Epiphany 6, Year A, 2017

Choose life.

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

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

So Moses asks them to choose life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we accept his invitation.

Amen.

 

 

 

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Good Friday, Year B, 2015

Good Friday is a day that exposes us.

The rest of the calendar year we can imagine that we are one of the disciples, lovingly following Jesus, doing our best to live as God wants us to live.

But on Good Friday we remember.

We remember that before human beings could be united to Jesus, first we had to be exposed.

We had to be exposed as traitors, like Judas.  We had to be exposed as cowards, like Pilate.  We had to be exposed as fair weather friends, like Peter.  We had to be exposed as murderous and gullible, like the crowds.

We had to be exposed as people who would sacrifice their own God in order to ease their anxiety.

On Good Friday we think about Jesus on the cross, and we shudder because we aren’t so sure we’d be one of the faithful women who stays by his side even through death.  We are afraid we’d be a member of the crowd.  If Jesus were killed today, we might just be one of the internet commenters sure that if he had just followed the rules, just done what he was supposed to do he wouldn’t have been killed. We would shake our head, and found a way to blame him for his own death.

Good Friday exposes us as complicated people.  We love God, but are too broken to follow him perfectly.  We are Christian, but we are also sinners.  We are redeemed by God, but we are still anxious, judgmental, addicted, selfish, controlling and out of control.

You would think Jesus would wash his hands of us.  Any rational God would roll his eyes and walk away from humanity as a lost cause.

But Jesus does not walk away.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus calmly walks toward his own death.  Jesus never loses control.  Jesus knows he will be betrayed by these disciples who loved him, even Peter who swore up and down that he would be loyal to the end.  Jesus knows the crowd will betray him.  Yet, calmly and in confidence he continues to follow his Father’s will and stays connected to humanity, even at the cost of his life.

God sees all of us.  Everything about us is exposed to God.  He knows every nook and cranny of our hearts and minds.

The miracle is that God sees all the worst parts of us and still treats us with unlimited love and affection.  He remains loyal to us, even though we are disloyal to him.

God looks right at us, full on, and asks us to follow him–just as we are, broken and all.

If you go back and look at Jesus’ speech to his disciples before his death, he does not spend the speech berating them for their sinful natures.  No, his speech is full of encouragement.  He doesn’t blame the disciples for his impending death. He tells his disciples when he goes to be with the Father he will prepare a place for them.  He assures them that they will never be alone, because he will send the Holy Spirit as an advocate for them.  He reminds them that their job is to love one another.

Even when he encounters them after his resurrection, Jesus does not seek recrimination for his death.  He says, “Peace be with you.” and then he sends them forth into the world.

Good Friday exposes us, but God calls us his own and wishes us peace.  He liberates us from our sin, he offers us freedom from the broken parts of our souls that hold us back.

This Good Friday, as you sit exposed before God, may you experience God’s peace and love.  Amen.

Proper 19, Year A, 2014

Bernard Cooper, in his memoir, “The Bill from My Father” tells a story of a time when Cooper was a young man with a dying car. His curmudgeonly father, Edward, decided to buy him a new car, but Edward’s bravado at the car dealership got him humiliatingly nowhere, so they left without a car in hand. Edward promised Bernard that the car dealership would call them back with a great offer, but they never did. Bernard, desperately longing for this new car, kept calling his father to obliquely check in. His father, frustrated and embarrassed, told him to stop calling and sent Bernard an itemized bill for $2,000,000—the detailed costs of raising Bernard.

Edward expressed his anger and irritation by literally creating a record of debt, but without any means for Bernard to actually settle that debt. Bernard never got the car, by the way!

Sometimes, when we are in conflict with another person, it can feel like we’ve been saddled with a bill we cannot pay. We can feel weighed down by obligation, by miscommunication, by anger.

We aren’t the first generation to struggle with conflict. After all, even Adam and Eve argued! Last week, Eric talked about how to manage conflict in a congregation—and our Gospel passage this week picks right up after last week’s left off. Once you’ve had a conflict, how do you move on? How do you restore the relationship?

The answer of course, is forgiveness. Peter, ever the show off, asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has wronged him. Seven, he ask? After all, seven is a LOT of times! Can you imagine scheduling a seventh lunch after someone bailed on you the first six times? No way. And yet, Jesus turns the tables on Peter and tells him, you must forgive someone seventy-seven times!

