Epiphany 6, Year A, 2017

Choose life.

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

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

So Moses asks them to choose life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we accept his invitation.






Proper 9, Year A, 2014

I have fallen down a hole of BBC television programming this summer. My usual shows are over and so I started with Call the Midwife, which is a refreshingly good natured show after six months of Scandal and House of Cards! One of the actresses in that show is a comedienne and writer that has her own half hour sitcom called Miranda. Miranda is hysterical. She is an at least six foot tall woman who is as agile at slapstick as Lucille Ball. Her character owns a joke shop, much to the displeasure of her traditional mother, and has a big crush on the chef next door. One of Miranda’s problems is that every time she gets cornered or nervous she starts to lie. Crazy, elaborate lies that invent dead husbands and children, and fictive jobs that start out in retail and end up in the secret service. In the show, in the middle of one of these elaborate lies she’ll stop and look at the camera with an expression of utter confusion. As if she means to say, “Why am I doing this? How did I end up here?”

She might join the Apostle Paul in crying out, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” This is one of the most relatable passages in all Scripture, right? There is nothing that will get me to bake chocolate chip cookies faster than a vow that I’m going to eat healthier. Why are our brains such contrarians? We read this passage and wander down a road of psychological examination. But is that what Paul intended?

In Romans 5-8, Paul takes on the problem of human sin. He understands sin not only as the bad things we do, but also as a power that Christ has come to defeat. When we read Romans we think of ourselves as human beings as the main subject here, the star of the show who dramatically battle with sin. But to Paul, human beings are almost on the sidelines. We have found it impossible to battle sin alone! We need help! The real battle is between sin and God.

A very attractive and wise New Testament scholar, Beverly Gaventa, who also happens to be my mother-in-law, argues that all these “I” statements in Romans 7 aren’t meant to be Paul’s confession of weakness. She believes he is using the “I” in the same way the Psalmists, did, as a way for each person who read or heard Paul’s letters to the Romans identify with this very specific, but universal human condition. After all, the Romans were not hearing this letter from Paul’s mouth. Phoebe, who delivered the letter to them, read it to them, and as it got passed around from community to community, different voices spoke those plaintive sentences. And more specifically, Paul is describing here how the power of sin even corrupts the laws that are supposed to keep us from sinning! Here he is speaking specifically of the Mosaic law—the commandments God gave the Israelites. He is careful to make clear that it is not the law that is sinful. After all, the law is designed to guide us into holy living. But the power of sin is so pervasive that it can even make our relationship to the law broken.

In Immortal Diamond, the book we have been studying this summer, Richard Rohr writes, 

[Religion] is not doing its job if it only reminds you of your distance, your unworthiness, your sinfulness, your inadequacy before God’s greatness. Whenever religion actually increases the gap, it becomes antireligion instead. I am afraid we have lots of antireligion in all denominations.

Now, as educated and liberated Episcopalians, it’s easy for us to point fingers and say, “Oh yes, I see how this principle has corrupted the Catholic Church, which is rife with abuse and cover ups!” Or we might look over to our fundamentalist brothers and sisters and see how rigid rule following has led to powerfully corrupt leaders and wounded followers. We even take some pleasure when some particularly vitriolic pastor ends up falling in a national scandal. But guess what, friends? We are just as likely to get entangled by sin as anyone else. As I was talking about the ideas in this passage with my husband he asked, “Well, for you Episcopalians, your law would be your liturgy, wouldn’t it? How does sin creep up there?” I literally gasped, you guys.

It never would occur to me that our liturgy could become an avenue for sin. For one thing, it’s kind of boring. I mean, when I think about Episcopalians and sin the first thing that comes to mind is alcohol, not Cranmer. We’ve got a lot of money and a lot of creative ways to break the commandments. If I were to write a novel about sin and Episcopalians, it would take place on a yacht or on the Upper East Side and there would be some private school back story that would lead to an affair or murder that took place after drinking way too much expensive Scotch. But you know what would not appear in this novel? Our liturgy! I mean, even in Call the Midwife, which takes place in an Anglican Convent, our Anglican service music is used for its comfort and beauty, for solace in the midst of poverty and suffering.

