Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Salt and Light

Many people when they reach a certain age start to feel like nothing can change. There isn't any point in setting any new goals, there isn't any reason to dream for anything different. Some people reach a state of despair or a state of indifference such that nothing really matters anymore. And really, this can happen at any age, however, it has become largely noticeable in the seventy and over age group these days. Despair can hit anyone who has struggled for a long time and feels like they are not attaining anything different or important. Working with people who have reached rock bottom can be hard to do. However, we all need a little encouragement some of the time. Our good friend, C. S. Lewis once said, “You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

Encouragement. Most people at some point in their lives find themselves an encouragement story or quote that they hang on to when the going gets rough. I remember the halls and walls of my middle school being covered in encouragement posters, saying things like, "If Plan A doesn't work, the alphabet still has 25 more letters." Or Frank Sinatra's, "the best revenge is massive success." In high school, I adopted my own personal encouragement statement, "smile, defy gravity." Not only was I trying to remember to smile, but I was also sticking it to Isaac Newton and his infallible physics laws. Two points for me.

Encouragement is the name of the game today because that is one of the plays that Jesus is trying to make in the gospel passage for today. This passage comes directly after last week's passage, commonly known as the Beatitudes, a series of blessings for the people following Jesus. He switches from blessing the crowds to encouraging them to share what they have with others. He tells them that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus tells the crowds that they are following him through the laws and beyond. What he does not tell him, but what is implicit in what he does say, is that they are worth it. That they are able to make a difference. You are the salt of the earth. You can make a difference. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. You can make a difference. That sounds like encouragement to me.

Maybe you aren't buying it. Why would being the salt of the earth be a good thing? Salt was a very precious commodity in the ancient world. Salt had to be gathered and purified. Salt was used to preserve food so that it didn't have to be eaten immediately. Salt also has healing and cleaning properties. In Jewish tradition, and later Christian tradition, salt was blessed and used in exorcisms and baptisms and blessing places.  Salt really doesn't have too much of its own flavor. Garlic, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, all of these spices definitely have their own flavor. Salt, though is really only used to enhance the flavor of something else. Its kind of like a magnifying glass. It makes what is already present harder, better, faster, stronger.

The funny thing about salt is that it is like honey. Left by themselves, honey and salt never go bad. Salt is a stable chemical compound. Unless it gets wet, it will stay salt and salty for a very very very long time. 

The analogy then is that when we act like salt of the earth, we do not call attention to ourselves. Instead, we enhance what is already present. We bring out the good flavor of what is already going on. We make things better. Salt's mission in this world is not to promote salt, but to make everything else better. We are not called to promote ourselves, but God.

So after Jesus blesses the crowds with the beatitudes, he encourages them by telling them that they are the salt of the earth. They are imminently good. And necessary. The crowds that Jesus was talking to were the lowly country people. They were not the high and mighty, not the celebrities. And yet, Jesus tells them they are the ones giving flavor to this world. They are the ones that can make life better for other people.

In the same manner, Jesus tells the crowd that they are the light of the world. Human beings need light to be able to see. We are created that way. And in order for other people to see God, they have to have the right kind of light. The people who are in darkness can't see God, because there isn't any light. Light does also normally follow Newtonian physics. Which means that unless something stops it, it will shine everywhere it can reach. Jesus tells his followers that they are the light, that unless they stop themselves for some reason, they can shine the light of God everywhere. Being light can be a burden, a responsibility, but it is also an honor. We are the light. Only we can show others what it is to see God in this world.

We follow in the footsteps of those in the crowds that day. We are the salt of the earth. We give flavor to this world. We are the light of the world. We can shine light on what it means to see God in this world.

