Lent 2, Year C, 2016

About a year ago in Kirklea, we heard a commotion out the window. I looked out the window and saw two foxes running as fast as they could across the lawn. I ran downstairs to get a better look and Jordan, shouted, “Did you see those dogs?” I scoffed and told him they were definitely foxes. I might have said something snotty about him being a city person. He looked at my quizzically and said, “But they were white and brown!” Sure enough, just then I saw two hound dogs running as fast as they could, clearly on the hunt for those foxes.

That will teach me to judge someone else’s experience!

We are quite fond of our little foxes at Kirklea. I haven’t seen them since that chase, but for a couple of years, we would see the mother walking across the lawn, looking for something to eat. The little kits would peek their heads out of the bamboo that has since been smothered by kudzu, as if they were saying goodbye to us at the end of a long day.

As any of you who own chickens know, though, foxes aren’t actually adorable. Foxes are cunning and tricky and vicious. Foxes will adapt to whatever situation they are living in. Foxes will figure out how to penetrate weak spots in any defense you erect. Foxes are the hunted, but they are also the hunters.

Herod was a fox, or at least Jesus thought so. Herod was tetrarch, he was the man on the throne, but he was also vulnerable. He was not in the line of David, and his behavior was atrocious. John the Baptist had gone after Herod hard for marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist had humiliated Herod in front of hundreds of people. So, Herod, like the crafty, threatened fox he was, had John the Baptist imprisoned and killed. But Herod also represents leadership in Jerusalem who had betrayed their people. They are the foxes in the hen houses of God’s people. Instead of looking after God’s people and teaching them about God’s ways, Herod is a leader interested in only his self-interest. He is part of a corrupt system.

If John the Baptist made Herod angry, Jesus made him terrified. Herod must have felt like he was dealing with a holy game of Whack-a-Mole. As soon as he takes care of John, this Jesus pops up in Herod’s place. Jesus has not been going after Herod directly, like John the Baptist did, but he has been going from town to town teaching people about God and doing miracles. Jesus is a huge threat to Herod.  What if Jesus starts a revolution? What if Jesus tries to overthrow Herod?

So, when some Pharisees hear that Herod is coming after Jesus, they warn him. Maybe they are being compassionate. Maybe they just want Jesus to get out of town. But Jesus knows who he is and what he is doing.

Jesus, once again completely cool and collected checks his day planner: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

Jesus is completely unmoved by the threat of the fox. Does Jesus see himself like a bloodhound, able to chase down the threat of a fox? Does he see himself as a hunter, ready to put a knife into the fox?

No, Jesus sees himself as a chicken. A chicken! And not even a brash rooster. He sees himself as a gentle, motherly hen.

Jesus longs to reach out his wings and embrace all the children of Jerusalem. He wants to gather in his people and share God’s love with them. Jesus wants to be the uncorrupted leader they deserve.

Oh, Jerusalem. It is no mistake that in the Gospel of Luke, the whole structure of the book leads up to Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been the hope of the Jewish people since the time of King David. Through Solomon’s time building the temple, through kings good and bad, through exile after exile, through return and rebuilding, Jerusalem has represented the hopes of God’s people. But Jerusalem also holds dangers, especially for prophets. When a prophet speaks God’s truth, he puts himself at risk, especially in a corrupted Jerusalem.

When the Pharisees warn Jesus, Jesus has not yet traveled to Jerusalem. But, he knows Jerusalem is in his future. He hopes it will greet him with “Blessed is the one in the name of the Lord!”, but he also knows that Jerusalem may be too corrupt to hear him. Jesus says, “Your house is left to you.” Jerusalem may no longer be God’s house if its citizens cannot accept Jesus. Jerusalem may lose its status if they align themselves with Herod instead of with Jesus.

The people of Jerusalem are left with a choice. Will they be fox people or hen people? Do they trust in the wily machinations of power or do they trust in the expansive, mothering love of God?

We are given the same choice. There are plenty of people who offer us a God who would be a stranger to Jesus. Whether it is televangelists promising healing in exchange for cash, candidates twisting scripture to use it for their own ends, or clergy using power to abuse God’s people, there are still foxes in God’s hen house.

