Sunday, February 20, 2011

Building the Kingdom of God

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)
Leviticus 19.1-2,9-18; Psalm 119.3340; 1 Corinthians 3.10-11,16-23; Matthew 5.38-48
Sunday, February 20, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

We live in a society that is founded upon law. There is the underlying assumption that if people follow the law, society will run pretty smoothly. And most of us are willing to follow the law, even if we may not totally agree with some of them, like the “suggestion” that we drive 65 on the freeway, because we know that it is for the common good. So, from this perspective, most of us probably don’t have a problem with the selection we had from Leviticus. We’d probably agree with God’s commandments that we not steal or deal falsely with or defraud others; that we should not render unjust judgment; that we should not hate our kin; that we should not take revenge or hold a grudge. Breaking any of these laws, particularly on a large scale, could lead to a damaging of relationship, in a deterioration of the proper ordering of society, and just general unpleasantness for all of us.

The language used in our lesson from Leviticus gives us an indication as to the purpose for the law in general. God tells Moses to tell the people, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The law serves as the guide to this holiness that God desires for us all. The law is to prepare the people to be signs and instruments of God’s grace. And while the recitation of the law contains the constant refrain, “I am the Lord,” the implication is not that we should obey these laws because God said so. Rather, we are in covenant with God, and part of that covenant is that God gave the law as a means of caring for us, of guiding us to the holiness that he desires for all of us. The law is not an appeal to God’s authority, but rather is an expression of God’s affection. In short, the law is about relationship. The specifics speak of how we engage in relationship with our neighbors, with the poor, with employees. And the presentation of the law speaks to the covenantal theology inherent in the refrain of “I am the Lord” – the relationship God seeks to have with us, and that we should seek to have with one another.

This being the case, I think it’s safe to assume that we are all fairly comfortable with the law as presented thus far. But then we get to the Gospel. And that’s where things start to get a little uncomfortable. Jesus takes the law handed down from God to Moses to the people, and kicks it up a notch or two, or five. The law allows for justifiable retribution – “an eye for an eye.” But Jesus says forget that. Instead we are not to resist those who do evil to us. If someone strikes us, we are to turn the other cheek. If they take our coat, we are to give our cloak as well. Where’s the justice in that? And then he reminds that the law tells us that we are to love our neighbor and hate our enemy. But Jesus says forget that, too. Instead we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It’s hard enough to love our neighbors sometimes. How are we expected to love our enemies? And as if all that isn’t difficult enough, Jesus tops it all off by telling us to “be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Right.

It’s no wonder many people have problems with this text. So much so that we often try to come up with obscure or convoluted arguments to explain away what Jesus was commanding or to demonstrate how this new interpretation of the law doesn’t really apply to us. That, or we try to twist Jesus’ words into some sort of spiritual admonitions that really don’t have anything to do with the way we actually live our lives. So, at the risk of being accused of attempting to explain away what Jesus was talking about, I will say that I think the key lies in the distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Of course Jesus knows that we are not always going to be able to love our enemies or even pray for them. Of course Jesus does not expect us to be doormats and let people walk all over us, abusing us while we do nothing, taking the very shirt off our backs without us putting up a fight. And of course Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect in everything we do. We’re human and we’re going to make mistakes occasionally, no matter how hard we try.

I think the key to what Jesus is really getting at goes back to the fact that the law speaks to our relationship with others, and particularly speaks to the relationship we have with God and that God seeks to have with us. The way the law is laid out in Leviticus sends the distinct message that these laws are to be obeyed. The way Jesus lays them out in Matthew, the way he expounds upon them, says that the law is not merely something to be obeyed, but now is something that leads to transformation. Earlier in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5.17). And that fulfillment comes in the form of transformation – transformation of our understanding of the law and transformation of ourselves. Jesus is calling is to step outside ourselves and allow ourselves to be transformed in who we are and in how we approach the world.

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus may seem to focus on our feelings toward our enemies and how we deal with those who may harm or take advantage of us. But loving our enemies is not about how we feel toward those who hurt us – whether we like them or not – but rather about how we act toward them, how we react to them. It’s not about how we obey the law, but rather about how we live the law, how we live the intent of the law. Jesus shows us time and again that the Christian response to life – and the response to the law is no exception – is and must be abnormal and counter-cultural.