And I have to tell you, it’s right at this moment my alarm bells start ringing. Because this is another one of those passages that pastors have used to convinced people to stay in abusive marriages.   Women and men, trying to preserve their lives, their children’s lives, have been thrown right back into the lions with this passage. So let me be clear, Jesus says forgive. He does not say stay in the relationship. After all, Jesus also said love your neighbor as yourself, which implies that love of self is important.

So, how do we deal with this tension? What does it mean to forgive, but also protect yourself?

Desmond Tutu, who knows something about forgiveness, having been a leader in the healing and reconciliation that has gone on in South Africa after apartheid, has, with his daughter, recently published a book called: The Book of Forgiving. In it, he describes a four step path toward forgiveness:

  1. Telling the story
  2. Naming the hurt
  3. Granting forgiveness
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship

Now for some of us, those first two are incredibly difficult. Avoiding conflict, or communicating through passive aggressive banging of pots in the kitchen is a lot easier than sitting the person who has hurt you down and telling the story of how they have hurt you. And naming the hurt means you actually have to do some honest soul searching and deeply experience the pain someone has caused you. Naming the hurt might not be a big deal in the scenario where someone keeps standing you up, but it could be incredibly difficult if you are coming to terms with the pain a drunk driver has cost you if he has caused an accident that killed someone you love.

Both these steps help you work through your experience and come to terms with what has happened to you.

Even if you cannot sit down with the person who has hurt you, these steps still help you integrate the experience you’ve had, so you can think through whether or not you are ready to forgive someone.

Next, comes the actual forgiveness. Desmond Tutu describes it this way: “The one who offers forgiveness as a grace is immediately untethered from the yoke that bound him or her to the person who caused the harm. When you forgive, you are free to move on in life, to grow, to no longer be a victim. When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past.”

Forgiveness is not just about releasing the offender’s burden, but releasing our own, as well. When we forgive someone, we acknowledge that they no longer have power over us. They no longer control us.

Once we’ve broken that hold, we can then engage in Tutu’s fourth step—renewing or releasing the relationship. Going through telling our story, naming our hurts, and granting forgiveness can draw us closer to another person. I think about times in my marriage where we’ve had to admit we were wrong and ask for forgiveness from each other. For some reason, I’m still surprised every time I’m forgiven for how freeing it feels, and how much closer I feel to my husband after we have worked through our conflict. On the other hand, going through Tutu’s steps may make you realize that while you can forgive, you cannot continue on in the relationship.

Sometimes forgiveness means saying goodbye. Sometimes forgiveness means setting new boundaries that substantially change the relationship.   And that is okay. Not all relationships can or should be saved. But even in these relationships, forgiveness can help both parties move on into the world in healthier ways.

We worship a God who loved us so much, he spent thousands of years trying to find ways to forgive us for all the ways we betray each other and him. He tried starting over with Noah, he tried forming a special community through Abraham and Sarah, he tried giving us kings and judges, he even sent prophets to nag us back to good behavior with the hopes that we would repent so he could forgive us. When all that failed, he sent his son, himself, really, to come down and be with us and love us. And even as he was dying at our hands, he extended forgiveness to us.

God knows the cost and the reward of forgiveness. He has wiped our slates clean. He has forgiven us of all the hundreds of times we have hurt other people or cheated or been lazy or did things that really hurt others or ourselves. God has forgiven us far more than 77 times. He knows we cannot forgive without first being forgiven, so he has done the hard part.

Now it is our turn.

Easter 3, Year B, 2009

I love watching footage of Publisher’s Clearinghouse winners or housewives who get surprised by Oprah’s cameras.  We can watch an entire story playing out across their faces as they are told they have won a million dollars or are about to meet Tom Cruise.  At first they are embarrassed to be caught in their bathrobe.  Next, they are suspicious that they are being scammed.  Then they just stare blankly, usually with their mouths partially open, thinking.  Finally, the news sinks in and they start jumping up and down and screaming like crazy people.

Any life changing news, whether good or bad, takes a while to filter through the human brain.

We celebrate Easter for a full 50 days, representing the time that lapsed between Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. God gave the disciples a nice, long time to absorb the news of the resurrection before throwing the curveball of the Holy Spirit at them.

Our Gospel lesson today is from the Gospel of Luke.  You’ll remember from our time together at Easter that the Gospel of Mark does not contain any post-resurrection appearances, so the creators of the lectionary are borrowing from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Luke this year.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes two post-resurrection appearances.

First, Jesus appears to two disciples walking along a road to Emmaus.  They don’t recognize him at first, but he says a few elusive things and then breaks bread with them.  In the act of breaking bread, they suddenly realize who he is.

