Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feb 20, 2011

Matthew 5:38-48
38  "You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  39  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;  40  and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  41  and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  42  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  43  "You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  44  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  46  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  47  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,  what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  48  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Feb. 20, 2011
“A Preacher’s Confession”
Rev. Justin Nickel

Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

Allow me if you would, a brief confession.  In spite of all the hours in text study with my colleagues, all the Biblical commentaries I have read, to say nothing of the four years in Seminary preparing for this very sort of activity, I do not know how to preach the Sermon on the Mount to you dear people.  Feeling like this was perhaps an example of just how green I am as a pastor, I consulted my father who has accrued more than 30 years as a parish pastor (which means, given the three year cycle of the lectionary and the fact that part of these texts come up every year on Ash Wednesday, he would have had roughly 40 chances to preach on this material).   His response certainly caught me off guard.  Rather than providing me with some helpful tips or insights into the text which I may have missed, he shrugged his shoulders, and with wry smile on his face simply said, “that is ok.  I never figured out how to preach it, either.”  While that certainly allowed me a certain measure of relief, it did not exactly provide the practical advice for which I was searching.  It did, however, give me pause as to why this material is so difficult for preachers first but for everyone who encounters this material, as well.  
The trouble, I humbly submit to you, is this: we have no ready made categories for what Jesus is doing here in this extended and wandering monologue in which he comments on divorce, lust, anger, addiction to money,  and in the portion that we just read this morning, how one should respond in the face of insult, injury and injustice.  What really, is this material?  Is it a behavior manual, or a bit of cunning to get at our enemies by pretending that we actually care for them?  Some practical advice that will get us noticed by all those whose behavior does not live up to our standards?  Seriously, what exactly is Jesus doing here and why is he doing it?   One route, and the route that appeals to the old sinner in each of us that wants to be in control, is to read this as ethical advice, as a series of rules which we must, yes must, obey in order to fulfill our obligations as Christians.   Simply put, Jesus is doing nothing more than laying before us behavioral guidelines for the way that we must act.  In this, it functions in the same way that our national and local laws do; it provides us with a clear set of expectations, like giving to everyone that asks of you, and it expects that we will carry out these duties with diligence.  While this might seem a pretty straight-forward way to understand the text, it is immediately problematic.  If a life of this sort is what is required of Christians, who would be able to stand and be counted as one?  Certainly not me. For while we might be able to, for a brief amount of time, be able to carry out this manifesto’s mandates, there is not a soul living who is been able to sustain this sort of self-possession and generosity.   Yes, we can, with a false pomposity and a pride the belies our genuine sinfulness, behave as though we were the sort of people in this text, but that sort of affectation leads only to the worst sort of hypocrisy, the sort which gives some credence to critiques of the Christian church’s own failings down through the ages.  So, if we are to be honest about who we are and place up against this text, with its sublime vision of prayers for those whom we despise and boundless generosity of both money and kindness, when we place our own messy and stuttering lives against that picture, how do we do anything but despair?  If this is what we are supposed to be, how could that possibly be any sort of good news?  Instead, it is not the most condemning word that we can hear?  That the gulf between our own behavior and what God asks of us is impossibly deep.  What then, are we to do?
