Sunday, February 16, 2014

Falling Matthew 5:21-37

These are dangerous readings we have today.  From Deuteronomy, we have death and curses for those who do not love God and keep the commandments. From the Psalmist, we get a glimpse of praise for loving God and keeping the commandments.  From Paul, we get the idea that no matter who we are, no matter how hard we try, we will always fall short somehow.  It is true of every community from Paul’s time to ours.  Then this Gospel reading: You have heard…but I say… is the common refrain here.  The topics are serious and Jesus is raising the bar – setting the standards even higher. 

You have heard the commandment about Murder; but I say do not judge or be angry. Reconcile.

You have heard the commandment about Adultery; but I say do not even lust.

You have heard the commandment about Divorce; but I say do not treat each other as less than.

You have heard the commandment about Swearing False Oaths; but I say keep your vows to God. 

Jesus takes simple commandments and calls us to higher standards.  It is really easy for me not to murder someone – most days – but it is much harder not to hold a grudge or do the hard work of forgiveness.  It is really easy for me not to commit adultery, but it is much harder not to engage a little wee fantasy now and again, or check out a titillating website.  Did you know that addiction to internet porn is now a leading reason that couples seek marriage counseling?

That single part of the reading today, about already committing a sin in my heart if I just think it, is why I am no longer Southern Baptist.  That particular phrase was used so much – over and over again – when I was a teenager that I decided that if I was going to be judged for it, I might as well have the fun!  It was beside the point that unmarried teens cannot commit adultery. 

And that’s how these readings are dangerous.  We can fall into despair because we will never completely measure up.  We all have something less than pure light in our hearts as we approach the altar rail, in spite of our best intentions.  We cannot even think fast enough to stop our monkey minds from jumping to a thought that is less then helpful.  Falling into despair – why even bother to try – is a reasonable human response to these readings.  

Here is the Good News.  It is part of the larger story – not necessarily part of today’s readings.  It is why we need all of the books of the Bible, all of the seasons of the church year.  There is another way.  Instead of choosing to fall into Despair, we as Christians can choose to fall into Grace.  There is is: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”  “I will with God’s help” We repeat it at every Baptism – all of us – several times a year.  We do not have to fall into Despair, we may instead fall into Grace. 

Jesus sets these high standards and then sets the path for our salvation. You have heard it said that this is all hopeless – there is no way we can measure up; but I say we are forgiven and saved through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who sets the bar high and then helps us when we are too weak to clear it.  Amen.
Audio for the sermon may be found on the right sidebar PodBean player.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lay Led, Clergy Directed

This past weekend, the Presiding Bishop spoke with the clergy about the unique distribution of power and authority among the four orders in the Episcopal Church.  I remembered that there had been a question at our own annual meeting about the “Lay led, Clergy directed” nature of St Martin so her words caught my attention and imagination.  She pointed out that when we consider the orders present in the Episcopal Church, we usually think of three: Lay, Priest and Deacon; yet we know there are four because we would cease to be the Episcopal Church without Bishops. 

Each of the four orders has their own responsibilities and ministry.  These are clearly explained in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (855-856).  All four orders are called to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of God. 

The particular ministry of the Bishop is to represent Christ and his church as apostle, chief priest, and pastor to the entire diocese.  They are to preach and teach and ordain while maintaining the discipline of the Episcopal Church.  Since the bishop cannot be everywhere throughout the diocese, s/he needs priests.

The particular ministry of the Priest is to represent Christ and his church as pastor, sharing in the overseeing of the church with the Bishop, preaching and administering the sacraments.  Sometimes a Deacon partners with them in the worship services.

The particular ministry of the Deacon is to represent Christ and his church as a servant to those in need and to assist Priests and Bishops in preaching and administering sacraments.  Deacons may or may not work within a church structure.

The Laity each have their own unique ministry.  The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his church bearing Christian witness by carrying on Christ’s reconciling work in the world.  Laity is also to take their place in the life, worship and governance of the Church. 

So how does this look at St Martin?  Mike and I each serve as priests in an extension of Bishop High’s ministry.  We ultimately report to God, but practically report to Bishop High.  For instance, Bishop High has made it clear to the priests in the diocese that either Rite I or Rite II is to be used at the principal Sunday service in any church.  Neither Mike nor I have the authority to use another form or to pray a Eucharistic prayer from any other source.   This is why, when we would like to host a service geared for the particular learning and language needs of children, it is easier to place that service on a Saturday evening.  Since it is not the principal Sunday service, so we can be much more flexible about how we celebrate all together.  Henry is not an employee of St Martin, but instead serves here at the request and under the authority of Bishop High.

