The Good News!

Welcome! I am the Rev. Ken Saunders the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, MD (since May 2011). These sermons here were delivered in the context of worship.

[NOTE: Sermons (or Homilies) are commentaries that follow the scripture lessons, and are specifically designed to be heard. They are "written for the ear" and may contain sentence fragments and be difficult to read. They are NOT intended to be academic papers.]

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Year A - Epiphany 7 - February 19, 2017

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Church
Towson, MD

RCL Year A - Epiphany 7 - February 19, 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Matthew 5:38-48
Psalm 119:33-40

I’m always cautious about having baptisms on days other than the appointed feast days like the day we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, the Great Vigil of Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints’ Day… And whenever the Bishop decides to visit. But sometimes, like last week, and like today, and like next week, we make a pastoral concession and have a baptism.

When we do that, sometimes the lessons are difficult to deal with… 

In today’s Gospel, we just heard part of one of the most famous sermons Jesus ever gave during his ministry. But, in a way, it is fitting for us to hear this Gospel on a day when we will baptize (at the 9am service) and welcome Bo Brumfield into Christ’s Body, the Church… and make promises to nurture him in the Christian faith as part of the Trinity family.

But, what is seems problematic, is some of the difficult things that we hear Jesus saying in the Gospel lesson. Jesus is pretty clear and direct… “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Turn the other cheek, if someone takes your shirt – give them your coat also”  It almost doesn’t seem like the real world, does it… How in the world can we be expected to love our enemies, let alone turn the other cheek…

It’s when we get those feeling of challenge that we need to understand that Jesus is doing it again… Jesus is inverting the value system and changing the understanding of what society would consider normal. Jesus is starting a revolution – or as Bishop Curry calls it, a “movement…” “The Jesus Movement!”

Jesus is starting this movement by calling the rules of this world into question… by describing an entirely different way for those who believe in and claim to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior… to live in this world and relate to one other… inviting us into relationships not governed by power or prestige, but governed by vulnerability grounded in love and acceptance.

So, if we want to dismiss the instructions we just heard in the Gospel as simple idealisms, maybe we should slow down and take them more seriously. They seem at first to be “crazy” statements. But in these few “crazy” sentiments – Jesus gives us the plans for the kingdom he proclaims and the movement he is starting.

And so, before joining the “Jesus Movement,” we should probably know what we’re getting ourselves into! And we should definitely know about this movement – the revolution, that we are welcoming little Bo into! Wouldn’t it be something to imagine Bo – and his siblings Holly and Cole – growing up and living in a world where we actually treat each other the way Jesus is telling us to?

Like what it says in the baptismal covenant – those promises we all make… To seek to serve Christ in ALL persons, loving our neighbor as our self and strive for Justice and Peace among ALL people, respecting the dignity of EVERY human being… Not some, not just a few, not just the ones that you like…  ALL… and ALL means ALL… It’s radical, it’s difficult, but it’s gospel. 

Then, there is the last line of the Gospel lesson, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” "Be perfect." When we hear that command, most of us hear an injunction to a kind of moral perfectionism. But that's not actually what the original language says. "Perfect," in this case, is the Greek word telos, the word used for "goal," "end," or "purpose." The sense of the word is more about becoming what was intended, in fullness or completeness… accomplishing our God-given purpose in the same way that God constantly reflects God's own nature and purpose on us...  

While telos, can indeed be translated to be “perfect,” it typically refers to something not so much morally perfect but means something that has grown up, matured, and now has reached completion and fullness. That is, telos is the goal or desired outcome of a thing. A fruit tree’s telos, we might say, is to grow and mature so that it can bear good fruit (to use another image from scripture). So, I don’t think that Jesus is simply commanding something of us but he is also commending something in us.

That is, maybe Jesus simply knows that we have more to give, that we can be more and do more than what we have settled for – and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we would simply trust God and believe in ourselves.

And so I hear in the commands in this Gospel reading as an invitation to be the people God has created us to be so that we might not just persevere through this challenging life, but actually flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us. Does this sound Crazy? Maybe.

