Epiphany 6, Year A, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Epiphany 6, Year A, 2011

Preached at the evening service of the Episcopal Church of Princeton University.

I am a rule bound person and have been ever since I was a kid.  My parents had very clear rules for my sister and me and I had very little problem following them.  We did our homework before we played.  We went to bed at 8:00 PM.  We had to eat at least one bite of everything on our plate.  No motorcycles, no tattoos, and strangely, no pierced ears.  Life was ordered and made sense.  I even liked imposing rules on others.  When I was eight and in the school play, before the play started, the only person you could hear from the audience was me hushing my fellow actors saying, “Shhhh.  Shhhh.  The play’s about to start.”

I became a Christian my last year of high school, through an evangelical group called Club Beyond.  I continued my life as a Christian in college through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  There, too, the rules were very clear.  Being a Christian meant going to large group meetings and bible studies, being kind to others, not drinking, smoking or having sex, and telling your friends about Jesus.  As a new Christian my brain really liked the clarity.  I was told what to do and what not to do and my rule-following mind was calm.

So, I have some sympathy for Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, who tells us in our Old Testament lesson today that “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”   At first, this seems plausible.  The commandments are laid out throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, so there is no mystery.  We don’t have to guess at what the commandments might be.  Hypothetically, it’s entirely possible to follow the commandments to the letter.

And Jesus seems to be reinforcing this message on the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus has been doing all kinds of radical things and people are starting to wonder if he is going to tell them that the Hebrew Law is invalid.  Instead he tells his follower that they need to follow the Law even more diligently than the scribes and Pharisees!  And the scribes and Pharisees were serious, serious rule followers.  Not only that, but in our passage today, Jesus raises the stakes.  Jesus raises the stakes considerably.

Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you weren’t supposed to murder someone.  But now, you’re not even supposed to insult anyone.  Even idiots.

Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you were not supposed to cheat on your wife.  But now, you’re not even supposed to check out a hot girl’s boobs, even if she’s wearing a low cut top!

You’re not supposed to divorce, you’re not supposed to promise to do something you don’t intend to do.  The rules are getting stricter and stricter.

And our reading today is not even the end of the list.  You’ll be hearing more about the high stakes that Jesus wants from his followers next week.

Suddenly, Ben Sira’s words don’t seem that easy.  I can go through a day without murdering someone without much a problem. But, going through an entire day without insulting someone behind their back is much more challenging.  There are so many bad drivers and generally inconsiderate people in the universe that deserve my scorn!

And if a really handsome guy walks into the room, I might check him out before I even realize I’m doing it!

Jesus is getting at something really uncomfortable.  Jesus is telling us that living a holy life is not just about following rules.  Living a holy life is about the content of our hearts and minds.  We can follow rules to the letter and be hateful, mean spirited people. We can follow rules and completely miss the spirit of what the rules mean.

I ended up leaving the evangelical church for a variety of reasons, but partly it was because the rules started to not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know.  Now, I am not talking about the explicitly stated rules of the community, I am talking about the implied rules.  We were not supposed to be gay or have gay friends. We were not supposed to have normal dating lives: we were supposed to pretend like everyone we dated was going to be the person we would marry, and court them.  We were not supposed to be Democrats.  We were supposed to be really concerned about middle class values.  We were not supposed to have non-Christian friends unless we were actively trying to convert them.  We were not supposed to believe in Evolution.  If we were women, we could have leadership roles in the campus groups, but not in the churches we attended.  And we were supposed to be happy all the time, especially when worshiping.

These rules started to chafe at me a bit.  They did not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know.  The Jesus that seemed to really enjoy the company of outsiders.  The Jesus that seemed to flout convention.  The Jesus that seemed much more concerned with the content of people’s hearts than their outward behaviors.  The Jesus that loved and respected women.

A friend of mine invited me to the Episcopal church around this time and I fell in love.  Sermons were not just about conversion—they were about how to live in a complicated world while still following God.  The music expressed a whole range of emotions—light and dark.  One of our priests was a woman–a brilliant woman.  Another volunteer priest was a world-renowned geneticist, who saw the wonder of God in his work as a scientist.   The intellectual life of the community was rich and vibrant.

I knew I was in a whole new world one Wednesday night when I first went to a church supper before a catechesis class.  At the dinner, they served wine.  I about fell over.  There was wine. . .at church. And not just at communion.  What kind of rule breaking church was this?

At first I was giddy with the freedom the Episcopal Church offered me.  But soon, my interior rule follower started to get really nervous.  I realized, I did not know how to follow Jesus if I did not have a rule book to follow.  I did not know how to be faithful if the priests were not going to tell me what to do about dating or sex or drinking.  I was a little freaked out!

