Monday, February 24, 2014

God wants your heart

Matthew 5:21-37      
Epiphany 6
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
Jesus Christ of Nazareth is not messing around.
This is quite a tirade – he unleashes isn’t it?  And it’s such a switch – coming on the heels of the famously poetic blessings of the Beatitudes.  Just moments and verses ago Jesus sat down atop the mountain with the disciples at his feet and uttered words we know very well.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek and those who mourn – the merciful and peacemakers – blessed are you all.
And then whamo!  Judgment, murder, prison, divorce, lust, tearing out eyes, chopping off body parts and being thrown into hell! 
(It does kind of make me wish I could preach it up like a Baptist!)
Why the change? Why does he pronounce blessings and then, let loose with this diatribe?  The disciples are the ones who want to follow him – they have left homes and wives and jobs to be with him?  It’s not like Jesus is on the steps of the temple or in front of the Pharisees decrying their practices – so why does he get so intense so fast with those who are sitting at his feet, yearning for good news?
Do you know one of the most terrifying places to be when you’re a parent of a young 4, 5 or 6 year old child?  The parking lot of a shopping center.  Picture that parking lot up at Wegman’s – in the late afternoon before snowstorm number 810.   It’s sunset and it’s packed – and you walk with your child – or maybe two or three children.  Pushing a full cart and looking for your car, one kid has your keys, they are all clamoring and you’re thinking now where did I park? When all of a sudden your five year old – takes off – just starts running – and you see the reverse lights of that SUV three cars ahead. 
You leave the cart – take off after your kid – grab them by the shoulders in the nick of time and shout – don’t you ever, ever go running off like that again!  Do you hear me!? 
And then you watch their face break open with plump tears and full-throated sobs because you never yell like that – except when you have to.  You bend down and hold them, apologize and say – Mommy is sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you but you can’t go running off in a parking lot.  And while you didn’t mean to yell, you did – because some actions we take are matters of life and death – and when it comes to teaching that stuff – as a parent you cannot mess around. 
Choose life – we hear from Deuteronomy – love the Lord and hold fast to God.  When Jesus expands on what this means by repeating – You have heard it said, but I say to you – he gets intense because this is our one, incredible life he is talking about – and when it comes to teaching about that stuff Jesus does not mess around.
The word – law – can be understood in different ways.  There are laws meant to keep us safe – like the sign that reads 55 MPH speed limit.  Or if you own a patch of woods you decide who has access.  You can post a sign that says “No Trespassing/No Hunting” – or “Hunters allowed with permission.”  It’s up to you, it’s your property.  Speed limit and trespassing signs are laws and set limits.
But there is another kind of law as in "the law of gravity" or "the second law of thermodynamics." This sense of law does not suggest limits but how things simply are in all situations. You may disobey the law of gravity if you want—maybe you decide you don't believe that particular law. But that belief won't help you if you lose your balance at the top of a step ladder and drop a hammer while it's over top of your left foot. (F. Beuchner from Center for Excellence in Preaching 2/16/14)
Christianity – organized religion in general – is often characterized as simply a set of laws God decrees – like speed limits or no trespassing signs - arbitrary hoops that God decided people need to follow and jump through; created to measure our capability of obeying them – as when our psalmist writes, probably after having done something pretty bad – oh that I should keep your statues then I should not be put to shame when I regard all your commandments.
But as the people of God – God’s field, God’s building as Paul writes – we know we are in this together – and God’s laws are like gravity.  I hear Jesus pointing this out to the disciples so they don’t get stuck, like so many religious, in mere black and white application of the rules.  But look deeper at the intentions of their heart – as the prophet Jeremiah says, through the new covenant the heart is where God has written the law. (Jer 31:33)
You have heard it said that murder is unlawful and liable to judgment – but Jesus says if you are angry with someone that is liable to judgment.  Does that mean we can’t get angry? No, we all get angry – Jesus himself gets angry – but when we do, God’s people are called upon to do soul searching work – so our anger doesn’t lead to actions we will regret.  Why am I angry?  What part have I played? Have I attempted reconciliation? Have I attempted forgiveness?
Two former concentration camp survivors were visiting with one another.  “Have you forgiven the Nazis?” one asked the other.  “Yes.” Was the reply.  “Well I haven’t.  I’m still consumed with hatred for them.”  “In that case,” said his friend gently, “they still have you in prison.” (“The Spirituality of Imperfection” Kuntz)
Our actions spring from something internal that we have choices about.  Jesus says what is in your heart?  How will that lead you to new life?
The laws of Jesus’ time were very clear when it came to a man’s prerogative for divorce.  Deuteronomy 24:1 Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her…he may write her a certificate of divorce.
You can find several midrash texts that take a very liberal view of what “something objectionable” means – some write it is permissible to divorce your wife for burning toast.  But Jesus says, while that is the law – it is not an action of the heart.  The law viewed women and children as property.  Jesus sees women and children as beloved of God worthy of being treated as such.
Jesus’ words in this passage are very challenging.  Lust, swearing, sin, adultery – but the blessings came first.  Blessed are the pure of heart.  Where your heart lies there your treasure will be also. (Matt 6:21)  Rend your heart and not your clothing when you come before the Lord. (Joel 2:13).  A broken and contrite heart oh God, you will not despise! (Ps 51:17)
It is our heart God wants.  More than anything and regardless of our mistakes.
Jesus wants disciples who see into the heart of their actions – the root cause of those things we do that are not life-giving – because that is where we need God.
Franciscan and author Richard Rohr writes – every time God forgives us, God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us.
(“Falling Upward”)
Life brings more than the dangers of parking lots.  God’s good news is that there are guidelines to help us on our way.  There are commandments to help us examine the intentions of our hearts – but even more - there is forgiveness when we make mistakes – and there is Jesus Christ!  Always reaching, reaching out to enfold us in those loving arms so that in our times of weakness we may be strengthened with God’s abundant stream of never-ending grace. Amen.
- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

