Epiphany 6, Year A, 2017

Choose life.

This is Moses’ final message to the Israelites. Moses has been called by God, led the Israelites out of Egypt, wandered around with them in the desert for forty years and now, now finally, they are about to cross into the promised land.

But what Moses knows, and what the Israelites don’t know yet, is that Moses won’t be joining them. He is 120 years old and is dying. He has been with these people for so long and put up with so much from them. He has put up with their whining for better food, for their worshiping of a Golden Calf, for their longing for a past in which they had been enslaved. And yet, Moses still loves them. Moses wants what is good for them.

So Moses asks them to choose life.

He sets before the Israelites a choice: choose life and prosperity or death or adversity. Easy choice, right?

But choosing life hasn’t been an easy choice for the Israelites, because in this context choosing life means choosing God’s law. And choosing God’s law means worshiping God above everything else. Worshiping God means no longer creating idols—either literal ones like the Golden Calf or metaphorical ones like money, or how we look, or our families.

But Moses has seen what has happened to Israel when they have chosen other idols. He has seen them struggle, seen them wander in the desert and he wants more for them. He wants them to be able to settle down in the land of milk and honey. He wants for them to live at peace with God and with one another. He wants them to prosper.

God’s laws—from the Ten Commandments on—were always meant to be good for people. They were meant to give us boundaries on our life to help us live in peaceful community. Worship God. Do not murder. Do not take what does not belong to you. Honor your family. Don’t lie. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t even have lustful thoughts towards another person’s spouse. All these boundaries are good for us. And Jewish law has always been situational. The Israelites renegotiate the Covenant with God twice once they reach Canaan and rabbis were famous for deeply examining and arguing and working with Jewish law to apply it to new situations as they arose. God’s law is ancient, but it is flexible and it is meant for our good.

The law helps us make good decisions when our instincts are telling us otherwise. I ordered a new duvet and set of shams from West Elm a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised when I received two boxes. When I opened them, I realized they had accidentally sent me a double order: two duvets and four shams. My first reaction was joy! It was a bedding jackpot! I was mentally storing up the extras so I would have a bonus set. But then, sadly, the law kicked in. I reluctantly looked at the return slip and sure enough there was an option to return things because the store accidentally sent you extras. Keeping the bedding would have been stealing. (Even though, to be clear, it was totally the company’s fault.)

Now I don’t think death would have come upon me had I kept that bedding. But, if we live inside the boundaries of these laws, we are less likely to harm others and ourselves.

When God’s laws are broken, the pain from that break spirals out affecting not only the person who broke the law, but their families and friends, too. While breaking God’s law may not kill us, it can mortally wound our relationships.

If we are able to be clear about what God desires for us, it can help us resist those moment’s of temptation. What do I really want when I click on that old girlfriend’s FaceBook page? Connection? How can I get human connection in a more appropriate way? What hole am I feeling when I covet my neighbor’s new chandelier? How can I feel content in my own life?

But of course, we don’t always choose to stay within the law. When I’m talking to little kids about this, I describe our sins as building blocks that we put up between ourselves and other people or God. When we covet, when we cheat, when we steal, we lay block after block and eventually, we stop being able to relate to the person we are harming at all. We depersonalize them in order to justify our behavior.

The good news is, there is a way to knock down those blocks and start to build the trust that leads to life.

When we take responsibility for our actions and understand how we have harmed others, and sincerely ask for forgiveness, we put the people we have harmed in the position where they can forgive us, and begin to tear those blocks down. Now, it is a risk, because you will not always be forgiven. Sometimes you have broken the law so badly that the relationship cannot be repaired. Or sometimes, the person you have harmed may be putting up blocks of their own out of pain and anger.

Because God decided to take pity on us, and send us Jesus, it is now so much easier to ask forgiveness of God. We don’t save up money for any sacrificial animals. We don’t have to travel to the city to find a Temple and a priest to absolve us. All we need to do is turn to God and ask his forgiveness, and because of Jesus’ defeat of human sin, God will forgive us. Every time.

No matter how far down a path of death we have traveled, God always offers us life in exchange. And I say this at least once a year, but I think Alcoholics Anonymous gives us just a perfect example of what this transformation can look like. You acknowledge your weakness, acknowledge you need God, ask forgiveness to those you have wounded and in step eleven: “[Seek] through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

If we stay connected to God through prayer, we are more likely to stay in the behavioral boundaries that God desires for us and that lead to healthy and happy relationships.

And those in AA don’t go it alone. AA only works because its members work the steps in community. They have accountability through sponsors. The closest we have to sponsors in the Episcopal tradition is godparents, and I think we would do well to really claim that tradition. I don’t have an actual godparent, but Beth Wharton has acted as my god parent on more than one occasion! And Charlie doesn’t have godparents, because he was baptized in the Presbyterian church, but he’s had at least a dozen of you function that way for him. It is good for us to have church people we know so well that they can help us check in with ourselves to make sure we are on track. But that means we have to be honest with each other about what is going on in our lives!