Finally, I realized that I needed to pray.  About everything.  If no one was going to tell me what to do, I needed to study Scripture and bring my life before God and use my own reason and instinct to make decisions about my own life.  Rather than follow a cookie cutter pattern of what it meant to be holy, I needed to be actively engaged in my own life and take responsibility for my choices.

I also needed to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be perfect.  There were parts of my personality—like my anxiety and my tendency to be swift to judge—that I was going to have to wrestle with my entire life.

As Episcopalians, we live in tension.  We know the dangers that come with strict rule following, but we also want to follow God.  We know that the Bible is not an instruction manual, but we still seek wisdom about our own lives in its pages.  We know that Jesus’s primary rule for us is to love God and love our neighbor, but we also recognize in ourselves a congenital inability to love consistently.

And thankfully, this is where grace enters the picture.

God did not choose to be incarnate so that he could come to earth and give us a list of rules in person.  There are more efficient ways to get that done, even before the days of email and facebook.  God chose to be incarnate so he could deepen his relationship with us and rip the veil that separates us into pieces.  He tried for generations to give us solutions to deal with our own sin. He gave us rules and leaders and prophets, but nothing seemed to make us any better.  We’re still not any better.  We still shoot up fraternities in Ohio and send  men with camels and whips into crowds of peaceful protesters.  We still betray our lovers and snap at our best friends.  We still use alcohol and drugs to dull our boredom and pain.  We’re still pretty rotten in a lot of ways.  Rules or no rules.  We even got so irritated with God-incarnate that we killed him.

But Jesus came back.  Even at our murderous worst, God decided he still loved us and wanted to be in relationship with us.  He resurrects his murdered Son.  He continues to pursue us and love us, even at our most rotten.  He defies the rules of logic and physics and biology for no other reason than to show us that he will pursue us and be in relationship with us no matter what it takes.

Being a Christian is not about being good.  Being a Christian is about being loved.  Being a Christian is about acknowledging that there is a God who created the Universe who, inexplicably, wants to be in relationship with us.  He wants us to pray, to ask questions, to challenge, to argue.  He wants to show us the parts of us he created and the parts of us that are broken.  He wants to heal us and use us for good in the world.  And when we’re done in this world, he wants to be with us forever in eternity.  Rules or no rules.

Grace can free us from our anxiety about following God’s rules perfectly, yet somehow free us to follow the ultimate commandment—Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  As we realize that God’s grace extends to all of our icky and broken parts, we begin to be gentler and less judgmental about other people’s icky and broken parts.  As we realize God wants to reconcile with us after we stray from him, we begin to seek reconciliation with others.  Grace offers us freedom to accept ourselves in all our glorious messiness, so we can begin to accept others.

Grace allows us to be in a free, loving relationship with God and with our neighbor, which is what the rules were supposed to do all along.

Thanks be to God.

Christmas I, Year B, 2008

In honor of the incarnation that we celebrated this week, today’s readings are all about the law and grace.

Now, when I hear the words “the Law”, the first images I think of are American ones.  I think of dusty sheriffs patrolling the western frontier.  I think of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  I think of lawbreakers like Johnny Cash, singing the “Folsom Prison Blues”. I think of Billy the Kid and Jesse James.  America has always held the law and law-breaking in an exciting tension.  After all, we began as a nation by breaking the law and rebelling against England.  Outlaws have been our heroes as much as the lawmen that chased them down.

When we think about grace, we think about big sweeping outlaw stories, too.  American Christianity, particularly of the conservative sort, loves a huge conversion story.  There is nothing better than when a hopeless outlaw has an experience with Jesus that transforms his life. The first of these that comes to my mind is Charles Colson, who found Jesus while in prison after the Watergate scandal and has spent his life since working in prison ministry.  I think of Anne Lamott’s story, too.  She was addicted to drugs until a series of experiences in which she had a very clear supernatural sense of Jesus’ presence that motivated her to seek healing and a church community.

These dramatic conversion stories are exciting and a give a clear picture of the power of Christ in the life of believers. A new understanding of Christ’s love can motivate people to completely change their lives, making for a remarkable witness to the power of God.  But, what about the rest of us?  What does grace look like for those of us who aren’t outlaws?

