Lent 5, Year B, 2006

You promise to pay a certain amount of money every month, and you get a house in return. 

You vow to stay in relationship with a person for the rest of your life, and she does, too. 

You sign a piece of paper saying that you’ll stay with a job three years, and you are promised salary and benefit in return. 

And you never, never, never date your best friend’s exes.

What do these situations have in common?  They are all examples of contracts, either official or implied.  In a contract, two parties exchange promises and the contract can be broken the minute one party does not live up to his or her promise. 

Humans have used contracts for thousands of years.  A contract assumes that both parties have equal responsibilities to fulfill the promises they make.  What happens historically if one party has much more power than the other?

3500 years ago in the Hittite kingdom, there were king like figures called Suzereins, who had money and armies and a great deal of power.  Because they had so much power, instead of making a contract, the Suzereins made covenants with the peasants.  If the peasants gave them a certain percentage of the crops they grew and cattle they raised then the suzerains gave them protection from invading armies.  However, if an invading army was going to come through, the suzerein was not going to check each peasant’s records-he was going to defend his territory.  So, the peasant, to some degree, could still receive the suzerein’s protection, even if he failed to deliver his end of the bargain.

So, why am I telling you all of this?   An understanding of covenant is important because God has related to human beings, throughout history, through covenants.  Suzerien covenants were happening roughly about the time when Genesis and Exodus were written and the covenants written in the Bible have the same structure as these Suzerein covenants.

Depending on how you count, there are anywhere from five to eight covenants between God and people in the Bible.  In our Old Testament reading for today, Jeremiah talks about the concept of God making a new Covenant, but before we can understand the New Covenant, we have to understand the old covenants.

And, because this sermon threatens to make all of you fall asleep, you’re going to have to help me list these first five covenants.  I’ll give you a few clues, and you tell me which biblical character I am describing.

The first covenant was made with the man who was the only righteous man left on the planet. Any takers?  Okay, another clue. . .there was a boat involved. ..

Right!  Noah.  Now, can anyone remember WHAT God promised Noah?  (Not to wipe out humanity)  What did Noah have to do in return?  What was the symbol of this covenant?  (rainbow)

Excellent work.  Now, on to the second covenant.  This one was made with a man who was married to a woman named Sarai?  Any ideas?  Another clue-this man had a child when he was very, very, very old.  Abraham!  Right, what did God promise to do for Abraham?  And what did Abraham need to do in return?  What was the symbol of this covenant?  Circumcision.

Okay, now we’re onto the third covenant.  This covenant was made with a man who discovered as a baby in a basket by the Phaoroah’s daughter.  He went on to experience God by a burning bush. . .Right, Moses!  God made a covenant with Israel through Moses.  He called Moses up on Mount Sianai-what did he give him there-right the Ten Commandments! 

In this covenant, God speaks directly to the people.  He calls Moses to Mt Sianai to warn the people that God’s coming to speak to them directly.  When God does speak to them, he reminds the Israelites that he is the God who delivered them from Egypt and gives the law, which will govern their life.  If they keep the law, God will remain with them.  This period also codifies the sacrificial system-if the people sin, they are required to make a blood sacrifice-either a bird or a sheep or cow depending on the offense and their financial state.

Well, soon enough, the Israelites, who are tired of wandering around in the desert, forget they’ve had this incredible experience of God and start worshiping false idols, complaining, and certainly not following the law. 

God, however, does not give up.  In Deutoromy 30, we read about the next covenant, the land covenant.  In this covenant, God says that if the Israelites come back to him and start behaving faithfully, he will gather them together and give them a spot of land to call their own.  And yes, this is the covenant that is still causing part of the problem in the Middle East!  But that’s a whole other sermon. . .

So, after Moses’ generation dies, the Israelites finally get their parcel of land, but again, they are unable to keep their end of the deal.  They live in the land of Canaan for awhile, but eventually the tribes start bickering with each other and the threat of invaders becomes very serious.

However, all is not lost.  In the book of Samuel, we read about how  the people of Israel start whining because they don’t have a king and everyone else has a king, so God decides to give them one.  The first king, Saul does not work out, so God chooses a second king.  Can anyone remember this second king’s name?  Here’s a hint:  as a kid, he killed a giant with a slingshot.  Yes, David!  It is under David’s leadership that Israel and Judah briefly reunite again and under his leadership that Israel captures Jerusalem. David’s 30something year reign is the Golden Age of Israel.  God loves David so much that he makes an unconditional covenant with him.  God promises that the Israelites will be a rooted people with land of their own and that God will establish an eternal kingdom from David’s line.

