Friday, February 18, 2011

6 Epiphany, Year A, 13 February 2011

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-27
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

My friend Diana is terrified of spiders. If she sees one anywhere near her, she lets out a bloodcurdling screech and comes to tell you “It was THIS BIG!” (Holds out hands as wide as possible) Really? Well, maybe not quite that big.

Today’s vocabulary word is hyperbole (high-PER-buh-lee.) For instance: “I’ve told you a hundred million times: Don’t exaggerate!” Hyperbole: to draw the picture as large and oversized as possible, so that no one can misunderstand the message.

Jesus is using some hyperbolic speech this morning, as we continue to listen to him in the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we were alerted to the fact that he is using figures of speech, with these words:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That was the last word, last week, and the verse immediately preceding our Gospel reading this week. So we have to hear today’s portion with those words still ringing in our ears.

The scribes and the Pharisees are the professional religious people. They are as exacting as they can be about following the rules and regulations, and they encourage others to do the same. To outdo them in this good-doing is out of the question. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He is, in fact, up to something entirely different—something very strange, or at least unexpected.

“You have heard it said…but I say to you…” What is it that we have heard said? Murder is bad—the worst of sins. One of the Big Ten, in fact. And yet Jesus turns the order of things upside down: Murder is still bad no question. But now anger, even unspoken, merits the same punishment as murder. Insulting someone is even more dreadful; and speaking with a mean mouth to someone puts you in hell. You have murdered the spirit of another person by speaking of them, or to them, in that way. You don’t need to wait for hell after death; you’re already there.

Adultery is bad. Not sex in general, but a specific act. Intercourse between a man, who is not married to a particular woman, but she is married to someone else. So this is about property rights, among other things. Again, one of the Big Ten, but Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. Insofar as you have looked and imagined the act, it is as if you have done it. The thought is parent to the deed, and both are outside of the Kingdom’s way of life.

Let us be clear: Jesus is not setting up a new moral theology, a new set of rules that simply make the old rules tighter and more restrictive. He is not introducing a new pious hierarchy by which we (or anyone else) can work our way into the kingdom.

We have to go back to the beginning of the sermon. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Remember in Jesus’ time, the heart was understood as the seat of the will, one’s entire intentionality. It is the Hokey-Pokey of the moral life: You put your whole self in, when you speak of the heart. We’ll use the language of the heart in just that way in a few minutes. I will bid you “Lift up your hearts!” And you will answer me “We lift them to the Lord.” We intend to place our whole selves, hearts and souls, bodies and minds, warts and imperfections and all of what makes us who we are, to the presence of God.

To be pure of heart is to will and intend a single thing, not to be distracted and overwhelmed by many divided intentions. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is not about moral rectitude, but about orientation. The repeated, deliberate reorientation of ourselves in the Godward direction.

And we need this repeated reorientation because we forget. We do get distracted, and overwhelmed, and disoriented. That’s why we say the confession every Sunday; that’s why you’ve heard me talk about repentance. Which does not mean beating ourselves up or feeling miserable for things we have done or failed to do. Repentance—metanoia—is that moment when we recognize that we have gone in the wrong direction, and we change direction. You just missed your exit—turn around!

When Jesus tells his hearers “Let your yes be ‘yes’; let your no be ‘no’” he is inviting us to an awareness of, and truthfulness about, ourselves. God is God, and we are not. The job description of “Savior of the World” is already taken—you can’t have it. And neither can I.

Jesus invites his hearers into that awareness and that truthfulness so that they—we—can be about the ministry of God in this world. So that we can be the Body of Christ in this world. Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we get a glimpse into what that looks like.

We have to live into that reality, and live with that reality, in order to discover it more completely. Remember the 3-D drawings that were popular a few years ago? You’d stare at a page of colored dots that looked like nothing at all, up close and far away and everything in between…until all of a sudden, BOOM, there it was: the prow of a ship sailing out of the page, or a football spiraling through the air, or a cat licking its paw and washing its face.

The Sermon on the Mount invites us to sit with, and discover, a reality that Jesus is forever indicating and pointing out for those around him. It is an awareness of both thought and action—for both are necessary—that takes us beyond our own pet projects and plans, into the very life of God and God’s kingdom.

