Proper 9, Year B, 2012

What is on your resumé?

You list your successes, right?  You tell your future employers that you are an incredibly competent individual with a great track record of success!  You tell them you have managed projects and people, that you have delivered deliverables, and of course, that you are competent in the use of Microsoft Office and some basic HTML.

When you write your college essays, you try to horn in every sport you played and every drama production in which you performed.  You make sure to tell universities about your community service and your summer jobs.  If your SAT scores were great, you make sure that information is front and center!  And if they were lousy, you work extra hard to play up your other wonderful qualities.

And on a first date, you don’t lead with stories of how you completely ruined your last relationship.  You don’t admit that you spend most nights on your couch watching Law and Order re-runs.  No!  You make yourself sound extremely personable and interesting.  You talk about your travels, the exotic food you like to cook, what complex novel you’ve been reading.

Knowing and being confident about your strengths is part of surviving in our world.  Even in the church we do spiritual gifts inventories and think about our vocations in terms of our strengths meeting the needs of the world.

But do we rely so much on our strengths we forget to rely on God?  By having a culture in which people are valued for their contributions and accolades, where does that leave people who are unable to contribute?  Where does that leave people who have won no prizes?

The Apostle Paul is the founder of Christianity.  His writings were the first writings we had about Jesus.  His epistles were written years before the Gospels were written.  He traveled constantly, spreading the good news about Jesus.

His ministry was difficult, because he was ministering to places that were far away. He would help set up church communities and then keep up with them by letter, and in his absence, things would often fall apart.  Corinth was one of these places.

When Paul left Corinth, a group of other people claiming to be Jesus’ apostles came into town.  They tried to undermine Paul’s authority by arguing that if God was really pleased with Paul, Paul would not suffer.  But, since Paul has been beaten, arrested, even shipwrecked, God must not be in his corner.

This news gets to Paul and he writes the Corinthians this letter.  Paul is not ashamed of the things that have happened to him.  He claims each of them as part of his unique experience, and even as badges of honor.

Paul is confident in his faith.  In our reading today, he reveals this incredible spiritual experience he’s had.  However, he also reveals that he has some sort of “thorn in the flesh” that keeps him from getting too elated.  No one knows what this thorn is.  Could it be a physical ailment, sexual temptation, a disfigurement?  The ailment itself does not matter.  What matters is how Paul interprets the thorn.  Paul reveals that through prayer God has told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul clears up two things for the Corinthians.  First, Paul’s beatings, imprisonments, and shipwrecks are not punishments from God.  Second, the struggles that Paul has endured can be windows through which Paul and the world can see God’s power.

Paul knows that his value comes not from what he does, but from the Cross.  Paul knows that he is not the center of the universe.  Jesus’ death and resurrection are.  Paul’s thorn can be a window through which other people can experience the power of the Cross.

God is not impressed by our resumés.  If we are getting straight As and huge bonuses and are in perfect physical health and in incredibly happy relationships, we can get seduced into thinking we don’t need God, that the cross has no relevance to our lives.  We can start to believe that we earned our happiness, that our hard work and good character has brought us blessings.  And if we think we are so wonderful because of our hard work, we start to think that people who don’t share our blessings must not have worked so hard.  We perpetuate this sick theology that people who are poor, or disabled, or unintelligent have somehow displeased God.

Did you hear Michael Lewis’s speech to Princeton’s graduating class this year?  He warned Princeton students of just this phenomenon.

Lewis claims success is largely luck and that Princeton students are incredibly lucky to be born with intelligence and the schooling and the money to be able to attend the institution.  After sharing how his experience as a Princeton student got him a job at Salomon Brothers for which he was no way qualified, he stated:

“My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either. “

He went on to tell the students about an experiment performed at CalTech in which groups of three students were tasked to solve puzzles.  One student was arbitrarily appointed the leader of the group.  A plate of four cookies was brought to the students.   Inevitably, the randomly appointed leader would eat the extra cookie.

Lewis ended his speech by saying, “All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”

While Lewis’s speech was not intended to be a theological one, it resonates with the ideas Paul is wrestling with here.

Whether we use the framework of success or blessing, we must be careful in how we think about God’s blessing and punishment.

God is not a Kindergarten teacher who rewards for good behaviors and punishes for bad behaviors.  When wonderful things happen to us, it is not because God thinks we are wonderful.  When bad things happen to us, it is not because God is mad at us.  Life is incredibly complicated and we make a hundred choices each day that ripple out and have consequences we never could have dreamed.  And often, the best and worst parts of life are completely random.  On any given day we could meet our life partner or get hit by a bus.  The thorns in our sides may be a result of some behavior on our part, but more often are just part of the chaotic soup of what it means to be human.  The one constant, the one thing we can always rely on is that God loved us so much that Jesus lived and died for us, whether we are successes or failures.

And whether our thorn is a bad hip, or dyslexia, or being chronically unlucky in love, God can show himself in powerful ways in the midst of our difficulties.  When our ego is stripped away, we can begin a spiritual life.  We can begin to acknowledge that we are not the center of the Universe, that we need help, that we need God.

Our thorns bring us up short, stop us in our tracks, make us face our biggest fears.  But our thorns also bring us face to face with the living God, with the deep knowledge that even though we are in pain and afraid, we are not alone.  God is with us.

Do you remember the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis? Jacob and a mysterious man wrestle all night and the physical struggle results in a life long limp.  At the end of the wrestling match, the opponent tells Jacob that he will be called Israel from now on, and Jacob asks the man to bless him.  Jacob knows he is encountering the living God.  For Jacob to be prepared to be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, he must first realize his own limitations and yield to the living God.

Our thorns force us to face God.  When we face God, we learn to trust him.  When we trust God, he asks us to follow him.  When we follow him, the adventure begins.

Are you willing to be defined by God’s love for you rather than your strengths? Are you willing to share your cookies?  Are you willing to face your thorns?  Are you willing to go on a great adventure?

 

The entire Michael Lewis speech can be read here:  http://www.businessinsider.com/michael-lewis-princeton-commencement-remarks-2012-6#ixzz1zmV6nc8r

 

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Trinity Sunday, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

The Trinity is like a clover.  It has three parts, but is one thing.

No, no, no.

The Trinity is like an apple.  It has skin, meat and the core, but is one apple.

That’s not quite right.

The Trinity is like water.  Water can exist as a gas, liquid or solid, just like the Trinity exists as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

Well, that doesn’t quite do it, either, does it?

For as long as there have been preachers and Sunday School teachers, we have been trying to find a way to express the idea of the Trinity—that we believe in one God, who exists in three forms.  It took early Christians 325 years after Jesus’ death to hammer out exactly how they wanted to express this idea.  325 years!  In the meantime you had tons of arguments about which member of the Trinity existed first, and whether one member generated the other, and whether Jesus was really God or whether he was a human who was turned into God.

