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Restoring All People Within Our Reach To Unity With God And Each Other Through Jesus Christ

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in New York

Restoring All People Within Our Reach To Unity With God And Each Other Through Jesus Christ

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Sermon – March 5, 2023

Are You a Fraud?

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Second Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2023

Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  (John 3:4) 

Who was Nicodemus?  This week, as I puzzled over the famous Pharisee who came to Jesus by night, another well-known figure kept coming to mind.  This person is much in the news these days, not in a good way.  In fact, you’ll often hear the adjective “embattled” spoken in front of his name.  I refer to one of our New York elected officials in Congress, Representative George Santos.  Yes, the embattled George Santos.  In what follows, my intention is not to be judgmental, nor to criticize a politician from a partisan standpoint, nor to offer any opinions about what Santos himself or anyone else should do.  Instead, my goal is merely to stand back and marvel at the fantastically tangled web of stories he has told about himself. 

Who is George Santos?  Well, that’s a good question.  As you know, many people suspect that in order to win his Congressional seat, Santos wasn’t entirely honest about his background.  For example, at one point on the campaign trail he claimed that was Jewish, and that his Jewish grandparents escaped the Holocaust in Europe.  The truth is, his grandparents were born and lived in Brazil.  What is more, they were Roman Catholics.  Santos later clarified that by Jewish, he meant Jew-ish, as in, my Lenten stole is purple-ish.  Santos also described personal connections to other human tragedies: that his mother escaped one of the towers on 9/11, and that four of his employees died in the Pulse nightclub shooting.  Neither assertion is true.  Neither true are the academic credentials that have appeared and disappeared from his resume.  No, he didn’t graduate from Baruch College in the class of 2010 with a degree in economics.  No, he did not star on the volleyball team.  As for his employment history, no, he didn’t work for Goldman Sachs.  No, he didn’t work for Citicorp. 

Sadly, I’ve only scratched the surface of Santos’ personal boasts, and haven’t even touched on the financial impropriety that has him under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.  Who is George Santos?  It’s no wonder why late-night television hosts and comedians call him “the gift that keeps on giving.”  George Santos is simply not the person he wants you to believe he is.  Again, I don’t mean to be judgmental, but George Santos is a fraud. 

How about Nicodemus?  Who was Nicodemus?  By all accounts Nicodemus was anything but a fraud.  He was absolutely, one-hundred percent the real deal.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a member of a party within Judaism that concentrated on following the Law of Moses to the last letter.  Not only did the Pharisees follow the Commandments themselves, they worked laboriously to interpret the Law so that all Jews, in every conceivable circumstance, would know exactly what to do.  The Pharisees get a bad rap in the Gospels because Jesus often argued with them.  The truth is, most of the Pharisees were solid, sincere, authentic citizens who were trying to follow God’s ways.  People generally admired and respected them.  Never would they insert the word “embattled” before the name of Nicodemus.  If the Temple had had a volleyball team and Nicodemus claimed to be on it, you could be sure that he’d be suited up on game day.  Why would he lie? 

Nevertheless, something wasn’t right.  Something wasn’t adding up.  John reports that Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of night.  He’d recognized that Jesus brought something to the faith and practice of Israel that he lacked.  What did Nicodemus lack?  We can only speculate, but perhaps we can find a clue in his opening remark to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  What Nicodemus lacked was an awareness of the presence of God.  He saw in Jesus something that all of his studying and following of the Commandments had failed to produce in himself: a lively awareness of God’s living presence.  So in despair, perhaps in disarray, Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking direction.  There he was, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, occupying one of the most prominent seats among his people.  Now for the first time he dared consider a frightening possibility: he was an imposter.  He was a fraud.  But was he?  The conversation that followed is among the most familiar in all of the Bible.  In short, what Jesus told Nicodemus was that he needed to be born again, or born anew, or born from above.  Biblical commentators tell us that the best translation of the Greek here should go something like this: born from above, again.  No one enters the kingdom of God without being born from above, again. 

What does it mean to be born again?  It means different things to different people, I suspect.  It’s one of those phrases about which many people have already formed their opinions.  Many shy away from the whole idea because it’s been politically hijacked, or used by pushy evangelists to judge who is a true believer and who isn’t.  We should do our best to recover the phrase, because with it, Jesus holds out to Nicodemus and to us the gift of experiencing and enjoying God.  To be born again is to fall in love with God.  It is to trust that God loves the world so much that he sent Jesus not to condemn it, but to save it.  It is to enter the kingdom of heaven.  It is to know, as St. Paul would later say, that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God.  It is to be given what John calls eternal life, which says as much about quality of life as it does about quantity. 