But Eugene Peterson's translation of the gospel passage in The Message gets closer to the mark, I think… And helps us understand the passage.

He says, “In a word, what I’m saying is - You’re kingdom people. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Now, Does that let us off the hook with all the other things? I don’t think so... But it does help us get to the root of the issue. We can only do these other things – take the higher ground, repay evil with good, forgiving and praying for those who harm us – to the degree that we can live into our own God-given identity as the blessed and beloved children of God that we are. You can't give what you don't have, and so only those who have experienced love can in turn share it with others.

Jesus, who was human like us, not only commands, he also understands – understands just how hard it is for us to love rather than hate, to forgive rather than begrudge, to share rather than hoard, to heal rather than wound, especially when we go through so much of our lives wounded and hurt.

So, today, as we baptize Bo, and promise to support him as he grows in the Christian live and faith, we are also there to remind him that he has a God-given identity as a blessed and beloved child of God. And every baptism is a chance for us to remember our own baptisms – and to remind ourselves that we too are blessed and beloved… and why we are a part of Christ’s Body the Church in the first place.

Evelyn Underhill, the famous Anglican writer of the 20th Century, once wrote, “The real business of the Church is … to bind us together—the learned and simple, the strong and the weak—in a great social act of love and worship; to provide a home for the nurturing of the spiritual life. For we cannot get on alone, in religion or anything else.  Our spiritual life must be a social life too. Wonder and love are caught, not taught; and to catch them we must be in an atmosphere where we are sure to find the germs. A living Church ought to be full of the germs of wonder and love.”

So in a few minutes, as we remind Bo that he is a blessed and beloved child of God, surrounded by the germs of wonder and love, I urge you to remind yourself – too - that you are a blessed and beloved child of God.

Is that easy to remember? Of course it isn’t. So many things get in the way. Past disappointments or hurts that still haunt us. Old grudges and wounds that are a long time healing. Painful memories that are slow to fade. Just for a minute, close your eyes and think about what it is that gets in the way of your being the blessed and beloved person that God created you to be. Then, in the days and weeks ahead, try to grow past the things that get in your way – and remember just how much God loves you – and that the Church is always here to support you on your journey.

We who are gathered today to witness Bo’s baptism, represent Christ’s Body, the Church, God’s family on earth, and we have the God-given potential to change the world… Change the world, and live by the radical ethics that Jesus is teaching us – right now. We can be part of the Revolution - part of the ‘Jesus Movement,’ modeling a new and different way of being in the world… a world that we might simply call the kingdom of God.

Because, as Peterson’s translation says, “You’re kingdom people (blessed and beloved by God) Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” - Go, and be who you are!

This message was inspired by and written in collaboration with Kathleen Capcara, Lay Associate for Parish Life at Trinity. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Year A - Epiphany 5 - February 5, 2017

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Episcopal Church
Towson, MD

Year A - Epiphany 5 - February 5, 2017

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
Matthew 5:13-20
Psalm 112:1-9, (10)

Sometime we see things in scripture that we think we know a lot about... When we do, we glance right over them without thinking about what truth the scriptures might be teaching us. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, reading along and glossing over the details as I read along...

This morning, the readings seem pretty straight forward. In this season after the Epiphany, we would expect to see the images of a redeemed people trying to figure out who this Jesus person is… and trying to wrestle with what he came to do and be for us, and what we should do and how we should be as his followers.

This morning, the scripture introduces us to 2 images that I would like to unpack a bit. These are the images of Light and Salt. They seem simple enough, like yes Ken, we know what light is… we turn them on every day or we can look outside and see the sunlight (hopefully more this week that we did last week) or we can say “pass the salt” and sprinkle it on our food, or we can scatter it on the frozen sidewalk and melt the ice… 

However, if we closely examine the images of light and salt as they are referred to in scripture, then we may find that they have more meaning than they initially let on. So, this morning, I want to reflect a little on the images of Light and Salt and how they are used in the scripture readings we just heard.

The image of light is used in the Old Testament Lesson, the Psalm, and the Gospel. The image of light is used throughout the season after the Epiphany, as we refer to the Light of Christ, and Jesus as the Light of the World. But what about light is so important? Why would this be an image that the Prophet Isaiah, the Psalmist, and Jesus use to reveal a truth about God?

