Friday, February 17, 2017

Indiscriminate Mercy

Epiphany 7/February 19, 2017
Faith, Badger; Bethel, Greenbush; First, Middle River
Matthew 5:38-48

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If you ever visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, you may see a very old book published in 1820 that’s entitled:   The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.

This book is also called the Jefferson Bible, because its author was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as this country’s third president.

Jefferson, who was a brilliant man, was curious about everything in the world, including  religion and the Bible.

The Jefferson Bible was a project Jefferson worked on for many of his retirement years, his main tools being a sharp razor and a bottle of glue….because what Thomas Jefferson did was to edit out all the portions of the New Testament that he found unhelpful and not worthy of believing.  

In short, what Jefferson did was to cut out all references to Jesus’ miracles, his divinity and his resurrection.  What Jefferson left in his Bible were simply the sublime teachings and ethics of Jesus—nothing more.

Now, when we hear about this we’re probably shocked.  Most of us would never even dream of putting together our own cut-and-paste Bibles.

And yet, with much more subtlety, we and most other Bible-readers find ways to pay attention to some portions of the Bible while passing over other portions.

And this gospel lesson at the conclusion of Matthew chapter five is a striking case in point.

There are some deeply disturbing things in this passage.  Jesus utters words we simply cannot swallow….and have no intention of actually putting into practice.

We hear what Jesus commands here, and our first inclination is to say, “Nope.  That’ll never do!”
·      If an evildoer messes with us or with those we love, we will resist that evildoer, quickly claiming our right to self-defense.
·      If someone sues us we will not knuckle under, but we’ll “lawyer up” so that we can meet our opponent in court.
·      We do not drop a dollar in every outstretched hand of every beggar we happen to meet.
·      If enemies bedevil us, we will not love them and our first inclination will not be to pray for them—except perhaps to pray that they’ll stop harassing us.
·      And no, most definitely not, we will not be perfect…because, as everyone knows no one but God is perfect!

We may not go after this passage with a razor in one hand and a bottle of glue in the other, but by what we actually do or fail to do, we will treat most of these verses as “dead letters”—pie in the sky stuff that Jesus couldn’t possible expect anyone on earth to take seriously.

And once we’ve cleared away the parts of this text that Jesus can’t possibly expect us to take seriously, there’s not much else left here except…..except what Jesus says about our Father in heaven, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

There, right there—did you feel it?--a little breath of fresh air from heaven comes wafting our way.   Smack dab in the middle of all these impossible commands from our Lord, we catch a fleeting vision not of ourselves down here grubbing away in this dog-eat-dog world—but rather a vision of God and God’s own wild, profligate, unmeasured grace and mercy.

Finally something we can say “Yes” to!   Mired in this tired old deeply flawed world, we look up and remember that there is a God who is indiscriminately merciful, beaming down sunshine on both friends and foes, showering down rain on the deserving and the undeserving alike.

We want such a One to be our Father in heaven.  
We want to be children of someone who displays such wide mercy.
We’d love to be “chips off the old block”—daughters and sons of such a lavishly loving God.  

There’s just one problem, though.   This vision of God’s overflowing, prodigal grace--evidenced in both the sunshine and the rain—this refreshing vision is completely enmeshed with all the other words of Jesus here that seem so out of kilter.  

With even the sharpest razor, we cannot separate these two parts of this passage.

“Love your enemies,” says Jesus, “and pray for those who persecute you, 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.”

How can we possibly wrap our arms around this whole passage—embracing both the ridiculous commands and the vision of our Father’s indiscriminate mercy?

·      First, we might remember how much Jesus—throughout the Sermon on the Mount—loves hyperbolic speech (phrases like:  “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out!”)    Jesus is always pushing the envelope to wake us up, shake us up and re-set how we look at everything.   Maybe that’s what’s going on with all these impossible demands.  Jesus’s aim may not be simply to lay on us an impossible “to do” list.   Rather, Jesus may be getting us off the dime, and opening us up to imagine what life in God’s world was always meant to be. 
·      Second, we can entertain the possibility that by sharpening God’s will for us here, Jesus is making us realize how far this fallen, rebellious, sin-laden world still is from God’s kingdom as we long for it to be.   We human beings go to great length to resist evildoers, litigate our grudges, bypass beggars, oppose enemies—but how’s that working out for us?  How’s this world doing?  
·      Third, and really most critically, this text opens our eyes to all the ways that Jesus doesn’t just deliver this sermon—but in the end, how he finally lives this sermon to the max:   refusing to resist his false accusers, willingly walking that extra mile to the Place of the Skull,  expending his dying breath in prayer for his enemies, and finally dying at the hands of evildoers—the very evildoers—including you and me!—for whom he gave his life.