I promise you, no one in this room has a perfect life. No matter how attractive they are. No matter what kind of car they drive. No matter how happy they seem. Everyone here struggles with something. Because it is hard to be a person! It is especially hard to be a decent person trying their best to follow God.

Just like Moses stuck by the Israelites, Jesus sticks by us. He is on our side, ready to invite us into life. He’s ready to guide us into a way of life that gives life to us and to those around us.

May we accept his invitation.

Amen.

 

 

 

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Epiphany 4, Year A, 2017

You know how when you’re waiting to board the plane, you start to hear, “Platinum Diamond passengers are welcome to board. Gold Passengers are welcome to board. Frequent fliers are welcome to board. First class passengers are welcome to board.” By the time they get to you, in section five, with your seat right next to the rest room, you have a pretty clear understanding of what your status is. Low.

Whether we like it or not, our status in life is incredibly determinative of our life experiences. Some of us have great status. We are born to parents who have a house and some money and live near good schools. Some of us have worse status. We are born in poverty and violence and go to poorly funded schools. And status affects us whether we even realize it or not. Our status can determine what kind of higher education we get, where we get our first internship, whom we marry. Even our church denominations have status attached to them. Of the 45 Presidents our nation has had, a quarter of them were Episcopalians! Another eight were Presbyterian. There’s a lone Roman Catholic on the list, and no Pentecostals. You didn’t know you were grooming future Presidents by bringing your kids here, did you? Even within an individual congregation, social status can sometimes creep in and affect who has positions of power and who is taken seriously.

The Corinthians really struggled with status. We heard last week about how they were fighting about being followers of Paul or Apollos or Peter. This was just part of their struggle. Corinth was a new money town, full of people striving to climb the social ladder. And the church at Corinth was filled with a real mix of people of different statuses. The power structures of the world were getting played out in the local congregation. Rich people would gather for communion first and eat up all the good food before the poor people could get there. The church was also a mix of Jewish and Greek people, so their religious status was also an issue. The different groups were not united, not treating each other with kindness. People of higher statuses were acting like they were more special than people of lower statuses.

You might expect to Paul to wade in and sort out these arguments for the Corinthians—give them some direction about who was right and who was wrong. But Paul wants to make a larger point.

He says, “for the logos of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

New Testament scholar Alex Brown points out that

For Jews, the logos was the law and Wisdom … For Greeks, the logos signified the reason behind the cosmic order and the advances of philosophy in understanding that order.”2 Brown concludes, “This ‘logos of the cross’ constitutes a contradiction in terms offensive both to the reasoned and to the religious mind.[1]

Paul is saying much more than that the cross is a message. He is saying that the cross is part of the cosmic order. And in this cosmic order, statuses are upended, if not discarded altogether.

One would think that God would have the ultimate status. He rules over all of creation and everything within it. He could come to earth and lord over us all. Instead, when God does come to earth, he chooses not to exercise his status. Instead he is humiliated, put to death on the cross as a common criminal. If Epiphany is a series of revelations, this is a huge one: that God did not come here to lord over us, but to come alongside us and face even our worst humiliations.

Whatever our status, whomever we follow, any airs we might put on look ridiculous when compared to God’s sacrifice and humility. Paul writes,

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

Our world feels a lot like Corinth these days! Instead of people following Appollos and Paul, we have followers of Jerry Falwell or Jack Spong; Tim Keller or Nadia Bolz Weber. Conservative and liberal Christians have been at each others’ throats, convinced the other side fundamentally misunderstands who God is and what God wills for our country.

Is God primarily interested in us being faithful to the law and living pure lives? Or is God primarily interested in us being compassionate and welcoming to as diverse a group of people as possible? Whatever our position, we have certainly been getting on our high horses as we align ourselves with religious leaders, teachers, and politicians that reflect our beliefs. Whatever you believe, there is a Christian somewhere ready to yell at you about how your status as a Christian is questionable.

And it is humbling to remember that Jesus died for this. He knows this about us. He knows we can’t even talk about God without becoming defensive and hurtful. And instead of whipping us into shape and telling us what to do, he comes alongside us, loves us, and sacrifices himself for us.

That is foolishness! That makes no sense! It’s almost embarrassing to think about how the God of the Universe came to love us despite how incredibly petty we can be, how willing we are to demonize people, how sure we are that we are right about everything.

Whenever we are in conflict with another person, whether about politics, religion, or anything else, it is helpful for us to spend some time at the foot of the cross. Spending time with Jesus, who offers everything to us with utter vulnerability and without any regard to status, reorients us. And it helps us to give up our status—which is just an illusion anyway. And if we are willing to give up our status maybe we’ll be willing to encounter Christ in the other.