Choosing the hen’s path can seem foolish. After all, hens are incredibly vulnerable. Hens couldn’t be lower in the evolutionary pecking order.

But there’s a catch—a huge catch—while a hen may seem incredibly vulnerable when in the same cage with a fox, our hen has the power of God behind him. This wily fox Herod is just no match for Jesus. For when Herod finally catches Jesus and does exactly what a fox does with a hen, just when it seems that the foxes of the world always win, God resurrects Jesus and changes all the rules.

We worship a God who creates a way for hen values: compassion, vulnerability, life to overpower fox values: power, greed, death. In our life with God, we will find that he will deepen those hen parts of our personality while he heals us of the fox parts of our personality. He will help us be brave and show our imperfect, vulnerable selves to the world. We will be shocked at how showing our true, open, loving selves will bring real healing in the world. God does not give us the kind of weapons we think we might need to get his work done in the world. He doesn’t give us bludgeons or swords, he gives us patience and hope and joy. These tools seem so impractical! You can’t even put them in a spreadsheet! They can’t be quantified.

But these tools are incredibly powerful. If you are an unrepentant church nerd, you might know that Lent madness started this week—the Episcopal Church’s ridiculous battle of saint versus saint as they “compete” for the Golden Halo. Think March Madness brackets but with St. Joseph, Christina Rossetti, and Absalom Jones instead of Georgetown and UNC. What makes each of these saints, saints was there ability to share their true, vulnerable selves with the world. Joseph put aside his respectability to father Jesus. Christina Rossetti bared her poet’s soul to the world and gave us gifts of words that have inspired generations. Absalom Jones risked hatred and violence to become the first African American Episcopal Priest.

It takes true courage to risk showing your hen self to the world. This Lent, I challenge you to take a risk when you interact with the people in your life and show them your true self. Show God your true self. You won’t regret it.

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Proper 21, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Amen.

Easter 6, Year B, 2009

Since we are celebrating Youth Sunday at the 11:00 service today, I have been thinking a lot about school.  Specifically, I have been thinking a lot about rules in school.  In school you cannot do anything without getting permission.  There is no eating in class.  No chewing gum in class.  Skirts have to be a certain length.  You have to raise your hand in order to speak.  You cannot be found in a hallway without a hall pass.  For heaven’s sake, you cannot even use the restroom without getting permission!

Frankly, the best thing about being an adult is that you can use the restroom whenever you feel like it.

But, I digress.

Rules can feel arbitrary and annoying, even if you know they are for a greater good.  When we hear any word that sounds like rules-laws, restrictions, regulations-we know that we are about to have our behavior corralled, directed, and controlled.

In today’s Gospel reading from John, when Jesus uses the word commandment to describe how he would like us to behave, we might have that same reaction.  We might start to feel tense, wondering how he is going to restrict our behavior.  After all, we already know about the Ten Commandments, which are pretty restrictive.  We also know about the more than 600 laws in the book of Leviticus.  What new boundary is Jesus going to place on us?

But Jesus’ tone does not feel domineering.  Jesus says he is going to give us this commandment so that we can abide in his love and so our joy may be complete.  Clearly, Jesus has a different understanding of commandment than we do.  For Jesus, the word commandment is a gift, a rule that helps us gain intimacy with God.

And the specific commandment that he reveals in today’s lesson is this:  “to love one another as I have loved you.”

And how does Jesus love us?  He loves all of us, completely, to the point of death, whether we deserve his love or not.  Jesus loves us whether we are mature or irresponsible. Jesus loves us whether we are spiritual or secular.  Jesus loves us whether we are “cool” or “nerds”.  Jesus loves us no matter what our skin color.  Jesus loves us whether we are men or women.  Jesus loves us whether we are gay or straight. Jesus loves us whether we are old or young.

This commandment to love is not just an arbitrary rule.  This commandment is our marching orders.  This commandment is our mission.  This commandment is our deepest calling.

We are called to love everybody.  Period.

