Monthly Archives: June 2016

Sermon for June 26, 2016: It’s just that simple (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

Listen here:

Some of you may recall former Presidential Candidate Ross Perot.  I’ve been hearing his name in the news recently, probably because in 1992 Perot, a Texas billionaire, stepped into an ideological gap in the Republican Party and launched a self-financed run for the presidency.  One of Perot’s most quoted remarks was, “It’s just that simple.”  He used it to refer to the federal deficit, the prevalence of drug abuse in the United States, and tax reform, among other things.  And in today’s reading from the letter to the Galatians, St. Paul seems to be channeling him.  “The whole law,” he says, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  It’s just that simple.  Or not.

I think that one of the primary problems with grasping the seemingly straightforward concept of loving your neighbor as yourself is knowing what “love” is – and defining “love” is more complicated than we might think.  The Greeks defined four types of love – “eros”- romantic love; “phileo” – friendship-based love; “Storge” – kinship love, and “agape” – love of humankind.  It’s that last type of love, agape, that seems closest to what the author of Paul’s letter is trying to describe to the Galatians.  This is love “in the Holy Spirit,” – love that brings “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  It is not the love Taylor Swift sings about.

Agape – godly love – is set apart by its unselfishness.  It is the kind of love that must be offered without any expectation of it being returned.  This is not the irrational love of passion, nor the reciprocal love of friendship, or the possessive love of family.  It is love that is meant to be given away without reservation or qualification.  Just as God gave it to us – freely and without measuring our worthiness to receive it –we are now free to give it to others.

It is a potent gift – and a tremendous responsibility.  Possessing the love of One who creates life and permeates all being literally gives us the ability to control the world – but only if we give it away.  My family and I were watching “Dr. Who” the other night.  In this particular episode, a character who has died is given a one-person, one-way “ticket” back from the afterlife.  Several weeks after his death he appears as a bright light to his beloved and she reaches out to him, telling him she loves him and encouraging him to return.  His form solidifies so she can see him for one moment –and he says he loves her – and that he’s sorry – because he is not returning to her.  He is instead sending someone back in his place – an innocent, young boy he accidentally killed when he was serving as a soldier in war.  This character decides to give away the greatest power he has ever – or will ever – have to give the boy a chance to live.  Afterward, I wondered if the character actually could have come back himself – if he had not made the self-sacrificial decision he did – whether the “return ticket” would still have worked.

For Paul, the answer is “yes.”  God, he says, has given us the freedom to use the power of Godly love as we will; but, he warns, do not become confused and start using it in the wrong way.  We put our very souls at risk when we choose to focus on our own passions and desires.   God’s love is a gift to be used with discipline, self-control, and selflessness.

Jesus provides his disciples with the same lesson in today’s gospel.  They are passing through the Samaritan village and Jesus sends messengers ahead to the Samaritans to say he’s coming.  When the villagers do not offer Jesus their attention and hospitality, the disciples are angry and ask Jesus’s permission to “command fire” from heaven to consume the Samaritans – but Jesus rebukes them, He lets them know that they cannot retaliate against those who refuse to learn his way.  Because Jesus is preparing them for what lies ahead.  He is teaching them that although they may be tempted, they may not respond to rejection and persecution with anger or violence – that they cannot use their power – the power of God’s love – out of anger.

This, according to Gene Robinson, is the hardest thing that Christians are asked to do.  “Love,” he says, “is the central theme of the Bible, and yet we find it so hard to live lives of love… Responding to hate with love is one of the most daunting tasks of those who claim to follow Jesus.”  Robinson knows what he is talking about.  As the first openly gay bishop consecrated in the Episcopal Church, Robinson has received cartons of hate mail, including multiple death threats.  His advocacy in the church and beyond for the dignity and acceptance of all people – and all kinds of love –nearly ruined his life.  But he remained faithful, and today the Episcopal Church recognizes the value and importance of all loving relationships.  We are proud of and grateful for his work – and for his example. Gene Robinson never stopped trying to love the people that threatened, mocked, and tried to destroy his life.  Like Mother Theresa before him, who was shunned by her own family for choosing to live among those of a lower social caste, Bishop Gene knew that, “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered,” but, as Christians, we are called to “love them anyway.”  Because God’s love is a sacrificial love, and it is even more powerful when it costs something to give it.