It was about this point in theology class where our brains began churning at a dangerously high rate of speed.  Words like homoousia and co-eternal and consubstantial were tossed around the room as if they would clear up this tricky business once and for all.

So, before we veer off into dangerous territory, let’s take a deep breath and a step backward, and look at what the apostle Paul has to say about the Trinity.

First of all, Paul is not familiar with the term Trinity.  If we asked Paul what he thought about the Trinity, he would just stare at us blankly.

However, if we asked Paul about the relationship between Jesus and the Father, or Jesus and the Spirit, he’d have quite a bit to say! At the risk of being completely reductionist, when Paul describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Paul sounds like he is describing a family.  Not any family you and I know.  This family doesn’t squabble over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car or who gets the last drumstick of fried chicken.

In his letter to the Philippians, when Paul describes the relationship between the Father and Jesus, he uses a liturgical hymn popular in his time.  Part of it says:

 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

. . . .

 

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend

For Paul, the members of the Trinity are a family who are always lifting each other up. In this hymn from Philippians, Jesus is humbling himself before God and God is exalting Jesus. Their relationship is wholly mutual.

In the Gospels, Jesus always listens for what his Father would like him to do and shows perfect obedience, even when obedience leads to death.  Jesus feels so close to the Father he refers to him as Abba.  Abba could be translated as Papa, a term of endearment.  Their relationship was a tender one.

The Holy Spirit empowers the church to tell the world about Jesus, to ensure that the Father and the Son will be worshiped across this globe.

One imagines the members of the Trinity in a holy dance, never jockeying for position or striving to be best, but exhibiting perfect love and respect.

That pretty much sounds like your family, right?

The Trinity is not a family we can recognize.  We can kind of wrap our minds around the Father-Son dynamic, but I’m not sure where the Holy Spirit would fit into our limited understanding!  Is the Holy Spirit mom?  A really interesting cousin from California?  Ultimately the metaphor of the family is only slightly more helpful that the metaphor of a clover or apple.

But!  But in our passage from Romans today, Paul tells his readers,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Paul claims that the Holy Spirit gives us a spirit of adoption—that we become God’s children through Christ.

Paul is claiming that this family of the Trinity, this family marked by perfect love and humility and generosity wants to include US in the family.

Paul is claiming that Christ, who came to earth and DIED for his Father, is willing to have us share in his inheritance.

US!?

Does the Trinity really think this is a good idea? Humans are terrible at being in families.  We argue over whose turn it is to visit our father in the nursing home.  We complain if we don’t get the same amount of ice cream as our sister.  We scream bloody murder if our brother hits the button on the elevator before we do.  We destroy families over inheritances.   Why would God want to adopt us???

I have about a half dozen close friends who have adopted children and two themes I have seen in each family are these.  First:  The parents long for their children years before they are adopted.  The parents do not know who will be their child, but they love that child and long to include them in the life of their family.  I bunked with my friend Maggi at a retreat a dozen years ago, just when she had begun proceedings for adopting her first daughter from China.  As we drifted off to sleep, we talked about this daughter, who might not even have been born yet, and Maggi’s voice was filled with love as she said her name.  Caroline.  Her name would be Caroline.

Caroline and Maggi celebrate a decade together this weekend, and have welcomed another sister, Betsy in the intervening years.  Even before Maggi saw a picture of her daughters, they were real to her in her heart.

Second:  Once that child is adopted, she becomes wholly and completely of that family. That child belongs to that family.  Through and through.  Forever.

My friend Alex, who has adopted three beautiful children, once said to me, “Sarah, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to carry these children in my body, but even if I had given birth to children, I would want it to be to these children.”  My friend Alex loves her children.  Completely.  No other children could take their places.

And maybe the experience of adoptive parents gives us a little glimpse into the mind of the Trinity.  Maybe the Trinity was so overflowing with love, it decided to share that love. Maybe the Trinity even longed for us. Maybe the Trinity wouldn’t trade us for any other children. The Trinity claims us for its family.  We belong to the Trinity, through and through.  Forever.

Children are not adopted because they understand their parents, or because they are good or smart or talented.  Children are adopted because a family’s love and longing overflows its boundaries and can’t help but to love more.  The Trinity adopts us because of who the Trinity is, not because of who we are.  And the Spirit invites us to join Jesus in calling the Father, Abba.  This adoption is not a formality. The Father wants us to love him, to feel protected by him, to call him pet names.

Not only does the Father offer us intimacy, but offers us intimacy at great cost to himself.  The Trinity is willing to threaten its very existence, to lose part of itself, so that we might be included in the family.  Christ is willing to die so that we might live with the Trinity forever.  What family does that?  What family sacrifices one of its own members for children who don’t even deserve to be part of the family?

In the end, the Trinity is not like a clover, or an apple, or water.  Water cannot love.  Apples cannot long.  Clovers cannot embrace.  But the Trinity is not quite like a family, either. No family could go to the lengths and depths of love and sacrifice that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit go through for us.  No brother would lose his life for unworthy siblings and then welcome them into the family with open arms.

And yet, this mysterious, complicated Trinity does.  This mysterious family breaks itself open and welcomes you inside into perfect love.  You.  You.  You.  Welcome home.  This is your family.

 

Lent 2, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

Our God brings something out of nothing.

Before the universe was created, there was nothing.  But God spoke a word and one Big Bang later, planets and suns and comets spun throughout the universe.

Before Adam and Eve got into mischief in the Garden, there were no humans.  But God breathed into some dirt and there they were.  Perfectly imperfect, walking with God in the garden.

Before there were Jews, before there were God’s people, before there was a law or a covenant, there was just Abraham and Sarah, elderly, childless, not looking for adventure.

God chooses them.  He appears to Abraham and tells him he will make a covenant with him and that Abraham will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God says he will bless Sarah and that she will bear a child.

Sarah overhears and she laughs and laughs and laughs.

God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah are absurd.  They are in their nineties.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes Sarah’s womb not merely as barren, but as deathly.  There is nothing for God to work with.  No fertility, no life, no potential.

And yet, eventually, there is Isaac.  Despite all odds, life grows in that deathly womb and soon a very real, flesh and blood baby is born, continuing the family’s line.  Sarah’s laughter transforms from disbelief into delight.

Why is the Apostle Paul dredging up this old story in his letter to the Romans?  What does Abraham have to do with new life in Jesus?  Paul is addressing the community of Rome, which most likely included both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  He appears to be addressing some conflict around interpretation of the Jewish law.  Before Christ, righteousness was understood as adherence to the Jewish law.  We were made right by our obedience, by our own efforts.

Paul is making the claim here that our righteousness cannot come from our own efforts, because Abraham was made righteous for his faith in God’s promises, long before the law came into effect.  Paul is reminding his audience that God has been at work much longer than our imaginations can grasp.  God has been making something out of nothing for as long as God has been God.

