I had a wonderful few days this weekend. I spoke at a conference on
church leadership, and while in the neighborhood, I attended the
celebration of a music director who had served a parish for 60 years.
The former filled me with hope at the dedication of local leaders and
their enthusiasm, as well as their honest confrontation of their
struggles as the church enters unchartered territory. The latter filled
me with awe at the dedication of a devoted servant of God who had
patiently enriched the praises and prayers of a congregation through
music for 60 years.
As wonderful as it was, I arrived back at the airport on Sunday
night happy but pretty tired and ready to get home. I was thinking
only about relaxing for a minute with a drink and then somehow getting
through a late flight to New York.
When I drove the rental car into the return lane, the agent checked me
in, reminded me that I’d left my phone in the car (!), and then asked,
completely unexpectedly, “What did you preach on today?”
I was sure I couldn’t have heard her correctly. “I beg your pardon,” I said.
“What did you preach on today?” I was startled but realized my collar,
from which I hadn’t had time to change, had given me away.
I was relieved that the answer, actually, should have been “nothing.”
Perhaps that is more often the case than I would like to admit. But
what I said instead, with some relief that I was going to dodge a
bullet, was “Oh, I didn’t preach today.”
She was not deterred. “Well, what was the sermon about where you went to church this morning?”
Oh, rats. I decided, wisely I think, not to get into the fine point
that we had had Eucharist with a sermon the night before and explain how
Saturday night and Sunday
morning are the same thing, liturgically speaking. I knew it wouldn’t
have gotten me off the hook anyway. And I didn’t go into the fact that
I’d been to Morning Prayer Sunday morning and Evensong Sunday
afternoon, each without a sermon. I figured that could only make
things worse. In fact, I was a little disturbed about when I thought
about the implications of a Sunday without any expounding of Scripture, the Saturday night technicality notwithstanding.
So in a moment of controlled panic I wracked my brain to remember the
sermon. I was frustrated with that because it had actually been a good
sermon, quite a good sermon. Had I not been paying adequate attention?
Regardless, I was not prepared for a quiz. And the sermon was so good
that it warranted more than a ten second synopsis. I was frustrated
with my obvious lack of faith. I blurted something out at first that
clearly didn’t make sense. She responded with a puzzled look and a
More wracking of the brain. Finally I blurted out something, which
though not profound, was at least minimally coherent and actually
related to what the preacher had been trying to impart. I was pleased
that I could remember, basically at least, the Gospel lesson at issue. I
mentioned the book and the chapter and hoped she would give me a pass
on the verse.
It worked. She was satisfied. Sort of.
Then she went on to tell me about her preacher’s sermon that morning.
God was not in a break-giving mood apparently. She remembered that her
pastor had preached on Psalm 150, and she remembered the point of the
message, which was that we should not judge how others praise God.
Everyone praises God in her or his own way, he had said, and that none
of us is in any place to make qualitative distinctions between prayers
and the manner in which they are made.
I can only hope it applies to her memory of her encounter with a very
tired preacher in a purple shirt last night. It is interesting to me,
though, that I remember more about the sermon she heard than the one I
did. And I assure you it has nothing to do with the preacher I heard.
The Gospel for this week caused me a lot of spiritual confusion for a long time. It was of a particularly dangerous sort.
Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)
One of my particular spiritual weaknesses is perfectionism. It can do a
lot of damage. And these words of Jesus appear at first to confirm
rather than challenge that perfectionism. They appear to suggest that
perfection is something attainable if only one expends enough effort.
Fortunately along the way, I came to realize the fallacy of that.
I had always taken perfect
to mean perfect as in a moral sense. I suspect that made me a
particularly difficult person to live with. It wasn’t doing me any
The light went on when I realized that perfect
had another meaning. It also means whole, complete, healthy, at peace. This is what Jesus hopes for us—wholeness more than perfection in the way we normally mean it. It’s the Hebrew concept of shalom.
Wholeness, though, is not somehow effortless. I’m afraid it has no
small amount of hard work, too. And that is what Jesus has been talking
about in the verses leading up to what he had to say about being
For example, just before the verse about being perfect, Jesus had been
teaching about love. Loving those who love you is relatively simple.
Not all love is reciprocated, though. Sometimes love is met with
indifference; sometimes, with hatred; sometimes, with harm. That’s when
love is difficult. But anything less than love is also less than
Love is not complete in the way God’s love is complete when it
discriminates even between those who are evil and those who are good,
the righteous and the unrighteous. Love cannot be whole if there are
any it refuses to reach.
That’s why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall
love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your
enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (vv. 43-44) Love that
includes some and excludes others is necessarily incomplete. Love that
is less than all is also less than whole. Love that holds back cannot
be fully at peace.
