Monday, February 28, 2011

Epiphany 8A. 27 February 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 8th Sunday after Epiphany.



          We are by nature—as Episcopalians—creatures of habit.  Exhibit A:  The Book of Common Prayer.  Since the Elizabethan settlement, which made normative the use of The Book of Common Prayer, by Act of Conformity, we have worshiped according to a very fixed liturgy.  And that liturgical regularity carried over in the colonization of America.  My sense is that Episcopalians are habit-forming people—either because we like the comfort of the habits that shape our lives, or because we have a more than average need for them to keep us sane and grounded.


          The original vision of Anglican life imagined England subdivided into parishes that were of a size and convenience that anyone could easily attend the two Offices of the day: Morning and Evening Prayer.  Then Sunday would have the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. 


          The hope, and indeed, the intention of Queen Elizabeth (1st) was to bring her country—literally and figuratively—to their knees.   As England emerged from the chaotic struggles of the Reformation—royalty and clergy had the same vision of social and religious harmony.  They needed it.  The Medieval era was called the Dark Ages for a reason.  Education was not common among the people.  There was widespread sickness and poverty. 




          The Elizabethan settlement cast a broad moral and devotional vision of an expansive church—the Church of England—which would serve all people with a consistent liturgy and a free, but ordered clergy.  Habit, order, structure, discipline.  In short, a stable context in which to live and discover God. 


          One of the first things I learned about being a parent was the need children have for routine.  Now it's time to clean up; now it's time to eat; bathe, and go to bed.  If a parent is consistent, a child can settle into those rhythms.  They know on a level deeper than words can describe that they are cared for. 


          Of course we need to break out of patterns from time to time—at every age—or stagnation can occur.  Evaluation, renovation, setting new patterns…  As child grows the rhythms of life evolve.  Bedtime gets later.  Clean-up time gets shorter.  But the setting of routines—once instilled—never goes away. 


          We do this, of course, to manage our anxiety.  When the sun goes down there is nothing to guarantee that the sun will rise in morning.  …except, of course, that it has happened every other day.  But really, if you forget the past, and just think of the present moment, there is nothing to guarantee any of the structures we have in place except for routine.  Nature gives us day and night, four seasons, but every other pattern is set by the human mind, and carried out according to mutual expectations.



          We could, for instance, decide—I don't know how, but go with me on this—to adopt an entirely different calendar.  10 months make a year.  And we could rename those months, and redefine how many days are in one month, and pretty much confuse everybody.  The seasons wouldn't necessarily line up.  I'm not sure how we would decide on the date of Easter, but that's been a problem for hundreds of years anyway. 


          What I'm trying to say is that we could change that.  It's only by a commonly agreed pattern that we persist in "365 days make a year,"  because it takes anxiety away.


          There are so many habits we depend on that we don't even recognize them as habits.  I always watch NBC Nightly News.  I am used to seeing Brian Williams in the evening.  I am accustomed to hearing the news from him.  I am accustomed to hearing his little jokes. 


          Change is, by nature, a threat.  It forces your mind to adjust to a new situation.  Sometimes that can be good…like if the coffee gets better.  But sometimes it can be so jarringly unpleasant, as to make you wonder why you go there anymore…like if the coffee is bad!  (I like coffee.)


          I remember some time ago hearing a psychologist speaking on NPR about travel.  And this person said that one of the reasons travelling is so exhausting is because it forces your mind to work in ways that it doesn't usually work.  Especially if you've gone to a country that speaks another language. 

          You want shaving cream, but you have to find the store, find the aisle, and discern from all the options available what looks like the shaving cream.  But see, when you're home, you're on autopilot.  You don't have to think about any of that.


          Our patterns, habits, routines say a lot about us, because they indicate a buffer we have created against anxiety.  Good habits are routines that keep us grounded, and keep life running well.  Typically good habits don't have a sudden payoff.  They are investments we make that appreciate with time.


          What we call "bad" habits can be a very subjective category, but basically they are habits that only seem to keep us from anxiety.  They are "bad" because they seem to work in the short run, and then they fail completely with time. 