When anyone around us got too self-righteous, my mother would mutter, “He’s going to be really surprised at who is with him in heaven.” She was not a theologian, but I think she was on to something. We’ll all be there together—liberal do-gooders and conservative rule followers—because our salvation is not based on us believing the right doctrine, but on a series of historical acts—Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. And if we each focus on following Christ, rather than tearing into each other maybe we can get somewhere constructive. I have conservative and liberal Christian relatives. The conservatives help pack meals for the hungry and volunteer in schools. The liberals volunteer in soup kitchens and teach Sunday School. While their ideas about policy are completely opposite from each other, the way they live out their faith is very similar.

And I think we could yell at each other for days without anyone changing their minds about a single thing! There is a path forward, I think, in which we boldly express our opinions and frustrations to our elected leaders, and find a way of talking to those close to us that is rooted in the humility of being people who are free of status, standing together at the foot of the cross.

And Christians need to get our act together because the world needs Jesus and Christians are Jesus’ current delivery system. Jesus did not die for us so that we could be right. Jesus died for us so God’s kingdom could spread throughout the world. A world of peace and justice. The world needs us. Refugees need us. Kids being trafficked need us. Hopeless people who have turned to heroin as a way out need us. Kids who can’t count on a meal at the end of the day need us.

At Diocesan Convention this weekend, Bishop Gulick reminded us that we are each crucial. The word crucial means cross shaped. We are crucial, because we stand at the foot of the cross–able to see ourselves and others clearly. There is no us and them, there is just us, forgiven and loved by God.

Let’s get to work.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3140

Epiphany 2, Year A, 2017

We know Jesus’ debut really well right?

We definitely have his birth story down. We read it every year. If our kids are of a certain age, we may even have the pageant script memorized! We know how Jesus came on the scene.

But what about his adult debut? We know he gets baptized, of course. We could probably give a pretty clear description of how he comes across John the Baptist in the wilderness and asks to be baptized. We might even remember that the heavens open for a moment and God’s voice booms down, “This my son, the beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

But what about Jesus’ first public words in each Gospel? How does he present himself?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes out of his experience of temptation in the desert, goes right to the temple, unrolls a scroll and begins to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes out of the desert and proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These are all dramatic proclamations of Jesus’ identity. He is telling the world who he is, and what he stands for. Today though, we aren’t reading from those Gospels. Today, we are reading from the Gospel of John.

In the Gospel of John, we get a slightly different story. Jesus’ baptism happens off-stage. We just get John’s word for it that God spoke and called Jesus his beloved. Two of John’s followers overhear John saying that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This makes them curious, so they start to secretly follow Jesus. Can you picture them staying a few paces back, occasionally slipping behind a tree when he looks around? Eventually Jesus stops, turns around, and speaks his first public words. But these words aren’t a profound declaration about who he is. He asks a question, “What are you looking for?” Another translation might be, “What are you seeking?”

These are Jesus’ very first followers. Can you imagine? He now has literally a billion followers, but once there were just two. Two curious men willing to sneak around to follow someone they knew to be of God. Two men willing to be impolite, willing to drop whatever their plans were for the day. Two men willing to be out in the wilderness listening to John the Baptist talk about God. We laugh at their bumbling attempts to tail Jesus, but they are the genesis of a movement that would change the world.

What were they seeking? What are we seeking? Why do we come here week after week to sing old songs and pray old prayers and eat the same meal we eat every single week? Do we come to be soothed by traditions that are familiar to us? Do we come to see people we love? Do we come to encounter the Divine? What are we seeking?

Andrew and his friend don’t have an answer to Jesus’ question. They ask a question in return, “Where are you staying?” Where does the Lamb of God stay? Does he rent a motel room? Stay with a friend? Does he carry a tent with him? Maybe they are really wondering how on earth the Lamb of God dwells with us. How is the presence of God able to stay here, with us? How does that even work?

Jesus invites them to “come and see”. It is his first invitation. In the other Gospels he tells his disciples to “follow me,” but here the invitation has a lower level of commitment. He responds to their immediate question. He doesn’t force them into anything. He simply invites them to see where he is staying. That initial invitation is the beginning of a huge change in the world. Andrew runs off to grab his brother, Simon. Simon, who becomes Peter, who becomes the rock of the church after Jesus’ death. In these very initial moments of Jesus’ ministry, the church is being born. By following Jesus, these disciples get to be part of history.

Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and the other disciple, still stands. “Come and see.” Whatever you are seeking: comfort, forgiveness, joy, meaning; Jesus invites you to come and see what following him will do to your life. Now, be warned, you may not get what you intend. The disciples end up being so devoted to Jesus they each ultimately died in his name.