As you can imagine, I have at MOST about 2% outlaw in me.  I have been a rule-follower since I was a little kid.  I like order and most laws make sense to me, so I see no need to break them.  I pay my taxes, stop at red lights, and have never done drugs.  I am, as a four year old I know likes to say, “Boooooooowing.”  Matt likes to mess with me in grocery stores by putting an item out of place. He knows I just can’t stand it if a can of beans ends up with the pasta.  He knows I will be unable to resist picking up those beans and putting the can back where it belongs.  I am a rule bound woman.

And yet, the grace of God that comes through Jesus incarnation is still profound to me.

Why is that?  What does the incarnation of Christ and the grace of God offer for us boring rule-bound types?

Well for one thing, in terms of obedience, the law of the Hebrew Scriptures is a lot more complicated than American civil law.  It’s easy to stop at red lights.  It’s not always easy to follow the hundreds of specific household and dietary laws of Leviticus.  It’s really not easy to avoid breaking the laws-such as coveting-which are as much about an emotional response than a behavioral one.  Being obedient to all the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures is nearly impossible.  They are so detailed, following them might be like having an entire lifetime of just putting cans back into the right slots.  While putting cans back in their proper places brings me a moment of satisfaction, it certainly does not offer me a lifetime of joy!

Christ’s incarnation and life changes our relationship to the law.  He follows the law perfectly on our behalf.

But more importantly than changing our relationship to the law, Christ’s incarnation fundamentally transforms the way we relate to God-whether we are outlaws or chronically obedient.

In our reading from Galatians today, Paul writes,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

When we were under the law, we related to God as his servants.  We were the vassals to his Lord, the peasant to his King.  Our relationship was based on obedience and loyalty.  We were rewarded when we worshiped him properly and punished when we slipped and worshiped Ba’al instead.

When Jesus is born into Mary and Joseph’s human family, we are invited to join God’s family.  Suddenly, our status has changed.  We are no longer slaves, but children of God.  God sees us as his children and we are invited to call him Father.

Now just think for a minute, if you were here last Sunday, about how you felt about our children as they performed and watched the Christmas pageant.  I saw the tears in your eyes and heard the sighs and laughter.  Our children are beloved here-as they should be.  Now imagine that God feels the same way about you!

This is a big transition to make.  If you’re off being an outlaw, you’re used to railing against authority figures.  If you’re a rule follower, you’re used to trying to please authority figures through your perfect obedience.  Neither of these ways of being really prepares you for the challenge of simply being loved.

We don’t have to prove anything.  We don’t have to earn anything.  We are loved simply because God has chosen to love us.  He has decided to adopt us into his family without any manipulation or trickery on our part.  He loves us.  He wants to be around us.  He wants a deep relationship with us. The relational dynamic has changed.  Now pleasing God means developing an intimate relationship with him, rather than simply obeying his laws.

And this is the true meaning of Christmas.  We welcome the baby Jesus into the human family as a reminder that Jesus has invited us to be a member of his family.  We put up lights and exchange presents and generally rejoice because whether we are outlaws, goody-two-shoes or someone in-between, we are loved and wanted by God, and have become part of his family.

Merry Christmas, indeed!

Advent 3, Year B, 2008

God will make a way.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we have rounded a corner from the repentant beginning of Advent to the great celebration of Christmas.  We light the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath because it represents joy and the act of rejoicing as we begin to anticipate the birth of our Savior.

The problem for us, is that this third Sunday in Advent does not feel very joyous.  Half a million Americans are unemployed. I know I have a handful of friends who work in various state jobs who are nervous about losing their jobs come budget cuts in January.  I have had three serious conversations with friends who are preparing either to move in with relatives or have relatives move in with them should the worst come.  I even have friends who have just flat out cancelled Christmas. We are a nation at edge faced for the first time, in many years, for a dramatic change in the way we live. 

And yet, I tell you today, despite all of this, that God will make a way.  I can say this with confidence because that is just who God is-he is One who makes a way.  Mary’s story reminds us of this.

The Canticle we [read/sing] today are the words of Mary as she fully absorbs the news that she is bearing God’s child.  This news was absurd on many levels. 

First of all, Mary has never been with a man, so her being pregnant isn’t even a possibility.

Second of all, why Mary?  She’s a young girl from a small town.  She’s not from a powerful family.  She’s not rich.  She’s a nobody.

Another word for this kind of absurdity is grace.  Mary is blessed by God not because of who she was or what she did, but because God is a gracious, loving God, who breaks into our world and transforms it.

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary’s annunciation is paired with her cousin’s Elizabeth’s annunciation.  There are many stories of miraculous pregnancies though out the bible and Elizabeth’s fits the pattern beautifully.  Like Sarah and Hannah before her, Elizabeth is older and believes she is barren.  She and her husband are extremely pious.  Zacharias is even a priest in the temple!  They both deeply desire a child and are granted the gift of a child late in their life, much to their surprise.