The second appearance-the one we read today-happens when all the disciples are gathered together, discussing the first appearance.

Jesus materializes suddenly, out of nowhere, and the disciples are-here’s that word again-terrified.

Jesus understands their fear, Jesus understands that it takes our small brains time to absorb new information.

Jesus’ response to their fear tells us so much about God and the kind of love and patience that God has for us.  Rather than getting down to the business at hand right away, Jesus gives them time to absorb the experience of being with the risen Jesus.  He invites the disciples to touch him.  He invites the disciples to view his wounds.  He invites the disciples into this intimate moment of connection to reaffirm their bonds and reassure them of his identity.

Throughout all the resurrection appearances, eating is a theme.  The resurrected Jesus almost always eats something within the stories where he appears to the Disciples.  This story is no different.  After giving the disciples a chance to touch his resurrected body, Jesus then eats a piece of fish in front of them.  Eating the fish not only proves that Jesus is no ghost, but must have evoked many memories for the disciples.  So many important moments in Jesus’ ministry happened around food.  When the disciples saw Jesus eat the fish, they must have remembered the final Passover meal together, and the time Jesus fed 5000 people with just fish and bread, and the meal during which Mary poured oil over Jesus head and feet.  The extraordinary resurrected Jesus chooses to do something extremely ordinary to help root his disciples in the reality of the present in a gentle, calming way.

Jesus does not delve into bible study or instruction until all those introductions are out of the way.  Only when the disciples have come to understand that he is, indeed, resurrected from the dead, does Jesus begin to teach them about the implications of his resurrection.  He helps them to understand that their mission is to go out and teach others about repentance and God’s forgiveness of sin.

The church year also gives us time to gently absorb the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  We have all of Lent to focus on repenting and then 50 days of Easter to focus on the fact that our sins are forgiven.

And even with these 50 days of Easter, I don’t know that the good news really ever fully sinks into our hearts and minds.

I wonder what would happen if each of us took the next few weeks of Easter to really think and pray about how the forgiveness of sins affects each of us.  The phrase “forgiveness of sins” has sort of a stern Catholic-school connotation.  We don’t easily jump up and down in joy over the image of a stern God solemnly wiping our slate clean while giving us a one eye-brow raised nod.

But the forgiveness of sins is not about a schoolteacher God judging us and reluctantly changing our grade from an F to an A.  The forgiveness of God is about the gift of an abundant, loving relationship with our Creator. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God forgives us of our sins. Because Jesus mediates between us and the Father, we can be in a close relationship with God. Jesus modeled this kind of intimate relationship that is now available to us through his relationship with his disciples.

Jesus’ relationship with his disciples was marked by breaking bread together, walking together, and teaching.  While Jesus occasionally rebuked or got frustrated with his disciples, his relationship to his disciples could not be characterized as stern or cold.  Jesus loved his disciples and his disciples loved him.  Jesus reaffirms this warm relationship with disciples by continuing to break bread with them after his resurrection.

Experiencing a relationship with God can sometimes feel abstract and frustrating.  God does not literally walk with us or break bread with us.  But, our relationship with God is just that-a relationship.  The relationship is dynamic and intimate, just like Jesus’ relationship to the disciples was dynamic and intimate.  We may not experience God in a palpable manner, as the disciples were able to do, but if we lead lives of prayer we do occasionally get a strong spiritual sense of God’s presence and a very powerful sense of God’s love for us.

Maybe this Eastertide, as we slowly absorb the reality of God’s powerful love for us, we’ll have a moment of insight about just how incredible this intimate relationship with the divine really is and we’ll start  jumping up and down and screaming like one of those Publisher’s Clearinghouse winners!

Even for us staid Episcopalians, that would be an appropriate response to the Good News of God’s love for us!

Amen.

Proper 22, Year C, 2007

I’d like all of you to turn your faces to the window and concentrate on the large tree between the church and the Marston La Rue House.

(Squeeze eyes)

Did it move?  Well, let me try again.

(Squeeze eyes, grip podium)

Oh, well.  I have to confess that every time I hear this passage, every time, I try to move a tree with the power of my mind.  This plan has yet to work.  Not one branch has wavered, not one root has become unhinged from the dirt that surrounds it.  I find this all very frustrating.