We may not literally die from following Jesus, but we will be called to die to ourselves. For when we come and see what Jesus is up to, we see that following him isn’t that easy. When we follow Jesus we have to look at ourselves honestly. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we have to love other people. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we are supposed to put God’s priorities over our own. That’s definitely not easy.

But Jesus knows following him won’t be easy. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes,

For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,” He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.

“Come and see.” It is a simple, life changing invitation.

We all have different levels and interests in faith, but this Epiphany we invite you to “Come and see”. Wondered about contemplative prayer? You don’t have to be an expert to come. You don’t have to have prayed a minute in your life! Just come on Mondays at noon and join our prayer team. They’ll teach you what you need to know.

Curious about how it feels to worship God in a different kind of service? Come and see our Celtic service. You may encounter a part of God you’ve not experienced before.

Want to get to know God better? Come and see the bible study for Education for Ministry group? Both work to equip you for a deeper faith by educating you about what we believe about God.

There are many ways to encounter Jesus in this place. Wherever you are, he extends an invitation to you. Come and see.

It will change your life.

Amen.

Epiphany 4, 2016

If I were staging a modern day version of the scene we get in last week and this week’s Gospel lectionary, this is how it would go:

You are in small, dusty town, when all of a sudden you hear a loud base beat. As you look into the distance you see someone driving slowly in a convertible, one hand on the wheel. The car pulls up to the synagogue, Jesus cool as a cucumber, steps out of the car, pulls off his sunglasses, and looks slowly around his hometown. He calmly ascends the synagogue steps, unrolls a scroll of Scripture, reads it and then says those famous words that start, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. . .” When he finishes, he would drop his mic. Or the scroll, or something. The point is, it would be very cool, you guys. In modern parlance, the Jesus in this scene is very baller.

Jesus is super confident and the crowds love it! They love that this hometown boy, Joseph’s son, has gone on to do such amazing things.

Well, they love what he says until he reports that he will be doing no miracles in his hometown. Now, in the text, they don’t ask him to do miracles. He just announces he won’t do any. And then he announces that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. And then, as if to make that prophecy come true, Jesus starts throwing some serious shade.

One would think that Jesus’ friends and relatives in Nazareth would be at the heart of the gospel message. After all, wouldn’t Jesus want to share the good news and do miracles, for the people he loved the most?

Instead, Jesus tells the crowd two stories. He reminds them that Elijah did not help every person who was suffering from the famine, only a widow in Sidon. And Elisha did not help every leper, only Namaan, the Syrian.

Both the widow and Namaan are outsiders. If she is a poor widow, it means she had no family willing to take her in. And Namaan was a Syrian! He was of a different nationality. He was not part of the in crowd.

Now, this is old news to us. Jesus loves outsiders, we get it. But for those of you who were at Sunday School today, you’ll have learned that just a few hundred years before Jesus, prophets were telling the Jewish people not to marry outside of their faith, and even to expel non-Jews from Jerusalem. The prophets were concerned that non-Jews were introducing false gods and tempting Jews to worship them. They thought being insular might be a good solution. Now, we know this was not true for all of Jewish history. As Professor Adams taught us, Israel and Judah were always porous, always living amongst other nations. But, in the latter part of the New Testament, this exclusion of the other was definitely a part of the culture.

So, the good old citizens of Nazareth are deeply insulted that Jesus would rather spread his gifts around outsiders than his own community! They are so mad, they try to force him off a cliff!

Jesus, cool as ever, just walks through the crowd and on to Capernaum where he teaches and exorcises a demon.

In the Gospel of Luke, the attention and energy of God is always with those on the margins. Jesus seems to always be with the unexpected—the tax collector, the woman with a shady past, lepers, the ill. And of course, after Jesus’ death the early church went through the exciting and painful realization that Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the joy of Christian community was for everyone—including those who were not Jewish.

The Jesus of Luke’s gospel really challenges us who in some ways are in the position of the good people of Nazareth. We are the respectable ones now, with a long tradition of following God. We Episcopalians are so proud of our apostolic tradition, in which we can trace our Bishops all the way back to Peter.

What would it look like for us to keep our eyes open for where God is working in the margins?

Have you heard of the Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards? I have no idea what his religious background is, but he is a environmental engineering professor. A decade ago, he uncovered contaminated water in Washington DC and fought the CDC for years until they acknowledged that yes, the city’s pipes were deteriorating and DC residents were being poisoned by the water. Well, a resident of Flint, Michigan named Leanne Walters read about him, contacted him and mailed him samples of the local water to test. She had previously sent samples to the EPA, which claimed the water was safe. The local government also repeatedly told residents the water was safe to drink. But these residents could observe their children’s hair falling out and knew things were not right. It was professor Edwards’ who discovered that the levels of lead in Flint, Michigan were shockingly high. One glass of the water was enough to poison a child and children had been drinking the water for two years. Now, at this point, professor Edwards, who had already been financially strapped and slandered by many during his years long fight with Washington, DC officials could have let the people of Flint handle the rest of the fight on their own. The Washington Post reports that he shared his findings with the EPA, who ignored him. He then pulled a team at VA Tech together who filed Freedom of Information Act requests to prove that the local governments and EPA knew about the conditions of the water in Flint. He has gone through $150,000 of his research and personal funds to fight for the people of Flint, Michigan.