          Everyone has bad habits, and I don't know why.  Well, I do.  We have bad habits because we are not perfect.  We do not make our decisions based solely on an intellectual judgment.  Sometimes we are governed by how we feel, and when anxiety becomes difficult to manage with good habits alone, we turn to something that will instantly provide some kind of comfort. 


          It's one of the stereotypes of the Church that the pulpit takes on these sorts of topics.  Perhaps not as much in the Episcopal Church, but in other Christian denominations, and the sermon is almost always a condemnation of the bad habit, and the people are made to feel shame. 


          I don't like that at all, because it assumes that we are able to control our lives, if only we would work harder at it—and honestly, that's just not true.  Some people are very good at ordering their lives, and some people put their lives together with very short pieces of string.  But everyone has failings.    


          People who come to church, typically, are trying to do the best we can, and we could all use a bit more healing and a lot less judgment.  I think that is the tone of today's Gospel lesson.  Not a judgment.  He's trying to persuade.


          Jesus says, "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?...It is the godless who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."


          Do you hear the tone that comes through the words?  It's not a condemnation.  Jesus is speaking persuasively.  He uses rhetorical questions, "Is not life more than food?  Is not the body more than clothing?"  Of course the answer is yes.  He's gently trying to unmask these common issues of living as being—on the whole, in the long run—inconsequential.


          The clothes and food and drink are not intrinsically bad, but the obsession over them is an anesthetic—something to take the anxiety away.  Concerns about food and clothing will always be a part of our lives, but Jesus says, "God will look after you.  God knows you need those things.  So spend less time on that, and more time on seeking God, and the habits that really do keep life in balance.  Don't seek the gift.  Seek the giver of the gifts.


          The overall message seems to me to not trivialize this precious time we have on earth with our own appetites—which are really just habits we use to keep our anxiety at bay—but to focus on the Kingdom of God in which everyone sits down to eat and drink, not just us.


          There are people out there who are worried about eating and drinking and what to wear, because they don't have anything.  Some folks are in genuine anxiety.  In the Kingdom of God, that is not the case.  In the Kingdom of God no one is hungry or anxious, because needs are satisfied: food, drink, clothing, but also love, companionship, respect, dignity.


          Jesus is not criticizing our need.  In everything he did he was working to satisfy the needs of people.  Feeding the five thousand, healing the sick.  And he made no differentiation between himself and the poor—he lived with them, he was one of them.  (Pause.)


          Eventually, we will come to chapter 25 of Matthew's gospel.  I looked it up on the calendar.  On November 30th we will read about the end of Jesus' ministry, just before Matthew describes the events leading up Jesus' crucifixion.  And we will read these words:




          "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"  (Matthew 25:31-41)


          Do not worry about what you eat and drink and wear.  Worry about those who don't have anything to eat and drink and wear.  I think that's what he's saying.





The Episcopal Relief and Development Fund

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Epiphany 7A. 20 February 2011.

Audio version, click here and select 7th Sunday after Epiphany.


          Some time ago I heard a really wonderful sermon on Psalm 19 v. 13 "Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I will be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression."  The sermon was mostly about that term "presumptuous sins," and asked the question, what is a presumptuous sin? 


          The Prayer Book Psalter's translation uses the word presumptuous.  The New International version reads willful sins.  Almost all the others—King James, New King James, American Standard, English Revised—use presumptuous.  I was very disappointed to learn that my favorite version, the New Revised Standard, translated it as insolent—as if it were to ask to be kept from people who are insolent, when in fact the meaning of the verse is part confession.  "Keep me from presumptuous sins."  This is about my sins, not someone else's.


          But what is a presumptuous sin?  The priest said that presumptuous sins are the ways we cause offense without knowing it.  The presumption is ours.  We presume that we are behaving appropriately, when in fact, others may be very offended by some things we do.  Others may be giving us a lot of grace that we don't even know about.  Husbands and wives know this. 



          When you are first married, and everything is new, you make the little adjustments with pleasure, but—inevitably—as the marriage goes along they develop little pet peeves about the other's behavior.  She leaves her tea bag on the spoon in the sink.  He doesn't put the new roll of toilet paper on the dispenser when the old one is used up.  At problem.  But these little things make up "life" together. 


          How many wives have had to say to their husbands: "My love, it is my great pleasure to make your dinner, to wash your clothes, take the cat to the vet, wash your car.  But if you track mud in the house one more time..!"