And, while Paul describes Abraham as not weakening in faith, we laugh along with Sarah, because we know the story!  Abraham’s faith was weak and inconsistent.  He and Sarah could not believe she would become pregnant, so they arranged to have Abraham impregnate Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar.  Even Abraham’s faith was basically worthless.

And yet.

And yet, our God takes those pathetic scraps of faith and builds a little family.  Isaac goes on to marry Rebekah and have Jacob and Esau.  Jacob goes on to marry Rachel and Leah and they have twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel.  Abraham’s little family becomes a nation.  His scraps of faith become the foundation for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In the same way, the Apostle Paul argues, we are made righteous not by how well we follow the law, not because of how well we adhere to the tenets of Christianity, but we are made righteous because God chose to make something out of nothing.  When we rejected Jesus and crucified him, God chose to bring life out of death one more time.  We are made righteous, not because of what we can do, but because of who God is and how he has chosen to relate to us.

So, then, why do we make Lenten sacrifices?  Why do we obey the Ten Commandments?  Why do we love our neighbor as ourselves?  If our righteousness is all about what God has done and not what we do, what is the point of trying to live a holy life?  Paul will spend several chapters of Romans dealing with this question, but in short, Paul thinks a sinful life just isn’t an option once you have been baptized.  For Paul, when a person is baptized, he is buried with Christ in his death and then raised again into a new life by Christ’s resurrection.

Once again, God is moving from nothingness to somethingness, from death to life.  Sin is part of that nothing, deathly world. When we join into Christ’s resurrection through our baptism, we become part of the new something God has created.  We are part of a life that is full and rich. We are motivated to repent of our sin and work on an obedient life because we see that a life of obedience to God is filled with deep joy and wholeness that our old lives just cannot match.

But we all know our efforts at obedience are just as pathetic as Abraham’s faith.  We do our best, but all of us break God’s law no matter how wonderful our new life in Christ is.  The Apostle Paul may argue that sin isn’t even an option for us in our new lives with God but we argue back, “Oh yeah, watch this!” and then we overeat or get drunk or humiliate someone.

And this is why Paul’s original point is such good news for us! Our standing with God is not dependent on our behavior.  The possibilities of our lives are not limited by our own weaknesses.  God can bring something wonderful out of nothing.

The power of sin may still try to worm its way into our hearts, but in the cosmic battle, God has defeated sin through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Madeleine L’Engle was my favorite author when I was a teenager.  One of her books takes its title from a wonderful William Langland quote  “but all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think, is no more to the mercy of God then a live coal dropped in the sea.”   All of our anger, all of our betrayals, all of our violence, all of our wars, all of our injustice—if you could quantify all of this some how and measure all our awfulness against God’s mercy, our sin would just be a blip.  Isn’t that amazing?

It’s hard to imagine the vastness of God’s mercy when we are in the thick of this very real, very sinful world.  We see the consequences of sin all around us every day.  Even if we are having a pretty good day, all we have to do is pick up the newspaper to see examples of greed, corruption, prejudice.  But if we put down the paper and pick up the book of Romans, we gain a new perspective.  We realize God’s story is much, much bigger than our story.

In God’s story, God makes us righteous, not because of our behavior, not because of our political beliefs, not because of the church we choose.  God makes us righteous because God is God and God chooses to enter a battle against sin and death. And folks, when God enters a battle, God always wins.

God makes us righteous because God wants to be in relationship with us and we cannot make ourselves righteous, no matter how hard we try, no matter how good our intentions.  God chooses us. God goes to battle for us.  God wins for us.  Not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

So, believe the impossible.  Believe that God can take your scraps of faith and turn them into an adventurous, holy life.  Believe that our measly little communities of faith have more power than the biggest army.  Believe that God can defeat all the evil powers in the world, no matter how vast or entrenched.  Believe God can bring something out of nothing.

In fact, nothing is God’s favorite material.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 25, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

Unless you were living under a rock this summer, you have probably heard of the movie and book The Help.  Kathryn Stockett spun this tale of African American women in the 1960s and the families they served. The Help is a compelling story as it examines the sometimes loving and sometimes strained relationships between society women of Jackson, Mississippi and their household staffs. The story generated quite a bit of controversy. The inequality between the two classes of women still stings and the way in which Kathryn Stockett portrayed the African American characters in her book rankled many people.

The most heart breaking and fascinating part of the book was the relationship between white children and their African American caretakers.  As portrayed in the book, those relationships were often extremely tender and formative.  I believe a large part of the wild success of the book and movie was because of how powerful the relationship is between a hired caretaker and a child and how many people have strong, if complicated feelings, about those relationships.

This type of caretaker or nursemaid relationship was not new to the American South of the 1960s.  Nursemaids and even wet nurses have been used to look after children for thousands of years.  We have different names for them now.  We call them nannies, au pairs, day care centers, but the relationship remains.  Those of us who have the income, or those of us who need to work, hire another person, usually a woman, to look after our children in our absence.  We hope the woman or women we choose are tender and kind.  We hope our children will love them and feel safe with them, but not love them more than us, of course.

During the time the Apostle Paul was writing his letter to the Thessalonians, the nurse was a common figure.  Wet nurses were used not only for wealthy women who did not want to nurse their own children, but were used for slave women as well if their owners did not want them to stop working after the birth of their children.  At times mothers and children would be separated entirely, so nurses would be the only loving caretaker a child would know.  Infants, mothers, and nurses would have been an integral part of the house churches of early Christianity, so the imagery of the nurse would be very familiar to the community.

We think of many images when we think of the Apostle Paul.  We think of the murderous Saul, persecuting Christians.  We think of the powerful leader, developing churches throughout the Middle East.  We think of the strong man who survived shipwrecks and imprisonment.  Have you ever imagined the Apostle Paul walking a screaming baby back and forth all night or changing a stinky diaper?

In the second chapter of First Thessalonians, Paul describes himself and the other Apostles as someone who would do just that.  Not only that, he also mixes his metaphors and describes himself as the infant. While the NRSV translates the Greek as “gentle”, many New Testament scholars, including my mother-in-law, believe that use of the word gentle is an error caused by similar spelling of the original Greek word for infant. The original sentence should read “we were infants among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children”.

Paul claims two images for himself that the Thessalonians would never expect.  Paul tries to sell them on this new Christianity and instructs them in how to live their lives, so maybe they expect him to come and lord over them, acting like a king or military commander.  Instead, he packages himself in the helpless image of a baby and the incredibly nurturing image of the nurse.  He is not a threat to the Thessalonians.  He wants to take care of them.  In fact, in the metaphor, he is not a nurse taking care of someone else’s children.  He is a nurse taking care of her own children.  The level of affection and warmth is as high as it can get.

What do these images tell us about our own ministry?  What does it mean for us to strike a balance between being as vulnerable as an infant and as careful as a nurse?