For me, our liturgy is a place of comfort and safety. Its timeless words remind us of eternal truths that comfort and challenge us. But is it possible that sin can creep in around the corners of our creed and service music? If we are to believe the Apostle Paul, then yes, it certainly can. Perhaps, as liturgy loving people, where we sin is an unwillingness to let the Holy Spirit change us. Perhaps we sin in fearing the new, in being too wedded to our books, pews and bricks and not open enough to the world around us. I don’t know, frankly, I’m too close to it! I love our liturgy and pews and bricks! But next time I, or one of you, get worked up about some change, or some imperfection in the bulletin or some misplaced note in the choral singing, we’ll have a moment of recognition. Ah, sin got me, too!

Sin is so pervasive to the human condition, that we cannot escape it. Sin will creep in to every relationship we have, whether it is with our liturgy or our law. Sin creeps in under the doors of our offices, inside our cars, gets between us and the people we love. Sin separates us from our own will, our own bodies, our own desires. Sin tries to ruin everything good in our lives. Sin tries to ruin us.

We are baptizing Jackson Rector today. His parents and godparents will renounce three things: Satan, evil, and sin. Now, renouncing Satan isn’t that challenging. I’m pretty sure not many of you have ever participated in a Satanic ritual. And if you are gathering at midnight in the cemetery to call upon the name of the dark lord, QUIT IT RIGHT NOW. Renouncing the evil powers of the world is a little trickier, after all you have to sort out what is evil and what isn’t! Are we allowed to wear clothes made my child labor? Should we drive a car if it is going to destroy the planet? Should we speak out about unethical practices at work if it means we’ll lose our job? And renouncing sin? Oh boy. We’ve just discussed how sin is everywhere and after us and how it is impossible to not sin! What is the point of renouncing something that is impossible to avoid?

There’s one little detail we haven’t mentioned yet. Christ has already won the battle with sin. It may not feel like it, since we still struggle with sin, but in theological terms, the battle is OVER. Christ’s death and resurrection means sin only has power over us in this world, and even in this world sin never affects our identity as saved, loved people. Once we die, or when the kingdom of God comes to pass, whichever comes first, the power of sin falls away like dust. So, when we renounce Satan, evil and sin, we are acknowledging Christ’s victory. We aren’t saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, he is never going to screw up!” We’re saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, nothing can stand between him and God.” We’ll get to more of that next week in Romans 8, but in the meantime, next time you feel sin creeping around the door, ready to come after you, you can look it in the eye and say, “Sorry buddy, I belong to Christ, you have no power here.” Thanks be to God.

Lent 1, Year A, 2014

When you were a small child throwing a fit did your mother ever point to a well-behaving child and say, “Look how nicely Johnny is behaving?  Why don’t you behave more like Johnny?”  Poor you!  Unfavorably compared to someone who wasn’t even your flesh and blood! You probably carried on with your fit, thoroughly unimpressed with Johnny.  We do this all the time—unfavorably comparing our bosses to other bosses, spouses to other spouses, our selves to other men and women.

We pull Jesus into this, too.  We read the temptation story and think, “Ah, man, I should be better at resisting temptation. Why can’t I just be more like him?”  We read Jesus’ time in the desert as a kind of morality play.

But the temptation story is not one of Jesus’ parables.  It is not a morality play.  The story of Jesus’ temptation is an epic battle between good and evil.  The temptation story is not a sweet PBS Saturday morning cartoon intended to teach our children morals.  The temptation story is The Lord of the Rings, Rocky, Star Wars.

Jesus is on an epic quest to save humanity.  Humanity is enslaved.  Not by each other, but by death and by sin.  No matter what humans have done, they have not been able to get out of the grip of these evil powers.  Death vanquished every human.  And sin wrapped its claws around people, too.  Sin ruined people’s lives, isolating them from each other and from God.  Jesus is going to go into the world and save humanity from both sin and death, but first he has to get ready.

