Sunday, February 20, 2011

7th Sunday after Epiphany Year A

7th Sunday after Epiphany
February 20, 2011
There once was a woman who had been married for 28 years. She and her husband had gotten a divorce because he had been having an affair with a much younger woman. He went on to re-marry this younger woman, and they and the former wife were all present at a social engagement. Through the whole evening, the ex-wife spent her time sending venomous looks toward the happy couple and rehashing all of the details of her betrayal with the person sitting next to her at dinner. Finally, when she was leaving, she said to her dinner companion, “Now you can understand why I am so happy to be rid of him!” Her dinner companion countered: “But you are not rid of him! In fact, you are more married to him right now than you have ever been. In fact, you are his prisoner. Until you forgive him you have completely bound yourself to him and to his new wife…” The woman responded: “I’ll never give him the satisfaction. Forgive him? I’ll see him burn in hell first, even if I have to go down there with him to stoke the fire.”
There was another man who was a young African student of theology studying in the United States. He received word, one night, that men in uniforms armed with guns, grenades, swords and clubs had entered his home village in Rwanda and killed about 70 people there, many of whom were his friends, neighbors, church members and included most of his family. At first this young man wanted to wreak vengeance upon those who had murdered all those dearest to him. But as he studied and prayed and prayed some more, he became convicted that God was calling him to a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation in his home country of Rwanda, and he knew that he had to begin by forgiving those who had killed all those whom he loved.
How are some people able to forgive when they are injured while others are consumed by their desire for vengeance, even when it poisons their own life?
How do we live into God’s command to be holy? A people who are set apart, a people who forgive and do not seek vengeance? How do we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, choose life and organize our lives around the missions of love of the other and peace? How do we live into his seemingly impossible command to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”?
In our Old Testament reading for today, which is the only time our Revised Common Lectionary has us read anything from Leviticus, we get a glimpse of the heart of the Torah, what is known as the holiness code. “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: ‘Speak to all the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…’ ‘You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord’.”
And in our gospel, we have Jesus’s continued teaching for his disciples in this week’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…”
Both of these readings are so very powerful and challenging to us because they are portraits of the very heart of God. They show that God acts out of love and concern for the other; that God chooses peace and harmony over vengeance and retribution. They show us that God loves the unlovable, suffers the worst that humanity can offer, and then rises to forgive us.
These reading remind us that God calls us to holiness, to being set apart from the way that the world works; Jesus calls us to discipleship, to perfection, to being complete in God; and in this call, we are, once again, asked to make a choice: to choose life over death, blessings over curses, reconciliation over retribution, peace over vengeance, the way of Jesus (the way of the cross) over the way of the world.
“You shall be holy…” God tells God’s people. It is both a command and a promise of fulfillment. We cannot be holy on our own. The very nature of holiness is that it belongs to God, and for anything to be holy other than God, then it must be somehow marked by God. In Christ’s humanity, God’s holiness was pleased to dwell, and when we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are “marked as Christ’s own forever;” we share in his holiness. The goal of the children of God, the goal of discipleship in Jesus Christ, therefore, is imitating God. It is loving how God loves.
I am the Lord…God says again and again to the children of Israel in the reading for today. It is God’s refrain in this call to holiness, and it serves to remind us that we cannot live into God’s call for us, we cannot live into Jesus’s call for our discipleship, when we are focused on ourselves. We must look at God Incarnate, we must look to Jesus Christ as the model for holiness, as the model for peace, as the model for our lives, as the model for how we love as God loves; and we must work to imitate him. In that process of imitation, the Holy Spirit will transform us, more and more, into the image and likeness of Christ. And in that way, we become, every day, more and more holy.
There once were two parents of a five year old little boy. One day this boy slipped away from his nanny and went to the nearby small military base to play with ‘his’ soldiers. On that day, one of the soldiers put the boy up on a horse-drawn bread wagon, and let him go for a ride. As they were passing through a gate on a bumpy cobblestone path, the boy leaned sideways and his head got stuck between the door post and the wagon. The horses kept going. The boy died on the way to the hospital, a son lost to parents who adored him. When the soldier whose carelessness had caused the little boy’s death went to court, the boy’s parents insisted that they would not press charges saying, “Why should one more mother be plunged into grief, this time because the life of her son, a good boy but careless in a crucial moment, was ruined by the hands of justice.” After the solider was discharged from the army and went home unpunished, the father of the little boy would make the two day journey to visit the young soldier because he said he was concerned for the soldier and wanted to talk to him once more of God’s love, which is greater than our accusing hearts, and of the parents’ forgiveness.
Those two parents were able to forgive the soldier because they looked to God and remembered how God had forgiven them. It was not an easy choice; choosing life never is, and they lived with the pain of their loss their entire lives. But they embraced God’s call to holiness in their lives. They lived into the call of their discipleship in our Lord Jesus Christ as they loved the unlovable in imitation of God.
May we have the courage to go and do likewise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