Based on six months of research in my own home, I can tell you that to an infant everything is brand new.  For the first few weeks of Charlie’s life, he did not understand that he had hands.  His flailed around and hit himself.  When he saw his hands he cried because he did not know what they were.  Six months later, I still catch him staring at his hands as if they were the most fascinating object he has ever seen.

And anyone who has spent more than an hour with an infant knows that taking care of a baby requires more than snuggles and coos. The caretaking of an infant is an ongoing wrestling match in which a tiny person manages to dominate an adult over and over again.  A baby’s nurse must be prepared for long bouts of inconsolable screaming, projectile bodily fluids, and insatiable hunger.  And the nurse is expected to deal with all these challenges with warmth and affection.  Sounds like ministry to me!

Paul lived in the tension of these two images.  For Paul and his fellow believers everything about being a Christian was new.  Paul had not attended Christian theology classes.  He took no leadership courses.  He was figuring out what it meant to guide the Christian communities at Thessalonica, Rome, and Philippi as he went along.  He said his prayers and studied the Scriptures, but every day was a brand new day of understanding what Jesus meant to the world.  Paul and all the Christians of their time were infants in understanding of their new faith.

However, at the same time, Paul and fellow leaders in the church were called on to be caretakers of these new Christians.  And Paul loved the members of these communities.  When you read his letters, they are filled with affection, even when he is clearly frustrated with the churches’ antics.  But like a nurse, Paul sets clear boundaries about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for the church.  He is kind, yet firm.

This model of ministry has powerful implications for us.  First, what if we viewed the world through the eyes of an infant?  What if every Sunday, the liturgy felt brand new to us?  What if we encountered theological ideas with fresh minds?  What if we really felt the wonder of Advent and the sorrow of Lent this year as if we had never heard the old stories?

What if we approached the world with curiosity, rather than judgment?  What if we were able to marvel at the sound of leaves crunching under our feet and be as trusting of God as infants are of their caretakers?  What if we allowed ourselves to fuss and whine honestly in our prayers, sharing our true heart with God?

The world is filled with wonder.  From the slow moving glaciers of New Zealand, to the improbable structures of Stonehenge, to the majestic national parks of Utah even our rocks are breathtaking.  Think of the millions of different plants and bugs and animals that you’ve never seen.  Think of the all the muscles and neurons that have to fire for you to look to your left.  We live in a miraculous world, but we’ve lost the eyes to see it.   We can regain the wonder by putting on the eyes of an infant.  And that wonder continues on to our understanding of the Gospel.  The Creator God, who created us in the first place, chooses to become the created himself—to come experience the limitations of our rocks and plants and muscles and bones.  He dies so that we can live for eternity. That is an amazing, wonderful gift!

If we combined a sense of wonder with the patience, warmth, and fun of our favorite nanny or babysitter, church would be the most popular place in Princeton!  I have said it before and I will say it again.  We are called to treat one another with kindness and patience.  Even when the Apostle Paul was frustrated with a community, he treated the community with care and respect.  He was patient and loving.  When we are frustrated with each other, let’s just remember that we all used to be infants.  We all deserve to be treated with the care and tenderness we give our youngest members.

Wonder and kindness.  Maybe these are not the first qualities one thinks of when considering the Apostle Paul, but he claims them for himself, and we could do much worse than to embody them ourselves.

Amen.

For more about feminine imagery in Paul’s letters, read Our Mother, Saint Paul by Beverly Gaventa.

Proper 21, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

Do you remember being a little kid in the middle of a stupid argument over a tea set or a football game?  Do you remember how frustrating it was when your friends would fight over something and ruin your time together?  Do you remember thinking to yourself, I cannot wait to grow up.  When I grow up, my friends will be grown ups and we will act like grown ups.

Then do you remember the crushing disappointment when you realized adults don’t really deal with conflict any better than children do?   Do you remember the first time you witnessed or were involved in a conflict at church?  Church conflicts are the worst!  Church is where you expect to feel safe and welcomed.  You give of your time and energy to serve God and your community and then all of a sudden someone is yelling at you!

When I was a new Christian, I assumed church conflicts would be rooted in theology.  Surely people would argue about  Jesus’ sinlessness or how to discern what the Holy Spirit was doing in a community.  Instead, as it turns out, church conflicts tend to be about flower pots. The first church conflict I ever witnessed was about a flower pot in the entry way of a church office. That flower pot contained a plant.  Someone in the parish decided that plant was not quite decorative enough, and placed some holiday themed decorations in the flower pot next to the plant.  Somehow, this led to an incredibly virulent series of shouting matches, with members of the congregation lining up on one side or the other of the great flower pot decoration debate.

As far as I know, the flower pots of Trinity have not caused any great consternation.   But I bet those of you who have been here awhile or have ever served on a committee can think of several inanimate objects that have provoked outrage. Of course, the objects themselves have done nothing to offend. A table cloth or lamp cannot insult a person.  However, because people invest so much of their soul into church life, when someone else messes with their tablecloth, lamp, or flower pot, a person’s feelings can get hurt pretty quickly.  Those feelings of hurt can lead to lashing out, which hurts the other person’s feelings and a major church conflict is born.

In today’s Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul offers the Phillipians an  invitation to help them deal with their own conflict. The Philippians have been through the wringer.  While visiting, the Apostle Paul healed a demon possessed slave whose owners had paraded her around as a fortune teller to make money.  Once she was healed, she was useless to them and they were furious.  The owners had Paul arrested and thrown in jail.  Paul writes the letter to the Philippians from jail.  He implies that the church has had some blowback from the community after the event and he is writing to encourage them.  However, he is also writing to help them work through an inner conflict.  This conflict is not identified in the letter, but in chapter 4, verse 2, Paul does call out two women in the parish.  He writes:  “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

I am dying to know the source of Euodia and Syntyche’s argument—were they fighting over who got to host the next church meeting?  Were they arguing over how to keep the congregation safe?  Were they at odds because they had different ideas about how to fund the work of the church?  Ultimately, not knowing the source of the argument doesn’t matter.  Paul’s response would be the same regardless.

Instead of rebuking them, Paul invites the community to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” and then shares this beautiful hymn about Jesus.  The hymn celebrates the humility of Christ,  “who, though he was in the form of God, did hot regard equality with God as something to be exploited”.  Jesus could have used his power to bring himself fame and fortune.  He could have used his power to have a battle with his Father.  Instead, he emptied himself to become human, and then humbled himself and died on the cross.  In return, his Father lifted him up, exalted him.  Their relationship was one of respect and mutuality.  They celebrated each other rather than competed with each other.

Paul reminds the Philippians that as Christians, they share the mind of Christ.  He invites them to live into that reality.  He invites them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility [to] regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interest of others.”

