Monday, February 28, 2011
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Preached @ St. Mary Magdalene, Wheaton, MD. 2/27/11 Matthew 6:24-34
e are gifted a Gospel reading we do not get to hear very often. Today is the 8th Sunday after the Epiphany: a long Epiphany season, as Easter comes just about as late as it can come in our church calendar. Today’s readings, as well as the Collect, are good stewardship readings (you finance people and treasurers take note for your stewardship drives later this year), as they talk about wealth and worry, and being good stewards, as well as setting our priorities correctly.
Today’s Gospel reading is a rather challenging one, in particular given the harsh economic times in which we currently live. For those who are unemployed, how can worry not be a part of life’s daily routine? Worry about food, and clothing. Worry about paying the rent or mortgage, as well as all the other bills that pile up. There is a seeming incongruity between the Gospel’s beginning about serving wealth and the second part with Jesus telling us to cast off worry and focus on today, not tomorrow. This is challenging stuff to wind our way through.
We need to look closely at today’s Gospel in order to not miss the nuances of Jesus’ message to us. Our translation has Jesus saying “No one can serve two masters.” This translation does not do the original Greek justice. We can only imagine that the intent of the translators was to soften the harsh and embarrassing memories of slavery throughout history, as the Greek is more appropriately translated as “No one can be a slave to two owners.” Listen to the difference: “No one can serve two masters” and “No one can be a slave to two owners.” I won’t bore you with the parsing of the Greek words, but the stronger of the two statements reflect Jesus’ message better…..because slaves had no rights while someone who “serves” gentles the notion, and owners provide a stronger inference to having absolute authority over others, than does the word master. This distinction is important because Jesus than goes on to say “You cannot serve God and wealth,” and these two statements are closely linked.
The Greek word translated wealth here is mamon. Originally, mamon was a word meaning wealth and possessions. Over time, and when this Gospel account was written, mamon had grown to be a slur. Mamon was used to describe people who put their trust in material things. In essence the slur meant that people who had this word mamon associated with them, were tagged with the label of putting their trust in possessions over their trust in God, owned by possessions as opposed to owned by God. Another translation of “You cannot serve God and wealth” could be “You cannot trust God and trust wealth.” And that leads into Jesus exposition on worry. All these verses are closely tied together.
Some may believe Jesus is attacking people who are wealthy, who have numerous possessions. Jesus is not doing this as he is ridiculing the worship of wealth and possessions. The possession of wealth does not automatically make us sinful. The sin comes from not being responsible with the utilization of those possessions and that wealth. With wealth comes responsibilities Jesus is saying, including not allowing that wealth to control us, and just as importantly, not allowing those possessions, and that wealth, to usurp the rightful place that is God’s.
Jesus goes on to talk about worry and trust. He uses the word “worry” six times in the course of eight verses. By all of the examples that Jesus uses concerning what not to worry about, the carefree nature of birds, the beauty of the lilies in the field, Jesus is saying that by worrying we are not trusting God, and are placing our energy and focus on the wrong thing. Think about how disabling worry can be to us: like possessions and wealth can control us, so can worry and anxiety.
The prolific writer, retreat leader and Episcopal priest from the Diocese of New York, The Rev. Barbara Crafton has written “ Of course, we cannot escape pain in our lives. People may or may not love you, but God certainly loves you, but none of that has anything to do with whether you are hurting. One’s own well-being is a poor barometer of God’s loving presence in our lives. It is precisely when life hurts that we need God most, not as the perpetrator of our suffering, but as a companion of it.”
I visited an elderly parishioner who was in the hospice area of a nursing home. Being in the hospice unit was a clear indication that he was soon going to be leaving this world and enter God’s loving embrace. His family was around him and they were not only sad but markedly worried. He, in contrast, was content. Although his body was failing him, his mind was as sharp as any person I have met. As I approached his bedside, with the oil for last rights in my hand, he smiled at me and told me that he was not worried. He said he had been blessed with a full life, a loving family and that he knew God’s love for him was secure. He then motioned me to come closer so his family couldn’t hear what he was about to say. I leaned over and he said, “this anointing you are about to do is to calm their worries, not mine. Please take care of them after you are done with me here.” What a wonderful model for us to mimic and a particularly poignant and strong message for the anxious family surrounding that dying man: all highlighting the message of today’s Gospel.
We are challenged today to search for and live into this place where worry and anxiety are held at bay. We are challenged to think of the wealth and possessions we have as blessings from God and tools to be utilized for the furtherance of the Kingdom Jesus is announcing. If we are able to find that calm place we will be avoiding the trap we are warned about in our Collect: not falling into faithless fears and worldly anxieties.
Not worrying, not being anxious, trusting that God will be with us through the harsh changes and chances of this life is not easy. Nevertheless this is where Jesus is directing us: to a different perspective on life. On being focused on today, the world around us, and giving our best efforts to live into the kingdom he is creating. Not ignoring our future and the concerns about life, but putting trust in the knowledge that God is travelling this challenging life with us. Although we may not get all we desire, and more than likely we will not walk this journey pain-free, we can walk courageously into whatever faces us based on our faith that we are not alone and that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. Life will almost certainly be different than how we planned it, but that does not mean we should not trust and have faith that we are better off because of those differences.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Preached @ Grace Church, Georgetown, 2/20/11 Matthew 5:38-48
e began our service today with a Collect praying that God pour into our hearts the greatest of gifts: love. We define love in that prayer by saying love is the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which we are the living dead. This is how we began our Eucharistic Service today, asking for the gift of love to be imbued into ourselves, so that all we are, and all we do emanates from that place of love. We then follow that prayer up with readings that surround us with rules and obligations that, when they were promulgated, were meant to offer us a way to live into this prayer with which we began our service.
