Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2014 Epiphany 7 Matt 5:38-48 “Surprise Them”

If you meander through the parts of the Old Testament concerning laws – that’s Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and some of Exodus,  in the Torah, if you’re interested – you’ll find some very specific rules about payback.

If your bull gores one of someone's animals, you’ve got to pay them back with a live animal. If somebody steals your ox, they have to pay you back five oxen. If they steal your sheep, they have to pay you back four sheep. If you rape a virgin, you must pay her father fifty silver shekels (about $500), and you’ve got to marry her – boy, that’s a real joy for the new bride, eh? There are long lists of reparations in the Hebrew Bible, all of which are based upon the notion that if you cause harm, you must pay for the harm you have caused.

It’s what is called the lex talionis, that idea of retributive justice that is so neatly codified as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” in the Book of Exodus. You are not entitled to all-out revenge when you are harmed – the retribution must be equal to your loss. This principle dates back to Hammurabi’s law code, and it’s something that we still use to this day in courts of law when people sue someone for some perceived harm. There are complicated rules about actual loss, pain, change in financial circumstances as a result of the injury…the calculation of what is a fair award is a source of a substantial body of law. Think about it. If you were a fireman killed in the twin towers on 9/11 and your family sued the owners of the building for not making it sufficiently strong to withstand the impact of the planes, how much should you get? Let’s say you were 35 years old, with a wife and three kids. How much? The equivalent of your salary and benefits for the next 30 years, since you won’t be there to support your family? But what if you had already had one injury on the job, and it was looking like you wouldn’t be able to do the job for more than a few years, because that bad back was going to come back? What if your wife earned a whole lot of money as a physician?

What if you were a bond trader, also 35, with a wife and three kids? You made vastly more per year than the fireman – the prior year you had earning a million dollars – but you were also in a higher risk profession, where you might be fired at any time if you didn’t make your sales goals. 

But your wife doesn’t work outside the home. Should she receive the equivalent of 20 more years of a million dollars, or something less? How does a judge decide what an award should be?

It makes your head spin, doesn’t it? All those numbers, and you couldn’t possibly make everyone feel like they were treated fairly, and there is no precedent for every situation.

How do you calculate the cost of harm, and demand recompense for it?

But here we have Jesus, continuing the conversation he was having with the crowd near the Mount last week, saying, “throw out the whole system. None of it works, because it is not based on what’s really important.”

Do you think every owner of livestock who had had to pay out in oxen when their ox got loose sighed in relief? Do you think that everyone whose sheep got stolen thought “hey, wait a minute! I want to be repaid for that sheep?”

Jesus suggests something very different. Once again, as in the gospel passage from last week, he is saying, “I’m not about the lists of rules, I’m about what underlies the rules. It won’t be so easy, but it will ultimately be closer to what is expected of us all.”

He says to forget about revenge, about retribution, about recompense. Forget about getting anything back when you’ve been harmed or injured or disrespected. Forget about measuring exactly how bad things are so you can squeeze exactly the same amount back from the one who harmed you.

Simply turn the other cheek.

Take it. Put up with it.

And everyone who has ever watched WWF or a football game or Judge Judy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m supposed to do nothing? That’s crazy. If I don’t respond, then I’m just a doormat that people can step on. If I’m a doormat once, I’ll be a doormat again and again. That’s the dumbest idea that I’ve ever heard of.”

If Jesus had said “do nothing,” those folks would be right. But that’s not what he says. Yes, he says, take it. But return something to them, these people who cause you harm. Offer them the other cheek to hit – it will definitely surprise them. If someone is suing you for nonpayment of a debt and is asking the judge for your coat as compensation, give them the coat and your cloak as well. That will surprise them. If someone is begging from you, give them what they want, and then some. That will surprise them. If you pray for someone, don’t just pray for the folks who are easy to like. Pray for your enemies. That will surprise them.