His courage motivated Dr. Mona Hatta-Attis, a Michigan pediatrician and daughter of Iraqi immigrants, to start testing her patients. The levels of lead she found in her patients had doubled and even tripled since the source of the water had been changed. She continued to press this point, even after local city officials and media accused her of being hysterical. Dr. Edwards had an ally inside the EPA, as well, Miguel Del Toral, who released internal memos a year ago arguing the water of Flint was unsafe. His boss suppressed his findings. Working together, these four people–fought and fought and fought until public attention was brought to the problem.

Dr. Edwards so won the trust of the people of Flint that they insisted he be in charge of restoring their water systems He agreed.

I think Ms. Walters, Dr. Edwards, Dr. Hatta-Attis and Mr. Del Toral are living examples of what it means to be in the world like Jesus was in the world. In their case, the outsiders they cared about were the children of Flint, Michigan.  They stayed calm under pressure and continue to speak their truths even when faced with enormous opposition. They knew that these children, who have no money, no prestige, no power were important enough to protect.

Now, not very many of us are going to ever be in the position to be a hero under these kind of circumstances. But fifty of you, FIFTY, participated in some way in our PACEM ministry to homeless women this week. Fifty of you donated your resources or time or presence to give women a nurturing environment instead of a cold night on the streets.

And each of us has the opportunity in our daily lives to listen to the stories of people who are different than we are. We have the ability to grow in our understanding of what life is like for people beyond Albemarle County, or what life is like in the corners of our county that don’t usually get attention. We have the ability to reach out and make connections with people in our neighborhoods and offices and classrooms. When we follow Jesus, we never know where we will land! May God give us the privilege of joining him on the margins and seeing him at work. Amen.

To donate to the Flint Water Study or for clean water for Flint residents, go here.

 

Epiphany 4, Year B, 2015

First, a note to thank Eric for covering for me last Sunday! It is a great gift to work with a rector who completely understands your need to stay home with a feverish pre-schooler. And thank you all for all your concern. Charlie is just fine, thankfully.

This sermon was written for last week’s lectionary texts, when I was originally scheduled to preach. I encourage you to open your bibles to 1st Corinthians, chapter 8 from which this sermon springs.

On December 27th, a few days after Christmas, the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, hit bicyclist Tom Palermo at 2:30 in the afternoon, killing him. She initially fled the scene, and then returned a half hour later. News of this hit and run has been all over newspapers and social media, especially when it was revealed Bishop Cook’s blood alcohol content was .22, which is the equivalent of having consumed at least ten alcoholic beverages. More questions emerged when it turned out that Bishop Cook had been arrested for a DUI in 2010 with a BAC of .27. This DUI had been revealed to the search committee for the Diocese of Maryland, but was not revealed to the larger Diocese.

This whole awful situation has raised many, many questions. Why did she agree to stand for election when she clearly needed help? Why did the search committee not see her previous DUI as a red flag? But Mike Kinman, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Louis has the most interesting question, I think. He writes:

 The right question is everything. And the right question is this:

 What does this say about us?

 What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

 He goes on to say:

I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.

And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.

Phew. Instead of locating the problem solely on Heather Cook’s shoulders, Canon Kinman encourages us to look at our entire church’s relationship with alcohol and addiction. But what do we have to do with Bishop Cook’s problem? We don’t even know Bishop Cook, right?

Believe it or not, Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about idol meat can help us here.

Yes, I know you have been waiting your whole life to hear what Paul has to say about idol meat and today is your lucky day!

Here is the situation at Corinth: You have a new Christian community mixed up of all kinds of different people. A group of “elites” has started to act in really snotty ways. They arrive at communion before everyone else and eat and drink up all the good bread and wine, they think their spiritual lives are way better than everyone else’s, and they happily eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Why would Corinthians even be eating meat sacrificed to idols? Corinth was a diverse town, and there were lots of people for whom worshiping their gods meant sacrificing an animal to their god. After these animals were sacrificed, there would be big social feasts in which the animals would be consumed as part of the meal.

The conflict in the Corinthian Christian community was whether it was appropriate for Christians to eat the food at these parties. After all, it had been sacrificed to a God that was not the Christian God.