6th Sunday after Epiphany sermon Year A

6th Sunday after Epiphany—Year A
February 13, 2011
There is nothing like death to help give us perspective on life and how we are living it. Moses shares some of his own insight with us and the Children of Israel as he faces his own impending death on the outskirts of the Promised Land and as the Children of Israel prepare to enter the Promised Land and begin their new life there.
“Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”
There at the end of his life, Moses encounters the reality that most of us are not able to choose the manner of our death, but that our lives are made up of millions of opportunities in which we are allowed to choose between adversity and prosperity, curses and blessings, death and life.
In his valedictory sermon, Moses doesn’t just tell the Children of Israel to choose between life and death, blessings and curses. He tells them how they may choose death or choose life. You choose death, he says, when your hearts turn away from God; when you do not listen to God, when you do not obey; you choose death when you bow down and serve other gods.
You choose life, he says, when you love the Lord your God. You choose life when you walk in God’s ways and when you observe God’s commandments. You choose life when you hold fast to God.
Jesus’s message in today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount is a much harsher and hyperbolic way of articulating this choice between death and life. “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no,’” Jesus tells his disciples. Others have said this in various ways: “You’re either for us or against us.” “Do… or do not….There is no try.”
Choose life.
Jesus speaks strong words about the choices people face over the course of their lives: the choices of nursing and nurturing our anger against one who has wronged us or one whom we have wronged versus doing the difficult work of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this he tells us to choose reconciliation, choose life. He speaks of the choice of lusting after another, of coveting aspects of another’s life versus being reconciled with the reality of our own lives and what we have, and again he urges us to choose reconciliation, to choose contentment, to choose life.
He speaks of divorce and urges people to work to preserve marriage, and he lays out again the choice between divorce versus reconciliation. When at all possible, choose reconciliation; choose life. Finally, he offers the choice between making false vows versus reconciliation between your values and your action, reconciliation between your words and your works. Choose reconciliation; choose life.
In his piece of the Sermon for today, Jesus says that the Way of God is the path of reconciliation; it includes being reconciled with ourselves, who we are, the reality of our lives, and being reconciled with others, rather than holding onto our anger, past wrongs or injustices. Choosing life means knowing and believing that no matter what we have done, God continues to reach out to us, that we do not have to live a life of curses, of adversity, of death; we may accept God’s forgiveness and our restored relationship as God’s beloved that we might choose life.
Again and again we are offered this choice, between death and life. It is the choice between living our lives for ourselves alone, not worrying about who we crush to get what we want versus striving for justice for all people and care for the poor, searching for something deeper than our own comfort. And we are urged to choose life. It is the choice between living our lives in a rush to meet deadlines that are, in the scheme of things, completely insignificant, and ordering our lives around those lesser things versus spending time with those who are dearest to us, and letting them know how precious they are in our sights. And we are urged to choose life.
It is the choice between shutting down our emotions, not dealing with the reality of grief and loss in our lives versus acknowledging our losses and grieving…. grieving well. And we are urged to choose life. It is the choice between shuttling our children through the countless round of sports and activities, expecting as much or more from them than we expect from ourselves versus spending some time every day playing with them, enjoying their childhood, and sharing in their joy that they so freely give. And we are urged to choose life.
It is the choice between being polite and saying what we think the other wants to hear, our tongues held captive by the fear of hurting feelings versus speaking the truth in love when the truth begs to be told. And we are urged to choose life. It is the choice between making all our decisions, living our lives based on fear versus living our lives out of a deep and abiding hope that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And we are urged to choose hope, choose life.
It is the choice between bowing down and serving anything less than God: ideas that are not worthy, the demands and priorities of our culture, our own over- programmed calendars, our jobs, our loneliness, our despair, our own deep control needs and plans for how our lives should go versus holding fast to God, offering to God nothing less than our whole hearts during worship, praying, and giving thanks for all of God’s good gifts. And we are urged to choose life.
And here’s the really good news in all of this. We are always offered the choice, and even when we continue to choose death, for whatever reason, God can and will redeem that too, if we will let God. God can take the death that we choose, and God offers us in its place reconciliation… redemption…. resurrection.
It is the power and the hope of the resurrection: that God’s love is stronger than anything this world has to offer—stronger than our bad choices, stronger than evil and hate, stronger than anything. God’s love is stronger than death. So when we choose God, we choose life.
I discovered a quote from Garrison Keillor this week, that I will close with this morning: “Thank you God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.” Amen.