Well, perhaps a way forward begins in realizing about whom this text is first speaking.  It is my guess that this text is not first about us and all our failings but about the hopelessly generous nature of God’s kingdom. Regardless of that old human inclination to turn everything we encounter into something about us, this is first and foremost a revelation, yes a proclamation, about the nature and character of God.  For just as Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, so too, Jesus, here on another mountain, is giving voice to the character and nature of God, and this is one of the central scandals of the text.  I mean, really, who does this guy think he is, rewriting the Torah that has been handed down for generations upon generations?  If what Jesus is doing is valid, then he has to be the Messiah, either that or first order charlatan.  So, Jesus, says, you want to know what God is like? What seems a fairly innocent question actually takes a turn towards the scandalous.  God is one who loves enemies, and generously provides food, shelter and all the provisions for this life to those who will vehemently deny his very existence.  God is one for whom justice, righteousness is act of gathering sinners near him and not scattering them apart with anger. Yes, if you want to find the God of the Sermon on the Mount, look no further than the one who is preaching it.  What does love actually look like? To be fair to this past Monday’s holiday, with its boxes of chocolates and red roses, divine love looks a bit different.  Yes, it looks like Christ and his cross.  This is what love means from God’s perspective. It looks like suffering for the sake of those who despise you, and not condemning those who will put you to death, but saving them through the offering of your body.  Yes, this the absurd vision of the love that Jesus describes and then enacts. In the case of Christ, love means suffering the consequence of humanity’s pride and folly as his own, simply so that even those who abandon, deny and crucify Christ may find a place at God’s table.   Yes, for this what it means, what it will cost God, to love God’s enemies.
            I can hear your potential question.  All good and well pastor, but what about us?  Does this text not say something about our own lives?  I mean, it does seem as though Jesus is speaking directly to people and about the way they conduct their lives and suggesting that this matters a great deal.  I mean, does Jesus not ask us to be perfect, as the Father is perfect? Well no, actually, he does not.  This is one place where the English translation lets us down entirely.  The greek word that gets translated as “perfect” is telos, which means something like “intended, completed or consummated.”  It is not a word that has a hint of moralizing to it.  Rather, Jesus is saying something like become who you are as beloved children of God, or be loving children of God, just as you are loved.  And this, dearly beloved, is perhaps what one may call the miracle of the text.  When we are gripped by the love of God in Christ something indeed happens to us.  So enthralling, so all-consuming is this love of Christ that we are given the freedom to love enemies and give generously, to live in community with those people we find offensive or even simply annoying.  Do we do this completely, no, no we do not, for we have not yet fully become what we are.  For it is so very easy to forget that, before we are anything, before we are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, before we are middle-class or poor, white or Asian, suburbanites or country folk, Democrat or Republican, before any of that,  we God’s children.   It will only be in God’s Kingdom that this vision of reality is fully realized, but the freedom of that vision is poured out in the present.  Yes, in the mean time, there is a freedom that takes hold of you.  It is the freedom that poured over you in your baptisms and is the freedom that you will soon take into your body here at the Lord’s table.  It is this freedom: your lives have been joined to Christ, and as St. Paul writes, in him you have everything.  Having everything, then, let us give away ourselves for the sake of the world that God so dearly loves.  For this is what it means to be God’s children, amen.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