The Christian leadership in Jerusalem had decided that there was nothing a person could eat that could defile them. But this was a really, really new idea. The Corinthian elites understood this concept and so thought eating the meat at these parties was no big deal. But there were other people in the community for whom the idea was just horrifying. They had recently become converts and eating the idol meat was just too yucky for them, felt too close to worshiping false gods. The elites thought these conflicted people were stupid, basically, and appealed to Paul to share his knowledge with them.

But Paul turns things around on the Corinthian elites. He tells them that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on to say that while the Corinthian elites were technically correct in their understanding of the issue, their knowledge didn’t really matter. What was important was that this issue was becoming a real stumbling block in the faith of the other Corinthians. Paul tells the elites if they sin against members of their family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, they sin against Christ.

The members of the church at Corinth belonged to each other, whether the elites liked it or not. Their welfare as a community hinged on the well being of every member, not just the “knowledgeable” ones.

I believe alcohol may be the Episcopal church’s idol meat. I came to the Episcopal Church after a brief flirtation with more conservative Evangelical traditions. At my first Wednesday night supper at St. James’ Episcopal church in Richmond I was totally stunned and, thrilled frankly, to see wine being served at a church dinner. It was my first clue that the Episcopal Church understood that one could lead a holy life without following all the “rules” so dominant in more conservative traditions. We can dance and play cards and enjoy a beer. I love the freedom of the Episcopal church. I also really enjoy a glass of wine! But I have also been in parishes where police had to be called because of public drunkenness at a church party and where a rector had to wrestle keys out of the hands of an inebriated parishioner. This week Episcopal Relief and Development announced a contest for Dioceses to raise the most money for relief efforts. The prize? A Beer Tasting at General Convention for the winning delegation. The culture of alcohol lives at every level of our church life.

Bishop Cook is far from the first cleric to be an alcoholic. And I’d hate to see the statistics of the numbers of clergy who use alcohol unhealthiy, even if they are not technically alcoholics.

I think Bishop Cook’s arrest is a wake up call for every Episcopal parish. In the spirit of Canon Kinman’s essay, I ask you to help me think about our parish’s relationship with alcohol. I floated a case study about a recovering alcoholic in the ethics Adult Forum I did a few months ago and the general sense was that it was the sole responsibility of the person in recovery to manage her own sobriety. But I think the apostle Paul would argue with us. I think he would ask us to take a hard look at our life together and really look at whether we are causing stumbling blocks for any one in our parish life.

I would love for anyone planning a church function—whether that be a Lenten supper, Ladies’ Night, or a parish retreat—to think really carefully about how alcohol is used in the function. Are parishioners being pressured into drinking? Is alcohol in the foreground or background of the event? Are there elegant alternatives to alcohol? We can probably do better than powdered lemonade.

If you are an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic, I invite you to share with me how you have felt safe or unsafe in our church setting. What can we do to make church a place where you feel respected and supported? Since the nature of recovery is often that those in recovery are anonymous, please feel free to send me anonymous letters if that would be more helpful to you.

This conversation may raise your anxiety levels, especially if you or someone you love in in trouble with alcohol or other addictions. But Canon Kinman has words of encouragement for us around the good news of Jesus Christ:

But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus’ saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question — no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.[1]

And to that I add a hearty, Amen.

[1] Kinman, Michael, http://cccdean.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-right-question-about-bishop-cook.html

Christmas 2, Year B, 2015

Happy Second Sunday of Christmas!

We still have two days left in the Christmas season and today we turn our attention to the other nativity story. We have spent plenty of time with baby Jesus, angels and shepherds the last few weeks. That nativity story, the one with which we are so familiar, is from the Gospel of Luke.

Today’s story of the nativity is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. And it is very different. While Luke’s story of the nativity is appropriate for, say, ABC Family channel, Matthew’s version is more of an HBO situation.

In Matthew’s version, angels don’t appear to any shepherds. Instead, three Zoroastrian priests, wise men who study the stars, have observed a strange star they have never seen before. They somehow figure out that this means that the child who will be King of the Jews has been born and so they travel to Jerusalem to find him.

When King Herod and the rest of Jerusalem hears of their inquiries, their reaction is not to throw open their arms to welcome this holy infant. Instead, they are thrown into fear.

And isn’t that a painfully honest human reaction?

King Herod likes being in charge. The people of Jerusalem like stability. They’ve had enough conflict. The last thing they need is a new king jockeying for power. A new king is not necessarily good news.

These wise men will not be dissuaded, though. Even though Herod tries to gain their trust so he can find and eliminate this threat to his power, the wise men outsmart him and go visit Jesus anyway. But when they visit him they bring three very strange gifts.

First, they give Jesus gold, which symbolizes his kingship. They recognize his authority, even if the world doesn’t.

Second, they give him frankincense, which symbolizes his divinity. These wise men, who aren’t even from the Jewish tradition, recognize that the Christ child is of God.