How does it happen?  How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Nicodemus wanted to know, and so do we.  Must it be a sudden, dramatic outpouring of the Spirit, or can it be a gradual awakening?  Either way, we’d like to know, because until we taste of such an experience, even if it’s just a sample, our fear is that something is fraudulent or inauthentic about our faith.  Without a palpable experience of God, we’re just going through the motions, lip-syncing to somebody else’s soundtrack. 

Here, I will date myself as a relic, but does anyone else remember the pop duo “Milli Vanilli” from the late 1980s?  Who was Milli Vanilli?  Well, they were a Grammy Award winning Rhythm and Blues sensation until, at a concert one night in Connecticut, the sound track stuck, and the repeating phrase revealed that they had not been singing at all.  The phrase that kept sticking was, “Girl, you know it’s true,” but ironically, the word that would not play was “true.”  Not knowing what to do, the duo fled the stage.  The incident exposed an ugly truth: that at every live appearance, Millie Vanilli had been lip-syncing to someone else’s soundtrack.  The voices on their recordings weren’t theirs.  They were frauds. 

How about you?  Who are you?  Do you fear that you might be a fraud?  Many people, in all walks of life, secretly do.  Fear of being a fraud isn’t actually an official diagnosis among psychologists, but mental health professionals recognize it as a real and troublesome form of self-doubt.  They call it imposter phenomenon, or imposter syndrome.  When it comes to the life of faith, the suspicion that we sing the hymns and say the prayers as imposters plays right into the hands of the cynics and skeptics.  They call us hypocrites.  Are they right?  When we don’t feel confident in mounting a defense, our temptation is to flee the stage, or change the subject.  Our fear is that we ourselves might be frauds. 

Do you want authentic faith?  Do you want to be born anew into a genuine awareness of God’s presence?  The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is dense and has many levels of meaning, but I believe we can learn much from it.  It could be that what Nicodemus hoped to gain from the conversation was a recipe for the experience, or a list of instructions he could follow to conjure up the presence of God.  What Jesus had to say probably disappointed him.  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.  In other words, you cannot control the presence of God, so stop pressing.  In today’s reading from Romans (4:1-17), St. Paul implies that such pressing for God’s presence and favor is an attempt at justification by works, which is a fool’s errand.  It is a way only to stand before God as a pretender, boasting about a fraudulent resume.  It is not by our own efforts that we are saved, or made aware of God’s presence.  Salvation is a free gift.  It depends on faith in order that the promise may rest on grace.  It comes from above and is beyond our control, so stop pressing.  St. Paul seems to be saying, Relax.  It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 

Something else we can glean from the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus derives from all the imagery about birth.  In order to receive the new life that Jesus has to give, it will be necessary to let go of the old life.  For any baby to be born it must leave the only world it has ever known, the snug little confines of its mother’s womb.  To be sure, the womb is good, and it prepares the baby for the dazzling world of light and sound it is about to enter.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.  We can see a birth process at work in Nicodemus, hard as it was for him.  No doubt he’d been steeped in the faith and traditions of Israel since before he could remember.  It was the only world he understood.  Embracing the new reality he perceived in Jesus wasn’t easy.  Birth is hard work.  Conversion is a process. 

Nicodemus was a work in progress.  Whatever became of him?  Was his conversion ever complete?  Of course it wasn’t, because God is never finished with any of us.  We only hear two more brief references to Nicodemus in the New Testament, both in the Gospel of John.  In John 7 we read how Nicodemus argued with some chief priests of the Temple who wanted to condemn Jesus.  He urged them to go see for themselves the work that he was doing.  Then in John 19 we read that it was Nicodemus who at the death of Jesus, brought myrrh and aloes that were necessary for the burial.  After this he fades into history.  Was he all in with Jesus, or only partially so?  We’ll never know, but at least on three occasions he stepped out in faith, genuinely and authentically seeking to know God’s presence. 

How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Nicodemus lived long ago and far away.  What is more, the language of being born again may not be the easiest on our Episcopal ears.  Therefore, it’s important for us to take note of and point out where the power of God to bring new life is at work in our day.  As Exhibit A, I can think of someone, no less real to the people of Grace Church, than Gordon Matheson – blessed Gordon Matheson, who died in his sleep last Monday, nearly 93-years old.  Who was Gordon Matheson?  Like Nicodemus, Gordon came to grace by night.  It was a Christmas Eve, perhaps 25 or 30 years ago.  Gordon had already been doing hard work, trying to move from darkness to light.  For much of his life he’d suffered from a deep, clinical depression, and to self-medicate he turned to alcohol.  Life was hard.  “Embattled” could have been an adjective before his name.  He’d been reaching out for help and was receiving it from doctors who prescribed antidepressants.  Also, the supportive community of AA had helped him get sober.  But still, something was missing. 