All this sounds well and good, but a theological problem developed when the Israelites were NOT able to stay in Jerusalem and the line of kings from David turned out to be kind of terrible and eventually died out. . .where does this leave us in terms of God’s faithfulness?  Our reading from Jeremiah today gives us a clue.  God decides to form a new covenant, a sixth covenant with us.  As you can see, historically, humans have not been great at living up to their ends of covenantal agreements.  Any wise businessperson would have written us off long ago.  Not only are we terrible at following god’s law, we’re not even that great about faithfully worshipping one God!  Any chance we got, we worshiped a golden calf, another God, a credit card. . .

Luckily for us, God is not a businessperson.  God is so interested in maintaining a relationship with us that he cooks up a new covenant, in which he does ALL the work.  In this covenant, he will write his law, the law of love, on our hearts.  While he required blood sacrifices in the past, all along what he really wanted was the sacrifice of our lives-for us to give up our selfishness and love God with our whole hearts. 

So, in order to make things right, God becomes human, lives a life in which he grows into perfection, and then is offered as a blood sacrifice on our behalf.  And while this seems barbaric and a little weird to our modern minds, we have to understand the context in which this happened.  All the sacrifices we offered, all our best efforts, were never enough.  And instead of raising the stakes, or wiping out humanity again, God decides to shoulder the responsibility, to continue the kingship of David through Christ and to offer us a new kind of covenant with him.  A covenant of love and trust and understanding-a covenant of the heart.

Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week.  Holy Week you will have the opportunity to attend church Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  I encourage you to attend these services as we reflect on and remember this miraculous and overwhelming, sad and glorious New Covenant that God has made with us.  We take God for granted, we take Easter for granted, but we are so lucky-God does not demand our money or our sacrifices. God just wants us-our hearts, our minds, our souls-he wants to know us and be known to us. 

All of the Covenants have been pointing to this-God’s desire to be in relationship with us and his desire to help us be worthy of that honor.  God has stuck with us the whole way-through all of our missteps, all of our false worship, all of our betrayals and he waits for us now, to turn our hearts to him and worship him with all of our mind, our heart, our soul and our body.


Lent 2, Year B, 2006

Is there any story in the Bible more horrifying than the sacrifice of Isaac?  Why would God, who had given Isaac to Abraham in the first place, then turn around and ask Abraham to kill his own son?  Even at the end of the story, when God rescues Isaac by giving Abraham a ram as a replacement, we feel uneasy with God’s behavior.  It seems manipulative, even cruel.  The point of the story seems clear-God wanted to test Abraham.  But what kind of test makes a person choose between God and his son? 

Today we have what we consider a reasonably sophisticated understanding of God.  God is love. God is One God.  God reveals himself in the Trinity.  However, we must keep in mind that Abraham was basically the first monotheist.  Imagine a world where every tribe has a different God.  Religion is rooted in superstition rather than relationship.  Imagine a world where the gods do actually demand human sacrifice to appease their anger.  This is the kind of world in which Abraham lived.  Abraham’s world was chaotic, loose.  He was a nomad, whose safety and livelihood was dependent on the generosity of the gods. 

God’s desire with Abraham was to start a new kind of relationship between God and people.  No longer would a relationship to God be about superstition, instead it would be about trust and love.  God had to show Abraham that he was NOT the kind of God that demanded human sacrifice.  He taught the lesson in such a searing way, through the near sacrifice of Isaac, that there is no way we can forget the image of last minute rescue.

There is something about the terror in sacrifice of Isaac story that resonates with us.  If you are walking the Christian walk, you are going to experience pain.  If you are walking the Christian walk, you are going to experience great loss.  Because, as our Gospel reading reminds us today, Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake.  The imminent death of Isaac reminds us of our fear of obliteration.  We fear that if we get too close to God, if we follow his call on our lives too precisely, we may lose everything we value.

When I was a small child, I saw a NOVA special about the Sun.  It described the power of the Sun’s energy and how eventually because of changes in its energy, everything around it, even the earth, would be sucked into the Sun and be disintegrated.  Now, as a child, I did not understand the concept of millions of years and so thought this would happen any moment, and I was terrified. 

A close relationship with God can feel like this sometimes.  God is so big and so amorphous, it can feel risky to draw near to him, to invite him into our lives.

While Isaac’s survival is small comfort, if we look more closely at this idea of losing our lives, we may be able to gain some courage.

Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake.  This sounds suspiciously like the kind of obliteration we fear.  However, we know that Jesus never threatened the life of anyone. He drew people out and loved them and helped them to grow.  He took immature, impulsive Peter and believed in him so much he became a stable head of the church. 

What if Jesus doesn’t want us to lose our true lives, our true selves, but wants us to lose our false selves. 