May it be so for us; may it be so among us.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

5 Epiphany, Year A, 6 February 2011

Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112:1-10; 1Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Preached by Rev. Jason M. Haddox

Do you remember the three-dimensional images that were the new cool thing a few years ago? You would stare at a page of what appeared to be nothing but multicolored dots. You would see nothing at first, just those dots. You would sit with it—looking close, then far away, then somewhere in between. And then, out of the corner of your eye, something would start to emerge. If you looked directly at it, it would vanish. You would have to be very patient, and relax your focus until suddenly it would appear: a house, with a picket fence and smoke coming out of the chimney. Or a cat, licking its front paw and washing its face. Or a football (we have to remember Superbowl Sunday today, after all) hurtling toward you from the printed page. And there it was. But even then…You had to look at the image carefully but not too closely, in order to see it. If you tried to focus your eyes, it would disappear. It was almost like looking through the paper, at something on the other side.
The author of Matthew’s gospel is very crafty in the way he tells the story. And by “crafty” I don’t mean deceptive or sneaky. I mean crafty in the way that Don Rief takes a piece of canvas and a bag of colored yarn and makes something beautiful with it, one single stitch at a time, over many hours and days. Or the way a carpenter takes wood and nails and glue and stain and varnish and makes a piece of furniture, with great craft and care and attention to detail. But to see the crafty-ness you have to look at the whole object, and then the details, and then the object. Close up and from a distance, and even then you might see something new each time you come back to it.
This morning, Jesus speaks to his hearers in the second part of the Sermon on the Mount. One of our folks at the Bible Study on Wednesday morning remarked that the passage for this week “…starts out easy to understand, and then gets really complicated.” She saw lots of dots and details, and not as much of the house, or the cat, or the football. Or the needlepoint banner, or the hand-made bookshelf.
The author of Matthew’s gospel is crafty—he is designing something very intentional in the way he builds the story. And in the Sermon on the Mount, we see this design. Now, Jesus did not have secretaries following him around taking dictation. And the Gospels are all written between seventy and a hundred years after the events they describe. So it’s not likely that Jesus said all these things in exactly this way. But the writer of Matthew has a story to tell, and means to tell it in a very particular way.
So what does he say? A few things, and we will begin at the wrong end. First of all, the final portion of the passage this morning: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Whenever Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, he’s usually talking about here and now. “The kingdom of God is among you, it has drawn near, it is here, turn around, do you see it?” This is not about “going to heaven when we die.” Most of our images of heaven and hell do not come from the Bible at all, but from an amazing work of thirteenth-century science fiction, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. So this is not Jesus lecturing on the life of the world to come—he’s teaching about God’s life, in this world, the world in which we live right now.
Second, he says “I tell You…unless YOUR righteousness is thus and so, YOU will never…” As Bishop Benhase reminded us last Sunday, Jesus is a Southerner. “You” is second-person plural: It’s “y’all”. It is NOT “You and you and you and you…” It is all-encompassing.
Y’all are the salt of the earth. Salt is good for many things, but at bottom it’s about bringing out the flavor of the food. One of the translations we read in the adult Bible study this morning translated this as “You (all) are the seasoning, to bring out the God-flavors in the world…You (all) are the light, to show off the God-colors in this world.” No one person can be all the colors at once—we need yellow and green and red and pink and blue (Preacher gestures toward the stained-glass windows of the church) and all of the colors, and even then we have to sit with the mosaic and see what God is showing us in it.
For God is showing Godself in it. Bishop Benhase told us that last week too—that the Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of God, what God’s kingdom looks like. And we are part of that portrait, in all its various colors and flavors and textures.
We are invited—this day and every day, at every moment—to be a chunk of light and color, in the multicolored mosaic of the People of God.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us.
Thanks be to God.

Friday, February 4, 2011

4th Epiphany, Year A, 30 January 2011

Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

“The White House announced on Thursday that the economy will show significant improvement by September of this year.”

Well, not really. Our vocabulary word for today is Synecdoche (Suh-NECK-tuh-kee), which is a substitution of a single image or object for an entire complex of persons and events and intentions. We say “the White House” when what we mean is the presidential administration.

For Paul in the letter to the Corinthians this morning, the Cross serves as such a synecdoche. The Cross functions as a symbol (or kind of shorthand) for the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension are all in it.

We are surrounded by images of this complex of events in this room. Right up front, we see the pendant cross over the altar. But it is missing something—it is all Resurrection and very little crucifixion. You cannot see the nails in the hands and feet; there is no sign of bloodshed. For that, we need the fourteen wrought iron crosses around the sides of the room, the Stations of the Cross. Good Friday in detail. And the windows—from the Creation through the Final Consummation of All Things, with the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension at the center. All these events and episodes, represented by one image: The Cross.