Then he came to Grace Church one Christmas Eve.  By the time the service was over he’d been born again, or born from above, or born anew from above again.  It’s hard to describe the experience, but Gordon said that he “received grace at Grace.”  The Holy Spirit had made him a new creation in Christ.  That night the Spirit opened Gordon’s eyes to what had always been true: that God loved him.  Of course, Gordon’s problems did not instantly melt away.  He remained a work in progress, as are we all.  But to witness Gordon’s life was to see someone with a humble, genuine, authentic faith, who truly trusted in the Lord he loved and knew. 

How can anyone be born after having grown old?  We can answer the question with two words: Gordon Matheson.  Gordon Matheson, who was born again, and now goes from strength to strength in God’s heavenly kingdom.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. 

Sermon – February 26, 2023

Temptation to Despair

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2023

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to the tempted by the devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  (Matthew 4:1-2) 

One of the classic stories of temptation occurs in Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey.  Odysseus, champion of the Trojan War, struggled for ten years to return home to Ithaca, and reclaim his reign as king.  At one point in his journey Odysseus had to sail past an island where strange but alluring creatures called the Sirens lived and sang out to passing ships.  Homer provides no physical description of the Sirens, but later storytellers and artists would depict them as beautiful, scantily clad women with angelic wings.  What Homer does describe is their song – a song so bewitching that no crew had ever been able to resist steering close to listen.  But it was a death trap every time.  No one could hear their song and live.  Indeed, the Sirens sat among the bones of all the sailors whom they had lured into the rocks, reefs, and crashing waves that surrounded the island. 

Homer tells us how Odysseus was able to hear the Sirens’ song and live.  As the ship bore down on the island he instructed his crew to tie him securely to the mast.  If he struggled and begged to be released they were to tie him tighter still.  Odysseus then plugged the ears of every sailor with beeswax.  The sailors bound Odysseus hand and foot to the mast and proceeded to row past the island.  On cue, the Sirens sang out their haunting tune, overwhelming Odysseus with the desire to draw near them.  He fought to be free from his fetters, but his crew, deaf to the Sirens’ song, tied him tighter and kept rowing.  Only the restraining ropes and help from his loyal companions allowed Odysseus to resist the irresistible song of the Sirens. 

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is another classic story of temptation.  Matthew tells us how Jesus was able to resist the song of Satan.  Soon after his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to endure forty days of fasting and prayer.  I believe it was his way of reenacting Israel’s forty years of wandering in the desert.  It was his way of stepping aboard Noah’s ark for forty days and forty nights at sea.  It was Jesus’ way of announcing that the great story God was telling through the Jews was coming to its climax in him.  Indeed, the long Odyssey of salvation history would find its fulfillment in Jesus.  But not if Satan could wreck the ship on the rocks and reefs.  So there in the wilderness, when Jesus was at the extremity of his physical strength, Satan sang out with his complex, manifold temptations.  To my mind these temptations, reported variously by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, have always defied any easy interpretation.  But the unmistakable conclusion is this: with no ropes to restrain him, with no beeswax to plug his ears, with no strength but the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was able to resist the irresistible, say no to the devil, and steer the ship through the perilous waters of temptation. 

Today is the First Sunday in Lent.  Lent is the annual opportunity for the church to step into the drama.  It is the forty days – not counting Sundays – between Ash Wednesday and Easter, when we attempt to go with Jesus and with Israel into the wilderness.  Why?  Because the Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus is our gift too.  By the power of the Spirit, God gives us the grace to be more than conquerors, even to grow into the full stature of Christ.  So think of Lent as the work of claiming a gift that is already yours.  Through a deeper discipline of self-denial and prayer, our hope and expectation is to encounter the living God. 

What do we find in the wilderness of Lent?  We find temptation.  Let me guess that Lent typically goes for you the way it has gone for me.  You want to get yourself back in fighting form so that you can fight the good fight with all your might.  You want to eat less, drink less, go to the gym more, lose a few pounds, and get close to God.  This is the year.  So on Ash Wednesday when you hear the invitation to a holy Lent, you say, “sign me up.”  You grit your teeth and start rowing.  Then, on cue, the Sirens begin singing.  The bacon cheeseburger platter calls to you.  The couch lures you into its horizontal position.  Playing on your phone is easier than going to the gym.  All those enlightening games to play and puzzles to solve!  (It’s a good thing they give you only one Wordle a day or I’d never leave the couch.)  And so it goes.  Not far into the experiment you revise your Lenten discipline and declare that you’re giving up Lent for Lent. 