          I'm going to hazard a guess that most of us go around thinking that our behavior is unobjectionable, and that no one is really put off.  And really, most annoyances are quite tolerable, and we don't really mind extending grace.  You'd have to be a very unpleasant sort of person to be critical of little things.  I remember hearing of a clergy person say that he had two groups of people in his church.  He had the people who sat around waiting to have their feelings get hurt, and he had the people with personalities like broken pieces of glass who were only too happy to oblige them.


          But that's not this church, thanks be to God.  And thanks be to God, most people who struggle out of adolescence learn to be tolerant of the little differences.  Yet we still assume that our own standards of behavior are pretty good.  We don't think of ourselves as needing other people to extend little bits of grace for us.


          Behavior is such an interesting field of study.  Some of the most effective clergy I know studied psychology or sociology before going to seminary.  You can learn an awful lot from watching and listening to others.  Manners have always conveyed little clues about us.


          I would say that generally most of us want to project a kindly disposition.  Open to others, but not too vulnerable.  Intelligent, but not exclusively, or boringly so.  Mature, but slightly playful.  Optimistic, but realistic.  Ordinary in many areas, but with a few cards up our sleeve in some fields of interest.  If you were to spend time with us, you would discover that we are good people.  And if you were in need, we would help you as much as we could. 


          Now when it comes to our religious life..well, now you're getting into a very tricky sort of area.  Time was when certain areas of conversation were considered impolite.  There were areas you didn't talk about..ever.  Politics, money, relationships, and religion.  I say "relationships"…you know what I mean.


          Still to this day, I don't like conversations about money and "relationships"—even though those rules seem to have passed out of common usage.  Religion has always been awkward for polite but devout Christians, because of Christ's Great Commission to "Go into all the all the world and preach the Gospel."  The Commission says "don't just walk the walk, talk the talk."  Be willing to talk about matters of faith. 



          But there is a genuine awkwardness to that, maybe partly because of those rules of politeness that many of us still cling to.  But also because we might not really know how to talk about it.  And there are some good reasons for that. 


          In the first place, we're Episcopalians.  Our religious outlook is very deeply rooted in tradition, and our observance of the liturgy is part and parcel of who we are. During the Reformation, when all the other churches were drawing up statements and confessions, our Anglican ancestors wrote a prayer book.  And we said, we will hold on to the much of the biblically rooted aspects of the Roman Catholic tradition, but we will walk apart from the Bishop of Rome.  We will be known by our prayers and devotion, but we will not be so clearly defined as Catholic or Protestant.  We will hold on to both sides.  


          And still to this day Anglicanism is an act of both heart and head.  We worship with both without being hostage to either.  If the church becomes too heady—something is amiss.  If church becomes too emotional—something is amiss.  We need both. 


          We place a very heavy emphasis on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, but we understand them as truth books, not as rule books.  That is, the scriptures must be interpreted with the understanding that, though God inspired them, human beings wrote the words.  The words point to the eternal truth, which is The Word, who is Jesus, the Word made flesh.  We do not worship the Bible, we worship the truth that the Bible points to. 


          Again, head and heart.  Protestant and Catholic.  This is why it can be so difficult for some people to wrap their minds around what it means to be an Episcopalian, and perhaps why we have difficulty with evangelism. 


          We would rather have someone come to church for six months to a year and hopefully, in that time, the tangible things like warm handshakes and good coffee, as well as intangible, spiritual things granted by the Holy Spirit, will have worked their way into the person's heart…and there they are.  They stayed.  Just like we stayed. 


          In time, the question is asked.  Would you like know..?  And the person says, "Yes, I think I'd like that, if it's not too much trouble."  And the Bishop lays hands on their head, and they become Episcopalians.


          Did the behavior join hands with the Holy Spirit?  Or was the Holy Spirit converting the behavior?  We don't know, but that's how we would prefer evangelism, because it's who we are.  We are people who develop habits of prayer, and who seek God in the context of those habits.


          Asking us to "win souls" or some other invasive sort of evangelism doesn't really fit with our understanding of Christianity—that this is something we do that puts us in touch with the powerful constancy and enduring presence of God.  It's a behavior.  You see?  It's a behavior, just as much as it is a change of the heart.