My friend Phil, who is rector of a church in California, says something interesting about this gospel story:
Quite often, when I'm talking to people about the fact that Jesus' fundamental desire for us is to love one another, and that His emphatic statement is that to love each other IS to fulfill every commandment, someone will ask, "Isn't that just going easy on people?"

To which I respond, "Try loving everyone you meet. You tell me if it's easy."

The fundamental message of love is not softsoap. It is not pablum. It is not some Cliffs Notes commentary of the Bible, or some edited, sweetened, kindergarten version of the Gospel: It is the whole package.

Love everyone all the time always. Everything else is just noise.”

Amen, Phil. What Jesus is demanding of us is not merely following a payback checklist so we can get someone off our backs, it is loving them, actively loving them, even when it is hard, even when they have hurt us, even when we find it hard to find anything lovable in them.

Jesus ups the ante, once again. And then he finishes with the real kicker: “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Be perfect. And how do we do this? Simply by loving, and boy, is it hard!

Now let me make it clear that Jesus is not saying that you should ignore the pain that has been caused to you, the hurt you have suffered…you have to do something about it. You have to conquer those who harm you with love. You have to say, “Yes, you did these things, and it hurt me. But you are a child of God and I am a child of God, so I will love you and pray for you and hope that you will sense God’s care for you and stop doing hurtful things.” You don’t have to like them. You DO have to love them, so that there is a chance that they will have that smack my head moment when they realize that their way isn’t the right way.

Do I think I’m perfect? No. I regularly find it hard to forgive the idiot who cut me off in traffic, the hacker who sent me pornographic spam, the man who shot a teenager over loud music and didn’t even think he was wrong to do so, the man who cheated me in a transaction…but I try my darnedest to love them, and pray for them, even if my prayer is “please make that person less of an idiot than he just was to me.”

I’m nowhere near perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, not even close. But I’m going to try to surprise those idiots, even as I pray that some folks whom I offend will surprise me. And I invite you to try to surprise them, too.      


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Random Dots of Thursday

  • Yes, I probably should have gone to the gym this afternoon, but given the fact that I woke up at 4 this morning, it seems more important that I should relax before my 5 pm guitar lesson.

  • I woke up at 4 because I had an early morning meeting that was to untangle a thorny pastoral problem, and I wanted to strategize. Yes, I came up with a plan. No, it didn't quite work out the way I hoped, but it didn't go badly either. The good news is that there is no real downside here, although some oxen may be gored. And maybe they should be.

  • We have a new Bionaire humidifier, part of the ongoing attempt to improve PH's and my night-time breathing. When I tested the humidity around the house, it was a sad 22%. Should be at least 40%. We are now approaching the 40% mark. On a weekly basis, though, we have to clean the humidifier. It's not quite biohazard level four, but both white vinegar and bleach are used (on different parts of the thing) and it's rather strange even if it is comforting to know the thing is clean. Really clean.

  • Guitar lessons proceed, albeit slowly. I will not be competing with Julian Bream or Christopher Parkening anytime in the foreseeable future, but I am enjoying it, now that I have developed calluses on my left fingertips. Before the calluses, it was akin to flogging myself everytime I played more than ten minutes. I enjoy this more than I expected to, but I really want to be better at it than I can reasonably expect at this point. Having teensy small hands is a problem.

  • The personal trainer thing is my new flogging. The young man is tough. I am not. He didn't kill me yet, although he came close with the planks with feet on slippery pads and the supersets. Hah. I'm doing supersets. One of these days I may actually be fit.

  • I had an absolutely amazing meeting with a musician friend talking about a cool idea for a summer music camp for kids from the economically challenged part of town. Scary to consider, but what a gas to work with someone who is as much of an idea monkey as I am. Thank goodness there are folks who can be adult supervision for us/ to us.

  • The diet: down 1.5 pants sizes. Being down 1.5 sizes means that NONE of my pants fit me well right now, but I'll take it. 