That doesn’t mean that all love has to be sacrificial.  Paul doesn’t tell us to love our neighbor and not love ourselves.  I think it gives God immense pleasure for us to be happy – and loving our friends and families and romantic partners can give us great joy.  Loving – in all its forms – is not wrong; what is wrong is believing we have the right to keep that love from others.  What is wrong is thinking that what we love is more important than what others do.  What is wrong is using love as an excuse to hurt others.

The truth is that we are often at our worst when we do things “for love.” People hurt and kill one another “for love” all the time.  And the hardest part to acknowledge is that those who do such things are not necessarily bad people.  These people believe their cause is just.  These people are trying to do what is right.  “These people” are us.

So, how do we know when we are truly following the way of God?  Our scripture readings for today suggest that the answer is in recognizing not only what it means to love, but what it means to be a Christian.  When Elisha wants to kiss his father and mother before assuming his place as God’s prophet, Elijah tells him, “If you think you can go back to your old life, then you don’t understand what it means to be God’s prophet.”  Paul tells the Galatians that as Christians they must not fight with one another but “be guided by the Spirit.”  To his disciples, Jesus says, “Following me means putting aside your personal desires and learning to love – and live – in community.”  What these scriptures tell us is that we cannot merely believe in the way of Jesus; we must live it.  We may not be called to give up our families and homes as his disciples did, but we have been challenged to live our own lives by imitating the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ as best as we can.  Jesus reminds us that our identity as Christians is not about loving those things that benefit us – loving those who love us – giving to those who give to us.  Instead, our role as Christians is to love what seems unlovable; to love when it seems impossible; and to love those who cannot or will not love in return.  It’s just that simple.  AMEN.

Sermon for June 19, 2016: Who am I? (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen here:

What does it mean to hear voices?  In our society, when someone says they hear voices, we usually assume it is a symptom of mental illness and offer therapy and medication to help make the voices stop.  This is helpful for the many people who recognize the unreality of their situation and are frightened by it.  But for others, the costs of taking medications, vicious side effects, and the sense of being “doped” and “not themselves” are not worth the “cure.”

I sometimes wonder, then, if our real motivation for “rescuing” people from mental health symptoms like hearing voices is more about society’s discomfort and fear than the individual’s.  We worry that someone who hears things will disrupt the communities we live in or act out violently.  The idea that mentally ill people are prone to violence is common – but wrong.  Studies tell us that the vast majority of individuals who suffer from severe mental illnesses are not dangerous.[1]

What mentally ill individuals are is isolated and stigmatized.  Mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.[2]  It is estimated that more than 124 thousand homeless people across the US suffer from a severe mental illness.[3]  We see such people all the time and, for many of us, walking near them can seem scary – causing us to try to get away from them as quickly as possible.  This, of course, is the exact opposite of what people with severe mental illnesses need.  Their symptoms have separated them from others; what they need more than anything is to be restored to full membership in their communities.

Our first century brethren would recognize this dilemma because they demonstrated similar fears of the people who heard voices in their time.  In today’s gospel we heard that when Jesus and his disciples arrived in the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, he was immediately confronted by the cries of a man described only as having “demons.”  The man has no name, no profession, and no apparent family – in essence, his ravings have become his identity; he is simply “the man with the demons.”  But he was not always this way; he was once a man of the city, who now lives among the tombs outside of his community allegedly in order to keep both the afflicted and the unafflicted safe.

According to Luke, when Jesus arrives, the man – or the “demons” in him – immediately recognize him and asks Jesus his intentions.  “What have you to do with me”? he cries, and then begs, “Do not torment me – do not taunt me.  Do not pretend that you cannot help me when I know you can.”  And the first thing Jesus does is to name ask the man to name his “demons” – to identify the source of the man’s pain for what it is –something that is well-known to a people occupied by the Roman Empire.  The man has been overcome by a “Legion” –a multitude of oppressive feelings so great that he has been left powerlessness over his own mind.

This story is important enough to appear in all three “synoptic” (similar) gospels.  It is thought to be the first narrative in which Jesus heals someone who is not Jewish and does not live on Jewish soil.  It is also considered authoritative for those who practice demonology, faith-healing and exorcism; not to mention the writers of horror films.  So it’s particularly interesting to look at what the story does not say.  It does not say that Jesus acknowledged the man’s torment as being the result of external demons.  It does not say that the man himself is sinful.  For that matter, it doesn’t even say that the “demons” inside him are evil.  It just says that the man’s condition drives him away from others.  The possession that Luke describes has not taken away the man’s morality.  It has taken his identity.