After the prophet Isaiah tells the people that once they get the priorities correct in their life and they start acting in a way of restoration and forgiveness… “then (the Prophet says) your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” Light, or the ability to be light, for the prophet Isaiah, becomes the reward… but what is the light? And why would we want to be it?

I’d like to offer the simple definition of light: “a natural agent that stimulates sight and makes things visible.” Seems simple enough doesn’t it? So, if our light is breaking forth like the dawn, what does that look like? I would like to say what you’ve heard me say before about “walking the walk”… about living as a child of God in this world…

If we have our life right – in perspective… If we are living with the right priorities, in right relationship with God and with each other, then we actually stimulate another’s sight. We make the living God visible to others. We show others what we believe God to be as we live our life for God and as we seek to serve God through our relationships with others.

Light shows up again in the Psalm for today… in Verse 4, it says, “Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.” If we Christians, gathered as the community of faith, are able to act with mercy and compassion and live in right – relationship, then our light will shine. And we know that when light shines, we are able to see things more clearly. Rather than guessing what is lurking in the shadows waiting to tempt us and trip us up, we are able to know and avoid the evils that seek to destroy the creatures of God.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus calls us the “Light of the World” and suggests different comparisons – like a great city on a hill that cannot be hid or a lamp put up on a lampstand that illuminates a room rather than hid under a basket.

It would be useful at this point to briefly talk a second about that other condition, the condition called darkness. I would like to offer you another simple definition… “Darkness: The partial or total absence of light.” It’s interesting that the definition of darkness is dependent on the existence of light not the other way around… 

So, if light is hiding under a bushel basket, then there isn’t any less light, it just that the light isn’t revealed in its full potential. So, if we are being light, reveling the living God as clearly as we can, then we are giving it our all and living up to our full potential. However, if we allow things to crowd the light, letting the bushel baskets of this world to shade what should be reviled, then we are guilty of not letting our light shine… 

We could name a few bushel baskets – those things that keep the light from shining… those may be fear of what others may think, injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness – anything that causes humanity any harm or anytime that a human being is not given the respect and dignity they deserve as a child of God, and we have the opportunity to do something about it, our light is hidden under a great big bushel basket.

I found it interesting that in our Gospel lesson that Jesus doesn’t just call his followers light. In fact, before he calls his followers light, he calls them salt. Salt of all things. The first thing that I think of when I think of salt is the stuff that sits on our dinner table in the shaker… the white crystals that we use to season food… or the larger crystals that are used in a compound that makes the freezing temperature of water lower. This time of year, it melts ice on sidewalks and driveways.

Salt is harder for us to understand in Jesus context. Why in the world would Jesus call his followers, salt? What is it about salt would people of that time know and understand? They would know that salt in the ancient world was a commodity. It was traded in the market place. It was valuable and was used as a preservative for food as well as made it palatable (able to eat). Salt is a pure mineral…

What’s ironic for me is when Jesus says, “but what if salt has lost its taste, how can it’s saltiness be restored?” I got to wondering, can salt ever really loose its saltiness? Is salt ever really diminished? Salt – or Sodium is extremely stable and cannot loose its flavor. So the suggestion that salt loosing its saltiness becomes problematic for those of us that know a little about science… for those of us that may have gone through high school and possibly college chemistry. Whether the people that Jesus was talking to know it or not, Salt cannot just loose its saltiness…

So, I think Jesus must have been up to something here. I’d like to suggest that by using the image of salt, Jesus was telling his followers that if they follow him and learn and live his ways, then they will become people of substance, like salt. That they will be able to endure and persevere. But if they were to become diluted by the evils of this world (if they were to allow themselves to diminish - lose their saltiness) then they would be useless to his movement.

Jesus is on a mission of setting the world right, and inverting the value system that everyone thought they understood… Jesus teaches his followers to live the intent of the law rather than the literal letter of the law. Jesus is being the change agent in the world, rather than waiting on the world to change.