          Christians of all different backgrounds, sooner or later, have to figure out the interplay between how they behave and what they believe.  For some folks, the behavior is coming to church, and trying to be a good person.  And I have heard a lot of clergy and even, yes, devout Christians bemoan that—that this is all they do.  I don't feel very comfortable sitting in judgment of the person who "only" comes to church—and who "only" tries to be a good person.  No one can peer into anyone's soul and gauge their lives.  To me, that sounds like the height of arrogance.


          I remember hearing about a young family that wanted to teach their parish about tithing.  They believed that the older members of the church weren't giving, and they set about this workshop with the idea of saying "Look at us…young, of tomorrow..and we tithe.  So step up, you older folks."  And one of the most senior members of the church listened kindly, and at the end got up and said, "Thank you for your presentation, but you seem to think that we haven't been very faithful.  My husband and I have been tithing since well before you were born.  Please do not assume that you know what you do not know."


          Is Christian behavior something you do because of what you believe?  Or do you believe, and therefore you do?  We use the Latin expression, Lex orandi, lex credendi.  The law of prayer is the law of belief.  The idea is that as you worship, so you believe.  By consistent actions of prayer, you become your prayers.  Your life becomes nourished and beautified by a habitual conversation of prayer with God.  That theology was part of our Roman Catholic heritage, and has become central to our Anglican faith.


          And we get that from well before the time of Christ.  In fact, I would argue that it goes all the way back to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and continues through what is called the holiness code in Leviticus.  (You knew I had to get around to the Bible eventually!  We only get one lesson from Leviticus in all three years of the lectionary cycle.  I had to talk about it!)


          God says to Moses, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord you God am holy.  When you reap the harvest, you will not reap the edges of the field so that the poor and hungry, the people who pass by, can have something to eat.  You don't steal from others.  You don't claim to have me on your side in an argument.  You don't know what I think.  You will pay your workers.  You will not sit on their money overnight.  You will pay them the day they work."


          "You will not insult the deaf.  Just because they can't hear you, doesn't make it all right to make fun of them.  You will not trip the blind.  You will not be partial—giving too much respect to the great, or assume that the poor are blameless.  You will not slander people, or hate anyone.  You will correct the person who is acting shamefully, you will not condone their actions.  You will not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but you will love your neighbor as you love yourself."  (para Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18)


          Now, many of these teachings seem fairly obvious to us, because we were raised to be moral people.  But the uniqueness of these teachings is that God is giving them. 

          God says, If you want to be in relationship with me, you are going to have to be good to all people, because I care about all people.  You can't expect to go around defrauding your workers, being rude, being unkind, and expect me to be happy with you."


          It's something to think about, because—lex orandi, lex credendi—how we behave in our relationships makes a difference in what we believe—and eventually who we become.  If we are mean to the waitress, and shrug it off, why not be mean to the UPS guy?  And if he's no good, then on to the next.  And eventually, the behavior becomes you.  You begin to believe that other people are not worthy of respect.


          God says, That is not okay.  You are to be kind, compassionate and loving, because that's who I am.  And if that's how I am, then that is how you are to be.  If we are to be in relationship with each other, then you will be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy.


          People might look at you and say "he's just trying to get into heaven."  But no.  Behaving with kindness is not how you get to heaven.  It's how you share the little bit of heaven that God has given you.  It is an honor to have that be both our pathway and our goal.  As we behave, as we pray, so we believe.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Epiphany 6A. 13 February 2011.

For the audio version, click here, and select 6th Sunday after Epiphany.


          The fifth book of the Hebrew Bible is called Deuteronomy.  The word deuteronomy comes from the Greek word deuteronomion, which means "second law," or "repeated law."  Oddly enough, this comes from a bad translation of a Hebrew phrase for "a copy of this law."  I suppose since copy and repeat are not completely at odds with each other, the name has stuck.  If you were to visit a synagogue, they wouldn't call the book "Deuteronomy."  They would call it "Devarim," which just means "words."  This comes from the first verse, "These are the words that Moses spoke…"


          Today we read from the thirtieth chapter, what has been called the valedictory speech, or Moses' farewell address.  By tradition, Deuteronomy are Moses' words, and he was teaching the law—the Torah.  In Hebrew the word Torah means both law and teaching.  We do not have an equivalent word in English, unfortunately.  I say unfortunately because the unique meaning of torah is very beautiful.  Torah carries the authority and heft of law, while still having the kindness and approachability of teaching.  A good parallel might be the teaching of a grandfather or grandmother.  You hear the wisdom that comes from the height and breadth of many years, yet sweetly conveyed as if to a beloved child.  Torah is very beautiful concept. 