  • The research: waiting for some additional paperwork to be approved before I can send out the survey. Sigh. Someday this project will be done.
Have a good day, friends. BBL.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2014 Epiphany 6 Matthew 5:21-37 “Love and Respect”

The three year old boy was adorable. Dimples in his cheeks, a Kirk Douglas cleft in his chin, a winning smile. His mother was juggling her own meal, a bag, a cell phone call, and trying to keep an eye on her child all at once. The boy looked at mom, realizing she had momentarily looked away, and started blowing massive bubbles into his drink. She turned toward him and said “No! No bubbles!” My lunch companion and I were laughing – we both had raised boys and we knew just how much little boys love blowing bubbles in their milk – and the boy giggled a bit, even as he stopped blowing through the straw. Then mom was once again distracted as she took a call, and he saw his opening. She wasn’t looking. He was in the clear. And in an instant, he blew through that straw and made bubbles once more. Sure, mom had said “no bubbles.” But it was so much fun, and she wasn’t looking now, and we were laughing with him, so he bubbled away. Against the rules, but he had come up in that moment with several reasons why he thought he could do it. At the age of three, he had already learned how to finesse the rules.
We are masters of finessing the rules, aren’t we? We find excuses to justify what we do. We know what the rules are. We know what we are supposed to do. And yet we come up with excuses, reasons to explain that what we are trying to do isn’t really a violation, the situation is just different. We find a way to convince ourselves that what we are doing is alright.

When we’re children, our parents set rules for us. If we are one of those children who are independent or creative or just plain old difficult, our parents layer rules upon rules, hoping to control our behavior. But still we manage to find ways to justify breaking those rules (“But Grandma said I could!”).

It doesn’t change when we are adults. This is the reason why the tax code is thousands of pages. Because every time someone makes a rule, someone else tries to figure out a way to avoid adhering to it. This is the reason why banking regulations have become more and more complex in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008. We try to regulate people’s behavior with rules, and it rarely works.

If we consider how things worked in Jesus’ time, how the people of Israel tried to live into the covenant that had been made with God, it was all about the rules. Almost 700 of them, listed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, enforced with intense preaching and teaching by the Pharisees, who recognized that people were getting rather lazy about keeping the rules that were supposed to guarantee a good relationship with God.

But we know human nature, right? You make rules, people try to finesse them. And the Pharisees recognized that people were finessing them, and kept chastising them for playing games with the rules.

It clearly wasn’t working.

Let's take it as a given that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to come to earth to repair what was evidently a broken, or at least flawed, relationship between God and God’s people. The rules weren’t fixing the brokenness, so God sent Jesus down to offer an alternative method.

Now here we are hearing this gospel passage – it’s the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus has given the listening crowd a vision of the world turned upside down, that the meek – the MEEK! – will inherit the earth, that the poor get the kingdom of heaven, that those who fight for justice will be fulfilled. These were pretty radical words for folks who were victims of Roman oppression and who had over the centuries been victimized by other conquerors. Here’s this Jesus, this rabbi, telling them that they will finally, FINALLY, get something good.

But as with all good things, with the gift comes responsibility. So Jesus wants them to understand that they are supposed to treat each other in particular ways.

They might be thinking at this point, “yeah, I know the rules. The Pharisees tell us about the rules over and over again. Yeah, we know the rules. And we know which ones we can skate on, and which ones everybody ignores, and which ones are the really important ones.”

But Jesus ups the ante. Remember, he has said that he hasn’t come to them to preach against the laws – he knows that would get him in really big trouble with the religious leadership, and he really has no problem with the underlying reasoning behind the rules. He says, “I’m here so you all can really understand why there are rules. I’m expecting you not only to live by the letter of the law, I want you to think about the intent of each law, in ways that recognize that you are doing this not to get the Pharisees off your backs, but because you want to love God more deeply. Here’s my point: to do that, you need to love each other in the same way that God loves you.”

It’s not just following the rules in a way that barely passes the sniff test of whether or not you’re following them, it’s following the rules BECAUSE you understand that it is about caring for each other as we hope we care for God.

So what does Jesus say?

