, this story is full of beautiful sadness.

It’s a complex mix of endings and beginnings and love and sacrifice.

And one thing we see above all else is that the experience of the presence of God is to be so cherished and relished because it can feel so very brief. Continue reading

Zebedee Gets a Bad Rap

I am a responsible person.

No, really, I am.

I pay my bills on time.  I respect and care for my neighbor.  This community knows me as a sober, law-abiding citizen.

I have my own business, small but respectable, with which I provide for my family.

I have two boys, and they are the pride of my life.

I have a quick temper when provoked, but I have always walked upright before God and man.

I don’t put up with anything untested, untried, or fly-by-night.

My name is Zebedee, and I am a responsible person. Continue reading

Have You Ever Been Harrowed?

 

The Son of God, the Son of Man, the Ancient of Days, Emmanuel, the Good Shepherd, the Holy One of Israel, the Light of the World, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Living Water, the Root of Jesse, the Lion of Judah, the Rock of our Salvation.

These are just a few of the names by which we know Jesus, our Savior. We could spend every week in our sermon time talking about the names of Jesus and stay busy for a year.

But today we’re going to spend some time talking about another particular name of Jesus: the Lamb of God.

This term is one of the very oldest for Jesus.  It comes straight from our gospel lesson today.

In John 1:29, John the Baptist cries out when he first sees Jesus coming up to town, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

Now consider this for a moment.

John the Baptist is not a gentle person and it seems odd that he would choose such a gentle sounding name to proclaim the Messiah’s arrival.

John eats locusts and tells the people if they do not repent they will be burned with unquenchable fire.

He gets everyone all worked up and excited and then Jesus arrives and John announces, “Behold the Lamb of God.”

I just would have expected something with a little more punch to it. Continue reading

Stage Fright and Jordan Wading: When Jesus Needs a Hand

What a strange and humble way for Jesus to start his ministry.

Rather than beginning with lights and fireworks, descending from on high, or even with a simple miracle like walking on water or healing a sick person, Jesus quietly joins the crowd being baptized by John.

We can learn so much from Jesus in this moment, the first thing being that ministry takes preparation.

Jesus didn’t just plunge in full blast.

He took part in a ceremony, a marking of a profound change in his life.

Jesus didn’t need to be cleansed of sin in his baptism, he lived without sin. But he did need to mark this pivotal moment with a spiritual sign. His baptism clearly separates the first thirty years of his life, his private life, if you will, from the start of his public life and ministry.

It’s also a signal within a family. Continue reading

I Never Appreciated Being a Three King

So. The Feast of the Epiphany. What about it?

Every year we celebrate the season of Epiphany, but most of the time the actual day of Epiphany falls on a weekday.

Big deal, anyway, right?

It’s a strange little holiday that we don’t celebrate very much.

We don’t get each other Epiphany presents. We don’t hang up Epiphany lights or set up an Epiphany tree. There are no Epiphany turkey dinners or Epiphany fireworks.

At least in this country. Continue reading

The Disco Fiber Optic Holy Family

One of the things friends do for each other in seminary is exchange websites featuring bizarre religious phenomena. It helped remind us that other people do things in pursuit of serving God even stranger than work on the “Hot or Not: Theologians vs. Martyrs” bulletin board in the student lounge.

One of my favorite of these websites was a blogpost my dear friend Lindsay sent me called “Cavalcade of Bad Nativities: It Came Upon a Midnight Weird.” An Episcopalian in California had browsed through eBay and found so many strange nativity crèches that she compiled them into one spectacular gallery to share with the world.

Among the truly unfortunate ways people decided to depict the manger scene were the marshmallow nativity, the rubber ducky nativity, the inflatable nativity, the leprechaun nativity, and the celebrity nativity with Victoria Beckham as the Virgin Mary, Hugh Grant and Samuel L. Jackson as shepherds, and George W. Bush as a Wise Man, to which I’m just going to say “no comment.” Continue reading

O Come All Ye Faithful, Bored and Irritated

Why are we here tonight? 

That’s actually a more complex question than we might think. 

Many of us are here out of habit and/or tradition.  We’re here either because we come to this church every Sunday and Christmas Eve is part of the deal, or we’re here because we simply always go to church on Christmas and Easter. 

We might be here because our parents made us come, or we might be here for the sake of the children or grandchildren.  We might be here to sing favorite carols and see the greenery and just generally feel festive. 

I’m here because it’s my job to be here, in addition to wanting to be here, of course.  Every one of those reasons is a fine and good reason to be in church tonight. 

But I’m wondering if there might just be another reason working in the background, whether we realize it or not. Continue reading