That’s a crucial difference – because it tells us that even if we take this story literally, so-called “demon possession” is not about the battle of good versus evil.  It’s about the struggle for identity.  For most of us, there is nothing more frightening than not knowing who we are or where we belong and being unable to control our own thoughts and actions.  This loss of self is at the core of mental illness.  It is also, I believe, at the center of our unraveling American social fabric.  It is the loss of our collective identity – our knowledge of who we are and what we stand for – that has led to so much separation, isolation and pain in this country.  And it is our failure to respond when we see someone “possessed” with such pain that is evil.

But Jesus did not fail to respond.  Jesus heard the man’s cry for help and healed him by restoring his identity and his place in the community.  He also gave him a new purpose.  Having experienced the power and mercy of God, the man of Garasene was given the opportunity to spread that good news to the members of his community.   In this way, the very deep woundedness of the Gerasene demoniac became, for his friends and neighbors, a catalyst for their own redemption.  In using his power to heal the man, Jesus provided him with the power to restore others to God.

But some people weren’t happy about it – because it scared them.  It scared them for someone to enter their community and insult their Roman occupiers by symbolically disarming one of their oppressive legions.  It frightened them that Jesus demonstrated that he and his followers cared more about the mental health of one person than the group of swineherds who lost their business as a result of the healing.  Or perhaps it was simply too much of a miracle.  They might have been used to the not uncommon wondrous actions of itinerant healers who came through their territory, but they had never seen someone so changed as the Garasene man had been by Jesus.

But that’s what true faith does.  It changes us.  It frees us.  It allows us to escape from the roles and masks we put on in order to function in our world and releases us to live in another – in the world of true life in Jesus Christ.  “Before faith came,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “you were imprisoned and guarded by the law” because you could not be trusted not to hurt yourself or other people.  Like the Gerasene demoniac, you were not in your right mind.  But now that Jesus has come, now that you have faith, you no longer need to be afraid of yourself or others- because all of you are one in faith.  All of the things that divided you – race, culture, gender, politics, social status – none of those things matter anymore, because by trust alone you are free to participate in the life of Christ together.  You have been restored not just as individuals, but as a community of Christ.

This is what Paul believed would happen when people accepted Christ as their savior – when their faith became their only truth – when it guided their lives and drowned out the noise and distractions of the world.  But we all know that that didn’t happen– and hasn’t happened yet.  We know it because we still separate ourselves from one another.  We are not one.  We are still Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  We call ourselves Evangelicals or Catholics, Muslims or Mormons, Anglicans or Episcopalians.  The noise of humanity’s distractions – its petty squabbles, angry retorts, and jealous fears – continues to prevent us from doing the one thing that Paul says is necessary for his idyllic vision to come to fruition; we seem to be unable to participate in the life of Christ together.  We yell at each other so loudly that we cannot hear the voice of God.

That’s what happens when you are afraid.  It is what happened to Elijah.  Having done all that God asked of him – triumphing in a contest of power with the prophets of Ba’al, demanding the resignation of the king himself, consistently declaring God’s most controversial word – Elijah inexplicably lost his nerve and ran for his life into the wilderness, where he sat in a cave and asked God to let him die.  But ours is a God who answers cries for death with life – and with restoration.  Jesus restored the man of Gerasene to himself.  God restored Elijah to Godself, reminding him that he had not been alone in his struggles; that God had been and remained with him.  That it was Elijah who had forgotten the sound of God’s voice.

Perhaps we have too.  Perhaps we need to be reminded of the difference between the voice of God and the earthly voices that possess our thoughts with anger, fear, and despair.  God’s voice – whether it thunders or burns or whispers –never separates.  God’s voice always restores.  It restores us to ourselves and to one another.  Trust in that voice – and you too will be healed.  You too will be restored.  AMEN.

[1] Liza Gold, “Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychology and the Law, 41:3:337-343 (September 2013).

[2]Jonathan Metzl and Kevin MacLeish, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” American Journal of Public Health. 2015 February; 105(2): 240–249.

[3]Rick Jervis (August 27, 2014), “Mental disorders keep thousands of homeless on streets,” USA Today,  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/27/mental-health-homeless-series/14255283/.