And how well are we doing at this job?

I watched a documentary a couple of weeks ago called American Teen that was a look at the lives of five high school students in a high school in Indiana.  One of the students, Meghan, was a typical mean-girl bully.  What was so fascinating about her story is how vulnerable she actually was and how she dealt with anger over a sister’s death and general insecurity about being a teenager by lashing out and making other people miserable.

I wonder what would have happened if she had, at her core, a deep understanding of Jesus’ love for her and the knowledge that her whole mission in life was to love others as she was loved.

Bullying is not just a painful, inevitable part of school.  Occasionally, intense bullying meets a particularly vulnerable child and devastating consequences ensue.  Just last month, eleven year old Jaheem Herrera hung himself after being repeatedly teased and bullied for no reason other than being from the Virgin Islands and being a new student who was an easy target.  Every day at school kids taunted him and called him names.  He sought help from his parents and they sought help from the school, but no one was able to stop the teasing.

I wonder what might have happened, if just a few kids at that school had understood Jesus’ command to we love everyone.  I wonder what would have happened if just a few kids stuck up for Jaheem, surrounded him with support and friendship.  I wonder what would have happened if just a few bystanders had the courage to step up to the bullies.

Loving our neighbors is not just about feeling warm and fuzzy.  Love requires concrete action, such as treating each person you meet with respect.  Love means being patient and kind and helpful.  Love means seeing the good in each person we encounter through the day and treating them like the valuable, created human being they are.

The command to love our neighbors takes great courage. Loving means standing up for those people who cannot stand up for themselves. Loving means risking our own reputations.  Loving means putting ourselves out for another person.  Loving our neighbors means teaching those who are bullied that they are wonderful, strong, beloved children of God who are worth Jesus’ very life.  Loving our neighbors means teaching our bullies that all people are children of God who deserve to be treated with respect.

I have been called by God to love my neighbor.  You, whether you are 8 or 80, have also been called to love your neighbor.  Those of you who are still in school may not be allowed to eat in class or go to the bathroom without getting permission from an adult-but no one can stop you from obeying God’s commandment to love your fellow students.  You have a chance to be heroes by being kind and respectful to everyone in your class and in your school.  You have the chance to be heroes by standing up for kids who are being teased.  If you are a bully, you have a chance to be a hero by apologizing for your behavior and starting over by being kind to your classmates. . . or family. . .or employees.

And when we do live a life of loving our neighbors, we will draw closer and closer to God.  Loving other people helps us to understand how much God loves us.  By loving other people, we will abide in God’s love and experience the deep joy of Christ.  What other rule can do that?

Amen.

Proper 22, Year B, 2006

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

I find the conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus about divorce to be unsatisfying.  Do you?

The Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus in a slip-up. Jesus has had the gall to teach people on the Pharisees’ turf-They were the authorities on law, not this young upstart–and they’ve long since stopped being amused by him.  The Pharisees ask Jesus this question about divorce, not out of their own trouble or grief, or out of some burning question members of their congregation have been asking them, or even out of a desire to seek holy living.  No, they just want to see how he’ll tiptoe around a difficult political question

(After all, the 6th chapter of Mark reminds us that Herod Antipas, leader of the Jews, was married to his brother’s wife.  They each had to get divorces in order to get married.  You’ll remember that John the Baptist was killed because of his condemnation of their relationship.) 

Well, Jesus is not about to be trapped by their maneuvering.  He asks the Pharisees to recall what Moses said about divorce in Deuteronomy.  When they give the answer-Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to his wife-Jesus tells them that Moses created this exception because of their “hardness of heart”.  You see, this “certificate of dismissal” was originally meant as a measure of mercy for women.  It allowed them to remarry.  However, the certificate ended up being a way for men to divorce their wives easily.  In the Hillel tradition, a man could divorce his wife because “the bread was burned too badly!”  Jesus thinks this is a bad system.  Jesus turns their question around from politics to spirituality and refers the Pharisees to the earliest Jewish reference about marriage there is–the second chapter of Genesis–our Old Testament reading today. 