Monday, February 7, 2011

5th Sunday after the Epiphany--Year A

5th Sunday after the Epiphany
February 6, 2011
Two songs come to mind when hearing our gospel lesson for today. The first is one that many of us have been singing since our childhood. Our children sang it at the St. Nicholas feast a couple of months ago, and our choir presented us with a rousing version of it just a few weeks ago: This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Many of us have been taught all of our lives the importance of letting our lights shine.
While I worked at the Stewpot soup kitchen in Jackson, I encountered another song about our shining lights. It quickly became one of my favorite songs that we would sing in the noon day chapel service, and the pianist would sing the verses, and the congregation would sing the chorus, in the kind of call and response that is common in African American spiritual singing. The chorus goes “Let your light shine, shine, shine. Let your light shine, shine, shine. May be somebody down in the valley tryin’ to get home.” This gave us a reason for why it’s important to let our little lights from childhood shine, so that we could serve as little lighthouses to inspire others and help them find their way when they are lost.
I love both of these songs, and they both share important theological truths, but I think that they skip ahead of an important truth that we see in today’s gospel story.
Our story for today is the second part of Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In last week’s gospel, Jesus had been ministering to the crowds, and when he seems them following after him, he goes up the mountain, where his disciples follow him. He then sits down, and he begins his Sermon on the Mount, with the beatitudes. What is especially important to remember about our story today, the continuation of that Sermon on the Mount, is that Jesus is not teaching the masses in the sermon; rather he is preaching to his small group of disciples, his closest, most dedicated followers. He is teaching what it means to be his disciple, and he preaches that to them and to us across the centuries.
Notice, that the first thing he tells us today is not what we are supposed to do. First, he tells us who we are. “You are the salt of the earth…” Salt in its very essence is a preservative. It enhances the flavor of what is already, innately there. That is who we are as disciples of Jesus. “You are the light of the world…” Light illumines and dispels the darkness. It reveals what is hidden, and its very essence is to shine.
First, before he tells us what we are to do, he tells us who we are. We are the light of the world because we are baptized into Christ Jesus who is the true light of the world. We are salt because Jesus is the truest, purest salt, and we are a part of him. Martin Luther once said that we are not called to be Christians. In our baptism we are baptized into Christ, and thus we are called to be little Christs to all the world. That’s how Paul can say to the Corinthians that “we have the mind of Christ.” And it’s how Jesus can say—you are salt; you are light; because I am salt and I am light and you are a part of me.
It’s only after he tells us who we are that he tells us what to do. You are salt, so you must keep your saltiness; do not let it be bleached out by your cares and concerns and burdens nor by the priorities of the world. You are light, he says, so you must “let you light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
There is a certain amount of effort and work required in being salty, in letting our lights shine, but primarily the work of salt and light is in the remembering: I am salt; I am light; I am baptized into Christ Jesus, and I continue to be transformed into his image and likeness when I remember who I am and when I try to live more fully into that.
We have to be in touch with our identity in Christ, and we have to remember it over and over again to live into the work of who Christ calls us to be, before we can be those who help enhance the gifts of what is already there or those who shine the light to reveal the hope and the good news for a hurting and broken world. It is a continued process of remembering, of falling away and coming back; of reshaping our own wills, desires, priorities according to the “mind of Christ” that dwells within us.
You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Remember it weekly when you are fed in the Eucharist, in daily prayer and in reconnecting with our Lord who calls you. And only then can you live into the call of your saltiness, your call of being the light and “Let your light shine, shine, shine. Let your light shine, shine, shine. May be somebody down in the valley tryin’ to get home.”