We have learned today that light cannot be taken away or overcome by darkness, only shielded by it. We have also learned that salt cannot have its saltiness taken away, only have it diluted by those things of this world that are disingenuous, and have no substance.

Light and salt become for us the descriptive metaphors used by scripture to describe the people of God. So in the week ahead, every time you see the sun shine or flip a light switch, I want you to remember that Jesus called you light, and I want you to think about how you are showing others who God is and how you are being the light of the world for others… 

Also, every time you reach for the salt shaker to salt your food, or scatter rock salt on a frozen walkway, remember that Jesus called you salt, and thought you were a worthy and of substance… think about how you are not allowing yourself to be diluted by the evils that are all around you, and how you are being the salt of the earth, real and true.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Year A - Epiphany 4 - January 29, 2017

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Church
Towson, MD

Year A - Epiphany 4 - January 29, 2017

I couldn’t help but try to focus on the current events this week through the lens of scripture, Christian behavior, and teaching. If we take scripture seriously at all, then these passages in today’s context of immigration issues, wall building, and human torture the passages we just heard become very challenging.

We know what the Bible says, we have all heard the familiar verses before, but I don’t know how much we, as a community of faith, actually hear or pay attention to what we we’re reading. These are well known passages, but if we all understood the depth of what the scripture was saying to us, we might start to feel that our lives and actions have come up a bit short.

As Christians… followers of the way of Jesus Christ, as his students and disciples, the words in Holy Scripture consistently challenge us to live in a way that is different. A way of healing and restoration… a way that calls us to a level of righteousness before the living God.

I think the first thing we must do is just stop for a minute and realize that the scriptures, especially the ones that we just heard, have a Jewish context… The historical, socio-economic and political environment in which the Bible was written bears much on how we should interpret the writings in order to make them relevant to us in today’s world.

That’s part of the difficulty... that’s part of what makes it uncomfortable. We don’t understand completely because we’re not Jewish. We don’t understand culturally what it means to be Jewish, we are just normal everyday Christian folk. So, it’s a challenge for us to comprehend the depth of the meaning of the text from the people that actually wrote it.

We come here on Sunday and then go home and go about week in our day to day business – we may or may not come next Sunday or read or study scripture during the week – and we may or may not participate in a ministry beyond our Sunday worship. Somehow, being a “comfortable Christian” has become the stylish in our modern world…

Now for those who might be wiggling in their pew a bit, I hope to share with you the context from which the prophet Micah (in the Old Testament lesson), and Jesus (in the Gospel lesson) are both coming from this morning.

The term I would like to introduce you to is called “Tikkun Olam” (say it with me… Tikkun Olam) It is a phrase in Hebrew that literally means “repair the world”… It is a concept that those who follow Judaism would understand, it is part of the teaching or the “Mishnah.”

But how is this relevant to us? How do we Christians repair the world? How do we use what we have and how we act to fix what seems to us to be wrong with our society. There, for us, is the challenging part… it is the piece that calls out of our comfort zone, beyond our worship and puts our love of God into action.

It calls us out of the mode of just showing up on Sunday and sitting in the comfortable pew, listening (or not listening) to what the priest has to say, and puts the reality of the living God to work in society – out there in the streets… It is truly being the church in the world…

That is exactly what ALL of these readings are about – the idea of “world restoration” – The Tikkun Olam brought about by the way we act and its influence over others.

It starts out this morning with the prophet Micah, who is preoccupied with social justice. He is the champion of the oppressed and under-privileged of his time. Micah verbally attacks the socio-economic injustices of his day by reminding the people of Israel of God’s favor for them. The people are called by the Prophet Micah to repentance and again turn their hearts to God…  turn their hearts from the worship of wealth and pagan idols, and restore the world rightly to God through their actions and their influence.