He sets it up as a series of antitheses: statements that position an opposite point of view. But they’re not classic antitheses. Even though Jesus starts each line with “You have heard it said x, but I say to you  z…” they’re not the exact opposite of what the law says. They are a deeper and more difficult interpretation of why the law instructs us as it does. And in that more challenging interpretation, Jesus takes away our wiggle room. He doesn’t let us come up with reasons why, in my particular case, I don’t really have to do what it says, because I have an explanation! Jesus says that he is amping up his expectations for us. We don’t only have to follow the rule, we have to understand why the rule is important.

We don’t only have to avoid killing people. That’s generally pretty easy for us to do. We have to avoid all sorts of conflict. Even if it’s only a disagreement – if we are fighting with our siblings, we have to go and make peace with them before we do anything else, even going to church. Why? Because God expects us to love each other and treat each other with respect, and to make it a central way of being throughout our lives.

We don’t only have to avoid having affairs, we have to avoid even thinking of other people in that way. Not because God wants us to be prudes, but because God wants us to love each other and treat each other with respect, and we are objectifying someone by thinking of them as merely a sexual being, that’s not love and respect.

We don’t only have to stop making oaths and pledges, as if the words alone make it seem like we are really going to do what we promise and it doesn’t matter what happens after we make the oath. We have to stop acting like oaths are more important than simply being men and women of our word, that when we say we will do something, we do it without any grand gesture, and when we say we will not do something, we never do it. If it’s all about appearances, and swearing on the Bible certainly is a powerful visual image, with no sense that we actually have to follow through, that’s a sign of disrespect. It is disrespect for the person to whom we make the promise. It is disrespect for God if we pledge in God’s name. It is disrespect for ourselves, because we are not true to our own word. If we love God and love each other, we don’t make a show of making promises we don’t intend to keep.

It’s like blowing bubbles in milk. It’s still wrong even if mom’s back is turned. It’s still wrong even though your dimples are really cute. It’s still wrong despite the fact that it’s really fun to do when we have told mom we won’t do it any more.

We are, as I said before, masters of finessing the rules. But if we believe that there is only one master, the master not of finesse but of love, we can see what folly our sidesteppings are. Jesus teaches us the driving reason behind all of the law: because following the law is recognizing God’s love for us, because following the law is a sign of our love for God, because following the law is a mark of love and respect for our fellow human beings, as we promised when we were baptized.

No excuses. No finesse. No side-stepping. No dodging because of technicalities. Only love and respect, because God asks for it and gives it…and because our hearts should seek nothing less.


Saturday, February 08, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, February 9, 2014 Matthew 5:13-20 “You are the Spice Rack ”

You are the salt of the earth.

Thanks, God. Nothing like setting the bar high, right? Couldn’t I just be the salt on one plate of scrambled eggs?

No. We’ve got to be salt to flavor the whole world.

It’s a little daunting, and add in the notion that we’ve got to do it NOW, not an some unspecified future time – Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth,” not “you will be the salt of the earth once I’ve finished preparing you to do it” – and it becomes really scary.

And then there's this: some days I don’t feel particularly salty. What about it? What are my options?

And here’s where I think about a couple of friends of mine from many years ago.

The first one was Terry. He’s been dead for a good ten-fifteen years now, but I can still see him in my mind’s eye as clear as day. Terry was brilliant – a specialist in the Soviet Union and China who worked on the sort of projects you’re not supposed to know about. He was a prickly personality, and a very literal one. If he read the Bible passage about the Creation in Genesis and saw that there were two versions of creation, slightly different from each other, it would drive him nuts. And he would drive everyone else nuts around him asking questions so he could sort out how it was possible that the Scripture would have two conflicting versions of the Creation. He was like a dog with a bone – he wasn’t going to let it go until he had gnawed that question into submission and gotten a plausible answer.