As all this begins to dawn on us once again, God moves us closer to God’s great vision of a new creation utterly at peace, a new creation in which God will woo and wheedle us to grow up fully into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified for us and vindicated by God when he raised him from the dead.

That’s what the final verse here—the “be ye perfect” part of this text—is all about.  

Jesus doesn’t hold up a sterile, flawless version of perfection here, as much as he points us toward God who is always leading us into the fullness of his final future in Jesus Christ.

A better translation of verse 48 comes from Bible commentator Frederick Dale Bruner:   “So then, you folks are going to be a perfectly mature people, just as your heavenly Father is perfectly mature.”  (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary:  The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, Eerdmans, copyright 2004, p. 266)

This, you see, is God’s most astonishing work in us.  

Jesus our Crucified and Risen Lord, rolls up his sleeves, and takes us on:   giving us, and fashioning in us, all that he commands!

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Force To Be Reckoned With

Epiphany 5/Year A/February 5, 2017
North Beltrami Lutheran Parish
Ordination and Installation of Pr. Anne Meredith
Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth.”

Notice, please, three things about this remarkable statement that comes to our ears from the lips of our Lord.

First, Jesus says: “You are…”  You are…the salt of the earth.
Jesus could have said: “Get serious—why don’t you?—and become the salt of the earth….or:  follow these ten easy steps and make yourselves the salt of the earth.”
But Jesus didn’t launch us into a self-improvement program here. Jesus didn’t establish a 501(c)3 non-profit organization called the Salt-of-the-Earth Transformational Leadership Institute.
No.  Jesus just uttered a promise.  He simply announced: “You are the salt of the earth.”   This is the way things already are…the way that things shall most certainly be.
Spoken by the One who existed before the first day of creation, who in the fullness of time went to the Cross and the Grave—the One who now  has death behind him…these words define a fact we can count on: “You are the salt of the earth”—end of story…
…because this is God’s business.  This is who God has made you to be…what God calls you to embody. You are salt—so be who you are.

Second, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.”

You are not the honey of the earth, sent to sugar-coat all of life’s harsh realities.
Nor are you the pablum of the earth…bland, easy-to-digest cereal for babies and older folks with weak stomachs.

You are not the WD-40 of the earth, sent to lubricate and smooth over all life’s hard edges.
You are not the duct tape of the earth, desperately trying to hold the world together.
No. You are salt.   Which, is to say: you are a force to be reckoned with.

Salt, after all, is a biting, bracing, reactive substance.   And we northern Minnesotans know all about that!  We have two seasons every year:  the season of road salt…closely followed by the season of road repair.   The second season focuses on fixing up all the damage done in the first season by the road-salt we can’t live without every winter.    (I am exaggerating only a little!)

Salt, paradoxically is either life-giving or life-taking, depending on how much of it we take in.  Too little salt or too much salt and we are dead.   And yet the right amount of salt helps keep us alive.
Salt is deceptively powerful.  Salt makes chemical reactions happen. Salt preserves food.  Salt brings zip and zest to our eating. Salt makes food tangier, tastier.

When Jesus declares us to be the salt of the earth, he’s tipping us off that we’re going to make a difference in the world—whether or not we even realize it.
You are the salt of the earth, says Jesus.   Our Lord wills us to be catalysts for divine change, agents of God’s promised future.  When we’re around, fully alive, stuff happens.  We salty ones help preserve this world.  God keeps the world going for the sake of the Promise God sends us to share and live out.
How about that?!?   We’re here to make everything more interesting, engaging, and fascinating. Our mission is to add zip and zest, to make tasty and tangy a world that can seem so bland, tedious and tasteless. We cause the world to sparkle with the spice of  God’s Great News in Jesus Christ. 