"Perfecting Imperfection"

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez
Matthew 5:38-48; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

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

Does it ever seem like Jesus is just setting the bar too high? Be perfect? Thats the standard Im supposed to live up to? Couldnt Jesus have given us something more realistic? How about, be a nice person? You know, dont cheat on your taxes, give some money to the church, dont kill anyone. That sounds like something that I could do. But I dont think I can be perfect. How about you?

For the past two weeks, weve heard Jesus explaining the ins and outs of the Law of Moses to his followers. Each of the You have heard that it was saids from the past two Sundays introduces a direct quote from the Old Testament Law, which was, at the time, the definitive guide on how to please God. But Jesus doesnt seem satisfied with the commands of the Law as written. He keeps intensifying them. Not just Thou shalt not murderbut Thou shalt not hate. Not just Thou shalt not commit adulterybut Thou shalt not lust. Not just Thou shalt not swear falsely,but Thou shalt not swear. Not just Thou shalt limit thy revenge,but Thou shalt not take revenge. Not just Thou shalt love those who love you,but Thou shalt love everyone. And as if this hasnt already gotten hard enough, he ends with that kicker:“Be perfect.

On the surface, this is all pretty simple. I mean, what Jesus says today is so simple that our Sunday School lessons for today  didnt have to do anything to make this lesson age appropriate. Kids get this. When Ive used this Bible story in preschool chapel, four-year-olds had no question about what this meant. They got that they were supposed to be nice and kind. But where this gets complicated is when we start making excuses. I mean, Jesus cant just have meant what he said. After all, this business about turning the other cheek cant be about not retaliating at all. Can it? From pretty much the moment when Jesus said these things, his followers have been trying to find the out. We say things like, For Jews in Jesustime, it was considered demeaning to backhand someone. So if someone slapped you, and you turned the other cheek, the person couldnt hit you again or else hed dishonor himself. That is so nice and comforting and so very remote from the world we live in, so it cant apply, can it? Can it? For two thousand years, people like us have been trying to find the out, because, when you get down to it, its not just that we cant live this way, its that we dont want to.