Finally, they give Jesus myrrh. Myrrh was traditionally used in the burial of the body. This third gift is almost a foreshadowing of how Christ will be received into the world. Instead of a joyful birth narrative, here we have three strangers both worshiping and grieving God born into the world.

And immediately following this passage, we get the horrible story of the slaughter of the innocents. Herod, hoping to eliminate the threat in his kingdom, orders all children younger than two years old murdered.

Jesus is born into a vile, vile world. A world in which thousands of children are sacrificed for no reason other than one man’s quest for power.

We recognize this world, because it is not that different from our own. We are too familiar with the way murder and killing destroys families and communities. We have experienced it in our own town and watched protests around the world. We have mourned Hannah Graham, Alexis Murphy and Robin and Mani Aldridge. We have mourned with black communities and with police officers. We have watched in horror as Boko Haram and ISIS have terrorized our brothers and sisters to the east.

We live in an adult world filled with violence and pain. We need a God that can handle complexity, handle our sin, and see the good in us despite all the evidence to the contrary. We need a God that can handle those in power, whose goodness can overpower the evil of the corrupt.

And so Matthew gives us his nativity story. A story that reminds us that God knew exactly what he was doing. He was sending his Son to be born in a world filled with corruption and violence. But God didn’t fight corruption and violence with political power or more violence. Instead, he chose an ordinary faithful girl from a faithful family. He chose an ordinary faithful fiancé, who would do the right thing even when his first instinct was to back away.

And together Mary and Joseph managed to birth the Son of God into the world. And protect and raise the child with all the strength and wisdom he would need to do his terribly difficult job.

Even in the midst of a vile and corrupt world, with God’s help ordinary people managed to birth light into the world.

No matter how overwhelming our world may seem, with God’s help we too can bring light into the darkness.

My sister, Marianne, spent part of a summer in Sierra Leone doing teacher training a few years ago. She made some good friends there and keeps in touch with them through Facebook and email. I have been so struck by friends of hers like Samuel Sesay, who sent his family to the US so they would be safe, but stayed behind to help serve his community. He tells stories of so many faithful Chrsitians facing the darkness of this terrifying disease, but remaining home so they can deliver supplies, help enforce quarantines, and lead worship services for communities in real crisis. Christians like Samuel are bringing light into darkness. Hope into what must feel like a hopeless situation.

What’s wonderful to me is how many of you are the faithful people of our generation, birthing light into the world every day. Bringing Jesus with you as you parent, grandparent and foster parent. Bringing light with you as you care for an aging spouse. Bringing light with you as you interact with patients, clients and students. Bringing light with you as you pray for peace and fight for justice.

Bringing light into the world is hard work. But it lightens our load when we remember that it is not our job to generate the light. We are not mice on a wheel trying hard to create enough energy for God to show up.

God is already here, waiting to bring love and light into our lives.

No matter how dark it might appear to you, God is here, ready to share his light with you.

Thanks be to God.

Epiphany 6, Year A, 2014

In the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday and the next three Sundays Eric, Jordan and I are pleased to offer a sermon series entitled, “For the love of God.”

After hearing today’s Gospel you may be thinking to yourself, “Sarah must have drawn the short straw!”

Today’s Gospel reading is one of the most painful we have.  This reading has been used to ostracize people from their communities, to shame abused people from leaving their spouses, and make people wonder if they were really loved by God if they continued to have angry thoughts and lustful feelings.  My grandmother was not allowed to take communion in the Catholic church the final forty years of her life because her marriage to my grandfather ended.  She became isolated from the church she had loved.

What is Jesus doing here?  Where is hanging-out-with-the-sinners Jesus?  Where is Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know-for-the-bible-tells-me-so Jesus?  We may be tempted to throw out these verses.  We may prefer to just live with a warm and fuzzy Jesus who does not ask too much of us.  But the truth is, Jesus does ask something of us.

In the Sermon on the Mount, which precedes this passage, Jesus has just said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Part of loving God and following Jesus means we should be hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Yes, we are forgiven of our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but even as we screw up and are forgiven over and over again, the arc of our lives should be an arc that moves toward righteousness.  And by righteousness, I mean living like Jesus wants us to live.

The first thing to note is that to Jesus, the assumption is that his followers live in community.  People at the time lived with extended family, with servants or in the homes of the people they were serving.  They didn’t live in isolated suburban or rural houses like we do.  People lived in community. So, for Jesus, living a righteous life, rooted in God’s love means learning how to live in community.

Love your neighbor as yourself could be the overarching theme of our passage today.

