Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Salt and light . . .

     Each week when we gather at 8am, celebrating the Eucharist using Rite 1, I remind the congregation to hear the words of Jesus:  Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.  Those of you who attend that service may wonder from time to time why we read that.  It certainly has roots in the passage we read today.  Matthew has just recorded the Sermon on the Mount, and now we are listening as Jesus continues His teaching.  Telling His disciples and others in His audience that they are to be salt and light in the world would have sounded as weird to them as it does in our ears today.  Sure, they like us would understand parts of the metaphor.  Salt, especially in the ANE, was extremely useful.  In some cultures, it was even accepted as payment.  The same is true today.  Those of you who have met bishop Samuel from Nzara may recall that he pays his clergy in salt.  Salt is still useful today.  It flavors food; it melts ice (when the temperature is above zero, anyway); it preserves food; it softens water; it even is integral in the making of bacon!  How’s that for value?!  And the value of light is apparent to us all.  Next time the power goes out at night and you cannot find a cell phone or flashlight to illumine your way, remember this passage.  Light eliminates darkness.
     Of course, Jesus was speaking in metaphorical terms as He warned His audience.  Darkness has crept over the Land; Israel has been enslaved by the Pharisees and teachers of the torah.  Part of the reason for His Incarnation is to make the righteousness described in the Sermon on the Mount possible.  Jesus came, among other reasons, to show us the value God places on us and to remind us that He has plan for us.  That plan, as Jesus notes, was first revealed in Scripture.  Given the unrighteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, though, it is no wonder that Israel is confused both about the torah and His stated purpose of ushering in the Kingdom of God.
     We have talked before of this, but one of the issues facing Israel is the simple fact that the Pharisees and teachers of the torah have added interpretations which they believe rise to the same importance of God’s Word.  Jesus will pick fights with both groups on this ground.  They wrongly believe their words to be on par with God’s.  A great example about which we will read later this year is the pledging of money to the Temple to avoid caring for elderly parents.  The claim of the youngsters is basically, “sorry, mom and dad.  I would take care of you but I made a pledge to the Church.”  Jesus will condemn the Pharisees and teachers for ever thinking it acceptable to withhold financial assistance to one’s parents because the money that could be used in their care was “pledged.”  The Pharisees misinterpret that the offering is more important to God that the care of the elderly parents.  Worse, they teach their interpretation as equal to God’s.  Just as then, we know some churches that do this now.  Fortunately, Jesus is having none of that.
     In a remarkable claim, Jesus asserts that He came to fulfill every jot and tittle of the torah.  We do not have jots and tittles in English, but our translation gets it.  I always think of it as dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.  The jot was the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (yod); the tittle was the least stroke of a pen--the serif which turns the Hebrew language into Morse Code in many of our eyes.  That little accent mark actually differentiates many Hebrew letters.
     Think about the implication for just a second.  Did God really care about the small pen strokes of a letter or a mark?  Jesus affirms that He did.  Should we be that surprised?  No.  If He cares for the sparrow and numbers the hairs on our heads and even calls us each to specific ministries as we have discussed the last couple weeks, we really should not be surprised that He cared about each stroke of a letter when He breathed His Word.  Think on this passage next time someone tries to convince you that God was not really concerned with the details recorded in Scripture.  Jesus claims He was concerned with the smallest stroke of a pen.  Jesus has been raised from the dead and glorified by His Father in heaven.  Whom will you believe?
     So, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had it right?  Hardly, most of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law got it backwards.  They were the woe’d ones in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, representing the very unrighteousness which He compared against the righteous.  Part of the reason God gave His torah (to a redeemed people on Mt. Sinai) was to reveal His standard of righteousness.  There are other purposes of the law, to be sure, but the one being discussed by Jesus today is the need for God’s people to understand the call to righteous behavior.  How can we be salt or light if we do not know what salt and light are?  How can we be a kingdom of priests if we do not understand God’s call on our selves and those around us?