Now I wouldn’t say that Terry was the salt of the earth. He was more like coarse-ground pepper, the kind that sometimes gets in your throat and makes you cough. You paid attention to Terry, because he was make sure you did until his questions were answered. If you didn’t, the next thing you knew you’d be coughing on that little bit of pepper. But you also had gone through the exercise of looking at why there were two versions of Creation in Genesis – he had forced you to pay attention to something you mightn’t have really focused on before, and you were enriched by the process. Sort of like a sprinkling of pepper on your eggs or your salad. Spiced it up a bit. Enlivened the experience.

Not everyone liked Terry, just like not everyone likes coarse-ground pepper. Some of us liked things bland and unchallenging, and Terry was neither. But after the meal, or after a conversation, you appreciated how much livelier it was.

Spice. It’s a good thing.

And then there was Marie. Marie was like almond extract – golden, perfumey, scents of foreign places, a little exotic, all about the visuals and the d├ęcor and the clothes and the shoes (especially the shoes). Marie was not born a blonde, but by God, she was going to make sure she became one, at about the same time she bought blue contact lenses. She was also about the richness and generosity of true friendship, sharing ideas, sharing her stuff, saying what was on her mind.

As wonderful as Marie was, a little bit went a long way. Just like almond extract. Most recipes that include it call for a ¼ teaspoon or less, because it is intense. Marie, too – she was intense, and if you spent too much time with her, you wanted to go have some quiet time away from the golden shine, the opinions, the focus on the well-appointed wardrobe or home. But if you were in a jam, Marie would do whatever was necessary to help you, without asking, without judging. Just doing it in a heartbeat because her loyalty was as intense as her haircolor. As intense as almond extract.

Spice. It’s a good thing.

I wonder if Jesus was using a sort of shortcut when he was talking about salt in the gospel. Salt was certainly an important commodity not just for flavor but as a preservative, and it was an expensive one in those days. It was something that had to be acquired from elsewhere. It was difficult if not impossible to produce on one’s own.

But that was true not only of salt, but of other spices as well. Pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron: all of these were used in the Middle East when Jesus was alive. All of them were important and costly, used for flavoring and for preserving foods.

Spice souk in Marrakesh
Maybe Jesus was talking about salt, because it was the most common flavoring agent, but his thoughts could be extended to all the spices, all the flavorings that made life both possible and enjoyable. But it’s rather awkward to say “you are the salt and the pepper and the cinnamon and the saffron of the earth,” so he just said “salt.”

But imagine if what he was saying was “you are the spice rack of the earth!”

You are the salt, basic, so necessary to enhance the ingredients. You are the pepper, enlivening an otherwise bland meal. You are the cinnamon, warming up the innards when the cold takes away one’s energy. You are the saffron, making golden that which was pale cream, adding a subtle perfume to something that was one-dimensional.

Think of the possibilities! And think about the fact that each of us may bring a different flavor, a different gift, to the table.

Think about the wonderful range of people sitting here today. What spice are you?

Gail, I’d bet you are the chili pepper, livening things up and getting all the kids out their our seats. Dottie, do you think you’re the cocoa, making our hearts warm with your chocolatey goodness? Gray, you might be ground cumin, a strong but subtle presence in the mix. Anita, maybe you’re the vanilla extract, which sounds so familiar and low-key until someone tries to bake something without it and discovers how important it is. Harrison ---- what spice are you? Nutmeg? A sprinkle of jazz on top of eggnog?

What if Jesus said “you are the spice rack of the earth?” Gets you thinking, doesn’t it?

Taking the gifts that make you utterly unique, the different flavors, and using them to bring energy and joy and possibility – the joy of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – into a world that has lost its savor, a world that tastes bitter and flat and lacking in that special something that brings a satisfied sigh of “aahhhh.”

What do you have to bring to that world? Is it comfort, like a cup of hot cocoa or a chai tea? Is it zip and energy, like a shot of ancho chili peppers in the stew? Is it mystery, like the hint of saffron in a rice pilaf? Is it joy, like a vanilla-perfumed birthday cake?

What flavor will you bring to the world as you live the Gospel? What word will you bring?

You are the spice rack of the world. Bring flavor and joy and a complexity that matches our diverse gifts, and bring the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.