And it is STRANGE beyond our comprehension. God became one of us; to live and show us how to live in God’s world, as members of God’s family. We were so frightened by that new proclamation—which made no sense to us at all. “Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty? Blessed are the powerless?—God is with ‘them people’ and not the obviously powerful and well-connected and we’ve got it together?”

We were challenged by that preaching and teaching, by this Jesus who was clearly not interested in cultivating the kind of power-and-authority that the world he lived in—the world we live in—was interested in. Some of us were drawn to him, wanting to learn more. Some of us recognized ourselves in what he had to say about those who are poor in spirit, or those who long for justice and right dealings among human beings. Or those who are grieving over the state of the world. Or those who know they don’t have it all together, and are almost able to say so, in so many words.

Some of us were angered by these things. By the fact that Jesus seemed indifferent to “the rules” as we had always been taught them. That he sat down and ate and drank and hung out with the wrong kind of people. That he loved the unlovable, and forgave the unforgivable, and gave generously to the unworthy and ungrateful. That he did justice, and practiced mercy, and walked humbly and securely in the love and presence of God. And taught that that was what living in the kingdom of God looked like.

So we had to get rid of him. The world of “common sense and the way things are” could not bear to have its assumptions challenged in such a flagrant and subversive manner. So the powers that be—of privilege and status and being somebody by keeping somebody else under our feet—rose up in fear and hate and violence, and made an end of him.

But that wasn’t the end. God wasn’t finished, not by any means. When we had imagined and crafted the most horrible, degrading, shameful punishment that human beings could conceive, and had executed it upon a mere nobody (as it seemed to us at the time) God had something else in mind. Our loudest, most clamorous NO was met with “yes.” God’s Yes, in Jesus. The resurrection is God’s refusal—then and now—to take no for an answer. When we wanted to do away with the call of God to us—each and all of us—and slam the door and holler “No I won’t you can’t make me la la la la la…” God would not leave us alone in that shut-away stubborn fearful place. God refused to take no for an answer.

The Cross is the sign and symbol and synectoche for that reality. For us as Christians it is not merely two sticks tied together—it summons and evokes an entire story and identity and purpose. It is the sign of life, and more than just one life—of all our life in Jesus. It is the lens through which we see and make sense of the world around us; it is the banner that leads us on our life’s journey. It is the standard which judges the actions and behaviors of humanity, beginning with us who bear it on our foreheads and in our hearts. In it, we see the death of all things, and the new life which God promises. Jesus’s resurrection is for us all, and for the entire creation itself. And this is the scandal—the point of stumbling, the place of disbelief and mistrust and wonder: How can this be?

It is, because God will have it so. And declares it so: Out of the worst that humanity could imagine or do, God brings God’s best. Life, and light, and joy, and transformation.

In the font this morning there is water. I intend to have the font out in the aisle, with water in it, every time we have the Eucharist. (Altar guild, take note.) I invite you, when you come forward for communion, to take some water and mark the sign of the cross on your forehead with your thumb. Remember that you are baptized with the sign of the cross, and water, and the name of God the Holy Trinity. Remember that you are more than a consumer of commercial goods; that you are more than a cog in some enormous impersonal machine. In the water, under the cross, we are joined into something larger and more powerful than we can begin to imagine. It is as old as the cosmos, and it is as new as this new day. It is the way of life for us as Christians; the way that leads to real, true, full life. God’s life, in this world and in worlds we have yet to experience.

3 Epiphany, Year A, 23 January 2011

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 271, 5-13;1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Getting Ready to Go Fishing, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Last weekend your Vestry on went on retreat in the Wilderness, down in south Georgia at the Honey Creek Camp and Conference Center.
We went to get know each other better—you have a new priest, I have a new vestry, we have new vestry members and officers, and we wanted to spend some time together.
We also went to acknowledge, and wrestle with the fact, that the world most of us grew up in is not the world we live in now.

Most of us remember the Blue Laws. Sunday was protected by the culture. No movie theaters or stores or unnecessary businesses of any kind were allowed to open on Sunday. No youth sporting event would have been scheduled before 1:00 on Sunday afternoon. Schoolteachers were encouraged not to give homework on Wednesday nights—because that was midweek prayer meeting and youth group night.

We are no longer receiving those kinds of subsidies from the wider culture. The church is one of many options on Sunday morning, and we are working in a time and place that is increasingly disinterested in institutional maintenance for its own sake. The fastest growing religious group in North American culture are those who label themselves: “None of the above.” They have little or no background or exposure to organized religion as such. This does NOT mean that they are “irreligious” or without a potential for deep faith. The fact is, we all worship something or someone. But these folks are suspicious, at best, of institutions.