What do I mean by a false self?  I mean the self that has been constructed from other’s expectations and your own fears.  I mean the self that was taught by your parents that it was not okay to cry or to be fat or to be smart or to be an artist or to be. . whatever it was that they didn’t want you to be.  I mean the self that you’ve constructed so that your friends won’t be threatened by you.  I mean the self you’ve constructed so that your coworkers think you are always competent and never afraid.  I mean the self that you present to your partner so he or she won’t stop loving you.  I mean the self that buys a house you can’t afford and three fancy cars so you appear prosperous to your neighbors, when you’re actually drowning in debt and terrified.

The Christian life involves a huge amount of risk, and the biggest risk is living an authentic life before God and before each other.  Jesus calls us to leave behind the world and what the world wants from us.  Jesus calls us, invites us to sit at his feet and learn from him about who we really are.   

And who are we?  Paul answers this in our Epistle reading today.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We are God’s beloved.  We are the people for whom God sent Christ.  God does not demand human sacrifice, God sacrifices himself for us.  God is big and amorphous and scary, but he was also human, and kind, and gentle.  Above all, God is full of intense, specific love.  God sees you, sees your true heart, sees beyond every false self you’ve constructed, and loves you. 

[At 11:00]

And, like Isaac, right at the moment when life feels the most terrifying, God will swoop in and save you.  He will give you friends when you are lonely, courage when you are terrified, and love when you feel your most un loveable.  All we need to do is to surrender to him-perhaps the most terrifying step of all.

[At the 9:00]

We celebrate four baptisms today.  At first when I read the readings, I was dismayed.  I didn’t want Hunter and Anna Marie to link this image of the sacrifice of Isaac with their own baptism.  I did not want their baptism to be something scary, but something exciting and life giving.  However, these lessons reminded us that baptism isn’t cute.

Baptism is not something we do for sentimental reasons. 

In Baptism we die with Christ and experience his resurrection.  

In Baptism we commit ourselves to following Christ, to giving up our lives to do his work in the world.  But, through Baptism and a life of following Jesus, we will become more and more our true selves, the people God made us to be.  We will discover we can love more deeply than we thought possible.  We will discover great vaults of courage and integrity.  We will discover closeness with God that is not threatening, bur reassuring and life giving.

These four children being baptized are on the beginning of an exciting journey, full of ups and downs, but always rooted in the security of God’s love for them.



Epiphany 2, Year B, 2006

Lord: Sarah  

Sarah:  (Look around confused)

Lord:  (more insistently) Sarah!

Sarah:  Yes, Lord?

Lord:  You misunderstood me.  I didn’t say you should become a priest.  I said you should marry Jason Priestly.  You know, the actor from Beverly Hills 90210? 

Sarah:  (Confused look on her face)  Well, it’s a little late now. . .and I think Jason Priestly is married. . .do you mind if I just keep being a priest?

Lord:  (Sigh)  Fine.

Sarah:  Okay, well, then I’m going to go ahead and preach. . .

Hearing the call of God is a confusing, complicated process.  It would be nice if God would shout from the heavens and tell us exactly what we should do with our lives.  However, God seems to prefer to reveal our call to us slowly and quietly, so that we truly have to search our heart, mind and spirit.

Today’s reading from the Old Testament is about the call of Samuel.  Samuel’s mother was a woman named Hannah.  She was one of two wives of a loving husband and was barren for many years.  One day, she went to the temple where the priest, Eli, presided.  She wept and prayed so hard her lips moved.  Eli, not being the most compassionate priest on the planet, thought she was drunk and told her to move along.  Nice, huh?

So, Hannah goes home, soon gets pregnant and is so thankful that she not only names her son Shem-uel-name of God-she also vows to give her baby to the temple, so he can serve God all his life. 

In the meantime, Eli’s sons, who were supposed to take over for him, were incredibly corrupt, stealing from the offerings brought to the table, strong-arming people who came to pray.  As you can imagine, God was NOT happy about this.

So, this brings us to today’s reading.  Samuel is an apprentice at the Temple and while sleeping, hears a voice calling him.  He assumes it is Eli speaking and goes to him.  Eventually Eli realizes what is going on and helps Samuel figure out that God is trying to speak to Samuel.  So, Samuel tells God he is listening, and God gives Samuel a terrible message to give to Eli, telling Eli how Eli’s family’s dynasty will end because his sons have been so corrupt. 

To Eli’s credit, he does not get angry with Samuel, but realizes that he should raise Samuel as an honest, ethical priest.

Samuel’s call story is a wonderful model for us, because Samuel could not discern his call himself.  He needed the help of the community to discern his call.  Without Eli’s perception, he would have no idea God wanted to speak with him.