Shall we give Lent one more go?  What is your greatest temptation?  I believe we all face a temptation today that is more crafty and ultimately more destructive than all the vain things we might try to do in Lent.  It seems to me that the particular Sirens’ song playing in our day tempts us toward a deep despair – despair over the state of the world and its future.  As if the pandemic weren’t enough, everything from the climate crisis, to the reality of a new cold war, to dysfunctional politics, to our polarized society tempts us to despair.  Jesus dueled with the devil in the desert, but we don’t need to go to the wilderness to be confronted by the forces of wickedness.  Evil lurks around every corner of creation. 

Have you been paying attention to the news out of Prospect Park in Brooklyn?  If so, you know that the Urban Park Rangers recently pulled a four-foot long alligator out of the lake.  Yes, the alligator was in poor condition.  She was near death and not a threat to anyone due to the cold.  She’s now being rehabilitated at the Bronx Zoo.  Her medical team has named her Godzilla, and we wish her well, we really do.  But let’s face it: Godzilla is only going to put up with so much rehabilitation.  She will never become a friendly beast, suitable to appear in our Christmas pageant.  Alligators are fierce, dangerous creatures.  You want to steer clear of them.  But you don’t expect to meet them in Brooklyn.  I ask you: who put an alligator in the green and pleasant enclosure called Prospect Park?  It’s the same question you might ask about today’s reading from Genesis (2:15-17; 3:1-7).  God created Adam and Eve to live in peace and plenteousness in the Garden of Eden.  Who put the serpent in the garden?  Jesus was able to say no to the devil, but Adam and Eve had no such ability.  The serpent tempted them, and they ate. 

Evil lurks not only in the desert, not only in the park, not only in the garden, but in the heart of humankind.  On Friday the world observed the dubious one-year anniversary of the criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine.  In the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, we have a world leader who sits atop a stockpile of nuclear weapons, and thinks it is acceptable to murder civilians, kidnap children, and destroy the infrastructure of a neighboring country.  The man is a baptized Christian.  What happened to his humanity?  Who put the serpent inside his soul?  It appears that he will tolerate only so much rehabilitation.  He has no intention of withdrawing his forces.  Instead, his plan is to wear down the Ukrainians and wait out their supporters.  He’s counting on the free world falling into despair and losing its will to say no.  Unfortunately, the only “no” he seems to understand is military force.  And so it goes. 

One-hundred years ago later this week a new rector climbed into the pulpit of Grace Church (no, we are not talking about me).  Walter Russell Bowie had been an army chaplain in France during World War One.  He had gone over there fully believing that it was the war to end all wars.  What he saw, however, was human carnage on a scale so horrible that he came home essentially a pacifist, vowing never again to speak a positive word about war.  I don’t mean to disrespect his legacy.  I am not speaking positive words about war.  But I do wonder and worry about what the proper response to the Ukrainian crisis should be from people who claim to love God, and want to reflect the goodness of God. 

I’ve been thinking this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan, even though it’s not one of our readings today.  Suppose the priest, then the Levite, then the Samaritan traveled down the road between Jerusalem and Jericho an hour earlier than the story goes (Luke 10:25-37).  Suppose what they came across was not a man who fell among thieves, lying in the road half dead.  No, what they saw was the crime taking place before their eyes.  What should they do?  What would be their ethical responsibility?  It’s hard to imagine the Good Samaritan passing by on the other side, just as it’s hard to imagine Jesus’ commending anyone’s looking away.  “Go and do likewise” is not what he’d say about the self-absorbed.  Sadly, an ongoing crime for all to see, with no end in sight, is the story of Ukraine for the past year.  The temptation to despair is great. 

And yet, again and again in the Gospels Jesus encouraged his frightened little band of disciples to take heart, to fear not.  What does it look like to trust in Jesus?  Today’s closing hymn is one of the classics of the Christian faith: “A mighty fortress is our God.”  Both the lyrics and the tune were composed by the 16th century German monk, Martin Luther.  As you sing the hymn it will be hard to miss the references to Luther’s own struggles against the devil:

And though this world with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure

 A legend about Luther tells of a tumultuous period in his life when he’d been condemned as a heretic.  He’d made many enemies who did not wish him well.  Thus he spent ten months in hiding in Wartburg Castle.  To fill the time he wrote books and translated the New Testament into German.  All the while he was beset by manifold temptations that he attributed to demonic attacks.  The story goes that one night the devil’s presence was so real for Luther that he picked up the inkwell on his desk and threw it at the apparition.  It is said that the ink stain on the wall remained visible on the wall in the room of the castle for hundreds of years. 

Is Lent merely about gritting your teeth and exercising the power of the human will to resist the wiles of the devil?  Is life in Christ simply a matter of confiding in our own strength?  If it were, the things we say today would hardly be counted as good news.  Our words would be little more than good advice, just another plan for self-improvement.  But in fact today we do speak of a means of grace and a hope of glory.  Another familiar verse in Luther’s hymn speaks of how our hope in Christ, not in ourselves:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing;
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing. 
Dost ask who that may be? 
Christ Jesus, it is he. 