Placed so close to Elizabeth’s story, we realize how shocking Mary’s story really is!  God made a way to enter the world through Mary in a way completely unprecedented.  Mary’s annunciation happens in a different way so that we know that God is doing something really unusual. Mary does not fit the mold of annunciation stories. Mary is not an older woman who is longing for children.  In fact, children are probably the last thing on her mind!  She is a young teenager, betrothed to Joseph, minding her own business.  The angel Gabriel comes to her not in a temple, but in an ordinary city, probably in an ordinary home or street.  Gabriel does not reassure Mary that she and Joseph will be able to have children, but suggests something entirely different-that the power of the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will bear a child via a miracle of God.

God makes a way to enflesh himself with humanity and he does it in cooperation with an ordinary girl in an ordinary town.  God does not enter our world through the most powerful family or the most religious family.  God makes a way to enter into and redeem our experience by being born of a girl who was willing to be completely open to God’s will for her life.

A month after her experience, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  While there she has a moment of clarity about what is happening to her and she speaks or sings the words of the Magnificat.  The Magnificat is all about Mary’s astonishment at God’s decision to visit his grace upon her.  She understands the deeper implications of this-that God’s grace will no longer be expressed via the kings and the hierarchy, but to the lowly, every day person.  She understands that God is continuing the relationship begun with Abraham, but that he is transforming the nature of the relationship completely.

Mary is no more deserving than other girls of her temperament or background, but she is favored by God as an act of grace.  Jesus’ whole life will be about explaining how the love of God works.  How God loves us without pre-condition and despite our seeming inherent compulsion to betray him.  Our God is a god of grace.  He bestows upon us love, acceptance, forgiveness because of who he is, not because of who we are.

We currently live in a meritocracy, so we have a hard time understanding grace.  We believe we have earned everything in our lives because of our hard work and intelligence.  Our country is now in a time when suddenly hard work and intelligence is not enough.  Good, hardworking, smart people are still losing their jobs through no fault of their own.  The sands are shifting beneath our feet and it feels, for good reason, really frightening.

But God will make a way.

And when I say God will make a way I don’t mean that God is going to swoop in and solve this financial crisis.  I don’t even mean that God will swoop in and solve your personal job or retirement crisis.

What I mean is, that God will make a way for grace in the midst of difficult times.  God will make a way for the unexpected to occur. 

God will make a way to provide for you when you least expect it.  God will make a way for you to experience love and deep connection in your community.  God will help you experience his love for you in new and deeper ways. 

Many of us will be faced with difficult decisions in the next few years, and most of us will have to make some level of sacrifice.  But in the end, what I hope for us, is that in retrospect we will have experienced this economic crisis as a time when the members of Emmanuel really put their trust in God and really opened up to one other.  We are the beloved community.  We are the family of God.  We have the capacity to help each other-not just through moral and practical support, but through holding one another in prayer and asking that we each may experience God’s grace in a new way.

No one could have predicted how Jesus would enter the world.  No one can predict how God’s grace will break through to us over the next few years.  But we know it will-not because we deserve that in-breaking, but because God is a god of grace who extends himself to us over and over and over again.  We join Mary in rejoicing in the goodness of our God and waiting in expectation to see what God will do next.

God will make a way.

Proper 9, Year B, 2006

This season on Oprah, one of Oprah’s guests was a young man named Kyle Maynard.  Kyle Maynard is in his early 20s and in many ways is a typical college student.  He goes to class, lives with a roommate, dates, and is on the wrestling team.  What makes Kyle unique is that he was born with a congenital birth defect that left him with stumps for arms and legs.  He has no elbows, no knees, no hands and no feet.  Most people born with those differences would live life as defeated person.  Kyle’s parents, however, made a decision not to treat him any differently than their other children, so Kyle compensated for his missing limbs and began to learn how to walk, brush his teeth, type, and all the other daily tasks that are required of us. 

Kyle played football and was a wrestler and refused to let any situation defeat him.  In fact, he’s even written a book named No Excuses about his life experiences and his life philosophy.

Kyle’s life is truly a testimony to the power of discipline and the human spirit.  He was not born with strength, but he found strength out of his weakness.

Kyle’s story came to mind as I was reflecting on our Epistle lesson today.  Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians contains different fragments of letters that the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.  Unlike Chuck, or me, Paul did not have the luxury of living consistently with the people to whom he ministered.  He was a man on the move, which is why we are lucky enough to have so many of his letters.  There were costs to this kind of ministry.  Imagine if Chuck had a habit of periodically disappearing and taking care of some other churches around the east coast. We might get a little restless.  We might even get jealous.  If some other dynamic preacher came along, we might just invite him to come inside and preach to us. 