What if, just for a minute, we considered the possibility that Jesus meant what he said. Really meant it, and there arent any loopholes, because he intentionally closed them up. If Im honest, Im really scared that thats the case. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, says, The law is about the fact that God loves your neighbor and wants to protect them from you.[1] Thats abundantly clear in our reading from Leviticus today, which is full of commandments about how not to cheat your neighbor. Thats where the Law of Moses gets us: it curbs our human desire to look out for ourselves. But it doesnt make us love our neighbors. It gives us lots of wiggle room for that. There are lots of exceptions, and it gets us to a place where if were not actively harming someone, we dont have to like them. But what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount is to close up all of those exceptions. And, in doing so, he leaves us with a set of demands that he knows that we cant meet.

When were left with Law, with a set of thou shallsand thou shalt nots, we convince ourselves that we can, on our own, without any help, live up to it. But we cant. Even with the Law, I would find lots of ways to be a bad neighbor. What Jesus does is ratchet up the Law to the point where he boils it down to a single, impossible command:Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Now, Jesus doesnt mean perfect like we think he means perfect. Jesus tells us to be perfect like God, our heavenly Father. And the way that God is perfect is that God is Perfect Love. Jesus doesnt want us to be free from error. Jesus wants us to be overflowing with love, the way that God is overflowing with love. But this doesnt really help me, because Im not much better about being loving than I am being perfect. Jesus takes away all the loopholes and the exceptions in the Law, so that were forced to admit that we cant keep it.
But Jesus can.

That is grace. That is good news. The good news of Jesus Christ is that I cannot be good enough or loving enough on my own, but Jesus has fulfilled the demands of the Law on my behalf. Through Jesus, God reaches in to my chest and pulls out my heart of stone, which is always trying to figure out a loophole and find one person who I dont have to love, and God throws away that hard heart of stone and replaces it with an actual beating, loving heart. The Gospel is about God loving us so much that God doesnt want us to just not be jerks to our neighbor, God wants us to actually love them. And the space that God makes in our lives when we are freed with our obsession about being perfect allows God to love us into wholeness, so that we can be loving, as our heavenly Father is loving. Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz Weber, Sermon on Jesus Rolling His Eyes (and also divorce), <>

Monday, February 10, 2014

"The Acceptable Fast"

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Isaiah 58:1-9a

For the record, if you ever want to make a curate break out into flop sweats, just tell her or him that one of the lectionary texts begins like our Old Testament reading did this morning:
            Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

I had a conversation this past week about the Hebrew prophets, and I mentioned that I found them deeply comforting and deeply disturbing. Comforting, because they always end as our reading does today, Then you shall call and the Lord will answer Disturbing, because they always require a lot of soul searching to get there. As a Christian, the fifteen books of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible are some of my favorite texts of Scripture, texts in which I always find something new, texts which make me grow in my walk with God, especially Isaiah. But as a priest, I often cringe when they come up in the lectionary, especially Isaiah, because they are so difficult and so hard to hear. And it would be so much easier to preach this morning about salt and light, wouldnt it?

Thats where all of you come in, thank God, because you keep me honest. Every time Ive tried to take the easier road and skip over the difficult lectionary text, many of you ask me about it on your way out the door after services, so I have to preach an impromptu second sermon. So, given the choice of Isaiah with notes or Isaiah without, I choose with.

By all accounts, the people of Judah to whom this section of Isaiah was addressed were doing things right. Theyd come back from exile in Babylon, and theyd put aside the idols and false gods that theyd previously worshipped. They were worshipping the Lord their God alone, and they were even rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. They were doing things right, living by the Law of Moses, keeping kosher, dotting all their Is and crossing all their Ts. But it wasnt enough. It wasnt enough because it was purely external. Nothing they were doing actually affected their hearts. They were the same old people with the same old hearts of stones, they were just trying to put a better spin on things. In fact, it sounds like they viewed religion as a form of magic: if I do this God, then you have to do this. So they fasted, and they prayed, and they conducted elaborate, beautiful worship before God. And God sent Isaiah to them to say, Youre doing it wrong.