Jesus has been baptized and is about to enter into his public ministry.  But before he makes any speeches, before he meets his first disciple, he needs to get ready.  In any epic battle movie worth its salt, you get a training montage.  Hermione leads the Hogwarts students in drills Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Yoda trains Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  Mr. Miyagi teaches Danny “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid.  All these “heroes “needed time to prepare.

In Jesus’ case, it is the Spirit who leads him into the desert.  The Spirit doesn’t stick around and shadow box with Jesus or make Jesus run laps.  The Spirit disappears and leaves Jesus alone.  For what Jesus needs to get him through his ministry isn’t physical strength, but spiritual strength.  Fighting the powers of sin and death will take every ounce of integrity and steadiness that Jesus has.  After forty days of prayer and fasting, the Devil, also described as the tempter, shows up.  Now the Devil isn’t particularly hostile here, in fact, he’s almost friendly.  After all, the Devil just wants what is good for Jesus, right?  If Jesus is really the Son of God, he should enjoy the perks!

First the Devil tempts Jesus to turn some stones into bread.  After all, Jesus has been fasting for weeks!  And if he is God, he surely has the power to make himself some food.  But Jesus roots down into Scripture and reminds the Devil that the only food he needs for his mission is the word of God.

The Devil gets really tricky with his next temptation—since Jesus used scripture to deny the Devil the first time, the Devil throws Scripture back at Jesus.  He tempts Jesus to leap off a tall building, telling him that Scripture says angels will protect him.  But Jesus resists the temptation to take a foolish risk and again roots himself in Scripture.

Finally, the Devil tries to make a bargain with Jesus.  He offers him power and wealth and land and all Jesus needs to do is worship him.  But again, Jesus finds within himself the discipline and Scripture he needs to resist.  The Devil flees, defeated.

This story gets sin just right, doesn’t it?  Sin isn’t a bully, at first.  Sin sidles up to us and seduces us.  Have you all been following the story Kevin Roose published in New York Magazine?  He has just published a book called Young Money.  He got to know eight young Wall Street brokers, followed them around and explored their world.  On one occasion he snuck into a secret society event and saw all kinds of crazy skits in which the richest men in the world mocked the 99%. At one point he started filming and was thrown out once they realized he was a journalist.  He didn’t get beat up.  The people who kicked him out got extremely friendly and tried to bribe him into not telling the story.  What a great metaphor!  Sin tells us we deserve it, that it won’t really hurt anyone.  Sin lures us in until it has us firmly in its grasp.

Sin is tricky and insidious and offers us things that appear good.  For Jesus to really minister to the people of the world, he had to go through that experience.  He had to know what it was like, how hard it is, to resist temptation.  Jesus had to learn who he was as a savior.  Was he going to use his power to physically strike down evil?  Did he need to become big and strong and throw his authority around?  No, his authority was rooted in total obedience to his Father.  Jesus would show his power by his humility, by compassion, by wisdom.  His power would be rooted in his deep understanding of Scripture in light of his loving relationship with his Father.

Jesus uses that deep knowledge of Scripture and connection to his Father when he recruits his disciples, preaches to his followers, heals the sick, casts out demons—in short, in every part of his ministry.  Jesus takes this experience all the way to the cross.

Jesus’ ultimate battle with sin and death doesn’t involve him sword fighting the Devil or heroically flying a spaceship into the heart of an alien spacecraft.  Jesus’ final battle has him face our sin and rejection and walk right toward us.  Jesus continues to walk towards us until we kill him.  And then he rises and keeps walking toward us.

In the movie Blood Diamond, a father has lost his son, who has been kidnapped and turned into a child soldier.  When he finally finds his child, the child is pointing a gun at the father’s companion.  The father recognizes the boy and starts to speak with him.  He walks toward him, calls the boy by name and tells him about his mother who loves him and the wild dogs who wait for him.  He describes his home, the place where he belongs, all the while walking towards this boy and his raised gun and then the father says,

 I know they made you do bad things. You are not a bad boy.  I am your father, who loves you.  And you will come home with me and be my son again.