          I remember hearing—I wish I could remember where—that when a Jewish child was old enough to begin learning the stories, they would first be given an apple dipped in honey and asked if what they were eating was sweet.  The child would say yes, and the parent or grandparent would say, "The Torah is sweeter than honey."


          And so I ask you, please to listen again to the Torah, this morning:   


          "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."


          Does this sound as sweet as honey?  I rather think it does.  You can disagree with me, of course, but I'm rather fond of this teaching.  It is a summation of the Torah.  It is, in fact, in the written tradition of a treaty between unequals, or a suzerainty treaty.  A suzeran would be a person or government in authority over a subject.  The treaty is a covenant—a legal covenant of behaviors with rewards and punishments.


          And that might not sound very sweet, but I must admit that as I get older, I am beginning to appreciate more and more these sorts of boundaries.  There is something very soothing about "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not."  Again, you might not feel that way.  But, speaking personally here, I have discovered that my life seems to feel a whole lot more…  Well… "Comfortable" isn't the right word.  I suppose, calm.  There is a peace about knowing what will bring life and what will bring death.


          The language may seem a little stark.  We might prefer Moses to couch this teaching in softer terms, but he is making a point.  He is framing the matter in very clear terms because he cares about his people; and because Moses has spent his life leading them.  You remember how he started off?  The burning bush, the excuses, the plagues, the exodus, the Red Sea…and the mantle is being passed to Aaron who will lead them into the Promised Land. 


          Moses will not be there.  He has been an icon—a spiritual and temporal leader—who is still, and will always be, very deeply revered by the Hebrew people.  And as he sees the days approaching when his voice and body will fail him, he sets before his people his most devout wish.  "Here it is folks…You can follow God, or you can abandon God.  It's your choice.  You can do what I have taught you—care for the stranger, take care of the widows and orphans, feed and clothe, be honest and upright in your ways, be faithful in prayer and worship of the one true and living God—or not. 



          What I am saying is that the choice is life and death.  Choose life.  Choose to do what you know you should do.  That will be life.  Remember that this is not just the story of you and me.  This is the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 


          If you think about it carefully—if you read a little bit between the lines—he's pleading with them.  "Choose life.  Come on.  Don't waiver.  Don't be seduced by shortcuts or sharp dealing.  I know the Torah is not always easy, but please, for the sake of our children and their children, don't give up on this."


          How many parents have pleaded like this with their children?  Is it possible to be a parent without pleading with your children?  By the very nature of having lived and breathed for years beyond them, you can see down the path.  They have not yet had the experiences that serve to protect them against the cruel possibilities of life. 


          I know a woman with snow white hair.  She is absolutely beautiful.  Beautiful short, curly, white hair.  Beautiful smile, always kind, always sunny.  She is the kind of person you just can't wait to talk to when you see her.  She has a daughter who has knocked about and done this and that, and her mother has sat her down and tried to help her see that life and death have always been set before her, and if only she would choose life…  One day this woman—the mother—just after talking about her daughter looked at me and shook her head, and she said, "You see my hair?"  Beautiful white hair.  She said, "My daughter gave me all the white ones."


          Life and death.  It's right there in front of you…  The Hebrew word for "choose" is given in the imperative tense; it's a command, Choose!  Choose life!


          So often the choice is obvious.  The light turns yellow; it will soon be red.  Stop.  The bottle says, "Take no more than six tablets in 24 hours," and we take the recommended amount.  The bill is due on the 16th, and we pay on the 15th.  This apple is rotten, that apple is fine.  The temperature is down, we bundle up.  The milk expired, out it goes.  (Incidentally, if you don't want your milk to expire, I have a suggestion.  Get two children.  Your milk will never expire again.  Now, you make expire at the end of the day, but the milk will be fine.)