I extend this same invitation to you. You share the mind of Christ.  Inside you, you have the same ability to humble yourself and exalt the other.  All you have to do is get out of your own way, and let the mind of Christ operate freely.

There is a lot of territory in this church over which we can be possessive.  We have traditions, events, and spaces that all have meaning to us.  What if this year, we behave differently when we see someone encroaching on our territory?  What if this year we gave each other the benefit of the doubt, rather than accusing each other of perceived slights?  What if this year we speak in love to those who have offended us, instead of gossiping about them at the receptionist’s desk?  What if this year we thought first and foremost about how to make others feel loved and welcomed rather than worrying about an event being perfect?

The deck is stacked against us.  Our country is experiencing an incredible amount of national anxiety right now as we worry about money and resources.  Everyone seems to be ducking for cover and trying to protect themselves as best they can, no matter what the consequences for others.  And that kind of anxiety is catching.  All of us are a little on edge, so living into the mind of Christ and treating each other with kindness is going to take work, hard work, for all of us.

Thankfully, we are not in the struggle alone!  Remember, the mind of Christ is in us.  We follow Jesus’ example from the Gospels, but our connection with him is deeper than that of a role model.  Every time we share communion, we become spiritually one with Christ.  Something shifts in the universe and we become united with him.

Our nature leads us to be selfish and defensive, but the Spirit of Christ in us fights against those impulses and gives us the courage to be open and generous.

And if we are able to be open and generous with one another, our community will grow and deepen.  This community already does so much for the world around us.  Just imagine how God could work if we added additional layers of trust and respect in our relationships with each other.

Remember, the Christian life is not only about outcomes.  To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13,

And if we have the most beautiful grounds and the most majestic music, but do not have love, we are nothing.
If we give away all our possessions to Rummage, and if we raise $30,000 at St. Nick’s and if we have 200 people come to One Table Cafe, but do not have love, we gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant
or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

We are no longer children on the playground.  We can do better than grabbing our ball and going home.  We can be the adults we wished adults were.  We can be the loving, Christian community that Paul hoped for the Philippians.  We can share the mind of Christ.

May it be so.

Amen.

All Saints’ Day, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day.  And when we say All Saints’ Day, we mean Allll Saints’ Day.  We don’t just celebrate Mother Theresa and Hildegard, we celebrate all those Christians who have lived and died before us, and who now have—in the words of our Ephesians reading today—received their inheritance and have been redeemed by God.

All Saints Day can be a sad day, as we remember people we dearly loved who have died in the last year.  We read their names and we think of them fondly and wish they were still with us, but that grief is just the beginning of what God has for us on this day.  This day is a celebratory, victorious day that reminds us of who God is and who we are.

The book of Ephesians reminds us that God has adopted us as his children.  Not only has he adopted us as his children, but he also gives us an inheritance.  Now, usually, inheritance is where grief gets really tricky.  Usually the person who has died has set aside some money for the people he or she loves, but in the worst case scenarios, there is a real sense of competition, as if the inheritance was a prize.  People sue each other, even commit murder, all in an attempt to get what they think of as theirs.  More than one family has fallen apart for a time over hurt feelings related to an inheritance.

Well, in New Testament times, inheritance worked a little differently.  Generally only one child was chosen to receive the family inheritance and that child was almost always a son, and usually the elder son.  Other children had to hope their older sibling was generous and would look after them.

So, when early Christians read this passage in Ephesians, they were blown away!  God doesn’t just choose Jesus to receive his inheritance.  In fact, God doesn’t just choose the best or the oldest believers to receive his inheritance.  Nope, God offers all of us his inheritance.

And while a parent may offer us a trust fund or a house or a beloved piece of furniture as an inheritance, God offers us redemption as our inheritance.  We become God’s people, we go from being estranged to being in relationship.  And when we die, we don’t just die, we join other saints and angels and archangels in the very presence of God.

So yes, on All Saints’ Day we mourn those who have gone before us, but we also celebrate that they have moved on to a new stage in their journey, where they are at one with the God who created them and who loves them.

The Saints who have gone on before us were specific individuals who we knew and loved, but they also become symbols for us.  They remind us of the meaning that can be found mixed in with the struggle of life.  They remind us that we share in the same inheritance.  That we, too, are claimed by God.

They also remind us that we don’t have to wait until we die to start behaving like we’re God’s children.  The moment we are baptized we become part of the community of Saints.  We become people who belong to God’s family and God invites us to help make his Kingdom apparent not just in the metaphysical realm, but right here on earth, too.

In the Kingdom of God the poor rule, the meek inherit, the weeping laugh.  We are called to start making the Kingdom a reality as we go about our own lives.  The saints urge us onward as we live lives oriented to the reality that God is real and makes a difference in the world.

The saints offer us hope that when the world seems ugly and corrupt and filled with violence, God is still at work in the midst of the darkness, using members of his Kingdom to bring beauty and justice and peace.

When you teach a child about God, when you participate in a Done in a Day project, or help with Rummage, or give glory to God by singing in the choir, you help build the Kingdom of God.  When you serve God by loving your coworkers, being kind to outsiders, welcoming newcomers, you help build the Kingdom of God.  When you support Housing Initiatives of Princeton, and Trenton After School Program and the Crisis Ministry, you help build the Kingdom of God.

The Saints who have gone before us were not superheroes.  When you look at the list in our bulletin today, none of our parish family that died this year ever miraculously healed someone or raised anyone from the dead.  But they were people of faith, and many of them showed us what it means to live the quiet life of a saint through their dedication to God, love for their families and communities, generosity of spirit and dignity and determination through adversity and illness.

Today we give thanks for them, and we honor their memory by trying to walk in their shoes.  Amen.

Proper 15, Year C, 2010

To listen to this sermon, click here.

Today should be called rhetoric Sunday!  In all three of our readings this morning, we have preachers at the top of their game.  It is impossible to read these three snippets of scripture without imagining them preached in booming voices.  Our reading from Hebrews today has a particularly pleasing cadence.  The author is describing the exploits of the heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures and he writes they “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight”.  Yes!  It makes my day seem very pale in comparison.  “I woke up on time!  Ate some toasted oatmeal!  And dressed myself in matching clothes!”

The writing in the letter to the Hebrews can seem overwrought, but the author’s tone makes sense when we understand his intention.  The author, as far as we can tell from the little information the letter gives us, is writing to a group of second generation Christians.  They love Jesus, but they are running out of energy to be Christians.  They have expected Jesus to come back for years and he has never showed up.  The novelty of this new religion is wearing off and the reality of day to day living has set in.  To top it all off, the authorities are beginning to crack down on Christianity and they are frightened.  The author of the Hebrews is exhorting them to hold on, to keep the faith!  He is their coach and their cheerleader.