The boy drops the gun and the two embrace.

For generations our sin and the power of death kept us separated from our God.  But God knew we were more than our sin.  He knew that sin enslaved us, keeping our true selves locked away.  And so he sent Jesus, who battled for us.  While it appeared for three days that sin and death won, on that third day Jesus rose from the dead and claimed us for his own.  His was the final word, the final victory.  Death and sin are still present, but they no longer hold dominion over us.  They cannot keep us from God.

A mere five days ago, I preached to you about Lenten practices and how they draw us closer to God.  But the really important message for you to hear is this:  Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  Not your worst sin, not the worst sin someone does to you, not the death of a loved one, not your death.  You can start and break 100 Lenten practices and that will not make God love you less or lessen the power of his victory.

God wins the battle, full stop.



Ash Wednesday, Year B, 2012

Every Ash Wednesday, we read Psalm 51 together.  This Psalm perfectly outlines the heart of why we gather together every year and marks the beginning of Lent the way we do.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; In your great compassion blot out my offenses.

All of us have many fine qualities.  We are loving, giving people.  But all of us also have not-so-great qualities.  All of us—dare I say it—sin.  None of us live the Christian virtues perfectly, no matter how mature we are.  While we may strive to live lives of love, patience, faithfulness, joy, goodness, gentleness, self-control and kindness the human condition is such that we just can’t.

Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.

And while we may run around like crazy trying to deny that about ourselves 364 days a year, today, Ash Wednesday we can name these things about ourselves in this space, before God.

For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

How freeing to be able to be honest about ourselves!  I’ve mentioned before about how dinner parties in Princeton can sometimes feel like a competitive recitation of CVs and awards accoladed.  What a treat to get to say, “Guess what, world!  I’m not perfect!  My house is a mess and I’m sometimes impatient with my coworkers and I don’t always find children cute!  I like a good piece of gossip and most of the time I’d rather watch TV than pray and I haven’t brushed my dog’s teeth in six months!”

Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.

The trick, of course, is that Ash Wednesday is not just about confession.  We aren’t meant to just offload and then walk out the door unchanged.  No, Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  One of the commentaries I read to prepare for today put it this way.

Imagine you have a dog and a cat.  You are making steak for dinner, so you lay it out to get to room temperature and when you get back to the kitchen you see the dog and cat eating up the last little bits of your delicious dinner.  Now the dog knows he is in trouble, so he comes up to you with his big eyes and his tail between his legs and begs you to please, please still love him.  The cat on the other hand looks at you as if he’s thinking, “Is there a problem here?”  But neither the dog nor the cat have repented in any way!  If you left the steak out the very next day, the outcome would be exactly the same![1]

We do the same thing with God and with each other.  Sometimes we sin and we feel TERRIBLE about it, but we do not do anything to change our behavior.  That is not repentance. Repenting means we are going to change the behavior, not just feel badly about it.

On the other hand, we may need God’s help to actually feel bad about our behavior.  We may be more like the cat in our story. We may be so self-important that we do not think we are capable of sin.  If we believe we are good people, then the things we do are good, right?  Wrong!

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me and I shall be clean indeed.

Our time on this earth is short.  We’ll be reminded today that we have come from dust and we will return to dust.  We don’t have time to fool around with any false illusions about who we are.  We must examine ourselves honestly and bring that account before God.

Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.

The good news is that the God before which we present ourselves is the same God who chose to so identify with our broken selves that he sent his Son to become fully human.  And that son loved us, empathized with us, and healed us.  He also defeated death, by experiencing death and then rising again, so we might have an eternity of life with God.

Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

This Ash Wednesday, God invites you to come before him, and bring him your whole heart, as twisted and dusty as it might be.

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.


[1] Hoare, Geoffrey M. St. J. “Psalm 51:1-17 Pastoral Perspective”, Feasting on the Word:  Year B, Vol 2, 2008, p. 8.