So, I encourage you. Be salt and be light. I encourage you to try something new out this week. Try something you've always dreamed of doing or set a new goal this week. I encourage you to write down all the ways in which God has worked through you to help someone else. I encourage you to shine, to sparkle, to add flavor to another person's life. I encourage you to love, love deeply, love widely, love even in the midst of the hard moments and difficult emotions. I encourage you to be salt and light. I encourage you to trust God and follow Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Epiphany 4A
In the late 1960’s, when the United States was trying to come to terms with the civil rights movement, one man in Georgia saw the confusion and hostility and hopelessness experienced by his neighbors. Instead of marching or demonstrating, he decided to open a communal farm based off the stories in the Acts of the Apostles where all possessions were held in common and all members were considered equal. Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, based off the Greek word for community, were well known at the time and seen as a threat to many in the South who believed in segregation. As part of his work, Jordan also wrote a new version of the gospel stories of Matthew and John, translating scripture from the Greek into the southern Georgia context. The Cotton Patch Gospels are well known for their folk style and their sense of humor. In the story of Jesus’ temptation, after Jesus stands up to the Devil and the Devil takes his leave, the angels come to take care of Jesus… “bearing a sack of chili cheese dogs for him.” However, the point was to make the gospel stories new and open them up for new understanding, in the hopes that the tension of the time would change.
I want to share with you the Beatitudes from Matthew, Cotton Patch Style.
“When Jesus saw the large crowd, he went up the hill and sat down. His students gathered around him, and he began teaching them. This is what he said:
“The spiritually humble are God’s people,
for they are citizens of his new order.
“They who are deeply concerned are God’s people,
for they will see their ideas become reality.
“They who are gentle are his people,
for they will be his partners across the land.
“They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people,
for they will be given plenty to chew on.
“The generous are God’s people,
for they will be treated generously.
“Those whose motives are pure are God’s people,
for they will have spiritual insight.
“Men of peace and good will are God’s people,
for they will be known throughout the land as his children.
“Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people;
they are citizens of his new order.
“Y’all are God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated men of conscience in the past.”
Any way we read the Beatitudes, we already know what they are about, right? They are a moral teaching from Jesus to his followers, which begins the famous Sermon on the Mount.
But is that really all that is involved in this passage? No.
There are two layers going on in the Beatitudes. What Matthew is trying to tell us and what Jesus is trying to tell us. Matthew is trying to show us who Jesus really is, impart to us Jesus' teaching, and comfort his community in their hard times. And then there is what Jesus is trying to tell us.
But let's start with Matthew. In Matthew's portrayal of Jesus, we see three views of Jesus. First, Jesus is in the line of Jewish tradition, as the new Moses. Jesus is shown on a mountain giving the people reformed rules to follow. Symbolically, Jesus is taking the role of Moses in delivering God’s rules to the people from the mountain. Second, Jesus is a part of those who are peacemakers, meek, merciful, hungry, persecuted, mourners, and poor in spirit. He is a revelation that God stands with humanity. Third, Jesus is compassionate for his people, recognizing their brokenness, and blessing them. Matthew really wants to show his hearers that Jesus is in line with the Jewish tradition, that Jesus is talking about regular people, including himself, and how much compassion Jesus has for his oppressed people.
Then we have what Jesus is saying. When I read through this passage, these are all the things I hear Jesus saying.
Jesus is highlighting some priorities for his followers, the well-known moral teaching aspect of the passage.
Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, which he has already preached has come near.
Jesus is making a promise and predicting the future, staying firmly in the prophetic tradition.
Jesus is challenging people to see others as God sees them.
Jesus is giving his people a blessing and building hope in his followers.
Perhaps this is why we read the same passages over and over again! We can get so much out of twelve verses! All of this is pertinent to us as Christians today. However, what I want to emphasize is the building up of hope that Jesus is doing.
Jesus' people were marked by hopelessness. They were under Roman occupation and oppression. We are marked in this Northwestern Pennsylvanian region by hopelessness as well. Not because of occupation and oppression, but because of a faltering economy and a sense that things cannot be better than they already are. Could the Israelites do anything about the Romans? Can we do anything about our situation? The Israelites were waiting for the Messiah for exactly this reason! We have been looking for a modern day savior in many the same way. But a human leader was not going to solve all of the Israelite's problems and a human leader is not going to solve all of our problems either. Instead Jesus is the savior that we need, and he teaches us to hope in an entirely different way.
Hope - however abstract - is very important for society. We define hope as a feeling most of the time, but hope functions much more deeply than that. In university research by professors of social work and sociology, hope is much more than a feeling. Hope is a way of thinking. Hope is a process of setting goals, finding different pathways to achieve those goals, especially when difficulties present themselves, and believing in the ability to complete the goal. Hope is a way of thinking for individuals as well as communities. Hopeful individuals are able to see change in their lives and the world around them, even if it is very small. Hopeful individuals do not believe that their successes or failures determine who they are. Jesus gives us all three in this passage from Matthew.
Jesus gives us hope in a way that goes far beyond feelings. Jesus teaches us that the goal is the kingdom of heaven. The pathways to that goal lie in being merciful, meek, deeply concerned, peacemakers, standing up for our beliefs, in having pure motivations. We can do these things and Jesus reinforces this message by sharing his encouragement as a blessing in this work. The blessings that Jesus gives are both in the present and in the future tenses. Some of these blessings are already present realities. Some of them are still to come. With Jesus' blessing, we are given the agency, the ability to go forth differently, with hope. Because Jesus is all of these things and we are following in his way, we can be all of these things. Not because we will be rewarded with riches, but because then we will have strengthened our relationship with God and we will experience the kingdom of heaven.
The Christian tradition has tried to pass along these ideas, but hasn't always done a good job. One way it is easy to see them is in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. There is a whole section titled "The Christian Hope". The first question asks, "What is the Christian hope?" And gives this answer, "The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world." In that answer, there is a goal and there is an expectation. We are to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life. We are to wait for Christ and God's purpose. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is something that we can do. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is what we do together.

