A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

By: David H. May, Rector


Some of my favorite television shows to watch are the ones where you see something put together right in front of you. Cooking shows where a written recipe becomes a steaming, savory dish; woodworking shows where a drawing becomes a handsome side board; even Orange County Choppers – from a few years ago – where drawaings on paper get hammered and welded into a roaring motorcycle so beautiful it brings tears to the eyes of the salty, muscle-bound shop owner.

What I love is seeing it put together. I love seeing an idea, a vision becomes real.

Of course, the folks we see on television are experts at what they’re doing. They’re experts because they have skill and talents and above all determination to learn their craft. None of them got good at their craft overnight. My guess is that Bobby Flay has ruined more mole sauces than most of us will ever attempt.

It takes practice and hard work and failure to turn theory into practice. I think the hardest part is to keep believing you can really build a table that won’t wobble because one leg is an eighth of an inch too short. Especially if it’s about the tenth time you’ve made the same mistake. The hardest part is not giving up on an idea in the face of repeated failure.

They say anything worth doing is worth doing right. But none of us gets it right the first over even the fiftieth time. It takes practice.

I took piano lessons for about nine years. My teachers used a traditional method of teaching the piano which involved the endless playing of scales. My poor family endured countless hours of [sing scale being played].

We always had classical music playing in my house – especially Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. I remember looking at a copy of the written score of a Bach two-part invention I was trying to learn while listening to a performance of the same piece on the record player. And I remember being stunned. How can these notes that I see written down, the idea, this vision of the music, ever become this transcendent sound that I am hearing? I wasn’t sure, but my teacher said I could some day, “Keep practicing. Keep playing those scales.”

The national celebration of our Independence from the British Empire 243 years ago is a moment to hear in a fresh way and to take hold of the idea of America to which we aspire and to resolve to keep practicing! The defining idea of America is that all of us are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s worth saying here, that happiness—at least to Thomas Jefferson and others—meant that experience of satisfaction and joy that comes from growing into one’s full potential as a human being. He did not mean happiness as getting what you want when you want it. The Founders built into our founding document an idea that citizens of every generation are meant to practice the scales of democracy to achieve a performance near this central idea—in order to form a more perfect union.

Independence Day also presents the continuing challenge to Christians to practice Jesus words that we are to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Christians, by virtue of the gift and grace of baptism, are not citizens of this world or any particular nation-state, however accomplished in virtues of justice and freedom and peace. We are citizens of the Kingdom that will come. Sometimes the values of the Kingdom of God are reflected in a nation’s values and sometimes they aren’t. And this is where it gets dicey. This is where our allegiances feel stretched. This is where people get testy with one another. In the course of history, this testiness is the meat and potatoes of all political parties. Political movements are formed and sustained over clashing values – or at least ought to be.

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading are taken from his great Sermon on the Mount—his sort of Inaugural Address as he commenced his public and brief ministry in this world. These few words are as challenging and complex as any recipe or set of drawing any of us in likely to encounter.

He says to us: “Love your enemy….”

We are already into deep waters here. We are already at the point where people can become testy with each other. We are already at the point where political parties can gleefully know that they have “an issue to run on.”

But listen to his words first as one of the baptized. Jesus does not say: have no enemies. He does not say that there aren’t enemies. In this world we will know what that word means and not just as an idea, but as something real, some one real. But, these real people, Jesus says, your enemies, love them.

If Bobby Flay flashes up a recipe on the screen for huevos rancheros—good as that is—these words of Jesus flash up on the screen a recipe for the Heavenly Banquet. Now God will make sure it gets served because that is his will and his work and God will accomplish it despite any of our misgivings, where ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’. But, it’s our job to start gathering the ingredients for that feast in this world. The hard work of practicing the scales of the Kingdom—is taking these hard words of Jesus to heart and being broken open by them and made new by them through the love of Christ. In this way, we will begin to gather together what God will use for the Feast before the throne of the Lamb.

But even if we can say I will not entirely close my heart to these hard words, we are still left with a Mount Everest of words to climb at the end of this reading: ‘Jesus says, “be perfect even as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. Which seems to be a perfect excuse to not even try. But listen, the word perfect we have is the word for the translation of the Greek word teleios. We think of perfect as meaning never making a mistake, never being at fault, never letting a flaw mar our actions, never—even unconsciously—doing harm. Well, if that’s what we are called to then I will be the first overboard. But the Greek teleios does not mean perfect as in utterly without flaw. Teleios means to be whole-hearted, and whole-hearted in the way an acorn is whole-hearted about becoming an oak tree; like God is in caring for all people. But this meaning of being whole-hearted like God rests on an even older word, the Hebrew word tam. Tam among other possibilities means to be true. Taken all together, Jesus is calling for us to be true and sincere in our whole-heartedness. To be, true blue, even as God is true blue for you.

I don’t know how to practice being perfect in an abstract moral sense, whether its as a citizen of America or a citizen of the Kingdom of God. But, perhaps I can be true-blue for God and for my neighbor. At least I can practice being true blue.

Independence Day is a day to remember as a nation to never give up on the idea of America upon which this nation was founded. To keep working to make this idea, real.

And for Christians, it is a day almost like any other day in this country where we are not compelled to be an Episcopalian or a Roman Catholic or a Baptists or a believer of any particular kind or even a believer in God at all. For Christians, it is a day to be true blue for God and for one another. Jesus’ words, especially his hard words, are the scales of the Kingdom we practice. Through the mercy of God, even our striving to make the idea of the Kingdom real in this world, even if we will never become experts, are answered with a taste of that Heavenly Banquet here and now, through which God declares that he is true blue for you. Amen.