          Most of us are pretty good at navigating the standard options.  But not always.  Sometimes the they do not appear to be as simple as life and death.


          The member of the family is on the outs with their spouse.  What do you do?  Do you take a side?  Do you just provide a shoulder to cry on, or do you try to use this as the opportunity to help them see what you see?  It could backfire.  They get back together and you said all those things… 

But they get back together and fall apart again and again…  Are you still just a shoulder and a box of Kleenex?  At what point do you say, "Your pain is becoming part of my life, too"?  "I can't just be the pillowcase that catches your tears."



          The best friend calls you up one day and wants to get together.  He's starting a business.  He wants to know if you'll be willing to invest.  "Think it over," he says.  You don't want money to come between friends.  You don't want to entangle yourself in some crazy venture.  What do you do?  To invest will be "life" in the friendship, but it will be the "death" of the old, less-complicated friendship.


          So, yes, there are grey areas…as we are all painfully aware.  Shall we set up a meeting with Moses?  We need to talk with him about this lesson.  Moses?  You are right that life and death are set before us.  Drive the speed limit, use your turn signals.  Pay the bills.  Be nice to people.  But it's not that simple, really, is it?  No. 


          And I think Moses, if he could answer, would agree.  I think he would say, however, that this lesson isn't really about the thorny situations, it's about fidelity.


          The big question is whether or not you'll be faithful to God.  Will you be faithful to God?  That is a choice between life and death.  Will you continue to live your life in relationship to the One who created you, and feeds you, and cares for you? 


          It's so easy to let that relationship grow slack.  So easy to jump into the day without prayer.  I don't know how many times I have skipped Morning Prayer and tried to do some work on a sermon and it seemed like my mind couldn't even spell the name of God.


          When I was in seminary, my spiritual director talked with us about the importance of personal prayer, especially on Sunday before leading services.  He said, "If you ever try to roll out of bed and onto the Altar, I hope you die before you get there."  Many a Sunday morning I hear his voice saying that while I'm getting dressed.  I have come to a point where I actually agree with him, because there can be no greater sin—in my mind—than to handle the things of God without a heart-level reverence.  


          It is so easy to forget that, or to believe that our prayers and acts of devotion are not meaningful enough to be missed.  The last Archbishop of Canterbury, George Cary, spoke often about the simple act of daily prayer, and lamented how many church-going Christians had no habit of it.  Who do we think we are?  Do we really think that God doesn't care? 


          The people of Israel learned the truth of Moses' words.  In the 600s, before Christ, they turned aside and had begun to erect idols.  Statues and shrines to various gods dotted the landscape of Israel.  They forsook the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.  They did not keep his decrees and ordinances.  They forgot the exodus from Egypt, and King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria sent his armies down, and for fifty years, the people of Israel remained in captivity in Babylon. 


          That is, obviously, one of the most dramatic examples of how infidelity to God can be "death."  And this was the turning point. 



          They came home to a battered and scarred homeland, and the scribe Ezra brought out the Torah, and read it in the presence of all the people.  He read from the Torah, and interpreted it for them so that they understood what it said.  If I were a betting man, I would bet dollars to donuts that Ezra read "See, I have set before you life and death."  The people fasted, and prayed, and made a solemn, national repentance for the sins of their people.  And they returned to God.  (Nehemiah 8-9)


          Life and death.  Our experience of it is often much more subtle.  It's a dulling around the edges.  It's a lack of care.  The Prayer Book gathers dust and the mind flatters itself with trivialities.  It doesn't matter, right?  It's just my little prayers.


          But thinking they don't matter leads to inattention to the Torah, which leads away from God, away from prayer, away from service, away from worship, away from peace, which is deeper and deeper and further apart from God, which is death.


          There is another woman I know.  She also has pretty white hair.  (I seem to have a special place in my heart for white-haired women.)  She lives alone; she can't do very much anymore.  She has lived a very courageous life, and known an awful lot of sorrow.


          There are some days when she doesn't see another human being, but she has told me on many an occasion, "Each day, before I let a single morsel of food cross my lips, I pray.  And I know that God is here with me.  I see him in the tiniest little thing."