Now, the reason the Pharisees’ question is not satisfying is because they are not asking the question about divorce on behalf of those who have gone through the pain of divorce.  Their attitude disrespects those who have experienced divorce because of the manipulative way they ask the question.  At first glance, Jesus’ response is equally unsatisfying.  Sure, it’s nice that he doesn’t want women to get abused by a divorce system that is too easy, but it still leaves a lot of questions for us about modern divorce.  And then later, when the disciples have him alone, and ask him to clarify himself, he simply says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 

We know through other stories that Jesus is a compassionate person, but his response does not seem to leave room for those people who sought divorces for what we would consider good reasons-to escape abuse, to protect one’s children, as a response to chronic infidelity or disrespect.  Jesus certainly couldn’t have known that his words would be used to excommunicate people, force people to stay in abusive marriages, or make people feel rejected by God. 

I wonder though, if Jesus was as unsatisfied with the question of the Pharisees as we are.  The Pharisees’ question about divorce was not a bad one in and of itself, but because they asked it with a motivation to trap Jesus, out of a “hardness of heart” rather than out of an “open heart” the question loses its credibility.

Clearly Jesus did not support divorce.  But what was his perspective on divorce?  Was there a reason for his strong reaction besides the Pharisees’ hypocrisy?  Let’s go back to the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes to see why he chose to speak these words.

In the passage from Genesis, we read a lovely story in which God decides that Adam needs someone as a helper.   Now here helper is not a demeaning term.  In fact this particular word is used to describe God in several passages in the Old Testament.  I think we sometimes think of this word as helper in the sense of, “Honey, can you help me?  I want a beer but there are only three minutes left in the game and I don’t want to miss anything. . .”  Actually, when the word “helper” is used in the Old Testament it means rescuing a person, saving someone’s life. 

So, God was not interested in getting Adam housekeeping help.  God wanted to create someone who would be with Adam through thick and thin, on whom Adam could rely.  Now that God knows what he is looking for, he tries out several options.  Though Adam seemed duly impressed with all the cattle and birds God presented to him, he wasn’t ready to set up house with any of them. 

We all know what happens next. God puts Adam under some pretty heavy anesthesia, and takes out a rib. . .or does he? 

(Pause)

The word for rib is an interesting one.  Every other time it is mentioned in the Old Testament, the word refers to something architectural, most commonly a side chamber of a building.  So, when God was pulling out Adam’s rib to make his partner, he wasn’t pulling out a miscellaneous bone that Adam didn’t really need, he was pulling out his side, a fundamental part of Adam’s person, so that this helper really could be “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh”.   This woman and Adam are going to be connected in the deepest way possible.  Alone, Adam was not enough.  To complete this human race God was creating, Adam needed a partner.

When he sees his partner for the first time, Adam is so struck by the presence of this new person that he speaks for the first time. He recognizes that this woman is truly a part of him and can’t help but proclaim that.  “I will name her woman, for she was taken out of man.” 

So, when Jesus was responding to these questions about divorce, maybe he wasn’t giving the answer that seems so harsh initially.  Maybe, on another level, Jesus was responding to the question the Pharisees didn’t ask.  Maybe Jesus was saying, “I wish you could remember.  I wish you could remember how it was at the beginning, when you were so thrilled to see another person that you stopped in your tracks.  I wish you could remember how magical it was to see a reflection of yourself in her.  I wish you could remember those first few moments, before you started bickering about who ate the apple and blaming each other.  I wish you could remember how we meant it to be when we created you.” 

Of course Jesus condemns divorce.  Who would want to worship a God who intended for marriages to fall apart?  For people to betray one another?  In our hearts, we wish divorce didn’t happen, too.  Who of us falls in love thinking, “Gosh, I’m glad there’s an escape clause in this one!” I’ve never met anyone who has gone through a divorce who has enjoyed it, even if their life after the divorce was healthier and safer than in marriage.  Divorce represents all of our deepest fears:  rejection, betrayal, being unloved, being alone. 