The vestry has a unique role in all of this also.   The vestry is charged with the stewardship of the physical buildings and property.  The vestry cannot hire or fire any of the church staff, including the clergy.  However, the vestry could refuse to fund any of the church staff positions or budget requests.  There is a tension and balance distributed in the system that keeps everyone in conversation, an exquisite system of checks and balances.  Vestry meetings are a great place to witness the work of the church in action on a local level. 

Laity serve the church in many ways: Ministry leaders, Sunday School teachers, lay ministers, vestry members, committee members, etc.  Laity vote for the vestry members and diocesan delegates that will represent all of St Martin in each gathering.  Delegates then have the vote and voice at Diocesan Convention when decisions are made there for the spreading of God’s kingdom.  Diocesan delegates vote for the Deputies to General Convention, which is where the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies is elected. They each head houses in General Convention that decide the present and future work of the whole international Episcopal Church. 

All four orders of ministers are essential to the work and worship of the Episcopal Church.  All four orders play a unique role in the spreading of God’s kingdom and the continuance of Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.  If you need help finding your ministry, I hope this has been helpful.  I would be happy to enter into discernment with you about your own ministry here at St Martin.

Cross-posted on the St. Martin, Keller website

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

We don’t often get to preach on the Presentation – it only falls on a Sunday when Christmas is on a Wednesday.  Today in our Gospel lesson, we get to learn a bit more about Mary and Joseph’s Jewish practice.  I’m sure that none of you are shocked to learn that Jesus’ family was devout, practicing Jews. We get a little glimpse of how that looks here. 

On the 40th day after Jesus’ birth – yep this is 40 days since Christmas – Mary and Joseph go to the Temple for two reasons.  The first would be that Mary was unable to go to the Temple before this.  A woman was considered unclean for forty days after the birth of a male child, so this was her first opportunity to be back in worship.  The second reason was that it was time to “present” Jesus – and a sacrifice is called for here.  This was a sacrifice of both remembrance and thanksgiving.  The Jewish people remember well the events of the Passover, when all of the first-born male children and animals of Egypt were not spared the wrath of God, but the first-born male children and animals of the Israelites were spared.  So there is a blood sacrifice required: a lamb if a family was wealthy enough, or two birds if they were not.  Mary and Joseph bring their two birds along. 

Upon entering the Temple for this service, they meet Simeon.  A righteous, devout, common Jewish man who is so tuned into the Spirit that when the Spirit nudges him toward this family, he immediately goes over to them.  He has been patiently waiting for this sign from God, this Son of God and his waiting has been rewarded.  I hope his words sound familiar to you, “for these eyes of mine have seen the savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see,” the Song of Simeon is in every morning prayer, evening prayer and compline in our own daily offices.  Simeon is a common Jewish man who has attended to his own daily prayer habit and here is where his prayers are answered: in Jesus Christ.  Simeon foreshadows what is to happen in 30 years before leaving the family – an old man who will now dwell in contentment until he dies. 

We also meet Anna – a prophetess.  She is also very devout – a practicing Jewish woman who prayed and fasted and worshipped faithfully.  She has the designation of being a Prophet.  She may have even lived in the Court of Women at the Temple.  She too was patient in her piety: she never ceased to worship, to pray or to hope and now her patience and unceasing hope are rewarded also. 

And then we get some of the very few words written about Jesus in childhood, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of the God was upon him.”

So we get some interesting history and cultural lessons in this Gospel.  We learn just how devout Jesus’ parents are – how dedicated they are to their faith traditions – how they will raise Jesus as a young Jewish man as an observant and practicing Jew.  That alone may have been why Luke is so exacting in detail here, but what are we to learn from this?  What do we take out of this to get us through our week?

Anna is a prophet – she may be a bit out of our reach for someone we can emulate.  What about Simeon though?  He is an example to us of a person who is obedient to God and pious in his faith. Obviously in his prayers he has learned to hear God – to recognize the voice of the Spirit when it nudges him toward the young family.  He does not hesitate.  He is a man who knows God’s voice as well as he knows his own – he has learned to watch for the movement of the Spirit around him with a well-honed, prayer-worn intuition.  That is surely something to which we can all aspire.  Listening for the voice that is God’s, watching for the Spirit moving among us, recognizing that Holy Nudge to act.  Simeon is an example for us – it is no accident that he is present in our daily prayers and devotions.