The Letter to the Hebrews develops all sorts of theological ideas, but the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is all about faith.  This faith is robust!  This faith has legs!  This faith has teeth!  This is the faith of Gideon, Samson, Rahab—heroes of the faith.  The metaphor the author uses is that of a race.  Like a race, faith takes training and an enormous amount of effort.

Now, you all know that our wonderful rector is an accomplished runner.  He runs several times a week and has run several marathons at respectable paces.  Well you may not know that your assistant rector was a runner, too.  More specifically, she was a runner from the fall of 2005 until the spring of 2006.  My brief endeavor as a runner came about because of my next door neighbor and close friend, also named Sarah.  Sarah was the kind of person who did whatever she set her mind to.  Sarah was going to train for the Charlottesville 10 mile race and somehow she talked me into training, too.

Let me tell you, training for a race is no fun.  We ran several times a week, in increasingly large distances.  On Saturdays we woke up when the sun did and met trainers in downtown Charlottesville.  They would yell things like, “Now, run at your fastest pace!  Now, slow down and run at a comfortable pace!  Now, back at the fast pace again!”  The problem was, I only had one pace.  Eleven and half miles a minute.  That was my fast speed and that was my slow speed.  If I did not know Sarah was waiting for me those Saturday mornings, there was no way I would  have gotten out of bed for that torture!

We ran a 10K a few months into our training to get used to a race environment.  Sarah took pity on me and ran at my pace.  We were really slow.  We were so slow that eventually we were the last two runners.  We were so slow that they started pulling up the cones marking the outline of the course before we got to them.  We were so slow that eventually the police car trailing the race pulled alongside of us and said, “Ladies, you can run in the middle of the street if you’d like.  We’ll follow you.”

Humiliating.

But we did not quit.  Thanks to Sarah’s constant encouragement and occasional bullying, I kept training.  I did not get any faster.  My form did not get any more elegant.  My knees and shoulders did not get any less sore. But on April the 1st, 2006, I ran that ten mile race.  The crowds lined up on sidewalks cheered us on and helped me to go that much further. With Sarah’s coaching and the crowd’s encouragement, I hobbled to the finish line.

The metaphor of a race for our faith is apt.  Faith takes a lot of work.  Faith takes encouragement.  Faith takes discipline.  But like training for a race, we are not alone.

In the race metaphor, Jesus is our coach.  Jesus has run the race ahead of us, knows what to expect, and runs by our side telling us when to speed up or slow down.  Jesus encourages us when we are frustrated and gives us a boost when we are ready to give up.   Hebrews says that Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of our faith.  He shows us how to follow God—even if it leads to a cross.  Jesus shows us what it means to be faithful, what it means to have an intimate relationship with God.  When we lose our way, we can read the Bible and be reminded of Jesus’ faithfulness, which will help us to be faithful.  And when we can’t live up to the kind of faith we want to have, Jesus’ grace covers us, helping us to cross the finish line.

The crowd that cheers on the racers is the cloud of witnesses.  The cloud of witnesses are the Saints that surround us—David, Samuel, the Prophets—and the millions of ordinary people of faith who have and who are running the race before and with us.  When we read a biography of Augustine, or Dr. King’s letters, or read the notes in the bibles of our own faithful grandmothers, we are encouraged that people have been living in our complicated world for millennia and have been able to follow God no matter what the circumstances.

We in the church are part of this cloud of witnesses, too.  We are each other’s cheerleaders.  When one of us cannot pray, we pray for her.  When one of us needs to talk through a theological issue, we listen.  When someone is discouraged in his study of the bible, we encourage him.  We need each other to live lives faithful to God.

Where the race metaphor breaks down is that in a physical race, the goal is to win, to beat everyone else, to be first.  The wonderful thing about God, is that even if we are the very last person in the race of faith, hobbling along after everyone else, we still get to cross the finish line and get welcomed into the Kingdom of God.  Faith looks a lot more like a race in the Special Olympics, where participants have no problem stopping to help a runner who has fallen, or linking arms so runners can cross the finish line together.  Faith is a race, but it is not a competition.

Our culture treats religion and spirituality as if they are private, personal, individual activities.  But in the Bible, faith is always a community activity.  God appears to individuals, but only in their roles as representatives of their communities.  One cannot truly be Christian if one is not in Christian community of some kind.  But our community is not limited to the people with whom we attend church.  We are in community with Christians all over the world, and with those who have gone before us.  Every Sunday in the Eucharistic prayer we say, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven.”  That company of heaven is all the believers that have gone before us, who have already run the race and have achieved their prize.  When we gather to receive communion, they gather with us.

And it is this image that helped those early Christians hold on.  Those early Christians held on to the faith, they finished the race, even when threatened with imprisonment and death.  And now they are part of that cloud of witnesses that urges us to hold on, to have faith, no matter how difficult that may seem.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2010

Have you seen the movie Wall-E?  While the protagonist of the movie is an adorable trash compacting robot, what I found really interesting was its depiction of humanity.  In the movie, humans have evolved in such a way as to spare them any suffering.  They float around in chairs, so they don’t have to walk.  They stare at screens instead of engaging in risky human interaction.  When they are hungry or thirsty, robots hurriedly bring them refreshment.

We are not quite there in our society yet, but there is a lot of money made every year on products trying to make life a little less painful.  We make luxury cars with surround sound satellite radio so commuting is comfortable.  We make diet pills and elaborate exercise machines so we can lose weight without making too many sacrifices.  We make lightweight electronic books, so we don’t have to schlep around ten pounds of novels when we’re on vacation.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a society where we can protect ourselves from an enormous amount of suffering—we have running water and indoor toilets; our doctors are trained in hygiene and anesthesia; our police, fire brigades and EMTS protect us without bribes.

And yet, even with all of our advances we can never protect ourselves fully from suffering.  Our hearts will still be broken.  Our loved ones will still die, some years before they should. Our bodies will still betray us.  Suffering is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

Now, if I were marketing a religion, I would make sure that part of the package would be a promise of relief from suffering.  I would tell my followers that if they just followed my God, they would receive an easy life, filled with pleasure.  Paul, however (and that’s St. Paul, not our rector), does not seem to be working with a PR consultant.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges what all of us know.  Suffering is part of life and a part of faith.  None of us can escape suffering, no matter how much we try to pad our life with luxuries.  Paul captures this beautifully in the 8th chapter of Romans, writing:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

This image of all of us, along with all of Creation, leaning forward, groaning, waiting for God really captures the human experience.  When something awful happens:  a child’s death, long term unemployment, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil about to destroy miles of coastline, there is nothing we can do, but groan our prayers and hope for redemption.

But, Paul’s view of suffering is not entirely negative.

Whenever my sister and I grumbled about doing something that annoyed us, my father would tell us, “You’ll build character!”  At first Paul’s stair step argument in Romans 5 can feel a little bit like a parent telling us to grin and bear our suffering.

Paul writes that we can boast in our suffering and that our suffering will lead to endurance, which will lead to character, which will end in hope.