In Matthew’s Gospel today, we are provided with five examples of how we are to act in love as followers of Jesus. We are not to resist or to retaliate when someone hurts us. We are not to fight people in courts over property. If we are called upon to do a duty that seems unworthy or unfair, we are to do even more than demanded or asked. We are to give to everyone who asks us. If someone wants to borrow something we are to give it over willingly, no matter whom that person might be. How are we doing acting on these demands by Jesus? If our fulfilling these examples by Jesus is one of the yardsticks by which we are all going to be measured as Christians, most of us are going to fall short.
The rules set forth by Jesus are compounded by the last line of the Gospel. In fact, we may become befuddled when we consider Jesus’ demand that we “Be perfect.” The way this Gospel ends begs us to ask the question, Is this realistic? Are we setting ourselves up for failure by understanding these teachings of Jesus as the way to being full members of the Body of Christ? This can certainly lead us to a place of frustration where we throw our hands up in the air and say: impossible! We cannot be like this!
What does it mean to “be perfect”? This is not some theoretical, philosophical or abstract talking point or question. Matthew is using a word here that has roots back to a Hebrew word, “tamin”, which is not theoretical. Instead of “perfect” a more apt translation is “wholeheartedness”. When we translate Jesus as saying “be perfect”, what he is telling us is that the life-style we are to follow, must be done with a wholehearted approach. So, to “be perfect” for Jesus, here in Matthew, we are being directed to being “all in”; with a wholeness of our being Jesus is pushing us to refocus our world-view….. and to love. Love the evildoer, the one who is violent to us, who persecutes us, everyone we meet.
How do we define love…… There are four different words used in Greek that encompass a rich and more nuanced understanding of this word we use broadly as the one word love. There is storge’ which is a familial-type of love: the love a parent has for a child. Another Greek word for love is eros, which is a passionate and sexual love. There is philio, which is a bit more complicated to explain. Philio encompasses the idea of a deep and affectionate love: like that which we have for our best and dearest friend. And finally, there is the Greek word agape, that is of course the hardest and most nuanced of these words for love to try and define: and is the one used by Jesus today.
Agape has a complex set of ideas that surround the word. Some may be familiar with this word because of the Agape Meal many parishes celebrate on Maundy Thursday, following that service and before the stripping of the altar to ready the space for Good Friday. The theologian William Barclay defines agape as an “unconquerable benevolence, an invincible goodwill.” The sense behind this word agape is that the mind, and not the heart, is what rules the interactions with people. This agape, this love, Jesus is talking about is what is to govern all of our personal relationships outside those that fall into storge, eros and philio. (familial, sexual, friendship]
What Jesus is saying is that no matter how nasty people may be to us, how intolerant of us they may be, no matter what they do to us or how we are treated, we are not to operate from a place of bitterness or anger. We are not to let any other emotion enter our hearts or minds than wishing the best for them: being invincibly benevolent in our desire to reach for the highest good for ourselves and for those who abuse us…..Well, that understanding makes this passage from Matthew much easier for us to follow.
Think about our Collect for today where we are asking God to pour this gift of love (this agape) into our hearts, for without it, whatever we do is worth nothing. Jesus is asking us to center our understanding of how to operate in this world on embodying this concept of agape, of benevolent goodwill for everyone…..everyone we meet. And our Collect helps us pray to be given God’s grace to live into this different way of being in the world.
Douglas Hare, a commentator and theologian, says “we are to communicate the reality of God to the world by reflecting God’s all-inclusive love” is all that we do. Jesus says today that God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous, that the sun rises on the good and the bad. That love God has is for all, and must shine forth from us….for how else, Jesus says, will the world change unless we model this “new” (2000 year old) paradigm?
When we use the word “love”, we should always be clear about what we intend: storge’, eros, philio or agape. The first three have their place in our personal lives: family, lover, friends. Having a heart filled with agape, this unfaltering benevolence and desire for the well being of everyone we meet, is the nuanced understanding of love that Jesus is driving us toward and that we pray to receive in our Collect…..Being perfect in our love for our neighbor. Wholeheartedly embracing this unquenchably benevolent goodwill that will shock us, and shock those around us, into seeing Christ’s Kingdom coming to fruition among us, right here, right now.
Those five examples Jesus uses of how to live a Christian life violate all our base instincts and cannot be made to appear to be reasonable. They are polar opposite to what we consider common sense….But that is the point….Jesus is readying us for the ultimate thing that defies common sense and defies all logic….the Passion. Jesus’ persecution, murder, resurrection and ascension are proof that God defies common sense and logic. We are challenged today by Jesus to look clearly at our lives, how we interact in the world and to live in that world by being centered in agape: centered in a place of unconquerable benevolent goodwill. By the grace of God, may we find a way to that place of love.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.