          The prayers—those little tiny ones that you think don't really matter—they lead to service, and service leads to wholeness, and wholeness leads to peace, peace leads to praise, praise leads to transformation, and transformation leads to God, and God leads to life. 


          So there you have it.  Life and death.  Choose life.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Epiphany 5A. 6 February 2011.

For the audio version, click here, and select the 5th Sunday after Epiphany.

Epiphany 5A.  6 February 2011.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail


          "You are the salt of the earth," says Jesus.  He was, of course, talking to the disciples. 


          We have started reading through the Sermon on the Mount.  We will be reading through it over the next couple weeks.  Last week we had the Beatitudes, and at that time, I didn't mention the interesting little shift at the end of them.  Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted." 


          In all those beatitudes Jesus is just throwing them out there.  If you happen to be in the category he describes, the "blessed" falls on you.  You might be in one of the categories, or a couple of them.  If I were to say, "Blessed are you who had breakfast this morning," the blessing would drop at your recognition of it.  I could narrow the field a little bit. "Blessed are you who parked in the parking lot."  Now some of you aren't in that category and the blessing doesn't fall.   


          Listening to the beatitudes can be rather like playing Bingo.  It's nice to know that someone's square is getting filled—maybe its yours, maybe yours will be next—but because Jesus doesn't say "you" directly, we can just sort of let it drop, or not let it drop, you see?  It's not a confrontation.  You don't have to jump up and say, "Ooooh!  Me!  I'm meek!!  I'm poor in spirit!"  No.  You just let it drop on you when you know it's yours.


          But then we come to the end of the beatitudes and tone shifts.  Did you notice it last week?  We have all this general language and then Jesus says, (v. 11) "Blessed are you..." 


          Now, if you've been coming to church all your life, and read the Bible now and again, it would be easy to miss that shift.  And because we're reading it, and not listening to it for the first time from Jesus' own lips, some of the power of that shift gets dispersed.  But you see how he is homing in? 


          Blessed are you.  When?  "When people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account," because that is what they did to the prophets.  And now the rest of the Sermon is directed at "you." 


          It is precisely after this shift from the general beatitudes to the specific "you" language, that our gospel lesson for today begins.  "You are the salt of the earth."   


          When I was first thinking about preaching on this text, I could not seem to rid my mind of the old southern expression "salt of the earth."  Have you ever heard or used this expression? 


          It seems to me that I have heard it quite a lot, and it seems to me to be a tricky sort of expression, because it could come across as a compliment or an insult, depending on how it's used and who is saying it. 


          It can have a negative connotation, meaning someone who is not very smart.  But maybe this is not how you think of it at all.  Perhaps you think of the expression as being, on the whole, rather positive.  That the person is humble, modest, easy-going, friendly. 


          Just recently, Karin was trying to describe someone we both know to someone else, and she said that the person was "salt of the earth" and my mind snapped to the negative meaning, and it didn't fit.  So I slipped over to the more positive meaning, and I wasn't sure it fit either.  I'm not sure we have a good handle on what the saying means, or whether the connotation is good or bad.


          Salt has a somewhat shadowy place in the Bible.  Remember Lot and his family fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah?  The Lord said, "Flee for your life; do not look back!" (Gen 19:17) And what happened?  Lot's wife looked back and (v. 26) she turned into a pillar of salt.  What are we to imagine?  Instant death, but more than that.  Instant annihilation.  A corpse would at least have some existence and gradual decay.  People could gather around and sing hymns and pray prayers.  Lot and his family would have something to bury.  But no.  Instant, total, annihilation.  Not even bones remain.


          Did it really happen that way?  Well…  The point is that we remember it that way for the point the story makes.  Instantly turning to salt is perhaps the most dramatic way of describing a swift and irredeemable punishment.



          Salt means death.  It means not being able to grow anything.  I remember being freshly out of seminary and in a church where we had this venerable old boxwood that was threatening some of the gravestones.  It was a tricky situation, because on the one hand you had these ancient memorials deserving dignity and preservation, but then you had this sober, stolid boxwood with roots from here to Timbuktu.  And the Rector would occasionally joke with me that this was nothing that couldn't be fixed with a box of Morton's salt.


          "You are the salt of the earth," says Jesus.  What does that mean?