All of us have a call-something we were designed to do.  A call can be described as our deepest passions meeting up with the needs of the world around us.  The author of a book called Listening Hearts writes,

A call may come as a gradual dawning of God’s purpose for our lives.  It can involve an accelerating sense of inner direction.  It can emerge through a dawning feeling that we need to do a specific thing.  On occasion, it can burst forth as a sudden awareness of a path God would have us take.  Call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle.*

We often think of a call in religious terms-a call to the priesthood or to a monastery-but a call can take as many forms as there are people.  You can have a call to a particular work within the church:  youth group, ministering to the homebound, evangelizing, hospitality, but you can also have a call to secular work-a call to the theater, to law, to medicine, to interior design, to fatherhood, to motherhood, to writing. 

A call can be lived out through a paying job, or it can be something you pursue in your free time.  Many calls are not particularly lucrative, so-this may come as a shock to you-some people have jobs that don’t fulfill their deepest passions, but do pay the bills.  That is a perfectly honorable way to live. 

There are two major glitches in life that can throw us off course from living out our call:

First:  What if we don’t know our call?

Second:  What if we know our call but can’t satisfy it?

In the first instance, if we don’t know our call, we need to heed Eli’s advice:  Say a prayer to God, “Here I am.”  Let God know that you are paying attention, ready to listen.  So often, we tell God what we want or what our worries are, and we don’t leave space for God to respond to us. 

Next, journal about your deepest passions.  What moves you, what excites you? 

Third, talk to your friends and family.  Often, those around us can see our gifts far earlier than we can.  When I trepidatiously announced my desire to pursue ordination, my father and a priest friend both said a more eloquent version of, “Duh.” 

Finally, pay attention.  Although God does not often speak in a booming voice from above, he can speak through the world around us.  If you start looking for needs in the world around you, soon you will find a place where you can serve. 

The second case, being unable to satisfy one’s call, is much more challenging.  I have two friends, both of whom feel a strong call to motherhood. Unfortunately, both are single women.  One of them followed her call, and after a year of prayer and discernment adopted a baby girl from China.  This has been a wonderful experience, but is loaded with the challenges that come with being a single parent. 

The other friend feels strongly that for her, the call is to marriage and motherhood.  She does not feel a particular call to a profession and as you all know, you can’t just make marriage happen.  For her, the last few years have been a real struggle as she has earnestly tried to seek a call, and prayed to be released from this desire to be a mother. In the meantime, she is pursuing a masters degree in a field she thinks she won’t hate, has moved closer to her nephew, and has adopted a dog to nurture.  She invests in friendships, her home and in her church, but the gnawing desire of her call never truly leaves her. 

Many artists and writers also struggle with unsatisfied call, because it is so difficult to support oneself in those fields. 

Unfortunately, I have no easy solution for this problem.  However, I think the icon of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, can be a helpful one for us.  Hannah’s barrenness represents not only the inability to have a child, but also the inability to complete any creative act.  Hannah, who was barren for so many years, did the only thing we can do when we are absolutely stuck and hopeless.  The author of 1 Samuel describes Hannah as “speaking in her heart” when she prayed to God.  She prayed, honestly and passionately.  She wept and pleaded.  Hannah did not suffer in silence, repressing her desires-she began a conversation with God.  Hannah is an icon of hope because her prayers were answered.  She also presents a challenge for us, because once her prayers were answered, she immediately gave Samuel back to God. 

Hannah reminds us that, although a call feels intensely personal, ultimately a call is about lining up our lives with the divine. And, although living one’s call can feel incredibly satisfying, there is always an element of sacrifice when we live the life God intends for us. 

Hannah could not have known the consequences of returning Samuel to the temple, but God would go on to use Samuel as one of the most respected prophets in the history of Israel.  He oversaw the first King of Israel, Saul and was instrumental in recruiting David, after Saul displeased God.  

In pursuing her desire to have a child, Hannah blessed all of Israel.  Just imagine what might happen in this community if we all followed our calls.



* Farnham, Gill, McLean and Ward, Listening Hearts, Morehouse Publishing:  Harrisburg, PA (1991), p. 7.






Advent 4, Year B, 2005

King David was a manly man.  He slayed giants. He slept with other men’s wives and killed their husbands.  He led the armies that secured Jerusalem.  He established a kingdom.  (He also danced through the streets naked, but that is another sermon.)

Sweet Mary, on the other hand, was by all accounts a nice girl from a good family.  She was open, receptive, non-confrontational.  She was even a virgin.

Somewhere, Gloria Steinem is pulling out her hair.  These descriptions are a feminist’s nightmare, right?  Manly men and wimpy women.  Women of my generation were told we could grow up to do anything, be anyone we want to be.  Women before me had fought for their rights to work alongside men in every field you could imagine, and I certainly reaped the benefits of their hard work.  After all, I was born the year after the first women priests were ordained. What women are not supposed to be is passive, waiting around for some man (or God) to fulfill our destiny.

So, what do we do with these images of David and Mary?  These contrasting images of aggressive and passive behavior.

