Delivered to the United Church of Jaffrey
February 12th, 2017
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 | Matthew 5:21-26
I refuse to buy a snow blower.
I admit that every time I go to Home Depot I look at them longingly.
But I refuse to buy one.
Snow blowers offend all my spiritual instincts.
I know, I know. I’m ridiculous, and eventually I’ll get old enough to rue these words.
But for now, at least, I spurn the rude, noisy contraptions. And their tremendous efficiency makes me nervous.
Suffice it to say, my absurd old-fashioned notions mean that I spent a good deal of last week out back with the snow shovel.
I was thus employed, clearing the path that leads to our tenant’s front door, when out comes Sean — the tenant’s boyfriend.
“Hey!” he says, grabbing a free shovel and putting his back into it.
“Hey!” I say back at him. And then, trying not to laugh I observe: “Aren’t those your pajamas pants?”
“Yes,” says he, grinning. “It’s a pajama kind of day.”
“Pajamas and snowboots,” says I.
I nod at his feet, which are sunk in a pair of snowboots.
“It’s a pajamas and snowboots kind of day.”
Sean and I worked out there for a while, clearing of the path and the porches and eventually making our way out to the driveway to shovel out the cars. Now and then we’d stop for a while to chew the fat about this or that.
I’m inclined to take a shine to any young person who is willing to work up a sweat doing a job, not for pay, but for the sake of the job.
Sean knows all about different kinds of wood — what different species of trees are suitable for certain kinds of building and engineering uses and also how to sustainably grow and harvest them.
When I got wind of this, I quizzed Sean about the spruce post and beam in the apartment.
Let me explain.
Our tenants, you see, live in an apartment that we originally built back in ’08 when my parents, now late, moved in with us. When we made the decision to build, the first thing we had to do, of course, was cut down the two spruce trees and a walnut tree that were standing within the footprint of the new construction. Seeing an opportunity, our contractor, had the walnut milled into planks that would later become the windowsills and stair treads in the apartment. The spruce trees were milled into great wide beams that were used to brace the ceiling.
The magnificent blond wood looked amazing when it was first up, but it wasn’t long at all before long splits in the wood appeared.
“Do those splits undermine the strength of the post and beam?” I asked Sean.
Allow me to interrupt this charming narrative to make some observations about our worship together.
I have been preaching for some time now, and I have even had the privilege of preaching for months at a time in certain parishes.
That said, my time here with you, at the United Church of Jaffrey represents my first call to settled ministry, and for this reason, I am only now beginning to truly recognize the beauties and the possible pitfalls of preaching my way through the entire liturgical year, from Sunday to Sunday, from start to finish.
One of the real beauties of preaching from Sunday to Sunday, is that, doing it, I find that I am starting to develop a kind of sacred vocabulary of my own.
I hope, you are picking up on this.
It’s exciting to think developing these ideas over time.
May I briefly touch on some of the highlights?
Remember the surprising word “immediately?” The disciples immediately put down their nets and followed Jesus… I connected this idea of immediate importance to the story of a Liberian Newspaper editor that I once interviewed. In our lives we too find things that demand our attention – things that have divine significance. These are things that have “immediate importance.”
Remember when we talked about the word “recognize”?
Jesus recognized Simon and renamed him Peter.
To re-cognize someone than, is to “re-know” them. On Martin Luther King Sunday, we considered this idea, and we recognized Juliet Hampton Morgan, the librarian from Montgomery Alabama. We re-knew Miss Morgan, as a person of extraordinary moral strength.
To “recognize” – to re-know someone – is to see the divine in their face.
This is beginning to feel like a review session. But don’t worry, there will be no exam.
Speaking about the beatitudes, we were surprised by two things. The first thing was there are no IF’s in the beatitudes. Jesus does not say “IF you get good grades and are nice to our mother, you will inherit the earth.” God accepts us and loves us without ifs. Without conditions.
And the other thing about the beatitudes: They are in the present tense. Blessed ARE the poor in spirit. God has not abandoned us. God does not promise to be with us. God IS with us.
Finally, last Sunday, I suggested a way of reading the Bible.
I suggested that the Bible arrives at religious truth by way of description, not definition.