     What the Pharisees and teachers of the law most misunderstand, as well as many whom we encounter in our daily life and work and even we ourselves, is the idea that we are responsible for our own righteousness.  Human sin causes us, as it did those whom Jesus teaches against in this passage, to believe mistakenly that we can make ourself righteous.  The Pharisees and teachers against whom Jesus teaches were not evil in the sense we want to believe.  They were men just like us.  I give ten percent.  I go to synagogue every week.  I make the appropriate sacrifices.  I have enough money to pay my bills.  I am in good healthI bet God is really glad I choose to follow Him.  I bet He is really glad I am not like . . . They and we come to believe that, because we are doing mostly the things we should be doing, we are good people, worthy of redemption, worthy of God’s favor.  Think of the parable of tax collector and the Pharisee.  Whom does Jesus commend?
     Part of what separates us from the world is the transformation that begins the moment we are gifted with the Holy Spirit.  When we undergo the sacrament of baptism, we claim Jesus as Lord and know that He will empower us with the Spirit (think a couple weeks ago about John’s comparison between his baptism and the baptism of the One who comes after!).  That coming of the Spirit marks a tremendous event in our lives.  From the moment of the Spirit’s arrival, we begin to be changed.  Theologians call this the process of sanctification.  To be sure, it is not a straight line graph of increasing holiness.  It is, however, a remaking of our hearts and mind.  Jesus will call it in other places a circumcision of the heart.  To outward appearances, the Pharisees and teacher of the law will appear as righteous as those who will claim Christ as Lord.  The difference, of course, will be in that the believer’s actions result from that transformation occurring within.  Like the tax collector in the parable, the believer comes to understand that he or she is not worthy of God’s grace.  The law will remind them time and time again of their unrighteousness, and it will remind them, too, of the grace given by God as their hearts are changed to effect the behavior demanded by God.  Put differently, it is easy not to commit adultery or not to commit murder, if one only looks at the physical acts.  It is another thing entirely not to feel lust when we see an attractive member of the opposite sex or not to hate those who hurt us, as Jesus will teach us next week.  And that is what He means when He tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  The change He wants for us is in here, in our hearts, and it cannot be effected by our efforts.  It can only be caused by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It can only be caused by God’s grace.
     How counter-cultural is our message?  Think for a second of this passage.  Jesus teaches us that it is not enough not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to violate any of the laws revealed by God.  That external action is not what God desires in us.  You take no pleasure in sacrifices and burnt offerings.  What God truly wants in us is to love the things He loves, to desire the things He desires, and to become that kingdom of priests the world so desperately needs.  The sooner we figure out that we cannot effect that transformation and get out of His way, the quicker He will get to work on our hearts and make us into that light and salt so desperately needed in a world at odds with its Creator.



Monday, February 3, 2014

Wisdom, power, and grace working in fools . . .

     The wisdom of the cross -- It is a phrase in Christian circles which probably passes unnoticed to our ears.  To Paul’s audience in Corinth, though, it would have sounded absolutely ridiculous.  The Jews associated wisdom with the torah .  Wisdom, for them, expressed the mind of God.  Wisdom for the Greeks, on the other hand, was the fruit of philosophy which explained the way things were in the world.  Those of Greek heritage prided themselves on their ability to reason well.  Want to understand the order of the universe?  Study it.  Both groups were likely well represented in the early church in Corinth.
     Corinth, as I have taught in the past, may have been the town best like modern America in the Roman Empire.  It was a cosmopolitan city, located on an isthmus.  On one side of the isthmus was the Aegean Sea; on the other side was the Adriatic Sea.  The town had been founded by Caesar.  He had given citizenship to soldiers loyal to him and ceded them the land that came to be known as Corinth.  It was a shrewd move.  The veterans were given honor and privilege, but they were given that honor and privilege at quite a distance from Rome.  If they got together to wander around a bit in their uniforms, it would be at a distance from Rome.
     As you know, there were few deep water ships in those days, and fewer men willing to captain them.  In nautical vernacular, the overwhelming majority of ships in the Roman empire were coast huggers or land huggers.  Ships would travel from port to port following the coastland.  Next time you are in front of a map or globe, think about how long it would take to travel between Rome and the cities of the eastern part of the Mediterranean.  Corinth, with a harbor on both sides, developed quite a business of transporting goods and ships overland, for a fee of course.  Depending upon prevailing winds and currents, one could shave as much as two to three weeks off the journey, by transferring ships at Corinth (and later letting them pull the entire ship in a harness across land and setting it in the other harbor).