Perfection is in loving as God loves, even when it is difficult,
especially when it is difficult. It’s not that it’s a matter of
morality. It’s that it’s a matter of being whole.
The Church has suffered two major schisms, and I’m afraid, lots of
minor ones. The major ones were the Great Schism of the 11th century
and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The latter
especially has led to further splintering even to our own day. We are
in the midst of such an event in Anglicanism right now, and of course,
we are a product of the major split that occurred with the Reformation
and its expression in England. Breakups, including church ones, have no
small connection to issues of power and money. Power not only
corrupts; it divides. Money is not only the root of much evil; it is
the root of much division. Both are true in the Church.
But power and money played another role in our divisions, I believe.
Both of the major schisms occurred at the height of the Church’s power,
one at the height of the Middle Ages, and one at the end of them. The
Middle Ages were a time when the Church and the State were most closely
identified. In many cases it was difficult to tell them apart. Church
politics and secular politics intermingled freely and naturally but not
always righteously. Though there may have been some cracks beginning to
appear by the time of the Reformation, both of the major schisms
occurred at the height of the Church’s power, privilege, prestige, and
In short, the Church split because it could afford to. One part of the
body could afford, in a quite literal sense, to say to another, “I have
no need of you.” Division was a luxury for solving differences that
the Church could afford to buy.
It is no longer so. And in that we share something with our ancestors
who long preceded the schisms. They were tempted by division, too, but
they resisted. I think the reason is that lacking the privileged
position in society that the Church later came to enjoy and take for
granted, schism was simply a luxury the Church could not afford.
Paul wrote about it very early on in the Church’s missionary life. For
as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of
the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one
says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you
not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through
whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted,
Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants
nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and
each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are
working together; you are God's field, God's building. (1 Cor. 3:3b-9)
In the early days of planting and watering and tending, the Church
could not afford division if it were to thrive. Maybe there was a time
when it could. If so, the time has surely passed. The reality of the
Church’s life now is that division is a luxury we can simply no longer
afford. There’s just too much planting and watering to be done.
We had a joyous event in my office last week. Our colleague Bernice
David became a grandmother. The baby’s name is Kenzo, which I think is
an awfully cute name for a baby. Bernice shared pictures with us.
Kenzo is adorable. In one of the pictures, the new grandmother is
holding her new grandson. She has a smile that goes from ear to ear.
In our world, this sharing of pictures, in this case by email, is how we
present a new arrival to the world. In the world of Mary and Joseph, a
sacrifice in the temple of a pair of turtledoves or two pigeons was the
accepted protocol for presenting the child to the world.
We expect the proper response to the presentation of a new baby to be
oohs and aahs and talk of how cute the new arrival is. In Kenzo’s case,
this was quite easy to do. But Mary and Joseph were greeted by a
rather strange response from an old man named Simeon when he saw Jesus
for the first time: “This child is destined for the falling and the
rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that
the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” (Lk. 2:34-35)
The birth of a baby is generally received as good news in a family.
Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph hardly sound like good news. They do,
however, sound like truth.
Kenzo was born into a middle class family. That made him more
fortunate than many babies born in America last week. According to the
National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of children born in America
are born into families who live below the official poverty level. They
also estimate that 45% actually live in families with marginal incomes
but not quite low enough to meet the government’s official definition of
poor. And this will come as no surprise, but the rates of poverty
among children are highest among children who are black, Hispanic, and
That is absolutely unacceptable. It is so totally unacceptable, that
every single child born in America today is, whether we recognize it or
not, a child “destined for the falling and rising of many . . . a sign
that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be
How we respond to this absolutely unacceptable reality speaks volumes
about what our true inner thoughts are, and those of our culture. How
we respond to this absolutely unacceptable reality speaks volumes about
whether our inner thoughts have anything whatsoever to do with being a
disciple of Jesus, a 21st century missionary who meets Jesus in the
person of the poor. It is impossible to ooh and aah over the baby Jesus
brought by Mary and Joseph to be presented in the temple or because of
whom we gathered in darkened churches to sing “Silent Night” just a few
weeks ago and not respond to the reality in our own neighborhoods of
children living in poverty.
The fact that there are children living under the threat of war or the
threat of not having a roof over their heads or the threat of not having
food in their bellies is, just as Simeon said, “a sign that will be
opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” The
question, of course, is what does it reveal about us?
There are two versions of a collection of saying known as the
Beatitudes because they all begin with “Blessed are.” There is a
version in Luke (6:20-23) and a version in Matthew (5:1-12). Matthew’s
version is better known, and it is the Gospel for this week. Matthew’s
version is also better known, I suspect, because it is easier to take.