Easter 3, Year B, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Good Friday, Year A, 2008

We are a bloodthirsty people.

When I say we, I don’t mean us here at Emmanuel, or even us as Americans, I mean the big “us”, humanity.  For whatever reason, when under the right kind of pressure, and the right circumstances we will kill another person with the same ease with which we might bat an annoying fly out of our eyes.

Last week we killed a few dozen people in Tibet.  The month before that we killed 1000 people in Kenya.  Since the beginning of the war, we’ve killed 3,988 American soldiers and anywhere between 82,000 and 650,000 Iraqi civilians, depending on who is counting.  Since 2003, we’ve killed between 98,000 and 181,000 Sudanese in Darful alone.   In the last fifteen years we killed 937,000 people in Rwanda and 3,800,000 in the Kinshasha Congo.

And that’s just a sampling of political conflict from the last twenty years!  Those figures don’t encompass the 180,000 people who were murdered last year in countries that keep records of that sort of thing.  If you’re interested, the United States has the sixth highest murder rate, behind India, Russia, Columbia, South Africa and Mexico.  Yay us? Only one person got murdered in Iceland, if you’re thinking about moving somewhere a little saner.

We don’t do too well with political figures we admire either.  We killed Benazier Bhutto this year.  We killed Indira Gandhi in the 80s. We killed both Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Junior and Abraham Lincoln.  We tried to kill the last Pope, too.  We’ve killed quite a few up and coming politicians in Iraq and I’d list them, but they are just too many to name.

We also kill people who speak the truth to us.  We killed Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist, and Daniel Pearl, the American one.  We killed Kenji Nagai, the Japanese journalist covering the uprising in Burma.  We killed Alisher Saipov in Uzbekistan and 64 journalists in 2007—half of them in Iraq.

Frankly, Jesus did not stand a chance.  A truth-telling, religious and political upstart who claimed he was God?  Yeah, that was going to end well.

Throughout most of history, Jesus’ death has been understood as the will of God—as an act of atonement so humanity’s relationship with God could be restored.  And maybe that is true.  But it might also be true that we have come to that understanding because Jesus’ death being God’s will is a much more soothing sentiment than Jesus’ death being the result of our uncontrollable, murderous impulses.

In two days, we’ll get to experience God’s redemption of the murder of his Son, but for now we’re left with our own culpability.

We’re left staring at ourselves in the mirror wondering what we would have done.  Would we have tried to fight the powers that be, calm down the crowds and take the many moments of opportunity that presented themselves in order to attempt to free Jesus from his captors?

Would we have sat idly by, watching, but congratulating ourselves that at least we know this execution is distasteful?

Would we have shaken our fists and called out for his blood?

Would we have become terrified and run away?

The odds are we would have had one of those reactions. The women who loved Jesus sat silent vigil.  The men who loved him hid themselves out of fear of being caught.  Pilate, when given the option to follow his conscience and not execute Jesus, did what was easier. The crowd as individuals might have been reasonable people, but when massed together they became a vulgar, violent mob.

In a way, the death of Jesus is terribly ironic. After all, it is just because of our selfish, murderous, detached, lazy, hypocritical natures that we need a savior in the first place.  When God was gracious enough to give us that savior, what do we do?  We kill him.  Of course.

So, where does this leave us?  Are we soulless, moral-less people who are a danger to everyone around us?  Of course not.

But we are capable of such things.  Each of us.  We carry with us the potential for hate, for violence, for betrayal, for deadly inaction.   Thankfully, through the grace of God and events that will unfold over the next two days, we are not stuck in this mire.  Thankfully, we are also capable of forgiveness, grace, understanding, and reconciliation.  We are never stuck where we are–God is always shaping us to be more whole

In light of various events in the last week and a half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the remarks Bobby Kennedy made when he found out Martin Luther King had been shot.  At one point he said,

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
 falls drop by drop upon the heart,
 until, in our own despair,
 against our will,
 comes wisdom
 through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

He went on to say,

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

“To make gentle the life of this world.”  What a beautiful expression and what difficult work.  However, difficult, it is our work.  For our work is to follow Christ, the rabble rouser and the peacemaker, wherever that may lead us.