 What Luther came to understand and believe and trust is what the heart of the gospel had always been: that we have the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit to call upon for strength in times of trouble.  The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who sides with us. 

We all face temptations to despair.  The Sirens sing their song in this and every day.  But perhaps we can drown them out with Luther’s hymn, trusting that we confront a world filled with devils not alone, but in a living relationship with Jesus, who was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin.  By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again. 

Sermon – February 12, 2023

Music to God's Ears

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2023

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ … But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.”  (Matthew 5:21-22) 

One month from today the main event in the evening will be not the Super Bowl, but the Academy Awards.  I have next-to no idea which films and Hollywood stars have been nominated this year.  But today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminds me of a clip from the 1984 movie, Amadeus, that featured two nominations for best actor: Tom Hulce for his role as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham for his portrayal of Antonio Salieri.  In the end, Abraham won the award.

Amadeus is historical fiction, with an emphasis on the word fiction.  It tells the story of the imagined musical rivalry between Salieri and Mozart.  The film depicts Salieri as the older, established court composer for the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II.  Mozart is the brilliant and brash young musician who is taking all of Europe by storm.  The Emperor has planned a reception at the palace to honor Mozart’s patron and welcome the rising star to Austrian society.  Salieri takes it upon himself to compose a short piece of music for the occasion, and we see him at his studio piano laboriously squeezing the notes out of his soul, and writing them down on parchment.  When he finishes, he gazes at a crucifix on the wall and blesses God for giving him the ability to compose. 

At the reception, Salieri presents the sheet music to the Emperor, who decides he wants to play it himself as Mozart enters the room.  The Emperor plays it badly, but still presents the sheet music to Mozart as a gift.  Mozart claims he does not need it.  The piece is already in his head.  To prove it he sits down at the piano and plays it through at twice the tempo.  Then he plays it through again, correcting on-the-spot what he thought were some of Salieri’s unsuccessful transitions in the piece, and bringing it all to a grand finish.  In short, Mozart plays circles around Salieri’s work, calling it a fun little thing that lends itself to interesting variations.  Salieri looks at Mozart with disdain, knowing that he himself will never, ever rise to such brilliance.  Therefore, he rejects God and vows to destroy the young prodigy. 

Most of today’s Scripture readings – including the one from the Gospel of Matthew – focus on the Commandments of God, or, the law of the Lord.  The Jewish people considered the law of the Lord to be a gift.  It was like the score they would need to play in order for their lives to be music to God’s ears.  Playing the Commandments well would lead to happiness, righteousness, and all good things.  Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.  Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts, wrote the Psalmist (119:1-8), whose words we recited a moment ago.  What is more, some took the Scriptures to mean that the Commandments should be easy to follow, easy to play.  In today’s reading from Deuteronomy (30:15-20), we heard a portion of the sermon that Moses preached to the people just before they entered the Promised Land.  I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses, said Moses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.  Choose life and blessings, not death and curses.  What could possibly be easier?  What could possibly go wrong? 

As we know, plenty would go wrong when the messiness of real life met the purity of the Commandments.  What resulted was not music to God’s ears.  It was murder, and adultery, and slander, just to name a few.  Therefore, various orders of clergy and lawyers arose and stepped into the breach.  The Scribes and Pharisees would labor to interpret the Law and clarify its proper keeping.  They were to lead by example.  They were to make God’s ways so direct that everyone might keep the statues.  Unfortunately, their body of work did not simplify how to lead a blameless life.  It complicated matters no end. 

Then, into the room came Jesus.  Jesus came onto the scene as Mozart came into the palace in the movie, Amadeus.  As Jesus preached his way through the Galilean countryside, he would debate the Scribes and Pharisees.  Always it was as if he took their musical score, sat down at their piano, and played circles around the notes they had added to the Commandments.  Here was someone who saw so clearly, and lived so directly what it meant to be a person of God that it seemed as if he and God were inseparably one.  The Scribes and Pharisees looked on him with disdain, knowing that they would never, ever be able to rise to his level. 

I remember one such “Mozart moment” for me many years ago.  I was playing college baseball for the University of Sioux Falls.  No, you’ve never heard of the school, so don’t bother asking me about it.  All I can say is that we had an ambitious athletic department, and one day we were to play a double-header against the Cornhuskers of Nebraska.  Before the first game, the two teams were on either side of the field warming up our arms and stretching our legs.  I was an outfielder, so I was with three or four others catching fly balls and throwing them to the infield.  Not far away were some outfielders for Nebraska doing the same thing.  The difference was in our throwing.  Mine had a distinctive arc about them.  Theirs were as if they had loaded the ball into a rocket launcher, aimed at home plate, and fired.  Of course, to that point I’d harbored my delusions about what the future would hold.  But in that moment I realized it was the priesthood for me.  I would never, ever be able to throw the ball at the velocity they produced with the greatest of ease.  Likewise, the Scribes and Pharisees looking on Jesus.  They realized that the Commandments would never be on their hearts and fall from their lips the way they flowed through Jesus.  Therefore, eventually they would vow to destroy the young prodigy – but that’s another sermon for another day. 

