Proper 13, Year C, 2016

“But Jesus, who is my neighbor, specifically?”

Is there any more human question than that?

The particularly human who asks the question is a lawyer, who has been listening to Jesus. He understands that Jesus wants us to love God and our neighbor. He is on board.

But, like any lawyer worth his salt, he wants to be clear on the terms and conditions.

For most of us, the people in our neighborhoods look quite a lot like us. They often have the same skin color, same income bracket, sometimes they even have the exact same Subaru. So, we can imagine loving those neighbors. We can imagine watching the kids when a parent is sick, shoveling the walk for an older neighbor, borrowing or lending a cup of sugar.

But the lawyer has been observing Jesus. The lawyer has seen how Jesus flouts any propriety when it comes to his friends. Jesus surrounds himself with every kind of riff raff. So, perhaps the lawyer is a bit concerned that loving his neighbor is about to get uncomfortable.

Sure enough, as soon as the lawyer asks the question, Jesus tells a story.

And while the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture, it is also one of the most subversive.

You know it well: a man gets robbed and beaten up and thrown into a ditch. A priest, who one would hope would be most qualified to help a person in trouble, walks right by. A Levite, who should know God’s word backwards and forwards, also crosses the road. But, a Samaritan man, a man who would be been considered filth by the Levite and priest, has compassion on the man in the ditch and rescues him.

Jesus is saying that this outsider was more obedient to God than the religious hierarchy of the day.

If you want to follow Jesus, forget about obsessing over the rules, focus on loving God and loving your neighbor.

Now we get to the part of the sermon that I have re-written three times this week.

First, this was a sermon about how the Orlando shooting reminded us that there are communities who feel like they are not welcome in church sanctuaries, so they create their own. Then, this was a sermon grappling about the horrible bombings in Bangladesh, Turkey, Saudia Arabia and Iraq. Then it was a sermon lamenting the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castille and wondering what it means for us to be good neighbors to our African American brothers and sisters. And then, of course, eleven police officers were shot by a sniper in Dallas. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens all died in the attack.

What a month. What a week.

Our world feels heavy this week. So much senseless death. So much distrust and anger. Our country feels separated into neighborhoods and communities that never intersect.

So, where is Jesus’ good news to us?

Jesus’ good news to us is that we are not the priest. We are not the Levite. We are not even the good Samaritan. We are all the man in the ditch, utterly helpless, but about to be rescued.

God created us in his image, beautiful and creative and full of love. But, we fell into a ditch of our own making, by our selfishness and hatred. We ended up in this ditch of sin and pain, completely unable to help ourselves. So, God became a human being to reach an arm down and pull us out of the ditch. Jesus saved us from being captive to sin and death.

And now that Jesus has rescued us, and we can have a relationship with God, we still need the Holy Spirit to pull us out of our individual ditches. We each are in need of God’s intervention in our lives. None of us are perfect. There is a reason we say the confession every week. We need it! We need a chance to tell ourselves and God about the ways we have come short. We need to ask for help to be better. We need the Spirit’s help to become the creative, loving people God designed us to be.

We can be people of love. We can be peacemakers. We can be good neighbors, but we need the Holy Spirit’s help.

There are signs of hope out there for us to cling to, as we imagine with God what a world might look like if we lived into the true natures God has given us.

After the Pulse shooting, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in Washington DC, announced that as soon as Shabbat was over, he and his congregation were going to a local gay bar. Can you imagine the expressions on his congregant’s faces? They did not go to protest or judge those inside. They went inside as an act of solidarity. They went inside as an act of love. They talked with their gay neighbors. They prayed together. They learned that they had many connections in common. They were not two separate groups of people, they were intertwined, just like all of us. The congregation left their sanctuary, and entered another. I guarantee you that the people in that bar never in a million years expected an Orthodox Jewish congregation to show up that night, but their visit became an act of love and grace. They were good neighbors.

In the midst of the shootings in Dallas, a mother pushing a stroller began to panic and a group of black lives matter protesters, white and black, male and female, surrounded her and her stroller until they got the baby to safety. They were good neighbors.

The police force in Dallas has been working really hard with their officers, doing de-escalating training and minimizing use of force, building up community engagement, trying to stop this cycle of unnecessary deaths. Before the sniper began shooting, you can find many photos of black lives matter activists and police offers, smiling, arm in arm. The police were protecting the activists, and the activists are still grateful. They were good neighbors.

This summer, our church book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. This book is a letter to Coates’ son, written after Michael Brown’s death. About a dozen of us talked about all the ways throughout American history that the people with power, white people, have tried to keep our African American neighbors at bay. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, housing segregation, school segregation, corrupt mortgage practices, mass incarceration: the list goes on and on. Being in a book group was such a small step, but for me at least reading the parts of our country’s history that were not in my school textbooks has been heart breaking and transformative. Hearing the stories of the various parishioners in the group was also incredibly powerful. We each have a connection with racism, whether in our family or in our own hearts. Confessing the ways our own families have benefited from slavery or its aftermath was an important step towards moving forward. My maternal grandmother was mentally ill, and it was the African American nanny, Laura, who gave my mother the stability and loving presence in her life she needed to grow up and be the amazing mom she was to me. Laura left her own children to care for my mother. I directly benefited from Laura’s sacrifice.