The good news is, we don’t have to choose just one.  (Though I’d be careful which attributes of David you emulate.)  God uses both David and Mary in Jesus’ conception.  In the Lukan geneaology of Jesus, Joseph, Jesus’ father, was descended from the line of David.  We’ll never know how the genetics of the assumption work, whether Jesus inherited any of Joseph’s traits, but for all legal purposes, Jesus could trace his heritage back to David.  

Throughout Jesus’ life, his incredible faithfulness to his heavenly Father will be a powerful combination of both David’s aggression and Mary’s ability to yield to God.  We see David in Jesus when he stands up to the powers of the day, when Jesus throws over the tables in the Temple.  We see Mary’s quiet faithfulness when Jesus yields to God in prayer over and over again, especially when he must choose to follow the path that he knows will lead to his death.  And in this struggle, we learn that yielding to God, as Mary and Jesus do, can be the most courageous and frightening way of faithfulness possible.  Yielding to God is not wimpy.

Mary was a woman who knew where her life was going.  She was marrying a carpenter, and would have a lovely quiet married life in which she’d take care of her husband and raise their children.  All this is interrupted when the Angel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that she is the favored one of God.

When Mary accepts God’s unexpected plan for her life, she yields to a future she cannot predict.  She does not know whether Joseph will accept or reject her, whether her family will shun her.  She certainly cannot know that she will one day have to watch her son be brutally murdered. 

When Mary yields to God, she surrenders her very understanding of how the world operates.  She surrenders her understanding of how God intervenes in the world.  Mary is open to God behaving in a completely new and unanticipated manner. 

Yielding to God is no small thing.  When we acknowledge that we do not control our destinies, we face the terror that we cannot predict our future.  There is no way to ensure that we or our loved ones will be safe, secure, or happy. 

Still, the Angel Gabriel refers to Mary as “favored one”. This Greek word translated as favored-charitoo– means, “endowed with grace”.  God chooses Mary, not because she is perfect, but because he chooses to endow her with his grace, just as he chooses to endow humanity with grace through the life and death of Jesus.

So, where is the grace in this yielding to God? 

I’d like to think that the grace, for Mary, came from her relationship with her Son.  She had the privilege of watching this incredible man grow from the baby and young boy she had nurtured to the powerful, wise and self-giving man he would become.  She experienced the grace of knowing God first hand, for a longer period of time then anyone before her.  She lived with this incarnate God 24 hours a day for years.  I’d like to think somewhere inside of her was a Jewish mother who got a chuckle out of the thought of disciplining the Lord of the Universe.  Potty training God?

In the same way, the grace when we yield to God, is that we get to learn more about God, we get to sit in his presence for a bit, and get a tiny sense of who he really is.  Yielding to God is not always about doing the will of God, it can also be a emotional or psychological transaction.  For instance, if you have a hard time trusting the father figure in your life, that distrust probably plays out in your prayer life with God.  If your dad abandoned you, why shouldn’t God?  In that case, yielding to God might be a moment of epiphany when you realize that God loves you, that God is not going to abandon you.  In that moment, you feel your body relax, your defenses lower.  That is yielding to God. 

You might believe you don’t need God.  In that case, yielding to God may happen when you get hit with a major crisis.  In a moment, in a flash, you realize that you are finite, that you don’t have all the answers. 

When we yield to God, we become God’s favored ones.  Not because we earn the distinction, but because God longs to bestow his grace upon us. 

And it is only when we yield to God, that it becomes appropriate to have a more confrontational, aggressive faith like David.  When we have yielded in prayer to God and have a sense of God’s call in our lives, we can then live out the “masculine” side of our faith.

Some of us might be called to fight for justice-writing letters to legislators, or organizing protests.  Others of us might be called to bring bible studies into local prisons or to work with the Bread Fund. 

The Christian life is a dance of yielding and responding to call.  The Christian Life is a dance of prayer and action. 

We are called to be both Mary and David.

As Jesus came into life through David and Mary, we are called to bring Jesus to life in this world.


Advent 2, Year B, 2005

It is time to come home!

This is the good news the prophet is speaking in the passage from Isaiah we hear today.  You see, Jerusalem was the symbolic and physical home of the Israelites.  They had journeyed for hundreds of years, and finally secured Jerusalem under King David’s leadership.  The Israelites believed their wandering, their suffering was finally over.  Unfortunately, years later, the Babylonians swooped in and took over Jerusalem, exiling all the Jews. 

The Israelites understood this defeat as not only a political and military defeat, but a spiritual defeat as well.  They believed that their sins had caused the loss of Jerusalem.

When the Lord says, “She has served her time and her penalty is paid” in this triumphant passage from Isaiah, he is telling the Israelites the good news that they will no longer be punished by exile, but will be allowed to return home.

It is time to come home!

John the Baptist repeats some of these words from Isaiah when he proclaims the coming of Jesus Christ. 