After the peoples pleading of – what then shall we do? How will we make it right? How will we once again get back in right relationship with God? – they go down a laundry list of sacrifices… Sacrifices that they would expect worthy of the most High God… burnt offerings, rams, and calves, and oil… even the ultimate sacrifice of the first born (the fruit of the womb for the sin of the soul)… But then Micah reminds them of “Tikkun Olam” of their responsibility to repair the world… the responsibility to do what is “required” by God… to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. It’s not a request or even a hint, but a “requirement” to repair the world by doing three things that God requires… to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

The idea of “Tikkun Olam” even makes its way into the gospel story this morning… Words the Jewish audience of Matthew would understand. Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Blessed are the merciful, Blessed are the pure in heart, Blessed are the peacemakers, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account… Jesus’ list of those blessed, known to us as the “beatitudes,” are really Jesus’ way of reminding the people of the “Tikkun Olam” that God requires of them…  of how to the repaired and restored world looks like… Jesus uses examples of things that are not right in society, the poor, the ones considered weak and hungry those that would be otherwise despised for challenging the status quo…

He says to them that they will be blessed or “happy” in the repaired and restored world – the world that he calls the Kingdom of God – and it’s the people’s responsibility to bring it about. Just as the prophet Micah before him, Jesus calls his followers to the restorative action… to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Likewise, We, as followers of Jesus, as his disciples, we are required by God to “Tikkun Olam”… we are required to repair the world. But that’s where it gets difficult for us, especially those of us that do very little beyond our Sunday morning worship.

Scriptural teachings are not easy to follow, and just because we have received salvation through faith in our Lord Jesus, doesn’t mean we are exempt from what our faith requires of us.

Every time we see an injustice in society, we are required, as a church, to help right the wrong.
We are required to do what we can to repair the world’s injustice – to uplift the fallen and demand equity for ALL of God’s children, even those different from us.

It is manifested most simply, most locally through our ministries, like our work with the Assistance Center of Towson Churches food bank…

It’s speaking out against what we see going wrong with government… It’s advocating for building relationships, not walls… It’s finding a way to help the stranger in need, not keeping them huddled in an airport, scared for their life.

It’s caring for and properly using and conserving our natural resources, not disregarding the voice of the Native American community just to make a dollar.

It’s keeping our baptismal promise to seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Not letting our fears of the “other” control our decisions.

And it’s keeping the promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being… Not subjecting those being held in our custody to torture for information (that probably won’t be accurate anyway)…

The world’s poor, the destitute, the forgotten, and the hungry are to be remembered and restored… are to be clothed, housed, fed, and protected in our community’s effort to do justice.

On top of this, (as if that weren’t challenging enough) we are required to be kind to one another… to put aside the hate and divisions that divide us and be reconciled and display a genuine loving kindness. This is tough! Because, it’s not just the plastic exterior notion of just “getting along” or being “nice.” We are called to do the hard work within ourselves – and turn to God for help in repentance and then outwardly display God’s love and kindness toward one another regardless of our differences.

I actually found this manifested is a little boy I know, this remarkable young man, Henry, who is a fellow Episcopalian (member of Epiphany in Timonium), he and I are both students of TaeKwonDo… He started what he calls, “The Kindness Club” … calling out and recognizing random acts of Kindness wherever he sees it. Tikkun Olam calls us to be part of the Kindness Club!

Finally, we are required to walk humbly with our God. I think that the issue to work on here is the humility. Saying we are humble and actually being humble are two totally different things. Humility demands we come to a realization that it’s not about us, and we don’t have it all figured out all the time. It requires a submissive approach to our worship, prayer, and study as we listen and watch for the presence of God in our lives.

God has showed us a model of humility in the person of Jesus Christ. God emptied God’s self in complete humility and became one of us and lived among us… And, if we remember the story correctly, as great a teacher, healer and prophet as Jesus was… society rejected him, convicted him and sentenced him to die as a common criminal. So, if we are actually doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God as Jesus did; we might just get hung on our own cross.

It doesn’t surprise me that the stated mission of the Church in our catechism… (the teaching in the prayer book) is to restore all people to unity with God and each other through Christ. Our mission as a church is not a mission of just Sunday worship – but, it’s the difficult mission of repair and restoration. It’s Tikkun Olam… A “fixing” or “repairing” of the world so that ALL people might be in unity with God AND each other through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“Tikkun Olam” – repair the world… do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Amen!