January 30, 2011

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

18  For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  19  For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."  20  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  21  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  22  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,  23  but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  24  but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  25  For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.  26  Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:  not many of you were wise by human standards,  not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  27  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  29  so that no one  might boast in the presence of God.  30  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  31  in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in  the Lord."

Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
There is something about being human that makes want to prove to our fellow humans how entirely right we are. If there is one thing that we constantly do, regardless of the situation, it is to fiercely believe in our correctness on a given question.  We argue politics with someone who has a different party affiliation than we do, we argue at work when a boss has made a decision that we, in our wisdom, we clearly would not have.   We argue about sports and just what the Nuggets should do with this Carmelo Anthony situation.  We argue about music and whether it is the Beatles or the Rolling Stones who are in fact the best band in the history of rock and roll music.  This also extends to the people for whom we care the most.  Our relationships with children and parents, dear friends and siblings are often characterized by this need to be in the right, to be found correct and righteous in the eyes of other people.  Having just returned from a theological conference in Boulder, I was made abundantly aware of how true this actually is and was again show a side of myself that I would have preferred to pretend did not exist.  As I sat in this conference, I could not help but engage in this exercise of being absolutely and smugly correct.  I bristled at suggestions that offended my own well-crafted theology and was righteously annoyed when the various presenters had the audacity offer suggestions with which I did not agree. Yes, this is what it means to be human, to believe that you are in fact right, regardless of the situation or the intentions of the person with whom you might be in conversation or argument.   To be sure, we can be kind and generous about all this, but I wonder if there is anything more difficult than having to accept and confess the fact that you are wrong about a particular question.   Swallowing one’s pride and saying this words “I was wrong and I am sorry,” well, that amounts to a death sentence to our sense of pride and fundamental belief that we are right.  Always and without question, right. 
Given how fundamental this is to our humanity, it is cannot be without its importance and benefit.  There is indeed a necessity to this sort of thinking and the world teaches you that you must stand up for yourself, because who else will?  So, yes, our unfailing belief in our correctness indeed serves a purpose.  However, this primordial habit of always being correct, well, this might be the one place in which it is we can say that the old adage  “God’s ways are not our ways” is particularly, painfully and beautifully true.  Yes, it just might be the case that while we are busy shoring up our defenses against those with whom we would disagree, yes while we are busy accruing wisdom that will silence our opponents, God is busy with a project that is of an utterly different type, one that is not characterized by human triumphalism and gamesmanship but rather a project that, in the eyes of the world, is laughable, is absurd.  Yes, hear again these most astounding words of St. Paul: “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”  And what is, exactly, this message of the cross and why is it foolishness?  The church at Corinth to whom this letter was written was being torn apart by divisions within the worshipping community, and it was these divisions that occasioned this letter from St. Paul.  The church at Corinth, not unlike most worshipping communities, was a mixture of people from all over the social spectrum.  Some were wealthy and educated with plenty of social status to be put on display, and it was this difference in social status, in education, one could even say in the ability to be right, that was tearing the Corinthian church apart. Some leaders within the church spoke with enough eloquence to garner a following, and other put their spiritual gifts on display in order to become people of importance within the community.  Yes, the church was becoming not a place in which the Risen Christ gathered people into a new body, but was instead a place in which old divisions based on wealth, status and political capital were firmly reinforced, to the detriment of those who lacked these necessary weapons of social combat. 
So, it is into this familiar and profoundly human mess that St. Paul proclaims this about the cross: it is foolishness.  Yes, foolish because, if God did not show up at the cross and draw us to the crucified Christ, that simply is not a place we would ever seek a God.  For being found by the Christ and his cross means that we might just have to let go of always being right.  Yes, this is our confession: that through the utterly destitute and gut-wrenching weakness of a first century Jewish man hung upon a cross, sin, death and the power of the devil have been once and for all overcome. Try winning an argument with that assertion.  What is more, that in spite of death’s unyielding certainty, this man was raised from the dead by God’s Holy Spirit, and that though we die, we shall live with God in a splendor that language cannot capture.   Yes, that this Christ returns our vengeful need to be right with forgiveness and asks his Father to forgive us when heap our mistrust upon his expiring body.   And that this God, in Jesus Christ, regardless of the iron-clad rules of physics, is present and active in the world, and comes to us in this gathering in bread and wine, and in the love that is poured out on and through us.  And that this God fashions us anew each day and gives us the strength and care to be God’s people in the world, in which what finally matters is not our social status or whether we are democrats or republicans, but only that we belong to God and belong to one another.  Yes, the cross is foolishness because it is the end of us being able to say that we can find God on our own, for who would even think to look in a place such as this?   The cross is foolishness because it has no place in our systems and schemes of right and wrong, just and unjust, and is in fact the end of all such systems. It is foolish, because the cross means that love is more significant than being in the right and that care of our neighbors is of more value than being recognized as a person of importance. It is foolish because we are given the security of knowing that we are always and forever children of God, despite the fact that we are often wrong about this God and need the constant and vigilant work of the Holy Spirit to bring us back to the cross and empty tomb.  Yes, this is the foolishness of God: that Christ takes the places in our lives where we actively reject him, that is what the cross is after all, our rejection of God, and God uses those places to draw us to into divine love.
Yes, this is the unspeakably wonderful news of God’s wisdom: that it comes to us in ways that appear foolish in how we try to make sense of the world.  Yes, foolishness like we are blessed precisely in the places where we feel the most abandoned and the most vulnerable.  God is with you when you wonder whether God is real or if it might be wise to perhaps give up on this God.  Yes, God is with you in your mourning of all those who have died, be it several years ago or just a couple of weeks back, or even if you are simply mourning the loss of a time when life was a little easier, a little less complicated.  God is with you in all your acts of kindness and mercy and in all the ways that you display not your power over other people, but rather your care and compassion for them as fellow children of God.  For this is what it means to have a God whose love is enacted through the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  It means that Christ’s love is more real than petty and malicious displays of power and that it precisely in the places we fear that God has left us that this Christ shows up.  Is there anything more wise than this sort of foolishness?  In Jesus’ name, amen.