First, Jesus tackles anger.  The crowd following Jesus knows they aren’t supposed to murder anyone, but Jesus contextualizes Scripture for them to enlarge their responsibility.  Jesus wants to get underneath the law, to help his followers understand the heart and the meaning behind the law.  As human beings, Jesus wants us to be in respectful relationship with each other.  We are not to be angry with each other, or even insult one another.  Jesus is probably not very happy with the comments sections of the internet, political ads, or any episode of Real Housewives.  More seriously, this means Jesus does not condone any type of abuse—either physical or emotional.  Jesus longs for his people to be in relationship with each other, to face conflict with dignity and compassion.

You may not be aware of this, but every week our liturgy lives out a principle of reconciliation.  The exchange of the Peace is not just a chance to take a seventh inning stretch and check out what your neighbors are wearing.  The Peace happens after confession, but before the offering, so you can live out this verse in Matthew:  “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The function of the Peace is for you to reach out to people who have hurt you or people whom you have hurt, so you can present your offering to God with a clear conscience. The peace is intended to maintain a healthy community, where reconciliation is part of our weekly experience.

And while murder and adultery may seem only distantly related, the prohibition against each comes from this same preservation of community.  While a prohibition against holding onto anger can protect the harmony of a community, Jesus’ prohibition against lust and divorce protects the weaker members of the community.  Remember that Jesus was speaking to particular people in particular contexts.  In the time, only men could initiate divorce, and if they did, their former wives were often left in real trouble—without income, without a support system.  I don’t know what Jesus would say to us in our context—we can divorce each other without leaving each other penniless and powerless—but at the very least, Jesus would want us to treat each other with dignity and respect.  I am certain he would allow my grandmother to have received communion those last 40 years.  On the other hand, sexual harassment or abuse, adultery, abuse of power—these can really damage people and the Christian communities in which they live.  These violations can shatter not only the relationship within a family, but can destroy the bonds of trust within the entire community.

And if you weren’t already feeling overwhelmed, Jesus goes on to say that his followers shouldn’t swear or make an oath promising something.  We should just say yes or no and let our answers stand for ourselves.  Does that mean we are disobeying Jesus every time we swear in as a juror?  What about when we click on those terms of service agreements websites make you affirm?  Sheesh!  The culmination of things we are not supposed to do in this passage is enough to make us afraid to step outside our door for fear of disappointing God!

We live in tension as Christians, between law and Grace.  There are certain rules we are expected to follow, but in a modern era we have to think about them really carefully since some make sense in our context, but others make less sense as we learn more and more about the world.  And even if we sort out all the rules we should follow, our minds rebel.  Our neo-cortex may understand that being angry at someone is bad for our souls and our community, but our limbic system is ready to throw a punch!  In the same way, we know in our heads that it is a bad idea to look up that high school sweetheart on Facebook, but sometimes a little online flirting seems easier than facing the challenges in our marriage.  Growing into a Christian who can learn to let go of anger and lust takes time, discernment, and a lot of prayer.

We are all going to make mistakes.  We are all going to find ourselves attracted to someone we shouldn’t be, or unable to let go of an insult.  We may find it easier to be a bully than to admit vulnerability.  But God’s grace is still for us.

God came to earth in the form of Jesus, because he knew we were incapable of living perfect lives.  God’s grace still applies to us, even when, especially when, we are unable to live up to God’s commandments.  We are forgiven, over and over again.

However, we are also given the Holy Spirit.  And that Holy Spirit is what enables us to grow and mature over time. The Holy Spirit gives us the courage to look at ourselves honestly and to keep trying our best, even when we make mistakes.  Christian maturity is not a sprint—we won’t live perfect lives until we are united with God after our deaths.

In a counterintuitive way, our mistakes can be avenues to deepen community and our relationship with God. When we start to understand that everyone around us is broken, and imperfect, it’s a lot easier to be forgiving.  When Ra leads weekly yoga on Mondays, she often says something along the lines of “Offer compassion to yourself and others.  Everyone is doing the best they can with what they know and where they’re from.”  We are in this struggle of life together.  That’s really Jesus’ point here.  He knows we need each other and he doesn’t want us to blow this amazing gift we have in each other.  He doesn’t want us to become fragmented and distant and untrusting.  He wants us to be real with each other and to take joy in each other and to help each other grow.  He wants us to practice forgiveness with each other.  He wants us to practice being friends with appropriate boundaries.  He wants us to practice protecting weaker members of the community.  He wants us to practice honesty and trustworthiness with each other. The Christian Community, the church, is one of the biggest gifts God gives us.  In an ideal world, the church is a place where people from all different walks of life, all interests and political views, can come together and form a new family.  And when you have such a diverse group of people trying to figure out how to love each other, we need boundaries.  We need rules, so we can all be on the same page.  And so, just as God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, Jesus gives us the gift of an expanded view of the law, a law that reaches all the way down deep into our hearts and reminds us that God is not interested in our obedience, so much as he is in our hearts.

This Valentine’s Day Weekend, the best gift you can give God is to do your best to love your community, knowing that you are surrounded by the grace and love of the God who made you.