          And to add further complexity to it, the saying is not really new with Jesus.  "Salting the earth" is an ancient ritual, dating back well before Jesus' time.  When a city was conquered, there was a ritual of spreading salt to make the ground sterile.  It was understood as curse on future inhabitants.  In the Book of Judges (9:45) there is a description of Abimelech conquering Shechem, and it says, "he took the city, and killed the people that were in it; and he razed the city and sowed it with salt."  Utter destruction.


          So if "salting the earth" means curse, and destruction, why would Jesus refer to us this way?  It doesn't make sense, unless he is using the expression as a parable—an analogy drawn from common experience that teases the mind into active thought.  And this is a teaser, because salt on the earth is negative, but he quickly follows the expression with the positive quality of salt—of adding flavor and interest to food.  Seasoning.  Making something palatable.  


          It seems that what Jesus is saying is that we are the people who make life palatable, enjoyable, because even just a few grains of salt can make something better—even just a few devout people can make life better for the whole. 


          So now, back to the beatitude, "Blessed are you when you are reviled and persecuted…you are salt.  When you are persecuted, don't shrink back from your commitment, don't lose your flavor.  This is how you will survive when the evil days come.  You will continue to be the people who make life better.


          What is actually kind of funny is that salt cannot lose flavor.  Go home, look at the salt box, and try to find an expiration date.  They don't print one.  (Pause.) Well, okay, if it has iodine it does, because the iodine expires, but pure salt is a mineral and it never expires.  Salt literally cannot lose its saltiness.  So what does this mean?  I will tell you. 


          I don't know.  But I'm going to take a guess.  I wonder if its kind of like saying, "You can't not be salt, so don't try.  Be salt.  Be honest about it.  Be open about being a faithful person.  And by owning that faithfulness, you will help others become faithful.  (Pause.)


          This teaching can seem very uplifting.  But I wonder if the disciples heard it that way.  I wonder if they looked at each other thought maybe they had misheard. 


          Here you have an ordinary group of people being told that they are extraordinary.  But were they to look around at their culture, nothing about it would have said the same thing.  There was no social mobility.           You were born a farmer, so you died a farmer.  If you were born to a rich family, you would inherit, you would stay rich.


          It has only been within the last hundred years that people believed they could live a life that was not decided from birth.  Still to this day, I hear, in French society, the family you come from decides the range of occupations and callings that are open to you.  And there is a dignity to those positions. 


          A baker may bake all day, and seem dirt poor, but he drives home in a Mercedes.  Money doesn't decide your class—what you do is just what your family does.


          Karin and I have been watching this wonderful mini-series on PBS called "Downton Abbey."  Have you seen it?  It's set in Edwardian England just after Victoria, but before the Great War—what we now call World War I.  The fashions and customs are still bound completely by class and heredity.  You are a servant.  You are a peer of the realm.  You are born that way; you dress that way.  But the story is about how that society began to loosen.  Women getting to vote, and work. 


          Did you know that still to this day there are over seven hundred hereditary titles—meaning that when, say, a Baronet dies, his title is inherited by his son, who then has the role and responsibility of his ancestry.  Until the House of Lords Act 1999 most of the seven hundred in titled class also had a seat in the House of Lords. 


          There are still aspects of hereditary merit in America, of course.  But our culture, I think, really does strive to let people be who they are, or who they wish to be.  And it's okay to be ordinary, because we are not really locked into it.


          The disciples were locked into a very rigid society, as were most of the people who came out to hear John the Baptizer, and then Jesus, and later the disciples.  But when Jesus says, "You are light.  You, intrinsically you, add flavor and zeal to life—like salt," he is creating a revolution there.  He is daring to give hope to "people who have sat in darkness and the shadow of death." (4:16)


          Perhaps you, too, hear this teaching and look at yourself and think, "I'm not so much."  I do that myself, all the time.  I look in the mirror and I just see a little boy from Bridgewater.  He says his prayers and does his best, but that's about it.  Do you feel like that?  "Just me."  "Nothing special." 


          Well…apparently, according to Jesus anyway, we are something special after all.  What does "salt of the earth" mean?  I withdraw the question.  I think I know.  You are the "salt of the earth."  You make life better.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.