I dont know about you, but I can sympathize with the people of Judah. My second year of seminary, my class was required to go on a four-day silent retreat. I didnt want to go, because I had a lot of important things that I needed to do. It didnt help that, once I got there, one of my classmates shared the flu with all of us. So I was sitting there, silent except for coughing and blowing my nose, and feeling pretty sorry for myself. And my retreat director told me that I should meditate on the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel. In that story from 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah is feeling pretty sorry for himself too. Hes on the run from the wicked Queen Jezebel, who is trying to kill him, and he runs to Mount Carmel, the mountain of God. And there, God causes a great wind, and an earthquake, and a fire to pass by, but God comes to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence. So I meditated on this passage of scripture. And as I began to imagine myself in the story, I found myself saying Elijahs words to  God, I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts…” In the story from the Bible, Elijah gets to say a lot more before God cuts him off, but in my meditation, God stopped me right there. God said, No you havent, Josh. You have been very zealous for the church, and thats a different thing. You have been very zealous for bishops and commissions on ministry and standing committees. You have been very zealous for impressing seminary professors. But youve forgotten why all that matters.Now, part of me wanted to reply that I was an Episcopalian, and that Episcopalians dont expect God to talk to us, but I didnt feel like this was wise. Maybe it was the flu, or the silence getting to me after a couple days, but I did need to hear that word from the Lord, just like the people of Judah needed to hear the word that Isaiah brought to them.

Its hard to hear, but its easy to let our religion become external, a matter of observing the right rituals. Its even worse, sometimes, to let our religion become internal, something private between ourselves and God. The people of Judah did both of these things. Ive done both of these things. And in response, Isaiah tells us about the fast that God chooses. Its not giving up chocolate for Lent. Its not something private between ourselves and God designed to draw me and only me closer to Jesus. Its a fast from self-obsession, which is what happens when we let our religion become too external or too internal. The fast that God chooses, Isaiah says is: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. And oh, this is a hard fast.

Its hard because it changes us. Its hard because it tells us that the way to love God is to love the people around us. And thats hard. And its hard because, as you know, loosing the bonds of injustice can seem like an impossible task. But there’s a quote from Mother Teresa that is a touchstone in my own spiritual life: “You can do no great things. You can only do small things with great love.” When we do small things with great love, God does amazing things through us.

Glennon Doyle Melton, a blogger, author, and Ted Talk presenter, shared a story about her sons fifth grade teacher recently. Glennon had gone to the teacher to ask for help understanding the new way long division was being taughther son understood it, but she didnt. What started out as a parent-teacher tutoring session ended up becoming a deeply meaningful conversation. It turned out that each Friday, the teacher passed out ballots to every student in the class. Each student was supposed to pick four students theyd like to sit with the next week and to nominate one classmate as citizen of the week. The teacher wasnt especially interested in help in coming up with her seating chart or honoring good citizenship.    More than these things, she was looking for patterns in the responses. Who had suddenly gone from popular to unpopular? Who couldnt name four friends? Who was never nominated for citizen of the week? The teacher made notes of those names, and she singled them out for special attention, for more love the next week.
Glennon asked how long the teacher had been doing this, and, with weary eyes, the teacher answered, Every Friday since Columbine.

This is the fast that God chooses.This is loosing the bonds of injustice, and letting the oppressed go free. How will this fast look in your life? Its hard, sometimes, I know to figure out how to start. This is a big question to attempt to answer. Its about ultimate importance. But, on Saturday, March 8, our Outreach Committee is offering a Listening Day as one way to begin to understand what God is calling you to do. This fast is big, and its scary, and it will change us. But we need to be changed. And our world needs to be changed, too. And God will bless us with enough foolishness to dream impossible dreams and enough strength to accomplish them, so that, through Gods grace, our fasts to loose the bonds of injustice will accomplish what others say cannot be done. Amen.