Defining God – saying this is God and this is not God, is a dangerous thing to do, and is almost always done by people who want have power over other people.
Describing God, though, is different.
When we describe something, we do not attempt to be complete – we accept that description is a partial thing.
We can only have a partial understanding of mystery.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying to describe mystery.
In fact, the inevitably unsuccessful attempt that we make to describe mystery is the reason we have art – in all its forms.
And what is more sublime, and more suggestive of the human spirit’s capacity for transcendence than art?
We describe mystery, even though we can never fully succeed.
And the attempt creates beauty.
We describe God, even though we can never fully succeed.
And the attempt creates love.
Preaching every Sunday, I have said – has given me the opportunity to begin to develop some sacred vocabulary:
A God without IF’s.
Present tense blessing.
Religion through Description.
But preaching every Sunday also shows me that I can never get too comfortable with my ideas.
Because as soon as you get too comfortable with your understanding of the gospel, the gospel has a way of coming along and making things difficult for you.
Take this morning’s gospel lesson for example.
In the 21st verse of the 5 chapter of the book of Matthew, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment;
Did you get that?
Back in the day the law said “You shall not kill” but now Jesus is saying – forget that – even if you get angry – you shall be judged.
Jesus condemns the action – and he also condemns the emotion that leads to the action.
It’s like saying – if you’re on a diet, don’t just stay away from the refrigerator – don’t even go into the kitchen!
And this is not a brief straying from Jesus’ message – the verses that follow use the same stay-out-of-the-kitchen formula again and again to condemn not only adultery, divorce and the swearing of oaths, but the emotions that lead to them.
This is not just a prescription – its prescribing the prescription. It’s super-prescription!
Which is, again – exactly the opposite of the way I have recommended reading the Bible.
Which, if you ask me, seems to be a different message from the present tense, no-ifs blessing that the beatitudes had led us to expect from God.
The beatitudes seem to be very generous about blessing, but these passages seem to be very strict.
It was looking like a pajama kind of day, and now it feels like a snowboot kind of day.
Is Christianity a “Pajama-snowboot kind of day” religion?
Speaking of pajamas and snowboots, remember My friend Sean?
Let’s get back to him.
Last time we saw Sean, he was standing in the driveway pondering my question about the post and beam in my apartment.
Sean told me that the splits that I saw in the post and beam were called “checking.” He said it was totally normal and nothing to worry about.
Those big beams, he said, were cut to a far greater diameter than was necessary to bear the weight of the house, and besides, once they dry out they tend not to split anymore.
He put my mind at ease.
The wood changes as it dries, but not sufficiently to undermine structural integrity of a house.
And then he told me something else – something quite amazing.
Sean told me that the early timber framers who built houses in this part of the world figured out that they could take actually advantage of the drying of the wood to enhance the structural integrity of a house. This is what they did – they offset the pegs and holes where they were connecting the timbers so that it was not until the wood dried that the joints would pull together and tighten.
Through observation, the early timber framers actually calculated part of the life cycle of the wood into their building plans.
These timber framers were so keenly aware of the wood that they were working with, that they understood and could take advantage of, its nature, not as a static thing, but as a growing, shifting, living medium.
I recommend thinking about our Christian Faith in this way.
Religion is not a set of rules established in the past that we must obey – or else!
That sounds to me like an ideology, not a religion.
Ideology measures precise joints that do not take into account the life of the wood.
On the contrary, the medium that religion works with – the wood that the carpenter shapes – is the human heart: a medium that shrinks and grows.
The human heart is not just alive – it is the essence of alive.
The heart moves,
it pumps blood,
And so, religion must be alive.
Jesus said: You have heard that it was said to the men of old…
And then he said: “But I say to you…”
Can you see how the wood is tightening up?
Can you see how the emphasis of the religion shifts, how house is becoming more structurally sound according to the needs of the moment?
And what of us, in our moment?
When we read the Bible…
When we bring to the Bible those things we consider to be immediately important,
When we, in our turn, describe the meaning of the gospel to our generation…
We are alive – in the present tense
And we are blessed.
And it is this growing – this living, that God is sensitive to,
that God recognizes…
that God blesses.