We all know that suffering does not necessarily produce that outcome.  We all know people for whom suffering has done nothing but embitter them.  So, when we read this text, we may read it cautiously.  We may hold it at arms’ length and think to ourselves, “Oh yeah, Paul?  Prove it.”

We are helped when we understand the context in which Paul is writing.  Paul has been telling the Romans how no one is righteous.  No one can keep the law.  No one can earn righteousness before God.  Paul goes on to explain that through Jesus ‘ willing sacrifice, we are granted righteousness before God.  That righteousness is given to us as pure gift.

In our passage today, Paul is explaining what that gift gives us.  The gift reconciles us to God, giving us peace with our Creator.  We use this passage on Trinity Sunday, because Paul goes on to say that the Holy Spirit pours God’s love in our hearts.  So, the Father sends the Son, who sacrifices himself so we can be at peace with God.  He in turn sends the Holy Spirit, who fills us with God’s love.

So, transformation of suffering into hope is part of this gift, too.  Paul is probably talking about eschatalogical suffering here—suffering having to do with the end of times—since Paul thought Jesus’ return was immanent.  But really, we are all moving toward the Kingdom of God, and we all experience suffering on the way, so I think it is fair to say that our suffering can be included in this conversation.

What’s important to note here is that this transformation of suffering into hope is not something that the sufferer does.  Paul’s whole point is that that God’s gift to us is pure gift—and is not something we can earn.  We can place ourselves before God and pray that our suffering might be transformed into endurance, character and hope.  But we should never use this passage as a weapon against ourselves or anyone else who might be stuck in grief or pain or suffering of any kind.  This passage should never be used to nag or berate.  Instead, this passage offers us a beacon of hope.

Paul’s words offer us hope that our tears and pain may deepen and broaden our compassion, rather than harden our hearts.  His words offer us hope that our crises may make us into more mature, thoughtful people.  His words offer us hope that we might yet be transformed into people of hope—people who so in touch with God’s presence, that our hearts feel deep peace.

We don’t need to be like the characters in Wall-E, completely protected from pain.

Paul’s words give us courage to face the world honestly.  They give us courage to step out of our padded luxury cars, put down our laptops, turn off our televisions.  Paul’s words give us courage to face our broken hearts and bodies head on, knowing that God can transform our suffering into something that betters us.

In my last parish, I had a friend who was in her 80s.  She had a series of health scares, including an episode of congestive heart failure that was completely terrifying to her.  She called me in the midst of all of her struggles and asked if I could come see her.  When I went to visit her, I expected to hear about her pain, her fears, maybe her loneliness.  Instead, she told me, “Sarah, I want to talk with you, because my pain has made me think about all the people in pain around the world.  I want to use this as an opportunity to pray for those people.”

That moment has been one of the most profound of my entire life, because she exemplified what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans.  God gave her the grace to experience her suffering as a broadening, deepening experience.  Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she found a way to reach out to the world and care for them through her prayers.  The love of God flowed through her and out to those for whom she prayed.

And whether we are people who feel that kind of hope, or not, Paul is right when he says that God’s hope will not disappoint us.  Because the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of God’s love poured out by the Holy Spirit, is our gift, even in our deepest suffering.  Even at our terrified, grief stricken, self-absorbed worst.  Even when we feel not one iota of character or endurance or hope, God’s love pours out for us.  And that love will not disappoint us.

Amen.

Advent 3, Year C, 2009

Rejoice in the Lord Always!  You brood of vipers! Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Do not worry about anything.  The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Our Epistle and Gospel readings are having a strange conversation today, aren’t they?

On one hand, we have the Apostle Paul telling the Philippians to relax, rejoice, not to worry! On the other hand, we have John the Baptist screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the crowds of ordinary people following him around. Nothing says Christmas Spirit like a bearded man in a hair shirt screaming insults at you!

At first glance, these readings may appear to have nothing to say to one another.  But, when we dig a little deeper, we can see that they are really dealing with the tensions and the hopes of living in a world in which the Kingdom of God is not fully manifested.

Our culture tells us the season leading up to Christmas is a fun, happy, kitchy time of the year to decorate wildly, eat foods we wouldn’t otherwise allow ourselves, and shop for gifts to demonstrate our love for others.  But we all know that Christmas is more complicated than that.  Christmas can also be filled with longing, regret, and grief.  Even the first Christmas story, THE Christmas story, had its own ambiguities.

The birth of Christ came out of great pain, pain that goes well beyond any discomfort Mary might have experienced, or the humiliation of being born in a stable.  Christ came into the world in God’s radical attempt to save humanity from the pain of its own brokenness.  People had longed to be saved from the war and heartbreak and frailty of the human condition as long as they had a concept for God.  Without that pain and alienation, there would have been no need for the birth of Christ in the first place.

The crowds that followed John around hungered for connection to God.  They longed to be liberated from cycles of brokenness in their lives.  Why else would they follow this strange locust-eating man around the wilderness? But that kind of liberation, that kind of connection to God, has a cost.

Prophets throughout the Scriptures have had the job of shaking humanity by the scruff of the neck and John the Baptist is no different. Inertia is a powerful force in the lives of human beings, and John’s job is to disrupt the lives of his followers so they can break free of that inertia and prepare themselves to receive the incredibly good news of God’s incarnation.

John the Baptist’s first words are harsh.  He calls the crowd vipers and tells them they cannot rely on their identity as descendents of Abraham to be saved.  He’s alerting the crowd that they will not be able to encounter God without experiencing some kind of change.  His words are so strong that his crowd is left very worried about what advice might follow.

Will John the Baptist ask them to sacrifice everything in their lives to encounter God?  Will they have to live extremely ascetic existences?  Will they have to join John as he wanders through the wilderness eating honey-dipped locusts?

John’s audience is alert, holding their collective breath, ready to hear John’s advice.

John’s advice is comically simple.   John tells a tax collector not to steal money.  He tells a soldier not to extort money.  He tells others in the crowd to share their cloaks if they meet someone who is cold.

John the Baptist doesn’t tell the soldier that he needs to leave the military.  He doesn’t tell the tax collector he needs to resign from his post.  He does not demand that these employees of the Roman state abandon their professional lives and their ties to the Roman government.  John the Baptist makes it clear that Jesus is coming for all people, wherever they are.  The members of the crowd surrounding John the Baptist are challenged to get their ethical houses in order, but they aren’t asked to abandon their lives.

So, although John the Baptist probably smelled funny and was definitely rude, he brought good news about the Kingdom of God to his followers.  Jesus’ coming into the world was not just for priests and rabbis and scribes.  Jesus’ coming was for all humanity-tax collectors and soldiers and every day people.  This news is joyful.  And this is where our Gospel and Epistle readings intersect.