In his admonitions to us today, in his reinterpreting the law, Jesus is calling for our transformation in how we approach life in general, and how we approach relationship with our fellow human beings in particular. He is calling for us to love as God loves – with that unbounded, unconditional love that God shows toward us. And that’s what Jesus means when he calls on us to be perfect as God is perfect. This perfection is not about always getting things right, but is more about loving as God loves – the prefect love that is God. And Jesus is the sign and the proof of that love. God gives his love extravagantly, indiscriminately. We are the recipients of that love and are called to bear witness to that love. How then can we not at least try to love extravagantly and indiscriminately, as God does?

In today’s statements, Jesus recognizes that we cannot do this on our own, out of our own resources, out of sheer determination. Jesus prefaces his reinterpretation of the law with “but I say to you.” In this, he is not just redefining the law, but is also providing an example. Again, “I have come not to abolish [the law] but to fulfill [it].” With the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, the law is no longer just words written in Scripture. He shows us how to truly live the law, to make it the foundation of our faith in action. And in this, Jesus sets forth God’s vision for the world – the blueprint we are to follow to achieve the kind of world God intends – a blueprint that starts with the law, which becomes transformed through Jesus Christ so that we are asked not just to obey it, but to be transformed by it to the point of loving as God loves.

When we look at the ideal of the Kingdom of God as expressed through Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson, and compare that with where we and the world are today, at times it seems as if we are worlds apart, as if we’ll never get there, never achieve the ideal. But we must have faith that it will indeed happen. This is what I hear in Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. In today’s passage, he uses language of construction, of a work in progress, of the importance of a solid foundation, of faithfully following the blueprint that God has laid out, to complete the task at hand.

When I look at where we are and how distant it seems we are from the Kingdom, Paul’s imagery reminds me of my visit to Shrewsbury Abbey in England. The Benedictine monastery founded in Shrewsbury in 1083 no longer exists, disbanded and essentially destroyed during the Dissolution under Henry VIII. But the original chapel remains and is now a parish church. When the chapel was originally started in the late 11th century, they started building the chancel area where the altar would be. And to expedite construction, they also started building from the opposite end where the narthex would be. The intent was to have the two parts of the church meet in the middle, forming the completed whole – completing the vision of what the church would be. While it took several hundred years to complete, the two halves of the church were eventually completed and joined together. The interesting thing to me as an engineer was that when the two halves met, they were only off by something like a sixteenth of an inch – a virtual miracle given the lack of our modern engineering techniques. The differential was so small that from the floor looking up at the point where the two portions of the arched ceiling meet, there is no discernible deviation. And the most important thing is that minute deviation was so insignificant that it did not disrupt the structural integrity of the whole.

God has been working on building the Kingdom from his side. We the Church have been working on building the Kingdom of God from our side. While coming at it from different sides, the entire Kingdom is based on a single blueprint, God’s law, and on the foundation of Jesus Christ. And in the fullness of time, God’s part and our part will come together. Our work will have aligned with God’s purposes. Given the fact that we are merely human, the two halves may not meet exactly. There may be a sixteen of an inch difference. But I have to believe that if we are faithful to the blueprint we have been provided, if we follow the law first given by God, then adjusted to the new understanding as presented by Jesus, the differential will be so insignificant, that it will not be noticeable and not disrupt the structural integrity of the whole.

The foundation of the Kingdom is Jesus Christ. The blueprint is God’s law – not the letter as presented by Moses, but the intent as laid out by Jesus. And each and every one of us is a building block. If we are true to the blueprint, we will all fit into our place, each being integral to the building of the Kingdom – each being transformed by the love of God, and sharing that love with others, extravagantly, indiscriminately, and unconditionally. For that is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Presentation of Christ in the Temple – Year A
Malachi 3.1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
Wednesday, February 2, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

Today we commemorate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. According to Jewish law, the firstborn male is to be consecrated to God 40 days after he is born. In addition, the mother must undergo ritual purification after giving birth, which also occurs 40 days after childbirth. Undoubtedly, the two rites, consecration and purification, were timed to coincide, allowing mother and child to be together for the event. For Jesus and for Mary, this would have occurred 40 days after Christmas, on February 2 by our calendar.

