Show your work – a sermon

Unlike some Episcopal priests I know, I have always enjoyed math.  For the most part, it comes naturally to me, though I’ve often had some help along the way.  Coming of age in the mid-1990s, I found myself reaping the benefits of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator.  In high school, I had a TI-83, the swankiest model available at the time.  It could do algebra, trigonometry, and graph parabolic functions.  Of course, the favorite feature for me and my friends was that you could program it to play Tetris.  In preparation for studying engineering at Pitt, I upgraded to the TI-92 for use in my calculus courses.  College calculus was the first time that math didn’t just make sense to me, and so I used my TI-92 as a crutch through Calc 1.   Why they let me use it, I have no idea, but it made it all the more difficult when I got to Calc 2 and the professor uttered words that struck terror into my soul.  “Show your work.”

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No longer was it sufficient to have the right answer, which my TI-92 could so easily provide, now I had to show the stuff below the surface.  My professor had a good point, even if I didn’t like it very much.  The key to math isn’t getting the right answer, but learning the process by which every right answer will come.  One’s motivation shouldn’t be an A on the exam, but the reward of having learned the concept inside and out, and that can only be proved by showing your work.  The same is true in the life of faith: it isn’t about doing the right things so you can get to heaven when you die.  Instead, it is about what is happening on the inside, the unspoken motivations, the work of holiness.

Last Sunday, Jesus invited his disciples to show their work, and just like when I heard it from my calculus professor, I really wish Jesus had never said it.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now mind you, the scribes and the Pharisees were the professional interpreters of the Law.  They were the ones who defined the right answer.  How far is too far to walk on the Sabbath?  Ask a Pharisee.  Do I wash this pot or that spoon first to keep kosher?  Ask a scribe.  These men were the holders of all that was right and holy, and Jesus was so bold as to say that we should be more righteous than that.  How could anyone possibly live up to that standard, we could reasonably ask.  Jesus answers my concern with six of his own interpretations of the Law that at their core teach the profound truth that having the right answer, living the right way, isn’t really enough, it is about knowing what underlies that right action that really matters.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.”  Jesus was not one for subtlety, but rather he jumps right into the deep end on this line of teaching.  One of the Big 10, “thou shalt not murder” is as well known a law as any of the other Commandments.  It is also one of the easier ones to keep.  Most human beings are not predisposed to taking the life of another human being in anger.  It would be fairly easy to feel morally superior for having not murdered anyone, but Jesus pushes it further, “show your work.”  “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to the same judgment,” Jesus says.  It is a lot harder to hold oneself as smugly self-righteous if the bar is now “being angry.”  Who hasn’t felt anger toward a brother or a sister, be they actual siblings or figurative ones?  If you insult your brother or sister, literally in the Greek it says, “if you call your brother an idiot,” you can be brought up on charges.  If you say “you fool,” you’ll go to hell.  I am liable to the fires of hell thanks to my ride into work on Thursday morning, but I’m sure y’all are better Christians than I am.

Notice what Jesus is doing there, he’s not abolishing the law, but taking it to its core.  The commandment “thou shalt not murder,” isn’t about killing someone in anger, it is about the destruction of relationships.  If we are really honest with ourselves, a whole lot more damage is done on a daily basis by those who harbor anger, who hang on to resentment, and who look down on their sisters and brothers than any murderer can accomplish.  God cares deeply about our relationships, and in order to make them life giving and fulfilling, we are called to show love and compassion rather than anger and contempt.  In fact, God cares so much about our relationships, that in verses 23 and 24 Jesus says he would rather we spend time tending to our broken relationships than come to church.  Jesus is serious about us showing our work, checking our motivations, and examining our hearts in this relationship stuff.

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Another perfectly reasonable commandment from God that Jesus takes deep to its roots.  “But I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  It isn’t enough to simply not have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, but it is about how we treat our neighbor.  God did not create human beings to be used by others simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  In fact, the way we treat one another is so important that God would rather us injure ourselves before we harm someone else.

The same is true for divorce.  In Jesus’ day and time, women could be divorced by their husbands for any number of ridiculous reasons including burning a loaf of bread.[1] Jesus is clear, just because there is legal precedent for something, doesn’t make it right.  People aren’t disposable; we can’t just throw them away when they no longer meet our needs.  Show your work, check your motivations, and know that these life-long relationships matter deeply to God.

Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the swearing of oaths.  “But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Here again, Jesus cuts down deep to the fundamental meaning of the commandment not to bear false witness by asking us to consider why an oath is necessary at all.  It seems to me there are two possible reasons.  On the one hand, we swear oaths because the stakes are too high not to.  In a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth because the ramifications of lying are so very profound.  When an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the Republic.  On the other hand, and more, I think, to Jesus’ point is the need to swear an oath because one can no longer be taken at their word.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  If I have promised to love my neighbor, and later I am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole of the Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

Jesus invites his disciples, and by extension each of us, to show our work when it comes to developing fruitful relationships.  It isn’t enough to sit comfortably and say, “Well, I haven’t committed murder or adultery” when inside our hearts there exists a cesspool of anger and lust.  It isn’t enough to simply fulfill the letter of the Law, but as followers of Jesus, we are invited to go deeper, to check our motivations, and to work to make our inner-lives match our outer-lives.  Of course, this ethical standard is so high as to be impossible, and Jesus knows that, but it is the work that matters.  By constantly examining our own hearts and our deepest motivations, we learn, slowly but surely, the core concepts of holiness, and in so doing, we find ourselves coming ever closer to the heart of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

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Keeping one’s word

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Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.  These seem like simple words from Jesus.  As his disciples, as it is for all women and men, our word should be sufficient.  I can think of only only two reasons why the swearing of an oath would be necessary.  The first is because the stakes are too high.  Think about it, in a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth, under penalty of law, because the ramifications of lying are so very powerful.  Or, when an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the the Republic.  I’ve done a lot of this kind of promising of late.  Whether it was my signature on a Letter of Agreement here at Christ Church or the joint signatures of my wife and I on the 30 year note for our house: the need to be absolutely sure we mean what we say is strong.

The other need for an oath comes when the person can no longer be taken at their word.  This is the more insidious reason, and the one I’m sure Jesus was addressing in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  So, then, if I have promised to love my neighbor, and am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

We live in times that are full of untruths and half-truths.  Our news sources are more and more reliant on “inside sources” and in a culture where sales and clicks drive everything we do, stories are often brought to press that might not be fully vetted at the time.  Worse yet, according to the Pew Research Center nearly 20% of Americans use Social Media as their primary news source.  Anyone who has spent any time on Social Media can tell you that Facebook is probably the worst possible way to get accurate information.  The changing world is creating millions of people who think they are well informed, but are filled with half-truths or worse.  In this climate, yes meaning yes and no meaning no becomes harder and harder to live up to.

So, what do we do as followers of Jesus?  We do our homework.  We engage those with whom we disagree.  And above all, when we aren’t sure our yes really means yes or our no really means no, we have to get comfortable living in ambiguity.  “I don’t know,” must be an acceptable answer.  For, unless we are avoiding an issue about which we actually do know something, often times “I don’t know” is the most truthful things we can say about something.  As an added bonus, saying “I don’t know” is an exercise in humility, a topic about which Jesus will have plenty to say later in this sermon.

In a day and age when truth is relative and lies seem the norm, there is great power in the keeping of one’s word.

The Confession

In the space between the invitation to confession and the actual words of the prayer, whether it is Morning Prayer Rite I, Compline, Holy Eucharist Rite II, or even the service of Holy Eucharist laid out in Enriching our Worship, there is a rubric that reads, “silence may be kept.”  For this low churchman, “may” is mostly a helpful word in the rubrics, it keeps me from being brought up on Title IV charges, but in this circumstance, I wish the rubric had been made without the wiggle room.  “Silence shall be kept.” Or “Silence is kept.” would be my preference, and here’s why.

I’m a sinner, and I need sometime, sometimes lots of time, to reflect on my sinful nature before I join with my parish family in confessing those sins corporately.  I need that silence to be long enough and awkward enough to search the depths of my heart to find the places where I’ve committed murder through anger and unkind thoughts; where I’ve become liable to the fires of hell; where I’ve failed to be reconciled with my brother or sister before approaching the altar; where I’ve committed adultery by paying more attention to how a woman looks and what she’s wearing than her inherent goodness as a created child of God; or where I’ve failed to trust in myself, my God, or my neighbor by insisting on oaths and pinky swears.

The challenge of this week’s Gospel lesson is that it makes very clear the fact that we are all, in some way or another, fallen, sinful people.  It is impossible to read the sermon on the mount and walk away convinced of one’s own perfection.  You can’t have Matthew 5:21-37 and Ecclesiasticus 15.  So this Sunday, as I serve as celebrant at Saint Paul’s, you can be sure that I’ll leave enough silence to make us squirm just a bit.  After all, as the beatitudes tell us, it is when we are most vulnerable that God is present to bless us.

let’s talk about Ecclesiasticus for a minute

This week, the Revised Common Lectionary offers preachers a choice in Old Testament lessons.  Well, that’s not entirely true, actually the RCL offers us a choice between a lesson from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) and the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus).  Every time Ecclesiasticus comes up in the Lectionary, I have to Google it because my HarperCollins Study Bible lists it by the title Sirach in the Table of Contents.