When the Apostle Paul tells the community of Philippi to rejoice, he’s not chirping empty-headed platitudes.  Paul has been through hell.  He has been traveling for years, been ship wrecked, and now is arrested and in prison.  The people of Philippi are on edge because Christians at the time were a persecuted people.  They are afraid because their faith puts them in danger. Paul is speaking of a joy, and gratitude, and a sense of peace that is not bound by circumstances.  Paul is speaking of joy, and gratitude, and peace that come hand in hand with the kind of challenges and pain life brings us.

The joy of Advent is not an empty-headed happiness because we get to eat more sugar cookies than usual.  The joy of Advent is a joy that acknowledges the pain of our broken world while still rejoicing in the wonder of Christ coming into the world for even the most humble person.

The joy of Advent invites us to believe God will show up in our lives even when we are at our worst or experiencing our deepest pain.

In my last parish, the adult son of a parishioner died unexpectedly and suddenly. The funeral was very sad and very beautiful.  The family chose a Celtic service and hundreds of white candles illuminated the sanctuary.  After the funeral, several people came up to me and mentioned how moved they were by the hope in the mother’s eyes as she went to communion.  She was not happy, she was hopeful.  She grieved the death of her son, but she had confidence that somehow God was still with her and still with her son.  Even though her world had shattered, she had the expectation that one day she and her son would be reunited in the Kingdom of God, one day she would feel Christ’s peace.

Life is full of pain and disappointment, even in the happiest lives.  Christ reaches out to us, even in the midst of that pain.  Even when we’ve been betrayed or lost our jobs or have a child we cannot reach, Christ extends himself to us, just as he did 2000 years ago.

You do not have to leave your job or your marriage or this town to experience the joy of the incarnation.  You don’t have to go on pilgrimage or pray for a week straight or fast for a month for Jesus to find you.  Jesus calls each of us, wherever we are.  He calls us to prepare ourselves, but always in ways that are accessible to us.  As counterintuitive as it may seem, the God who created the entire Universe wants to be in relationship with us.  God wants to be in relationship with the brood of vipers right here in this room.

And because God reached through time and space to bring Christ to us, and because Christ continually reaches out to us, inviting us into relationship with his Father and our Creator, we join the Apostle Paul and we rejoice in the Lord, we pray with thanksgiving, and we welcome the Peace of Christ into our hearts.

Amen.

Epiphany 4, Year B, 2009

When I was ten, my father got diagnosed with high cholesterol.  My mother was the cook in our house and within days she was deep in the American Heart Association cookbook and ordering a subscription to Cooking Light.  Gone were the omelets, steaks, and sour cream from our lives.  They were replaced by cheerios, pasta, and skinless chicken breasts.

At the time, this did not seem that remarkable to me.  But now, looking back, I am impressed with my mother’s willingness to uproot an entire family’s dietary lifestyle for the health of one member of the family.  If my dad’s eating habits had to change, all of our eating habits had to change.  It would not be fair to him if he was eating a piece of fish while the rest of us chomped down on hamburgers.

Our passage from 1 Corinthians today is also about dietary choices that are good for a community, but the situation Paul is responding to is not as simple as one member of the Corinthian community having high cholesterol!

Corinth was a Greek town with a predominantly Hellenistic culture.  Part of that culture was idol worship.  Small statues would be placed on altars and these “gods” would be given gifts of food.  The food would later be eaten by people in social gatherings.  The religious and social life was entwined together.

This created a huge problem for Corinthian Christians.  After all, they certainly did not believe in worshiping idols or that these small “gods” even existed.  To them, there was only one God.

The Corinthian Christians had broken into two camps.  The first was a group who approached the situation intellectually.  They were secure in their faith, they knew no other gods existed.  Since no other gods existed, then food offered to those gods was no different from any other food.  For this group of Christians, joining in the social eating of food offered to idols was not a problem at all.

The second group of Corinthian Christians were not so sure.  At one point in their lives they, too, had offered up food to idols, and that time was recently enough that eating food to those same idols now made them nervous.  To these Christians, eating the food offered to idols was acknowledging the gods they represented and was just plain wrong.

And this is where Paul comes in.  Paul has been asked to adjudicate this dispute.  He acknowledges that the first group, the intellectuals, are right from a philosophical viewpoint.  He states,

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

He agrees with their argument that since there is only one God for the Christians-even if another culture thinks there are many gods-then idols don’t exist so food offered to them is food offered to nothing.

However, just as that group is feeling pretty proud of themselves for being right, Paul turns the argument.

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

In other words, just because the intellectual argument was correct, does not mean that eating the meat offered to idols was right.  By eating the meat, the first group was threatening the faith of the second group.  Members of the second group may know that there is only one God in their head, but that deep knowledge may not have penetrated their heart yet.  Worshiping many gods may still be a temptation for them.  Because of this Paul is saying that he, for one, would choose not to eat the meat sacrificed to idols in front of Corinthian Christians.  Eating the meat did not matter one way or the other to God, but wounding another Christian was absolutely not acceptable.

Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that they are in this journey together.  They need each other.  If eating meat sacrificed to idols threatens the faith of some of the community, than the entire community should abstain from eating the meat.

In the modern church we do not have a direct comparison to this problem.  As far as I know none of you were part of an idol worshiping religion before you came to Emmanuel!

However, I think we can learn about sticking together from this passage. Paul sums it up well when he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

The desire to be right, the desire to win an argument can blind us to the needs of others.  Whether we are on our high horse about our political beliefs or whose turn it is to take out the trash, our single mindedness can be deadly to our relationships.  I find it helpful to step back from an argument and think about what I really want.  Do I really want to prove that I cleaned exactly 61% of the house or am I just looking for some affirmation and gratitude for the work that I did?  Ultimately what we want, I think is to feel heard and loved in our lives.  When we don’t feel that, being “right” is the next best thing.  But what we really want, is love.

The foundation of any good relationship is love.  We want love ourselves, but we are also asked to give love.  Part of love is seeking the good of the other, even if it means some sacrifice for yourself.  Paul asked the intellectual group of Corinthians to be generous to their brothers and sisters.  We are called to be generous, too.  For instance, if you live with an alcoholic, the generous response is to not keep alcohol in the house.  If you are friends with someone who is pinching pennies, the generous response is to plan a walk through a park together, rather than a shopping trip.  If your father has just had a heart attack, the generous response is to not bring him over those bacon wrapped twinkies you just deep fried.  While none of us can control the behavior of another person we can help to make life a little easier.  We can refrain from being “stumbling blocks” to those around us.

We are a community that worships one God.  And that God reminds us over and over again to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are bound together by our faith in God, but those binds can enrich us as much as they limit us.  By rooting our identities in a community rather than in our individual lives, we become kinder, more open minded, flexible and loving.  Seeing the world through the different lenses of members of our community helps us to be creative and to learn.  Our community makes us stronger.  Our community makes us better Christians.