For Jesus to condemn divorce is not the same as Jesus condemning those who have had divorces.  We know Jesus-we know his compassion to the woman at the well, we know his love for those going through rough patches in their lives.  We know that if a heartbroken man or woman had asked the same question the Pharisees asked, Jesus’ response would have been full of love and compassion.

So, what do we do with Jesus’ response?  We know we can’t crawl back to Eden, back to the days before brokenness entered the world.

I think, in reminding us of our intimate connection with each other; in the way we share the same flesh and bone with all other humans, Jesus points us to what his ministry was all about.  He came into the world to take on all the brokenness that drowns us. If anyone had a right to be angry about divorce, Jesus did.  He earns the right because he was willing to do something about it.  He was willing to take all that pain, all that suffering on himself, so one day we could be free of it.  His death and resurrection are the second half of his answer about divorce. 

The reason we can survive the devastation divorce and other broken relationships bring is because we know, ultimately, through Jesus’ death and resurrection one day we will healed and whole and reconciled to ourselves, all others and God.  Although that can be hard to believe-or even want-in the midst of breakup, some small part of us recognizes that someday in our future we will live in a place where there are no divorces, where there is no heartbreak. 

The hope Jesus offers us is not only for a future heavenly kingdom, it is hope for the here and now.  No, Jesus does not offer us an easy escape from pain.  Being a Christian does not exempt anyone from the hard work of grief.  What God does offer us is a safe place to come with that grief.  Whether we use the image of God as strong rock or a sheltering wing, God gives us something steady to hold onto, gives us a safe place to fall.  Before God we can be completely honest.  We don’t have to pretend to be fine, hide our anger, stop our tears.  By allowing God to be part of our grief, we give Him room to be part of our healing.  Experiencing God’s love for us gives us courage to take steps toward relationship again, knowing that as capable of destruction as we are, we are also capable of the kind of love we were designed to give.  The love Adam felt as he watched, jaw dropped and eye opened as his life partner was made. 

Amen.  

 

 

Easter 6, Year B, 2006

Today we celebrate youth Sunday.  Twice a year we take a day to honor the young people among us. 

We are so proud of our young people and their many skills and gifts and charming personalities.  “Ah”, we think, “I remember when I was young and full of potential and life was all ahead of me. . .”  But before you wax nostalgic on your own youth, or start to envy our fine young people their futures, shall I remind you about the ravages of adolescence? 

Perhaps you sailed through childhood and adolescence without any unpleasant experiences, but I’m guessing for many of you, your teenage years were at the least. . .complicated.  Maybe like me you had a raging case of acne and hideous metal braces from which you are still recovering.  Maybe you were beautiful, and so, learned to be valued for that beauty and not for yourself.  Maybe you were brilliant and labeled a nerd.  Maybe you were not so bright, and stuffed in a locker.  Any way you turn it, for most people junior high and high school have at least some element of trauma to them.

Perhaps the most painful experience of adolescence is that of love.  Do you remember?  Do you remember that first person on whom you had a crush?  That consuming desire.  You could think of nothing else.  When he or she missed a day of school your day was ruined.  When he or she began dating someone else, you wanted to weep. 

Perhaps you were unlucky in love as a teenager and remained on the sidelines or maybe you were even UNLUCKIER and did fall in love, have it reciprocated, and then had your heart broken. 

Do you remember how devastating this was?   How it brought up huge philosophical and theological question?  What is love if love can be lost?  Why should we love if it only causes pain?  Why would God make love so painful?  Frankly, some adults are still working out the pain caused by an early broken heart.

I thought of these painful experiences as I read our Epistle for today.  Both our Epistle and Gospel were written by the Johannine Christian Communities of the very early church.  You’ll notice similar themes of abiding in God’s love throughout both readings.  The phrase that leapt out to me this week, was the phrase from the 1st Letter of John-“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 

This concept, of there being no fear in perfect love, is antithetical to our anxiety ridden culture.  Romantic love is inherently fearful, isn’t it?  We have hour long dramas like, What about Brian? based on the idea that love is inherently desirable, but difficult to get.  On the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy this week, the true love of one character dies immediately after proposing, and other couple resume an adulterous affair.  The message:  love is risky, and contains great potential for pain. 