Whatever you call it, the book is assumed to have been written by a teacher called Ben Sira, which I think means son of Sirach and is where the alternative title for this book comes from.  It was written somewhere between 200 and 180 AD as a set of instructions (a book of Wisdom) for the people of Israel to hold onto as Judea was the battle ground between the Seleucids from Antioch and the Ptolemies in Egypt.  The book carried enough importance that it was included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and therefore held a place in the Christian canon very early on.  As time has gone by and as Jewish leaders have argued over the validity of Sirach in their own canon, it has come to be included in various ways across denominations, with more reformed traditions excising it entirely. (Thanks HarperCollins Study Bible and wikipedia for dropping this knowledge on us)

What really gets me about the optional text from Ecclesiasticus for Sunday is just how non-Christian it is.  Or, should I say, just how non-post-reformation Christian it is.  This section from chapter 15 makes the book of James sound soft on works righteousness.  Just read the opening sentence, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”  Hey now!  Couple this with Jesus’ difficult teaching on the Law and you could find yourself deep in down the road of Pelagianism, a fourth century heresy that is gaining in popularity these days.


It is a tricky passage, and I’m guessing most preachers will choose Deuteronomy instead, but it at least deserves some thought.

A Community of Trust

This week, in the real life version of Draughting Theology, we will be discussing a chapter from Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity After Religion entitled, “The End of the Beginning.”  In it, she cites as study that showed that in 2010, 1 in 3 Americans said that they “almost never” trust the government to do the right thing. (p. 27)  As I finished putting my notes together for tomorrow’s discussion, I turned to the Lectionary Page and re-read these themes in Sunday’s lessons: jealousy, quarreling, anger, insults, lust, and swearing oaths.  As I read these words from Paul and Jesus, reflecting all the while on DBB’s chapter, it became clear to me that one of the areas in which Christianity is failing miserably is creating communities of trust.

This is, as the study discussed above suggests, not just a problem for the American Church.  The lack of trust in institutions is widespread: see the decline of the United Way, the struggle to find active members in the American Legion or Rotary International, and the tenor of debate in and about Washington; but it seems to me that a tipping point occurs when the Church, the one place where trust should not be an issue, fails to create safe spaces for people.

The occasion for Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth was the constant bickering between Christians of various social strata and theological understanding.  They fought over who should get the Eucharist, whose evangelists were the bringers of the true faith, and what a Gentile had to do to enter the faith.  There was no trust, no willingness to leave the door open to the work of the Spirit, in the Church in Corinth, which is why Paul essentially called them “a bunch of whiny babies.”

In the midst of a difficult set of teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes time to offer examples of a communal lack of trust for his disciples.  If you think you are right and everyone else is wrong, you’ve failed the trust game.  If you want to jump ship on your marriage or our community of faith when the going gets even a little bit tough, you’ve failed at the trust game.  When your own self-interests trump the interests of others and the heart of God, you’ve failed at the trust game.

The truth of the matter is that the Church in America is failing to create communities of trust.  We’ve become so inner focused, so afraid of failure, that we’ve forgotten how to trust God and each other.  Even denominations that claim to be united by region (diocese, presbytery, convention) or national office, are crumbling into stratified fiefdoms in which the national leadership hoards its perceived power and money, while mid-level judicatories hoard their perceived power and money, while local leadership does whatever it wants in the name of protecting their own perceived power and authority.  We’ve become a nation of denominations filled with whiny babies.

The alternative, I suppose, is to model trust.  Trust in God to carry us through.  Trust in 2000 years of history to illumine the truth.  Trust in our books of order and prayers and confessions to help us find God’s dream for us and for his creation.  Trust that God’s yes means yes and God’s no means no, and that in the end, his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

bowing down to other gods

By the time we get to Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus has gotten down to brass tacks in his Sermon on the Mount.  Quite frankly, I haven’t had enough time to ponder how I might go about preaching Jesus’ elevation of the law (thankfully, I’m not preaching this week), so I’m going to come back around to that later this week.  Instead, today I’m drawn to on of my favorite Old Testament scenes that comes out of Deuteronomy.

The Books of Moses, the Torah, is just about to come to an end here in Deuteronomy 30.  The people of Israel stand on the cusp of the Promised Land as Moses lays out for them the means by which they will reaffirm the covenant that God has made with them during their journey through the wilderness.  He recapitulates the law, he gives them precise instructions about how they are to enter and rule the Promised Land.  He is about to hand the mantle of his authority over to Joshua when calls upon the Hebrews to choose their desired future.  They can choose to follow the commandments of the Lord and be prosperous, or they can choose to follow the devices and desires of their own hearts and be doomed.  He implores them to “choose life!”

What struck me this morning is Moses’ description of what life apart from the will of the Lord would look like, “if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”

That got me thinking about the various gods that people have bowed down to over the last 3,500 +/- years.  There have been literal gods like Ba’al, but more often than not, the objects of worship have been gods of our own making: gods like power, prestige, and privilege.  In more recent years we’ve bowed down to worship the gods of technology, self-help, money, and entitlement.  Generation after generation, there have been gods that seek our attention and affection, gods that lead us astray and demand our fealty, and without fail, those gods lead to death and displeasure.

The LORD our God invites us to instead pledge our allegiance to him “by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances.”  The promise then is not of death, but rather “you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”