Our hope is to make the goal – to see the kingdom of heaven. This is not easy, it takes endurance. We may realize our hope and achieve our goal in this life, we may even realize it today! We may also take a long time to realize this goal. But may we never give up on it! Let us hope in the fullness of life in the community of God!


Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-23

We tend to think of being arrested as a bad thing. In many cases, this is the truth. However, for a number of people throughout the world, being arrested was the necessary catalyst for changing the world. 
Every movement has a catalyst. A precipitating event that causes the rest of the story to happen. We know this well. For Martin Luther King Jr., the precipitating event that turned him into a national civil rights leader was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Ms. Rosa Parks, an African American woman, being arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus for a white person. 

In Jesus' case, according to the gospel of Matthew, the catalyst was his cousin's John's arrest. John's arrest proved to be a little bit of a wake up call and a time of acknowledgement of the risks of what he was doing. Jesus probably knew that his ministry was not going to be easy. Spending forty days in the desert to prepare yourself for the task is one clue that he knew this was not going to be a walk in the park. After his baptism, Jesus goes out into the wilderness then he goes home to Nazareth, to his family. However, John being arrested put a new perspective on the timing of his ministry. Now was the time. He could not wait any longer. When John is arrested, he decides it is time for something new to happen. So he moves away from his family. I imagine this was one way that he tried to give himself room to focus on what God was calling him to do. So we see the real, on the ground, start of his ministry. In this passage, Matthew shows us that Jesus' ministry is in three parts. Jesus' ministry is about being present, proclaiming the good news, and healing his people. 

Jesus was present. We talk about Jesus being the incarnation. The dwelling of God in humanity, that in Jesus, God was present with humanity. Jesus comes to us as God made manifest, as God made obvious. Matthew wants us to acknowledge the fullness of what God is trying to do by also making sure we are aware that Jesus had a home in Capernaum. We tend to think of Jesus as an iterant preacher. Always wandering around without any home. And I've never heard any tradition about Jesus' home in Capernaum, and it is not on any tour in the Holy Land. But the point isn't whether or not Jesus had a house in the town of Capernaum. The point is that God was really truly living among his people. Jesus had a home and it was with us, his people. He was not just talking to them and curing them... and then retreating to a quiet safe space... no. God in Jesus was living right among them. He had an address and everything. He did not turn anyone away, the poor, the middle class, the rich. He dealt with his neighbors, with the store keepers, with the tradesmen, everybody. Jesus was present.