     Naturally, a number of attendant businesses opened up.  There were pubs and hotels and other service related industries.  There were carpenters, shipwrights, and other tradesmen.  There were all kinds of governmental jobs (taxes and licenses, you know!), and there had to be peacekeepers for the travelers and sailors.  Among the Roman cities, Corinth was prosperous.  In addition to the citizens, an almost middle class formed.  And it was from this cosmopolitan center that the church at Corinth was called by God.
     Apparently the people in the church at Corinth had become somewhat like the Jews at various points in their history.  At certain times in Jewish history, God had reminded the Jews that He had not chosen them because they were special.  They were not the strongest, they were not the prettiest, they were not the wealthiest, they were not the most deserving.  What made them special was that He valued His covenant with them.  Corinth, which also fostered a worldly sense of entitlement, had caused those in its early church to believe that they were special in God’s eyes.  Paul, writing this letter nineteen centuries earlier, reminds them that what makes them special is God.
     Consider your own call, brothers and sisters.  Paul relates to them, and then he reminds them that not many of them were truly privileged, truly powerful, by the world’s standards.  No doubt a few wealthy people had helped to found the church, but they seem to have been far outnumbered by those who came from “lesser” backgrounds.  Paul is able to prove to the Corinthians that the difference between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom is an order of magnitude.  God’s foolishness is greater than the world’s wisdom.  God’s weakness is stronger than the world’s strength.  God’s seeming lowliness is greater than the influential valued by the world.  We cannot know for sure the makeup of the congregation at Corinth.  But we can infer that they were not that different from us.  Not many were wealthy; not many were politically influential; not many were strong.  If God were going to build a church according the world’s standards. He seems to have totally missed the mark.  Just as God chose the way of the Cross to redeem His people, He chose those less respected by the world to demonstrate His power in the world around them.
     Why?  God wanted it clear that apart from Him there is no salvation, no sanctification, and no redemption.  Apart from Him, there is no life.  The church in Corinth had been seduced by the world into believing that they deserved to be chosen.  Paul wanted to correct that hubris.  What made them special was the fact that God has chosen them.  It was His character, His honor, and His glory which made their selection significant.  His grace, and only His grace, could take such ordinary men and women and children and transform them into a beautiful Bride, worthy of His Son.
     Sometimes, in the modern Church, there is a sense of triumphalism.  Sometimes, we like to think that we are deserving of the grace He has given us.  That thought is fraught with danger.  Not only does it cause us to forget our place in salvation history, but it often lead us to think that others are not a part of the Church because they deserve so to be.  Paul’s argument in this passage reminds us that our lives have to be merged into the Cross of Christ for us to begin to achieve the honor and glory and strength and power which we should desire to demonstrate to the world on His behalf, and to which He calls us for the sake of others.  Like the Jew of Corinth, we seek to live as He has revealed to us in the worldLike the Greek of Corinth, we seek to understand the meaning of the world around us and our own lives.  Properly understood, though, we are His foolishness, we are His weakness, we are His children, utterly dependent upon Him, our Father in heaven.  It is that sense of triumphalism which causes us to look down at other churches or at people not a part of our congregation.  I don’t want that kind of person to be a part of my church.  We forget that it is His Church.  We forget that just as He used our weaknesses to glorify Himself in the world, He will use the seeming weaknesses of others to exhibit His power in their lives.  He will use their humility to show forth His glory in the world, if they will but claim Him as Lord and Savior.  To prevent that sense of entitlement in our lives, according to St. Paul, we just need to remember that it was His power, His grace, which redeemed all our faults.  Better still, it is that power, that grace, which reminds us that the best is still ahead of us!  As Paul will write the church in Ephesus or in Davenport, His power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ever ask or imagine!  The wisdom of the Cross and the power of the Resurrection were just the barest hint that He wants to do for all!