Luke’s version is shorter but harsher and starker. Take the first
beatitude. In Luke it is, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is
the kingdom of God.” We’re much more used to, and comfortable with, the
way Matthew records it: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is
the kingdom of heaven.” Or look at the one about hunger. Luke records
Jesus as saying, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be
filled.” The message seems a little different in Matthew: “Blessed are
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be
Scholars generally agree that Luke’s version is closer to what Jesus
actually said. That, I think, is probably right. Short, simple, to the
point. That sounds like Jesus to me.
Scholars also generally agree that Matthew modified Luke to make what
Jesus said easier to take for a different audience. About that I’m not
“Blessed are the poor” is a little difficult to swallow for those of us
who are not. On the other hand, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”
seems to open the door to everyone. We are all poor in spirit in one
way or the other.
I know on those occasions when I get to speak in the Church about the
presence of Jesus in solidarity with the poor, someone will invariably
bring up Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and ask if I do
not think Jesus was speaking metaphorically about the poor, not meaning
literal poverty, but any condition that weighs on the spirit.
I don’t like the question because I know my answer is going to be
disappointing. “No,” I say, “I think Jesus was speaking literally of
the poor, the material kind, about those who lack the necessities of
daily life.” It is very clear to me why Matthew might have wanted to
soften this teaching up in a way that Luke does not allow.
This persistent question, though, has caused me to reexamine what I
think Matthew might have been up to, not softening at all, but maybe
opening the way to the kingdom of heaven beyond just the poor by
suggesting that the rich could be like the poor. Maybe he was not
avoiding the stark truth I think Jesus actually spoke about the
particular blessedness of the poor at all. I’ve always thought Matthew
was talking about poverty of spirit as a substitute for literal
poverty. Now I wonder if Matthew wasn’t inviting those who are not poor
to be “poor in spirit,” in the same way I might say to someone who has
invited me to a wedding I am unable to attend that I will “be there in
I’ve come to wonder if Matthew is offering us an opportunity to be one
with the poor even if we are not, to stand with the poor even if we are
not poor ourselves, to be with the poor even when we have to journey to
get there. I’ve come to see Matthew, not as softening Luke, but as
complementing Luke. There is a way that the kingdom of heaven can
belong to the rich as well as the poor, but I doubt it is by
sugarcoating it. It is by facing it. It is by being in solidarity
with, in spirit with, in alliance with the poor. It is by seeing the
poor as ourselves.
Matthew, after all, also remembered Jesus as saying, “[I]t is easier
for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is
rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (19:24) Somehow, sugarcoating is not what I think Matthew was up to.
I have been blessed along the way by the people who have influenced my
understanding of mission and ministry. One of them is Onell Soto,
formerly a member of the world mission staff at the Church Center and
then the Bishop of Venezuela. I had the opportunity to learn from him
when he was the Assistant Bishop of Atlanta.
Onell is a gracious man with a pastor’s heart. He is also
fundamentally a missionary, a call to which he has devoted his life. He
was a missionary in Venezuela. He supported missionaries as a member
of our staff, and after coming back to the United States, he continued
to preach and teach about the Church’s missionary imperative, becoming
something of a missionary for mission.
He also speaks with the thick and lovely accent of his native Cuba, and
he frequently compared himself to Ricky Ricardo (for those of old
enough to remember “I Love Lucy”). His Cuban accent became for me an
object lesson in mission. I vividly remember him saying on numerous
occasions, particularly when people strained to understand him, “The
Gospel has always been proclaimed with an accent.” Yes, it has.
Indeed, it must be. Otherwise, it is nothing more than insider jargon
for those of us in the club. Otherwise it is nothing more than talking
to ourselves. There is no health in talking to ourselves. The very
core of our life is to engage outward, and that requires an accent.
The lessons for this week make the point, too. John tells the story of
the interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist (Jn. 1:29-42).
Three times John pauses in the story to translate for those to whom the
words he uses are not known—Rabbi is translated as Teacher, Messiah is
translated as Anointed, and Cephas is translated as Peter. The Gospel
is always proclaimed with an accent.
The Old Testament lesson, Isaiah 49:1-7, has a similar emphasis. “It
is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the
tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you
as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the
earth” (v. 6). The whole energy is about outward motion, from the
familiar to the foreign. The Gospel is always proclaimed with an
The New Testament lesson is from an epistle of Paul, Paul the apostle
to the Gentiles speaking beyond his home country to the Greeks of
Corinth. The Gospel is always proclaimed with an accent.
It must be so if we are to be who we are by baptism, proclaimers of the
Gospel in word and example. Archbishop William Temple said, “The
Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of
non-members.” If we’re not speaking with an accent, it means we’re not
being ourselves. It means we are just talking to ourselves.
Is what we’re up to nothing more than talking to ourselves? The way to
tell is if we notice the accents. It is only then that we might be
hearing the Gospel. It is only then that we might be experiencing the
Gospel. It is only then that we can be who God intends us to be.