What did Jesus have to say about the law of the Lord?  Many people still today think that Jesus came to be a great, moral teacher.  They think that the mission of Jesus was to impart new and novel insights into the Law.  He would show us how the Commandments are naturally common sense, and therefore inspire us to try harder to obey them.  Actually, most of the time I think we get Jesus all wrong.  Jesus did not come to be a great, moral teacher.  He came to fulfill the Law, not impose a tougher version of it on us.  What I take him to mean in today’s reading from Matthew is that the true demands of the Law exceed even the scrupulous keeping of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Your righteousness will need to exceed even theirs.  Your arm strength will need to exceed that of the heartiest Cornhusker.  Your musical ability will need to exceed Mozart’s.  Do you want to lead a blameless life?  Well, it can’t be done. 

Matthew recorded the difficult words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’  But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  Jesus continued: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Imagine: murder and adultery are merely the obvious tips of two deadly icebergs.  But hidden from sight beneath the waters of life we sail across are the jagged edges of hatred and lust that will wreck the ship.  So where does Jesus’ commentary on the law of the Lord leave us?  Playing a game we cannot win?  Well, actually we are playing an unwinnable game if we look at leading a holy life as if it were a competitive sport, or a musical contest, or an Academy Award performance.  If that’s the game, we can look on Jesus and Moses and all peddlers of religion with disdain.  But the Commandments aren’t the game.  In fact, salvation is not a game or a contest at all.  What Jesus invites us to enter is God’s unfolding love story with the world.  But how do we enter it? 

Years ago at my previous church a parishioner was chair of the Cincinnati Opera.  One evening he had given Stacie and me his tickets, which were among the best in the house on the main floor of the magnificent Music Hall, downtown.  When we settled in our seats I saw that high above the stage they had recently installed an electronic screen to translate the words for people who didn’t speak Italian or know the story.  Well, I’d never been to the opera before, I don’t speak Italian, and I didn’t know the story.  But I was ready for a pure experience of high culture.  I would have nothing to do with some tawdry teleprompter.  Let the masses in the balcony follow the bouncing ball on the jumbo-tron.  As for me, I would drink in the richness of the story and the music through the sheer powers of my concentration.  I would do things the old-fashioned way.  It was about ten-seconds into the opera when I realized I would have no hope of following along without the new teleprompter.  I would have been completely lost without it. 

Likewise, Jesus offers a new way into the story of salvation.  For those who want to do things the old-fashioned way, we’ve heard today what it will take.  “Good luck,” Jesus seems to be saying.  It will make about as much sense as this: you travel three days to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple.  You purchase an animal to offer, but realize you have to apologize first to someone at home.  You leave the animal by the side of the altar, travel three days back, say you’re sorry, and make the long journey again to Jerusalem, expecting to find the animal where you left it.  Such are the demands of the law.  Good luck.  You’d have more luck cutting off your offending hand or tearing out your wandering eye to avoid the sin in the first place.  But Jesus offers another way: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11).  What Jesus offers is not religion, and more of it, but a relationship with the living God through himself. 

Early on in my priesthood it was the custom of the church I served to take Communion to a local nursing home on Tuesday afternoons.  In addition to me and a volunteer from the church who would play hymns on the piano, the group usually consisted of a dozen or so ladies.  Most of them were in wheelchairs, some were lost in dementia.  The service took place in the dining room, with constant interruptions from nurses, orderlies, and the overhead speaker.  We would begin with a hymn that the participants would choose, but their choice was always the same hymn: the good old Methodist chestnut, “In the Garden.”  Of course, the wanted all the verses.  On an on it went. 

As for the singing, you could understand it in two ways.  On the one hand, by any strict measure of musical merit, it was terrible.  By the law of pure musicology, it was probably the worst singing imaginable.  On the other hand, subjecting their singing to the rigors of musical law wasn’t the point.  One could choose to hear the old song through the story of their lives, and in the context of the small community of faithful souls gathered in a difficult place.  Indeed, as they tried to sing along, I would see some light of recognition shine in the eyes of those who were otherwise disoriented and confused.  I realized that whatever sound they made was an offering to God on a par with the finest of choirs singing a perfect rendition of a glorious anthem.  Why?  Because their singing was born out of their long relationship with Jesus.  Had their way been blameless?  Had they walked in the law of the Lord?  I didn’t know.  But I could tell that they had walked with Jesus.  They had talked with Jesus, and they knew that they were his own.  I like to think that the songs that arose from a nursing home dining room were music to God’s ears, sufficient to arouse the applause of angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. 