Jesus also proclaimed. Matthew wants us to believe the authenticity of Jesus being a prophet of God, being called from God with a word to speak, part of the tradition of the scripture. Matthew gives us Jesus' ministerial catch phrase as it starts out. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Prophets were known by what they spoke and the messages that they repeated. Matthew also wants to make sure we know that Jesus is following the tradition of John and the other prophets from scripture. Jesus isn't coming from out of left field, Matthew wants his listeners to know that Jesus is the one whom they have been waiting for for a long time. Jesus' proclamation was what people had been waiting to hear. Good news! You may be wondering how "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" would be good news. But we hear this proclamation with different ears than it would have been heard twenty centuries ago. Repent has connotations to us that push out some of the other meanings of the word. "Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" sounds a little bit different to our ears. Its almost as if Jesus is pointing something out to us, that maybe is behind us where we cannot see. If only we turned around, we would be able to see that the kingdom of heaven is near! Sadly, over and over again, we fail to see how near the kingdom of heaven is. Luckily, that didn't stop Jesus from proclaiming. 

And Jesus healed. The third part of Jesus' ministry that Matthew highlights in this gospel passage is the healing of diseases, casting out demons, and generally making his people whole. Jesus has come into the world to save God's people and part of saving them means returning them to wholeness. We become broken in so many ways. We are broken by each other's sins. We are broken by diseases that mess with our minds and bodies and souls. We are broken by demons of anger and malice and hatred. We are broken and lacking the peace that comes from being whole. God sees us in our brokenness and sends Jesus to forgive our sins, to cure our diseases, to bind up the demons that torture us, to give us the peace that goes beyond all the brokenness in our world. Jesus walks among the people of Galilee and he walks among us. Healing as he goes. Being the light in the darkness that clouds our sight. Giving us hope for the future of life eternal with God. Jesus healed.

This is what Matthew wants us to know. That Jesus came, was fully present, proclaimed the good news, and healed the people of Galilee. Because when Matthew continues the story with the calling of the disciples, there is an implication about the ministry that Jesus is doing for the disciples. Jesus tells Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow him. To follow him on his walk. To follow him in his ministry. When we agree in our baptismal vows to follow in the apostle's teaching and fellowship, we are agreeing to be a part of the work of the first disciples in following Jesus. In following Jesus in his walk and in his ministry. Following Jesus in his ministry of presence, proclamation, and healing looks different for each of us because each of us have different gifts. However, these three are the underlying foundation for all of our ministry. We are called to be among the people of this world, not hiding away our faith, but sharing it through word and action. We are not called to be secret Christians, only following him for an hour or so one day a week. We are called to live as followers of Jesus everyday in every place. We are called to proclaim the good news, to share Jesus as we know him. We are called to bring healing to others, through our own gifts, through all the gifts of teaching, listening, studying, welcoming, organizing, praying, serving, speaking the truth, and all the other gifts the Holy Spirit gives us.

As Jesus called his disciples to follow him, Jesus is calling us to follow him. He knows the great darkness into which we may walk in this journey. He knows the great fears that may hold us back. He knows the occasional awkwardness of being present, the uncertainty of belief in the proclamation, the brokenness of the healing, and yet, he still calls us to follow him. To be the catalyst for someone else, to be light sharing God's love.

Let us go forth following Jesus!

The Baptism of Our Lord

The First Sunday After Epiphany
The Matthean account of the Baptism of Jesus

Every year it happens. The name report. My mom is an elementary school music teacher. And every year there comes a point when she comes home fed up with trying to remember six hundred children’s names and the usual and sometimes very unusual ways that they are spelled. Sometimes it is the boys names, too many Brandons and Brendans and Brennans and Braydens and Bransons to be able to keep straight. Sometimes it is the girls names, how many different spelling variations are there of Kaitlyn or Catherine and which want to be known as Cate or Cat or Kathy or Katie? However, we all know what power there is in remembering someone else’s name. In society, being on a first name basis with someone else used to mean that you knew them very well. With the rise of the informal culture, this understanding has disappeared and knowing someone’s first name is not as powerful as it used to be. However, knowing someone else’s name still is very important for having a relationship with that person.