When Coates wrote this book, he had no idea it would become a best seller. Coates has been totally flummoxed by so many church groups reading the book. He is not a person of faith and he certainly had no expectation that thousands of book groups in churches across the country would be picking up his work. But he underestimates churches’ desire to do the holy work of confession, lament and reconciliation.

The book group left us with a desire to do something more. To read more, to engage more, to be better neighbors. We want to confront our own racism and work toward transformation. We are not sure what that looks like, but if you are interested be in touch with me of with our Director of Spirituality and Missions, Debbie Scott. The caveat is that I am about to be on vacation for a few weeks! If you email me and I don’t respond, I promise I will get back to you by early August.

We are created and redeemed by a God of infinite love. He desires us to love one another and he will give us what we need to make it happen. Thanks be to God.

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.

Proper 10, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Have you heard the story about Capt. Matt Clauer that has been circulating this week?  Capt. Clauer was serving in Iraq last year when he got a frantic phone call from his wife, Mary.  Together, they owned a $300,000 house, for which they had completely paid.  Mary was calling because she had just learned that their Homeowner’s Association had foreclosed on the house, because Mary had neglected to pay the HOA dues two months in a row, worth a total of $800. By the time he returned from Iraq, the house had been sold at auction for $3,500 and resold again for $135,000.  Mary and Matt are still living in the home, and fighting in the court of law to reclaim it.

If they were here today, they probably would have a thing or two they would like to say about neighbors.   I wonder how many of their Texas neighbors, members of the HOA board, are sitting in churches today, listening to the story of the Good Samaritan.   I wonder if the Clauers are in church this morning, hearing this story and wondering how in the heck they are supposed to love neighbors like theirs.

I wonder if any of you, thinking about your neighbors, are wondering how you’re supposed to love them?

That’s the thing about neighbors—they are just around all the time. In Charlottesville, I had a neighbor who always raced at least ten miles over the speed limit through the neighborhood AND who let his dogs poop wherever they wanted without cleaning it up.  He drove me crazy because there was no way I could get away from him.

And neighbors are problem enough, but what about friends and family?  They are really hard to shake off.

I wonder, if in the story, we hear today, whether the priest or the Levite knew the poor unfortunate soul lying in the ditch.  I wonder if they passed by and said, “Oh Frank.  Always getting into trouble.” and walked on by.  I wonder the intimacy, the neighborliness they might have had with our victim actually prevented them from helping.

As lovely as it was for the Samaritan to help this guy, helping a stranger is sometimes easier than helping someone close to you.  If an out of work alcoholic comes by the church needing a little help, we can graciously point him in the direction of several places that can be useful to him.  If I had an out of work alcoholic relative approach me, I’d probably feel a lot less gracious toward them.

When the person in our lives who is in trouble is close to us, we know that there is danger in our lives being disrupted.  If we enter into another person’s crisis, we run the risk of getting entangled in their lives, creating a web of obligations and favors from which we may not be able to extricate ourselves.

And yet, Jesus calls us to be that kind of neighbor.  He calls us to act like the Samaritan, even when we’re not breezing through a strange town.  Even when the person in the ditch lives next door and you well know you might need to pull him out of the ditch a second, or third time.

The Samaritan does set a good example for us in terms of boundaries to help us with these challenges.  The Samaritan does not take the victim home with him.  The Samaritan takes him to an inn, does what first aid he can, makes sure the innkeeper will check on him, and then leaves town.

The Samaritan does not appoint himself the victim’s social worker for life.  He sees an acute crisis and responds.  And then he goes back to Samaria.

Knowing how to respond to a neighbor, friend, or relative in crisis is really difficult.  But knowing what our role is can be helpful.  First of all, it is important to remember that we are not God.  Now, I know that can be difficult to remember, but just absorb it for a minute.  You are not God. Your role is not that of omniscient being who has the power to solve everything.  All we can do is our loving best.

If the crisis happens to our spouse, child or parent, our role may be to function as that person’s advocate, making sure they get to the doctor, to court, or to rehab when they are scheduled to do so.  If the person in crisis is a friend, our role may be that of listener—giving our friend a safe place to express all her fears.  If the person in crisis is a neighbor, our role may be that of practical help—mowing the lawn, bringing over a meal.  Our response will change depending on who is in trouble and what their circumstances are.  Sometimes our response will be pointing our neighbor in the direction of people who can be more helpful than we can.

Whatever our role is, the Good Samaritan challenges us to live out our faith. He challenges us to pay attention to the world around us.  He challenges us to respond to another’s pain, when it would be just as easy to walk on by.  He challenges us to live the way Jesus taught us to live: We shall love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our strengths, and with all our minds; and our neighbors as ourselves.

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.