You’ve heard what was said to the people of ancient times.  If you want to try to meet the demands of the Law the old-fashioned way, good luck to you.  But Jesus offers us a new way: by walking with him.  So come, let us sing unto the Lord.  Let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation. 

Sermon – February 5, 2023

You are the Salt and the Light

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 5, 2023

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? … You are the light of the world. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. (from Matthew 5:13ff)

What did Jesus mean when he challenged his followers to be salt and light? Let me tell you about an everyday incident that might prove instructive. The place was a public middle school cafeteria where students from grades five through eight would eat their lunch. One day a student opened the carton of milk she had purchased and received an unwelcome surprise. Floating inside was a dead insect. A few days later someone else claimed that his hamburger was raw. Soon a student-led movement began to boycott the school’s cafeteria. Crude posters went up on the walls depicting the state of ill health that would result from eating the food prepared in the cafeteria. Sure enough, on the day that the boycott was to begin, the line that usually backed out into the hallway and took forever to get through was barely a trickle. The boycott was working at all lunch periods. The students were proving their point.

Finally, after about a week of the boycott, the vice principal of the school addressed all of the lunch periods. First, he apologized for the incidents that had brought about the boycott. Next, he detailed what they had done to address the situation, including the Board of Health’s inspecting the cafeteria kitchen, and reviewing the vendors who supplied the food. Then he explained the impact that the continuance of the boycott would have on the school. The most serious of all was that cafeteria workers who depended on their jobs could be laid off. Everyone listened intently as the vice principal appealed for an end to the boycott. Finally, he put the question to the assembly: “Who’s ready to end the boycott? May I see a show of hands?”

Every student there knew perfectly well that the boycott had already proved its point, and that the right thing to do was end it. One student, any student, willing to risk being salt and light would have made the difference. One raised hand would have started a chain reaction of other raised hands, and the boycott would have been over. Sadly, everyone hesitated, and not a single hand went up. The boycott continued for reasons no one any longer understood.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” What do you think? Was Jesus giving his followers a compliment or a commission? Was he patting them on the back, or urging them to get to work? If I were to come up to you later today and say, “You are the salt of the earth,” my guess is that though your brow might furrow a bit, you would generally take it as a compliment and utter a somewhat guarded, “thank you.” Likewise, if I were to greet you and say, “You are the light of the world,” you would stand taller and receive the words as high praise – though you might secretly think that I was exaggerating or being sarcastic. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Is it a compliment? Or is it a commission? I believe that the answer is yes. The answer is both compliment and commission, with an emphasis on commission. If Jesus were, in fact, conferring on his listeners some lofty status, he was not intending it to be for their mere enjoyment. He was doing so because he had a purpose in mind for them. Salt and light have a purpose.

Since ancient times people have used salt for two general purposes: as a seasoning to bring out the flavor of food, and as a preservative against decay. It seems to me that salt’s use as a preservative may be what Jesus had in mind. In his time and place people lived close to the land. Uneaten meat and fish would spoil quickly and become inedible. Modern methods of food preservation hadn’t been invented. People knew nothing of microorganisms and how they break down organic matter. But they had discovered that salt greatly prolonged the shelf-life of food. They didn’t know why, but salt held back the decay. Salt performs a conservative function. It arrests the progress of death and decomposition, which is the devil’s work. Thus, salt participates in holiness. Salt is the essential ingredient in the holy water used in exorcisms. Legend has it that the devil doesn’t like salt. What have people done when they think the devil is behind them, tempting them to do wrong? They throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder to drive the devil away. Granted, a fine line runs between the superstitious and the symbolic, but you see how the metaphor functions. You are the salt of the earth. You are to be a bulwark against the devil’s doings.

You are the light of the world. The purpose of light hardly needs explaining, but the metaphor of light, coupled with Jesus’ words about salt, conveys to us a similar commission. Salt holds back decay, and light dispels darkness. Anyone, Christian or not, who shines a light onto the dark schemes of evil and injustice is living into Jesus’ commission. Light also leads the way to the city of God. Thus, if salt is conservative, light is progressive. It takes both. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. When Jesus first spoke these words, his Jewish hearers would have taken his reference to a city to mean Jerusalem, the city of God. To set Jerusalem in its prominent place, on a hill for all to see, would require them to be salt and light. For us, our commission as followers of Jesus is the same: to shake the salt and shine the light.