Because of the way the holidays fell this year, we missed the celebration of Holy Name Day on the eighth day of Christmas. Jewish tradition has children being named on the eighth day, when they are presented at the temple. In both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is given the name Jesus very specifically. Jesus comes from a long tradition of Hebrew names which means “God saves.” With Jesus, God is doing something very particular in the world, and he wants everyone to know it.

This is part of what happens in the Gospel passage for today. God names Jesus when he comes up out of the Jordan River during his baptism. God names Jesus as his son. This is my son, he says. God is calling out their relationship, their closeness. This isn’t some random man being baptized today, oh no! It is God’s son. God is naming Jesus for everyone to see and hear and know. This is someone very important, because he is my son, my beloved. Through this naming, God tells us who Jesus is.

This is really helpful, because in the days of the gospel writers, there was still some confusion about who Jesus was. Was Jesus God’s son? Was Jesus part of God? Was Jesus a man possessed by God? Was Jesus fully human? Or fully divine? These were the questions that started the debates that led to the creation of the creeds.  However, we know where Matthew stands. Matthew thinks it is very important that we know that Jesus is God’s son and that Jesus does a very human thing like being washed to fulfill the law. As we can see in the story, John has a different perspective. John thinks that Jesus should be baptizing him. However, Jesus says it is proper for him to be baptized by John. In a way, as the full perfect sinless Son of God, Jesus doesn’t need baptism. On the other hand though, as a human being who is giving himself up to God’s will and not his own, baptism make a lot of sense. Baptism was a washing or purifying act in which the person being baptized was realigning themselves with what God wants and not themselves. For the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this makes a lot of good sense as a first step. Jesus is publically acknowledging that it is not his own will that he will be following, but God’s.

The larger picture here is the overarching goal of Epiphany. We read this gospel passage today during the season of Epiphany because it gives a look into who this Jesus person really is. Epiphany is the church season where we focus on seeing who God is through Jesus. An epiphany is an aha! moment, and the hope is that at some point throughout the season, maybe even more than once, you’ll have an aha! moment about who God is, especially in light of this Jesus character. In Christmas we celebrate the birth of a miraculous baby born to us… and now we want to take some time to figure out who he really is. The gospel readings for the season of Epiphany take us on this journey… first we see who God says Jesus is, as we have heard today at Jesus’ baptism. Then throughout the season, we hear who other people think that Jesus is and who Jesus himself says he is… and at the end of the season, we return to how God names Jesus in the transfiguration, where God again names Jesus as his Son, the beloved.

So what does his name and baptism teach us about Jesus?

We see Jesus in many different lights throughout the gospel stories. He is named in so many different ways. We know him as the Son of God, as the Good Shepherd, as the suffering servant, as the Word made flesh, as the new Adam, as the Christ, the Messiah, as a part of the Trinity of God, as Jesus of Nazareth, the adopted son of a carpenter. But what we see today is a man who cares about relationship, who is in solidarity with humanity, and who is on a mission to save his people. Jesus is known to us primarily through his relationship with God. God comes first and everything else is in alignment with that relationship. Jesus choses solidarity with humanity through being baptized in the simple act of washing. Though this washing, Jesus shows that he understands what it means to be a human being and what it means to be in relationship with God. Jesus, by being named by God as his Son, shares his mission objective with us. Jesus wants to save his people, the people given to him by God. He wants to do this by sharing God’s love for the people.

So what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

If Jesus wasn’t named Jesus, would he still be God’s Son?

Well, I don’t have an answer to that, but I do know that names have power. There are many Johns in this world, but we all know which John we are speaking of when we say John the Baptist. His name calls up images of a very hairy man in the wilderness or by the Jordan River, crying out about repentance. Mr. John Washer as he would have been known if he was English. For that is all that baptism means, washing. We have taken the normal ancient Greek verb for washing and turned it into a religious term. We don’t baptize our vegetables before we cook them! Yet, in ancient Greece, even vegetables were baptized. Names have power and the naming of Jesus in baptism is extremely powerful for us, because in our naming in baptism, we become part of Christ’s body and part of the kingdom of God. We are baptized in God’s name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We are named with Christ as beloved children of God, but only because first Jesus was named so. I hope that you may find this Epiphany season a new understanding of who God is through Jesus and who you are because of Jesus. Amen.