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,

Why echo this message of homecoming?  Jesus was not going to come in and drive out the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. 

What is a home, anyway?   I’ve been traveling for a couple weeks, a little vacation, then some continuing education, and each time I drove back to Crozet, and sunk into my big comfy bed at the end of a long day, I could feel myself relaxing into being home.  Some of you have lived in this area since you were tiny and some are as new as I am, but somehow we have all come to associate this place with home.  Home is more than a physical place.  Home is an emotional and spiritual idea, too. 

When John announced Jesus’ coming, he was announcing a whole new idea of a religious home.  No longer would home be a physical place like Jerusalem.  Home would now rest in a person-the person of Jesus. 

It’s time to come home.

To come home to Jerusalem, the exiled Jews would need to a do a lot of work.  They would pack all their tents, hitch their belongings to their donkeys or camels, and begin the long walk back home. 

Coming home to Jesus takes work, too. 

John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance.  He knew that in order to encounter Jesus, the very embodiment of love, the people around him would need to cleanse themselves of their sins.  He knew a life of sin would prevent a homecoming with Jesus.

I read a wonderful book over vacation called A Song I Knew by Heart by Brett Lott.  This novel is a retelling of the Ruth and Naomi story, but with a big twist.  In this story, after years of dealing with the painful issue of infertility, Naomi and her husband have grown distant from each other.  In a fit of anguish, Naomi throws herself at her husband’s best friend and they are intimate together one time.  Naomi goes immediately home where she sits in a cold bath, trying frantically to feel clean and finds herself unable to move, but shivers uncontrollably in her cold and guilt.  Her husband comes home, finds her, lifts her out of the tub, then takes her to their family bed, where he covers her in quilts and lies next to her until she warms again.  Throughout the rest of her life, she is tormented by her guilt and thinks of her sin as a separation from love. . . a separation from love.   Instead of turning toward her husband, who loved her so, she separated herself from that love and clung to another.

Sin as separation from love. . .a powerful image isn’t it?  When we sin, we separate ourselves from love, we separate ourselves from home.  When we repent and are forgiven, we bridge that separation, we experience a profound homecoming.

Naomi feels the weight of her guilt for the rest of her life.  She never tells her husband what happened, and they stay married and eventually have children.  At the end the book, at the end of her life, she finds out that her husband’s best friend told him what happened immediately after the indiscretion. 

So, when Naomi’s husband picked her up out of the frigid tub, and warmed her with blankets and his own flesh, he KNEW what had happened.   He was forgiving her, loving her, despite her betrayal.

For forty years, Naomi carried around a guilt that separated her from her husband, her children.  If she had only spoken of her guilt to her husband, she could have experienced the depth of her husband’s forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, much sooner.  Perhaps she could have even forgiven herself.

Like Naomi’s husband, God is eager to forgive us, eager to wrap us in the blanket of his love, his acceptance.  God is eager to welcome us home. 

As we wait for Jesus’s arrival this Christmas, we can prepare for his arrival by coming clean, coming clean before ourselves, our loved ones, God.  We can examine ourselves for the ways in which we have separated ourselves from love, and turn to welcome love back in our lives. 


It is time to come home.

Proper 25, Year A, 2005

Have you ever been in love?

I don’t mean the kind of sensible love of matched personalities and long marriages. I mean the can’t-catch-your-breath adolescent love of terrible poetry and teenage heartbreak.  When you’re in this be-still-my-beating-heart kind of love, your mind can think of nothing else.  It doesn’t matter if the object of your love is entirely inappropriate or unattainable, your devotion is complete. 

When I was in early high school, back when a text message was the newspaper, my girlfriends and I would write long notes to each other in intricate code describing every detail of the interaction we had with the boy we had code named “Samoa” or “River”.  Passing these notes was risky, but there was always the thrilling potential for the object of our love to actually intercept a note, decipher our code even the NSA couldn’t crack, and admit he returned our passion. 

Now, some were slightly more developed romantically than I was at fifteen, and actually had relationships in which both parties felt this love.  These lucky couples expressed their love through scrawling their initials on desks, or writing graffiti in the bathroom, or the most romantic of all, carving their initials in a tree in a local park.

When you’re in love, you want the world to know. 

When the Pharisees asked Jesus his opinion of the greatest commandment, they were hoping to paint him into a legal corner.  You see, if he chose ONE of the 619 religious laws on the books, it would mean he was degrading the rest of the laws.  Well, instead of choosing one of these laws, Jesus sings the Pharisees a love song.