This is exactly what has happened to Paul.  He has left Corinth to take care of another church and in his absence people he describes as “intruders” have come in and begun teaching bad information to Paul’s people.  These intruders have even questioned the validity of Paul’s ministry.

Paul is really unhappy about this situation.  His response is to persuade the Corinthians that he is, indeed, a valid representative of God.  He does this, not by boasting in his strengths, but by boasting in his weaknesses. Before our passage today, he writes:

But whatever anyone dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman — I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.  Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

(I’m glad I don’t have to measure my ministry by these kinds of hardships!)

Paul transitions from this litany of difficulty to describing a vision he experienced.  He wants to appear humble, so uses the rhetorical devise of writing in the third person.  So, not only has he suffered for the sake of the Gospel, he has also had a direct spiritual encounter with God.  I hope the Corinthians were duly impressed.

While Paul’s rhetorical methods are not subtle, his idea of finding strength in weakness is incredibly powerful.

We live in a world that more and more ascribes to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” hypothesis.  My two guilty pleasures this summer are “Last Comic Standing” and “So You Think you can Dance”.  The principles behind these shows are the same as any reality competition-the strong survive and the weak get voted off the stage. 

The idea of embracing our weaknesses seems absurd-our weaknesses are what hold us back!  If anything, we should be focused on improving ourselves, becoming better, eliminating any weakness. 

Why then, is Paul so sure that there is strength in weakness? 

Well, the main reason is that God told him.  You see, Paul did not WANT to be weak.  Paul had some ailment or condition that he referred to as  “thorn in his side”.  We don’t know what that was, but we do know that Paul begged God to remove this thorn.  Paul wanted to be strong and dynamic, NOT plagued with some weird condition.  When Paul did complain, God responded by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Isn’t it irritating how God always takes what we THINK we know, and turns that knowledge on its head?

Once again, instead of choosing some attractive, healthy, dynamic person to do God’s work, God chooses an ordinary guy, with ordinary problems.  God’s objective was to make Himself known, not to make Paul famous.  God wanted to use Paul to convince the world that God had in fact come to earth to become human in Jesus.  God knew that Paul would be faithful and passionate in all the weird ways that God had designed him to be.  God also knew that Paul’s flaws would force Paul to rely on God, and to witness to God, in a way a stronger person might not have to.

Do we offer the weak parts of ourselves to God?  Most likely, we tuck them away from him, like we’ve been tucking them away from ourselves, our friends and our families.  Do any of us go to a job interview and say, “You know, I am terrible at organizing my time.  I’ll probably be late every day.”  Do we go on a date and say, “I am incredibly passive aggressive.  I will never complain, but I will make you feel guilty every day of your life.” 

No, we do not say these things.  We would be fools to say these things!  So, if it is not wise to go around proclaiming our faults, what does it mean to let God work with our weaknesses?

Maybe it means not being afraid to try to open the weak parts of ourselves.  For instance, I was always the last person picked for a sports team in gym class, and rightfully so.  I have an incredibly strong flight reflex. If a ball is flying at my head I will either duck or run.

Tennis was the only sport that did not cause terror in my heart, only because I could use the racquet to protect my face should a ball hurtle towards me. In addition, I have flat feet, so running gave me shin splints. For years I was afraid of any athletic activity because I had pretty strong evidence it would only humiliate me.  In my early twenties, with the help of good running shoes, I began running.  Slowly. I still run slowly, even awkwardly, but to me it is a miracle. I had to let go of all my anxieties and let God give me the courage and the motivation to train.  I also had to open myself to embarrassment.  I have run races in which I am literally the last person to cross the finish line.  I have been so last that during the Waynesboro 10K a police car pulled alongside me and said, “You can run in the middle of the road if you want.  We’ll follow right behind you.” 

Now, that might not seem miraculous to you, but trust me, only the grace of God could make me get up out of my warm bed Saturday mornings to train. 

What is wonderful is that when you start to take risks,  and to function in the underdeveloped parts of yourself, then you stop relying on your own competency and begin relying on God.  God is able to fill in those places that you lack and gives you strength and courage to complete the tasks you are given.

And if you ever feel overwhelmed, just think of Kyle Maynard, the young man born without full arms and legs.  If God can help Kyle Maynard learn to play sports and type and have a full life, just imagine what he can do with your weak places.

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.

Amen.