In the Western church, the term “Candlemas” (or Candle Mass) has also been used for this feast day. Candlemas refers to the practice whereby priests bless candles for use throughout the year, both in the church and in the home. The blessing of candles on this particular day is specifically in reference to the line in the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon, where Simeon refers to the infant Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32). This commemoration of Candlemas with its blessing of candles taken forth from the church symbolizes the carrying of the light of Christ into the world.

But not only is today the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the celebration of Candlemas, it’s also a lesser known feast day – that of St. Phil of Punxsutawney – what secular society refers to as Groundhog Day. Trying to figure out how all of this fits together is a little confusing to say the least.

I just love the story of the minister who visits the Sunday school class to see what they’ve learned. The teacher tells him that they have been studying the liturgical year and have been focusing on the upcoming seasons of Lent and Easter. The minister then says to the children, “Who can tell me about Easter?” Several children raise their hands, and the minister calls on one of the boys. “Tommy, why don’t you tell me what happened at Easter.”

“Well sir, Jesus and his disciples were eating at the last supper. One of the disciples named Judas betrayed Jesus and the Romans arrested him. They took him to be crucified. He was stabbed in the side. They made him wear a crown of thorns. He was hung on a cross with nails in his hands and feet. Then he died. Then they buried Jesus in a cave and closed it with a big boulder.” Tommy paused, a little nervous. The minister said, “Go on, you’re doing great.” With renewed confidence, Tommy continued, “And on Easter, the boulder is moved away so that Jesus can come out. And if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter!”

Now, of course Groundhog Day has nothing to do with Easter. But there may actually be a connection between Groundhog Day and Candlemas. There is evidence that points to Groundhog Day as being derived from pagan festivals occurring in parts of Europe around the first of February – festivals entailing images of light and sacred fire, as well as healing and purification. These same festivals may well have been the reason the practices of Candlemas were introduced into the church as it spread into northern Europe – essentially a celebration placed in opposition to the local pagan practices, in an attempt to Christianize these pagan festivals.

Regardless of the origins of some of these more obscure festivals and practices, our celebration here tonight first and foremost centers on the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, as an act of consecration of this holy child to God. As the firstborn male child, Jewish law and custom would require that Jesus be so consecrated. The thing is, Jesus is not only the firstborn of Mary; he is also the firstborn of all creation, God’s only begotten son. In some ways, it seems superfluous to be consecrating God’s own son to God’s divine purposes. If anything, the presentation of Christ in the Temple is not for God’s purposes as laid out in Jewish law, but rather for our own benefit. If anything, this is the Lukan version of the Epiphany event – Luke’s equivalent to the coming of the Magi, in which Jesus is revealed or manifested to the world.

As we look at the scriptural account of the Presentation, we are told nothing of the rite of consecration that Jesus would be part of, or the rite of purification that Mary would have been a part of. Rather, we are presented with two wise old souls – first Simeon and then Anna – who through the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit recognize this month and a half old infant for who he is, and for who he is destined to become. They recognize that this child is not so much being presented to God as he is being presented to God’s people – among the earliest revelations that this child is the long-awaited Messiah. This is beautifully articulated by Simeon in the canticle bearing his name, the Song of Simeon which we say every time we do Compline:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

Every time I say these words, I am right there with Simeon – proclaiming the glory of God as revealed to the world through Jesus Christ – “A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” And just as Simeon expressed gratitude for being allowed to see the Savior before his death, I am able to share in those same words of gratitude. In saying them, I too am expressing thanksgiving that I have been allowed to know and serve our Savior. In saying the Song of Simeon, I often feel as if I am right there at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, as Jesus is consecrated to God, as he is revealed as the one who would bring light to a dark world. And saying these words also serves as my own presentation of myself to God’s service through Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we are called to continually present ourselves to God for his service. When we enter into worship, we are reminded of who Christ is for us and for the world – a light to enlighten the nations. We are the Body of Christ. And in coming to worship in this, our temple, we are given the opportunity to present ourselves anew, through the liturgy and particularly through the actions that take place around the altar, where we are once again consecrated as God’s own, as God’s beloved, seeking to serve him through Jesus Christ, seeking to continue the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the nations, through our own words and actions, carrying the light of Christ out into a world so much in need of that light.

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