Lent 1, Year A, 2008

You’re a fraud, a fake, a charlatan.

That’s a rather rude way to open a sermon, isn’t it?  Well, I can say all those things about you with great confidence, because I, too am a fraud, a fake and a charlatan.  We all are.  That is part of our human condition.

Being married has been extremely eye opening for me.  I knew marriage would be difficult, but I thought it would be difficult because of something my husband would do.  Maybe he would be sloppy, or careless, or insensitive.  It turns out that marriage has been challenging, because now I have someone in my house to mirror exactly how selfish I am!  Living on my own for the last five years, I had no one to irritate, no one with whom to compromise, no one with whom to disagree.  Now, I have all sorts of opportunities to pick fights, whine, sulk, demand my own way. . .You get the idea.  Don’t get me wrong, Matt and I have a very happy marriage, but it has been shocking to me how my self image does not match up to reality!  I am very content to project the image of a loving, caring pastor, even when I am not behaving in a very loving or caring way.  You’ll notice our times of silence before confession have been longer since I’ve been married.  That’s because I just need more time now.

I would worry more about this, but I know I’m not alone.

After all, the authors of Genesis knew all about these kind of human tendencies.  The very first thing Adam and Eve do after they’ve tasted the forbidden fruit is to cover themselves.  Adam and Eve feel shame for the first time, and in order to deal with that shame, they disguise their naked bodies and hide from God. 

We hide ourselves, not with figleaves, but with nice Sunday clothes, and bright smiles, and the answer, “Fine.” when someone asks us how we are, even if we are suffering.  Somehow what has become important is what people will think of us, rather than how we are actually feeling.

We all experience shame, fear, or sadness in our lives-each of us is struggling with something.  I know you.  I know each of you has your own set of very impressive baggage along this journey, but here’s the secret.  No one’s baggage is any more spectacular than anyone else’s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, some Sunday, if we each brought a suitcase with us?  Mine might be labeled:  anxiety disorder, and tendency to be controlling.   Yours might be labeled: depressed, or out of energy to deal with my children, or struggling with addiction, or grieving a loved one, or having serious money problems, or really hate my job, or really don’t like my spouse.  We would air out our suitcases, listen to each other’s stories, and then march them up to the altar and offer them up to God.

(Sigh.)  That is basically my fantasy day at church.  But, back to reality.

At the beginning of the service today, to honor the beginning of Lent, we sang the Great Litany.  Some people love this part of the service and some people HATE the Great Litany. At times, it seems the litany of ways we fail God and each other will never end! But really, what the Great Litany does is give us a chance to bring our baggage before God.  The Litany gives us a chance to be honest, and to tell God, “You know what?  I can’t do this on my own.  I can’t manage my own life, I don’t always make the right choices, I need help.”

This kind of honesty is what Lent is all about.  Lent is not about self-flagellation, Lent is about surrender. We surrender to a God who loves us more than we can imagine. We surrender to a God who has faced all the same temptations we have.  We surrender to a God who was able to resist those temptations in a way we cannot. 

Lent is a time to lose our fig leaves.  We are invited to stand naked before God and offer ourselves-our broken, misbehaving, selfish, addicted, ungrateful selves.  We do not have to pretend to be okay in front of God.  We do not have to offer God a polite smile /and a “fine” when he asks us how we are doing.  We can tell him the ugly, unvarnished truth.

Lent is a time to get real.  Lent is a time to look at ourselves deeply and to start being honest with the people around us. 

The road to Jerusalem is a long and tiring one.  We’ll walk this road, following Jesus, for the next six weeks.  On such a long journey, carrying heavy baggage will just be exhausting, and pointless really.  You don’t need baggage where Jesus is going.  So, today, as you come forward to communion, I invite you to leave your suitcases on the altar, leave all that weighs you down and start this journey fresh, knowing that God will take good care of you and of what you leave behind.