How do we reach out and touch those folks? How do we speak to them, minister to them? That’s the big question we wrestled with, on our retreat at Honey Creek.

In our gospel this morning, Jesus has just come back from his own retreat, in the wilderness, after his baptism. You remember the baptism. In the Jordan, with John the Baptist, and the Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Immediately after which, out he goes into the desert for forty days and forty nights to be tested, to wrestle with the demons. And today he comes back to discover that John the Baptist is in prison, and the world as he knew it is no longer the world in which he lives.

He relocates to Capernum, a village near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, which will be his home base for a while. He’s already getting a reputation, and his message is consistent: The kingdom of God is at hand. It is near, it is here, do you see what is right in front of you? Open your eyes; clean the wax out of your ears; here and now God comes to bring you into his new way of living.

Jesus walks this morning by the Sea of Galilee. This is actually a large freshwater lake, along whose western shore a major highway connects Jerusalem and the south to the northern provinces. Fishing and farming are the major industries there, in Jesus’ time. Fishermen like James and John and Peter and Andrew had their own boats and equipment—they were professionals, businesspeople. They knew how to do things—in particular how to catch fish.

Jesus calls to them, with a strange and even bizarre proposition. Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

The King James Bible puts it rather more colorfully: I will make you fishers of men. It’s actually a play on words…from “fisher-men” to “fishers-of-men” that we lose in the more contemporary translation.

Fish and fishing images come up throughout the gospels, perhaps most notably in the accounts of Jesus’ feeding miracles. With five little loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus is able to feed thousands of people. The early Christians cherished the story of that miraculous event, and understood it (among other things) as an interpretation of what happens at the Eucharist—a very small amount of “stuff” becomes the sign and vehicle of God’s abundant bounty and goodness.

We’ve all seen THE FISH on people’s car bumpers around town. In early Christian art, the image of a fish was frequently depicted—long before anyone dared to paint or sculpt the Cross, in fact. The Cross itself was still too raw; too contemporary as an active method of political execution. But the fish was an interesting alternative. In Greek, the common word for fish is Ichthus. This word (Iota; chi; theta; upsilon; sigma) can be read as an acronym for the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” One of the early writers and teachers of the Church, a man named Tertullian, compared all Christians to smaller fish, following Jesus our great Ichthus in a “school..” Fish were often depicted in mosaic work on the floor of baptismal pools, playing on this image of Christ as the one we little ones follow through baptism.

Peter and James and John and Andrew follow him—without a single word, they drop everything and go. We don’t know if they’ve ever even met before—this could be the first time. He must have really been something special, for people to respond like that. But he didn’t beat around the bush either. “Come with me. Come and see.” A simple, direct invitation—and then they had the choice.

They chose to follow. And this morning, in this gospel, they’re getting ready for a big fishing trip that begins in a few verses. We’ll hear about it next Sunday.

I’m not much of a fisherman but I know that getting ready to go fishing takes some preparation. You want to lay out the equipment, gas up the boat motor, make sure there’s enough ice in the cooler for the beer we’re taking and the fish we’re bringing home. Where are we gonna go? Someone knows—they’ve been there before. They’ll navigate us safely there. Out on the water, look out for the right conditions…hopefully someone of the group knows what to look for. Ideally everyone does, but maybe some are still learning.

Getting ready is important. If you don’t have what you need (Bait, nets, mosquito repellent, beer) this will not be a good experience, you will not be able to do what you came to do. If we as St. Augustine’s do not have what we need (prayer, worship, Scripture, service to the community) in order to do the work, we will “miss the boat”—figuratively and perhaps more profoundly than that.

Last weekend the vestry of St. Augustine’s went on a retreat together. “Vestry Lock-In” as someone called it later. We were at a place where none of the vestry had ever been before, down in south Georgia on the marshy area behind the barrier islands. A holy place, a treasure of the diocese of Georgia. A place where fish leap out of the water during the Sunday Eucharist; where wild herons settle in the marshes and sing with the angelic choirs. We went there to get to know each other, and to learn some skills, and to get ready to go fishing.

Come, follow me, Jesus invites Peter and John, Andrew and James. And us, each one and all together. Come and let me show you how it’s done. Healing the sick, and casting out the powers of darkness, and teaching and telling folks “Something amazing is here—come and see. Open your eyes, turn around, heads up!” See what is already before you; welcome what has already arrived.