Well, not exactly a love song.  You see, what Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he is quoting part of the Schema, a sung Hebrew prayer.  Waaaaay back in Jewish history, when God and Moses spent a lot of time talking, Moses told the Jewish people that God told him to tell the Israelites, “The Lord your God is one God.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.”  Moses went on to tell the Israelites they should keep this commandment on their doorposts.  He might have been using a metaphor, but we religious folks can be pretty literal, and so even today in many Jewish homes, you find a Mezuzah on the door frame, a small box or tube that contains the text of the Schema–this prayer.  Think of it as a form of carving initials in a tree trunk—Lord God hearts human kind.

The relationship between the Israelites and God may seem like a strange love affair since God tells the Israelites they should love him with all their heart.  In my experience, I find it rarely works to tell someone, “Love me!  Choose me!”  However, when God passes on this commandment, he does it during a special time in Israel’s history.

The Israelites have recently been liberated from Egypt and are wandering around in the wilderness, waiting to get to the Promised Land.  For most of the trip, they’ve been pretty grumpy, not at all sure they really wanted to be liberated in the first place.  They are fairly disorganized and not sure how to behave.

God will soon give them a LONG list of rules to help them organize themselves, but first he wants to remind them of who he is and what their relationship will be like.  Just like a new lover, eager to be known, God self-discloses, describes to the Israelites what he is like.

Our Lord is ONE God, not a confusing mass of petty Gods.  He is a God who reaches out to us.  He does not make us guess which of his manifestations he will be today.  We take this for granted, after four thousand years of worshiping one God, but imagine what it must have been like to worship a pantheon of smaller gods who fought with each other for power, for pride.  You would never be safe, never comfortable.  In that kind of system, you have to offer gods constant sacrifice, constant manipulation.  By declaring himself one God, our Lord let us know he was straightforward, trustworthy.

When God tells the Israelites that they should love the Lord their God, he is not being a bully.  God is telling the Israelites good news—the relationship between God and people is based on love, not on what humans can do to appease the gods.  All the other commandments and laws are really a subset of this one.

Jesus takes this a step further and adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Love between God and people leads naturally to love between people. 

Let me give you an illustration of this phenomenon.  Next weekend, I have the honor of performing the marriage ceremony for two people whose lives completely exemplify this principle. 

They love God and have this very sweet, holistic, supportive love for each other, but their love does not stop there.  Because of this amazing energy and goodness that flows between them, they have ended up as the emotional center of their group of friends.  They bring chicken and biscuits to friends who are sick, take late night phone calls from friends in distress, and their dining room table is the center for many an abundant celebration of love and friendship.

This couple understands that love, even romantic love, is not something to be hoarded and parceled out carefully.  Love is designed to push ourselves beyond our natural borders, to reach out to those around us—to hear their stories, celebrate life’s joys and mourn life’s tragedies with them. 

As Christians, we don’t have the tradition of the Mezuzah to proclaim our love for God.  Instead Jesus asks us to show our love for God, by loving our neighbor.  Loving one another is our way of carving our initials in a tree.  People of Emmanuel heart God.


Proper 19, Year A, 2005

Four years ago today, as I sat in my living room with a few good friends, watching the footage of two planes flying into the twin towers over and over again in what seemed like an infinite loop of media coverage, I could not have known the degree to which that event would exacerbate divisions between America and the Middle East or even exacerbate divisions within our own country. 

Western nations and Middle Eastern nations have lived in an uncomfortable tension for over one thousand years as each have vied for the same wealth, power and land.  Our latest conflict is rooted in a business deal struck fifty years ago between American oil companies and Saudi Arabia’s Saud family.  Western style capitalism and conservative Islamic social norms expanded side by side for fifty years until the inevitable explosion of violence we have experienced the last few years. 

Knowing how to respond to the Middle East can be confusing for us, since the violence is the work of a few terrorists, rather than entire nations.  A neighbor of mine is a high school counselor in a nearby county.  Her co counselor enthusiastically decorates the high school for Christmas every year-Christmas trees, Santas, baby Jesuses, you name it.  When her new principal informed her that she would also have to decorate for holidays such as Hannukah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan, she exclaimed, “I can’t decorate for Ramadan, we’re at war with Muslims!” 

Now, we’re not at war with Muslims. But for many Americans, 9-11 has shaped the way they view all Muslims, not just terrorists.  Christians are suspicious of Muslims because of 9-11 and Muslims are suspicious of Christians because of how they were treated after 9-11.  While not much overt violence happened, nearly every American Muslim I know received threatening phone calls, found people blanching in fear when they approached, or watched Christians cross the street in order to avoid them.  The conflict in the Middle East is a complicated one and won’t be solved in a ten minute sermon, but I think looking back at the earliest roots of the conflict will lend insight into all the conflicts our country is facing today.

As I did research on the history of this Western-Eastern conflict the last few weeks, I discovered that the Muslim people trace their heritage back to Ishmael-Abraham’s “other” son.  Let me refresh your memory of Ishmael’s story.  His story appears in the middle of Genesis and is a juicy one-not unlike something you might find on Montel. 