3.  Third, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.”
Salt does its thing only as it gets dissolved in the broth, mixed in with the stew, sprinkled on the pot roast.  Salt has to get shaken out, sprinkled, scattered.  

Salt loses itself in whatever dish it’s stirred into.   When that happens, folks don’t say” “That sure is tasty salt.”   No. Instead they say things like: “My, this is a scrumptious roast. Goodness, this is a savory hotdish. Heavens to Betsy, this is a delectable stew. My compliments to the Chef!”

Salt is meant to get lost and live on only in connection with whatever it is salting….
…which is to say: salt is of use only as it loses itself.  Salt that stays hermetically sealed in a salt-cellar isn’t good for much. It may stay high and dry and “pure”…but it’ll never accomplish anything.  It will be useless—worthless.

And here’s what’s perhaps most amazing:   it doesn’t take much salt  to do the trick. A teaspoon of salt does wonders in a whole pot of soup. A pinch of salt transforms the flavor of a whole lump of bread-dough.
You, God’s precious salty people in Christ, as you are “stirred into the world” have an effect on that world that’s all out of proportion to your numbers in the world. Salt is like that. Like those ancient Brylcream commercials, “a little dab’ll do ya!”

Does the bigness of the universe and the hugeness of its problems overwhelm you?  Do you lament the fact that you’re just one person—“and what difference can one person make?”
Be of good cheer! You are salt and salt is most effective in small quantities. Just a pinch, just a bit of salt makes all the difference in the world. God intends to use you to change, to preserve, to make more tasty the little corner of creation where God has planted you.
Christian people who are aloof, holed up in their “mighty fortress” church buildings, pursuing their “purity projects,” and never actually venturing forth into God’s world aren’t good for much of anything. They may appear to be salt…but such “salt” really isn’t worth much. It’s like salt that somehow has lost its saltiness and is good only for being discarded.
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus declares to us.
Your purpose is to spend yourself, following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ who expended himself on the Cross—to destroy sin, to take the teeth out of death, and to refashion the world to be fresh and new and “tasty” once again.
Jesus saved the world only as he lost himself, poured himself out into the world, for the sake of the world.   Jesus came to be dissolved into his calling to seek and save the lost.
This same salty Jesus now declares to us: “You are the salt of the earth.” You’re worth your weight in salt when you get close to others…especially to bland, tedious, tasteless, unsavory folks. You make them tasty by seasoning them with the Good News of Jesus Christ…for you are the salt of the earth.
On our better days, on our best days, we know that we who are Christ’s Body “live, move and have our being” for the sake of the world around us.  Or, as one of my former pastors liked to say: “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for those who aren’t its members.”

So there you have it:   You are….the salt….of the earth.

That has been true for you, Anne since the day of your baptism.  It’s been true for you for as long as you followed Jesus.

But this morning, as you are ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament and installed to serve this parish, this promise comes at you with new vigor and possibilities.

You are going to be a “salty” pastor….just because God says so.  As you look back over your life, please remember that you didn’t get yourself into this business.  God has been coming after you, hot and heavy, wooing and wheedling you into this calling, teasing out the pastor in you.

So hunker down behind God’s call, especially when things get tough.  Take on Martin Luther’s heartfelt confession that without God’s calling to you you’d make a hash of everything you try to do!

You are a salty pastor, Anne, presented now with all sorts of new ways to be a catalyst in God’s service, a reactive agent of God’s gentle but powerful rule over all things.

Dear people of Zion and Our Savior’s, please know that God has called Pastor Anne not to let sleeping dogs lie but to be salt, a force to contend with, a reactive agent of God’s barrier-breaking, sin-forgiving, future- opening work.   God has called Anne to be the salty pastor of a salty people!

Finally, Anne, being the salt God declares you to be means you will be expended—not in some crass, wasteful way--but in a Christ-like, cross-shaped redemptive way, always for the sake of your neighbors in this parish and its mission field.  

God has plans for you.  God means to do some great things through you and through this faith community, as you get close to folks and as you are dissolved in daring witness, loving care and costly service.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.