We are afraid of not falling in love, of having no one fall in love with us, of falling in love with the wrong person, of having that person fall in love with another person, the list goes on and on.    Woody Allen would not have a career if love was not a little bit terrifying.

So, what in the world is this perfect, fearless love of which the Johannine community speaks?

First of all, it is NOT romantic love.  The New Testament seems fundamentally disinterested in romantic love.  The writers are not against romantic love, per se, they have had such profound experiences of God’s love for them, that the writers understand romantic love can only be understood in light of God’s love.

In Matthew 22, some Saducees were trying to trick Jesus and started asking him what happens if a woman has several husbands who die.  Who will be her husband in heaven?  This seems like a valid question, right? We think of  romantic love as an eternal commodity. In our culture, achieving romantic love is the ultimate goal in life. If someone falls in love with us, it gives us value and security.   We want to know that we will be with that person for all eternity.  Jesus, however, lets us know that romantic love, is not eternal love.  He replies to the Saducees, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

Romantic love is wonderful, and is a subset of God’s love for us, but it is not the kind of love that will sustain us beyond this world.

Romantic love begins with us, as humans.  Romantic love ends with us. 

In these Johannine passages, God speaks of agape-or God’s abounding love.  God’s love begins with God, not with us.  We often define God as love, but in reality, God defines love.  Let me say that again.  We often define God as love, but in reality God defines love.

When we project our ideas of what love is onto God, we come up with a warm and fuzzy picture of God that has nothing to do with reality.  Instead, our passage today invites us to define love through God’s eyes.  And God’s love is not the self centered, anxiety ridden romantic love of our culture, but a love of abundant hospitality.  A love that is so secure, so perfect that it drives away any insecurity, any fear. 

So, the second quality of agape love is that it begins with God.  Only God can generate a love that is entirely selfless and welcoming and abundant.  Agape love demands nothing in return. 

Agape love moves out from God towards us.  Agape love pursues us, rather relentlessly, throughout our lives.  This love is so powerful that it fills us and crowds out any fear or anxiety about love that we may have. 

The author of 1st John writes, “We love because he first loved us.”  What’s wonderful about God’s agape love, is that it redeems and amplifies all other kinds of love. 

God does not ask us to choose agape love over romantic love-in fact agape love makes romantic love infinitely easier and more rewarding.

When we experience God’s agape love for us, the experience creates a life changing moment. For the first time we can stop worrying about whether the love we receive is temporary.  For the first time we can trust that the Being we love, loves us back.  Not only loves us back, but loves us first. 

When we know that God loves us, with a powerful and consuming love, we become secure in ourselves in a way we have not experienced before.  And when we are secure in the knowledge that we are loved, it becomes easier for us to love others.  We stop looking to other people to fill up our empty places.  We stop needing approval and affirmation from humans.  We stop our clingy neediness because we have become filled.  Filled with a love that accepts us and challenges us.

This love challenges us to love in a way that looks out for the good of the other.  When we are filled up with this kind of love, we are able to reach out to others, to take emotional risks with our loved ones, to stop protecting ourselves.  Agape love makes us generous with our time, money, energy and emotional presence.  We stop focusing on our own fears and limitations and begin to celebrate the abundance of God’s love for all of us.

Perhaps the biggest gift we can give our young people is to pray that they might experience the depth of God’s love for them.  It is no coincidence that many people come to faith while teenagers.  Teens have a special capacity to understand the incredible good news of Jesus’ love for them.  They feel love and heartbreak with an intensity that is only a memory for most of us. 

An experience of God’s agape love could change the direction of their-and our-lives forever.  An experience of God’s agape love could help these teens choose life partners who are healthy and supportive and life giving. 

Remember, when you pray and contemplate God’s love for you–Agape is not the limited, fickle love of romance, but the eternal, constant, abundant love of the God who created you and redeems you.   And that love can transform the romantic love in your life into a healthy, mutual love marked by hospitality and integrity.  And that-is good news.

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.

 

 

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.

Amen.