What holds us back? A few days ago, I was in midtown, making my way to the E-train, and descending a long escalator at the 5th Avenue station. On the wall to my right was a series of identical posters all the way down, the same poster every six feet or so. You can’t miss them. If I recall, the ad was for some sort of insurance firm. I don’t really remember. But the slogan itself is what stuck in my mind. It declares, “We’ll always get the future wrong” Down, down I went, with the constant reminder that we’ll always get the future wrong. It made me wonder if what holds us back from being salt and light is fear – fear that we’ll get the future wrong. I suppose in the small world of a middle school cafeteria, it was fear of getting their future wrong that prevented the students from standing up for what they knew was right. It was fear of the social ramifications they would incur by breaking ranks with the others, and raising a hand. No one was willing to be salt or light.

In Memphis, TN last month, none of the police officers involved in the arrest of Tyre Nichols was willing to be salt or light and stop the savage, fatal beating of an unarmed citizen. No one was willing at any moment to break ranks with the other officers and shout out like a trumpet, “Stop. This is wrong.” The powers of death are always counting on people not raising a hand, not standing up, and not persevering in resisting evil. Speaking of evil, Vladimir Putin is counting on the west growing weary of his criminal war, and leaving Ukraine to his own devices. He’s counting on the world being like the priest and the Levite on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, passing by on the other side, and looking the other way to avoid a helpless traveler, beaten and bleeding in the ditch (Luke 10:25-37). Only the Samaritan was willing to shake the salt and shine the light.

Jesus ended the parable of the Good Samaritan by saying, “Go, and do likewise.” It sounds clear enough, but you and I may feel completely inadequate to the task of holding back the evil powers of this world. You may feel underpowered to dispel the darkness of those who corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. So down, down we go, always getting the future wrong. Take heart: the promise of the gospel is that Jesus never commissions us to a task without giving us the means to accomplish it. In today’s reading from 1st Corinthians, we’ve heard St. Paul describe how we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. As Martin Luther wrote in his great hymn, and here I will paraphrase: The Spirit and the Gifts are ours through him who sides with us.

If we truly believe that Jesus commissions us to be salt and light in the world, then it logically follows that God cares about how things unfold on this earth. Not only does God care, but God intervenes. In fact, God gets personally involved in restoring, quickening, soothing, and blessing a bruised and battered world. How? Does God tinker with the laws of nature? Does God stop bullets in mid air? Is God given to the grand interventions that leave no doubt who’s in charge, and assure that history goes the way he wants? I’m not putting any limits on God’s divine ability, but it seems to me that God most often chooses a different way. God, who is Spirit, merges his Spirit with our spirits to raise up willing people to be salt and light and accomplish his purposes on earth. God sent the Spirit and raised up the prophet Isaiah to be salt and light and rail against the injustices taking place in Jerusalem, the city of God. Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet (Isaiah 58:1-12)! God sent the Spirit and raised up the Apostle Paul to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and establish churches wherever he could travel.

I believe the same Spirit of God is at work today at Grace Church. Later on today is the Annual Meeting of the parish, so it’s an appropriate moment for us to take stock of how we shake and shine. It was in 1808 when Trinity Church established us downtown, directly across the street from themselves. Since then we moved uptown, built this inspiring edifice to the glory of God, and ministered to waves of immigrants entering the United States through Manhattan. We established Grace Church School, and in partnership with them, the GO Project to reach children and families falling through the cracks. In recent times we’ve sponsored and built two houses with Habitat for Humanity. Little by little, we’ve been restoring the glorious interior of Grace Church, and we’ll soon begin some exterior work on the parish house. We keep the church open seven days a week. With volunteer hours and financial grants we support the Red Door Place, so that our neighbors in need may eat. God intervenes through us. Let me say it again: God, who is Spirit, seeks to merge his Spirit with our spirits, and raise up willing people to be salt and light to accomplish his purposes on earth. It is why we pray, why we receive the Sacrament, why we read and study the Scriptures: to receive the mind of Christ, to merge our spirits with God’s Spirit and say, “Here we are, Lord. Send us.”

I think again of that middle school cafeteria, where no one was willing to be salt and light. No one raised a hand when it was clear that it was the right thing to do. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t raise my hand in the moment. You see, I was a student there. I was largely a spectator of the controversy, having had nothing to do with organizing or really even participating in the boycott. I always brought my lunch from home because my parents thought it was too expensive to buy it every day. Even still, one hand raised, my hand raised, could have ended the boycott. Everyone knew the right thing to do. No one was willing to do it.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.” No, the earth did not pivot in a middle school cafeteria. The world did not turn on our failure to act. But opportunities to be salt and light will present themselves in the most mundane of places. The chance to get the future right may be at hand when you least expect it. If we practice being faithful in the small things, when it really matters we will be ready to love and serve the Lord, with gladness and singleness of heart.

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