God called Abraham out of his native land and told Abraham that he would be the father of a nation.  Abraham was married to Sarah, who, as a practical woman, thought that God was off. . . his. . . rocker.  After all, Sarah and Abraham were elderly and childless and not about to make babies.  In order to help God with his plan, Sarah arranged for Abraham to sleep with Hagar, her maid, who would then be the surrogate mother for their child.  Well, eventually both Hagar and Sarah got pregnant and had their babies, and as you might imagine, Sarah soon started to think her life would be a lot better if she could get rid of Hagar and Hagar’s son, Ishmael.  She wanted to restore her place of power as Abraham’s wife and ensure her son Isaac, would be the head of this new nation. Accordingly, Sarah forced Abraham to kick Hagar out of the house and Hagar ended up stranded in the desert, where God promised to be faithful to her and create a nation from Ishmael as well as a nation from Isaac.

According to the Quran, this nation that descended from Ishmael later became the Muslim people. 

So, metaphorically at least, the very roots of the conflict between East and West spring out of a very individual, very personal conflict between two women who did not know how to forgive.

In our Gospel passage this morning Jesus tells the parable of the king who generously forgives the debt of a slave.  The slave then goes out and throttles a man who owes him money.

That’s so like us, isn’t it?  We have a hard time internalizing the fact that God loves us, forgives us, and blesses us.  Sarah certainly acted like this slave.  God blessed her with a reality beyond anything she could have dreamed-she a barren, elderly woman was not only forgiven for laughing at God, but she was also blessed with a son, ensuring her family line would last forever.  Instead of extending the graciousness she had been given by God towards Hagar, she becomes afraid that Hagar could threaten her blessing so she banishes her.

What if Sarah had been able to forgive herself for not trusting in God?  What if she had been able to forgive Hagar for her capitulation in Sarah’s scheme?  What if she had been able to forgive Ishmael for being born?   Would Jewish and Muslim people have been able to stay united in one religion?  Would the Crusades never have happened? Could 9/11 been avoided?

Obviously we cannot go back into time and change the course of our history.  What this story illustrates is the degree to which we each control our own lives and thereby the destinies of countless others. 

Now we humans love to have an enemy.  Remember the first Olympics after the fall of the Soviet empire?  It was kind of sad, right?  We didn’t know what teams to hate!  No East Germans, no Soviets. . .and those teeny Chinese gymnasts are just too cute to hate. . .

This enemy-making happens on the smallest scale.  Even in my own small development in Crozet, factions have developed.  As a renter, I catch up on all the latest Home owners association gossip when I run with some of the neighborhood women. There is constantly someone trying to make an enemy out of someone else.  Whether the conflict is between single family homeowners versus townhouse owners or the townhouse owners versus the builders. . .where there is not natural hostility, someone will manufacture hostility. 

We see this kind of enemy-making in our nation and even in the Episcopal Church.  Hurricane Katrina has unmasked hostility between whites and blacks in America.  The Iraq War has unmasked hostility between conservative and liberal Americans.  Bishop Robinson’s election unmasked hostility between conservative and liberal Episcopalians.

The good news is that this enemy-making is not inevitable.  The catch to this good news-is that any reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, single family home owners and townhouse owners is up to us.


This reconciliation is up to us because we are forgiven.  As Christians, we understand that though we owed God a huge debt, he not only forgives us, but he blesses us beyond our wildest imagination.  This positions us to relate to others in a unique way.  

People make enemies because they are anxious.  Sarah was anxious about Ishmael’s threat to Isaac.  We were anxious about the Soviets using nuclear weapons to obliterate us.  Single family homeowners in my development are anxious about the townhouses bringing down their property value.  Anxiety.  Anxiety.  Anxiety!

As people secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us, anxiety does not need to cause us to be threatened by other people.  As Christians, we know that we do not need power to be powerful.  We do not need money to be rich.  We do not need prestige to be important to God or to those in our church family. 

Like any psychological or spiritual truth, we can’t just say to ourselves, “Well, God loves me!  No more anxiety for me!”  To gain a deep knowledge of our loved-ness, we need to spend time in reflection, prayer and in reading Scripture. When we read Scripture, we realize that God loved a murderer (Moses), adulterer (David), a betrayer (Peter), prostitutes, tax collectors, and on and on.  The beauty of God’s forgiveness is that it enables a holy God to love profoundly un-holy people.  And when we know God loves us, we are enabled to love others.

Without anxiety, we can deeply listen to those who have different opinions from us.  Without anxiety, we can dream ways of sharing power that anxious people could never invent.  Without anxiety, we can be the bridge makers that help differing groups see the humanity in each other. 

And if we don’t act as the bridge makers, who will?