When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, they were frustrated, too.  They did not ask Jesus to increase their faith out of some selfless piety.  They asked Jesus to increase their faith because they had just heard Jesus say, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

This teaching was too much for them, as most days it is too much for us!  They did not want to have to forgive people who had hurt them, especially people who had hurt them a lot.

So, they ask Jesus to increase their faith-as if faith was a something that could be measured-as if faith could be used up and then replenished like gasoline in an automobile.

But Jesus reminds the disciples that faith cannot be measured in quantities. To have a gallon faith is not better than having a pint of faith.  Faith, in fact, is not about us at all.  Faith is about God, not about our capacity to believe.  Jesus tells the disciples that if they had the faith of a mustard seed, they would be able to uproot a local mulberry tree and toss it in the sea.  Obviously, none of us have the capacity to move a tree just by thinking about it.  God, however, can move a tree.

How many of you were around for Hurricane Isabel?  I was living at the seminary in Alexandria at the time.  When I awoke the morning after the hurricane I was shocked to see that giant trees, trees whose roots had stretched deeply, were knocked over as easily as playing cards.  In Richmond, the damage was even more intense.  In the lush Maymont Park, the carcasses of dozens of overturned trees littered the grass for almost a year. 

For God, moving a tree is as simple as creating a big wind.  For us, not so easy.

So, faith is not about us willing God do so something through the power of our own piety, but realizing that God can do things greater than we can even imagine.  God can even uproot us in places we are stuck and fling us into a new life of freedom and joy.  This part of the passage is about expanding our horizons, opening our minds, coming to terms with a limitless, powerful God.

And then, before we can get too excited about all this, Jesus turns a corner.

In the second part of our gospel reading today, Jesus tells a parable about a slave and a slave owner.  This parable is extremely, nail bitingly, glance around at your neighbor uncomfortable for us.  First of all, it addresses slavery, which in our country was the most shameful part of our past.  Secondly, Jesus encourages rude behavior!  We are in the South.  We thank people.  I sometimes write thank you notes for an event before I actually go to the event.  The idea of not thanking someone who has worked all day for you and then cooked is shocking!

When we think about this passage, it is helpful to remember the context of the time.  In Jesus’ time, slavery was not a race issue-it was a political and financial issue.  A person could be placed in slavery when his country was conquered by another country.  A person could also sell himself into slavery if he was deeply in debt and needed to buy his way out of the debt.  None of this makes slavery acceptable, but in Jesus’ time, it was a part of the system that was taken for granted.  So, when Jesus uses a parable about slavery, he is not endorsing slavery, simply acknowledging that it exists and using slavery as a metaphor his listeners will understand.

So what does this metaphor mean?  To Jesus’ listeners, the idea of thanking a slave would have been laughable.  Slaves had jobs to do-their whole purpose in live was to do these jobs, so to commend them would be silly.  I do not think that self-esteem was a big issue in Jesus’ time. 

Jesus is reminding his disciples that, as followers of Jesus, they have jobs to do, too.  Yes, their God is a mighty God who can uproot trees and transform lives, but that same God also calls us to responsibility.  When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is telling his disciples to “just do it.”  He’s telling them not to expect to be coddled by God or thanked for doing what they are supposed to be doing. 

While these images of faith and slavery seem radically different, they are two parts of the same point.

God is God.  We are not God.

God can do amazing, nature defying, life changing things.  If we step back and let God do these things, all we have to worry about is doing what we’re supposed to do. We are not responsible for controlling the universe, or making miracles happen.  We are not responsible for changing the lives of others.  We are responsible for our own lives and how we live them-living with integrity, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, love.

If we acknowledge that we already have a mustard seed of faith within us, then all we have to do when we are worried about something or someone is to pray.  We are called to pray and wait for God and do the work God has given us to do without complaint.

When we do manage to do what God has called us to do, we don’t wait around to be praised, but we go on with our lives, knowing we have done the least we can do  to live lives worthy of God. 

So, we live in the tension of faith-of trusting in an endless God, while still navigating our own small lives.  We live in the tension of dreaming big dreams and praying big prayers, while still taking out the garbage every day.  The life of faith is both incredibly expansive and freeing, and limiting-as it provides us boundaries to live healthy and holy lives.

This tension is also a kind of freedom.  By trusting in God, rather than ourselves, an enormous weight is lifted off our shoulders.  By responding to God’s call when we hear it, we always know we are doing what God wants us to do.  Living out this tension offers us a life without anxiety-knowing that we are each fulfilling our own small role and that God is taking care of everything else. 

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. 

(Pause)

It is time to come home.

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.

Why?

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?