Archive for February, 2014

Jesus, the Pharisee?

February 10, 2014

One of my responsibilities these days is representing the Diocese of Chicago on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. This is an interfaith organization that has been around for decades and works to see how faith communities can stand together around issues in our city like gun violence and poverty and education. One of the founding members, who still attends meetings regularly, is a 96 year old rabbi named Herman Schaalman.

Herman is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emmanuel (same name as your church!) on the north side of Chicago. He served there for decades and worked with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin and our own Bishop Montgomery and many other religious leaders who were early pioneers in interfaith relations.

One of the things Herman never tires of reminding us is that Jesus was a Jew! In fact, Jesus was not only a practicing Jew, but he was a Pharisee. Maybe not a card carrying member of the Pharisaic party, but he was actually closer to them than to the other parties in 1st century Judaism.

We get the idea that Pharisees were the bad guys, but the reason Jesus gets so angry at them and the reason they are mentioned so often is that they were actually the more progressive, “reformist” party in town to whom Jesus probably felt closer than he did to the Sadduccees or the Zealots or even the Essenes. The reason he got so frustrated with them was because he thought they ought to know better!

We perhaps need no further reminder that Jesus considered himself an observant Jew than the conclusion of our Gospel reading this morning from Matthew. This gospel writer emphasizes even more than Mark or Luke or John the “Jewishness” of Jesus and, in today’s reading quotes Jesus as saying:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until it is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

So, Jesus was a supporter of keeping the Law of Moses. But, like any good rabbi, he was not above re-interpreting the common understanding of a particular law. Later on in this same 5th chapter of Matthew, he enters into a long discourse in which the recurrent phrase is “You have heard it said (in the Law)….but I say to you…” In these statements, he seeks to go the core of a Law’s meaning. And to see what it’s really all about.

Jesus also stands directly in the line of Jewish prophets like Isaiah who were not above challenging the religious establishment’s understanding of the Law with powerful preaching like we heard in our First Lesson today. Isaiah was taking on certain pious attitudes toward fasting, and he says:

You say, “Why do we fast, but you do not see (O God) Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…”

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” (Isaiah 58:3 ff, passim)

I know that you at Emmanuel, Rockford for more than 30 years have taken words like those seriously in ministries like your Soup Kitchens, and the Shelter Care Ministries, and the Jeremiah Development.  And you have done that because you believe that you are following Jesus in doing so. And so you are!

But even Jesus was following in a long line of fighters for justice and peace among his people, Israel.  You and I, as Christians, will claim a lot more for Jesus than our spiritual forebears, the Jews will. But, at the very least, we will claim for him an honored place among the great prophets, teachers, and martyrs of the Hebrew tradition.

That place is at least a starting point for dialogue with our Jewish, and even our Muslim, brothers and sisters. They will honor our conviction that we believe Jesus to be, not only a prophet, but our savior and lord. As long as we honor our common heritage with them as children of Abraham, the ancestor of all who put their trust in the One God.

It’s an honor to be with you today, dear friends. To be with a Christian community that has sought to heed Jesus’ challenge to be salt for the earth and lights for the world. You have put your lamp on a lampstand and, as such, you have let your light so shine before others in this community, that they see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16). Soon you will begin a new chapter in your life together – with the arrival of your new priest – you just need to know how proud we are of you in this diocese. And we look forward to seeing just what the next steps in your journey will bring. It’s bound to be exciting!


Missionary Society?

February 1, 2014

Epiphany, as you probably know, is the missionary and evangelistic season of the Church Year. It’s a time of year when we remind ourselves of what we prayed for in this morning’s Collect: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…”

In other words, just as Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John and the other disciples to “fish for people” as we heard in this morning Gospel, so we too are called – by virtue of our Baptisms — to reach out to other people, to share the Good News of God’s love, and to invite them to join us in the communion of Christ’s Church. Christianity, like Islam (and un-like our parent religion Judaism and most Eastern Religions) Christianity… is a missionary religion!

That doesn’t always sound so good to our 21st century ears. Missionaries, for some, bring up images of high pressure, guilt-producing evangelists whether on TV, in pulpits, or in parking lots. And, because we’re a little more knowledgeable and perhaps more honest, about our history as the Christian Church today, we are aware that terrible atrocities have been committed by Christian missionaries in our past…and all of it in the name of Jesus!

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray’ and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible, and they had the land!” So it’s no wonder that “missionary work” or even “evangelism” have become dirty words for many people today – including many who are faithful members of the Church.

But, even if we can convince ourselves that those bad images are caricatures of true mission and true evangelism, and that real mission and evangelism simply mean sharing the Good News that God is Love, and that all people are invited into a relationship with that good God which also entails loving those other people and working to make this world a better place…even so, the work of evangelism is not so easy!

Seems like it was pretty easy for Jesus. He just said “Follow me” and they did! (Actually, it may have been a little more complicated than that. He may well have had a prior relationship with Peter and Andrew and the others, and our story today may just have been a snapshot of that moment when his faithful mentorship of them finally paid off). But, after all, he WAS Jesus!

Yet for us, evangelism – sharing the Good News and getting other people to accept it – is not so easy. Never has been! For one thing, the Church – which is supposed to be the base camp and launching pad for all effective evangelism sometimes gets in the way. The Church can actually be excess baggage that keeps people away from Christ instead of inviting them in. I know you’ve had some difficult times in the not-so-distant past here at Emmanuel and you’re using this interim period to do some much-need healing. Word has it you’re doing really well and the healing and recovery process is well underway.

Please know that you are not the “Lone Ranger.” Almost every congregation I know has passed through times of struggle and trial, argument and disagreement at some point. And that didn’t start with liturgical revision or the ordination of women or gay folks.  Hear again the words of a missionary bishop to one of his congregations in about the year 55:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no division among you…For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…!” Duuu-aahhh! Christians quarreling? Imagine that! And good old Chloe – engaging in some of those parking lot vestry meetings and tattling on the mischief-makers to the Bishop!

Yes, the Church is a flawed instrument, dear friends. Because, in addition to her divine calling, the Church is a human institution made up of human beings like us and, as long as that is the case, it will not be perfect. Not perfect…but it is essential. You cannot be a “solo Christian.” You can believe in God, accept that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, say your prayers, and even be a good person on your own.

But Christianity is, and always has been, a communal affair. Jesus called those twelve disciples as a first order of business. The earliest image of the Church was that of a Body, made up of many members. It was also called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, and a royal priesthood. All of those are corporate images, images of a family (even if it’s sometimes a dysfunctional family!) but living and working together!

So the work you are doing here, during this interim period, is very important. You are doing what bishops and priests, deacons and lay leaders find ourselves doing a lot of the time – you are binding up the wounds in the Body of Christ! You are healing Christ’s Church! And why are you doing that? So that this portion of that Body may be an ever more faithful and effective base camp and launching pad for one of the primary vocations of the Church – mission and evangelism.

For as St. Teresa of Avila once reminded us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.”

That’s real mission and real evangelism, beloved.  And I’m glad that we’re in this…together!