What I did for love (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen here: 

 

Today is my mother’s 89th birthday and, like all else in her life, she is approaching it with good cheer but without sentimentality.  My mother is a product of her generation – the Greatest Generation.  She is infinitely pragmatic – her most frequent admonition to me is not to “fuss” about things.  It’s not that she doesn’t care; it’s just that she sees excess emotion as having no purpose – and her life has always been about purpose.  Like so many others of her generation, my mother’s most distinguishing trait is faithfulness – a belief about what is right and the will to do it regardless of the personal cost – and to do it without “fuss” and bother.  Such faithfulness requires strength, generosity, wisdom and love.

Those are the traits exhibited by the poor man in the story the prophet Nathan tells King David in this morning’s Hebrew scripture reading.  The poor man is a stand-in for Uriah the Hittite, who was a strong, dutiful, and faithful soldier of his generation who served his king and his country with honor.

The rich man of the story is, of course, that very king.  Nathan’s tale is a retelling of the well-known saga of David and Bathsheba, often described as a famous romance.  We all know King David – how he rose from humble beginnings as the youngest of a family of modest herdsmen to defeat the greatest (and biggest) general of the most terrible enemy of the Israelites.  How, after his defeat of Goliath with (maybe) nothing more than a slingshot, David became the favorite of the King and married the king’s daughter.  How King David loved God so much that he wrote psalms and sang and danced to God’s glory in the sight of all of the people.  And of course how ruddy and handsome he was.  David was everything a hero needs to be – I can’t imagine why Marvel hasn’t bought the rights yet.

When David sees Bathsheba from afar, he is so smitten that he sends men to bring her to him so that he can be with her.  When she becomes pregnant, he has her husband killed in battle to cover up his actions.  Once Uriah is dead and buried, David marries her.  So, let’s be clear: this is not a love story – and David is not a hero.  This is a story about power and how easy it is to abuse it – how easy it is to become faithless.  David has forgotten his modest roots and become accustomed to getting whatever he wants and no one holds him accountable.  No one tells him that it’s not okay to treat a person as if she is simply a lamb to be used to satisfy the appetite of a powerful and selfish man.  No one except Nathan, who, led by God, helps him understand that he, David, the king – the hero –is the rich man in the story – that the person who seems to be an example of a faithful servant of God – one to whom God gave so very much – is, by his own judgment, actually a sinner who is worthy of death.

But God did not kill David.  God “put away” his sin and allowed him to live – and yet we know that David was never the same.  His true repentance spared him, but there were still repercussions for his actions.  That’s because, as David himself tells us in the words of the psalm that he is credited with writing, the Lord is merciful, but also instructive.  For the rest of his long, hard life, David was repeatedly reminded of what he’d forgotten – that we need God – even when we think we don’t –even when we think we’re fine on our own.  In order for us to live faithfully, we must be in relationship with God.

Otherwise, by definition, we live in sin, because that is what sin is – separation – separation from God and from one another.  It is when we rely on our own strength that we make mistakes – that we hurt one another – and ourselves.  And the only way to heal our brokenness is to acknowledge it and bind ourselves together again.  Nothing – no perceived slight, no misunderstanding, no disagreement, is worth committing the sin of separation – because the essence of Christianity is not canon; it is community.

That’s what Paul was telling the Galatians when he admonished them not to live for the law.  Live by the law – yes – but live for and in God.  That’s something that Uriah the Hittite knew – that members of the Greatest Generation know – that King David learned – that in the end no one dies for a law – what people are willing to die for is love – and to allow ourselves to become separated from God and from one another is to forget that love.  It is to become faithless.

The pain of separation and the power of restoring love is something the woman with the alabaster jar knew well.  It is what allowed her to ignore the possible repercussions of angering and embarrassing herself in front of rich, powerful, people in order to do what her faith told her to do.

It is also what my mother did.  The child of second-generation European immigrants, my mother understood what it was to be on the outside – to have a father who left school at 14 to care for his mother and sister after his father died.  To make her own prom dress.  And to be rejected by her in-laws, who, upon meeting her, told my father he was marrying beneath him.  When I was born, my aunt told my jealous older sister that she needn’t mind the new baby – “it’ could belong to my mom’s family – but my sister would learn to do things right, because she was part of the White family.  But when my father, uncle, and aunt all died during the course of one year, it was my mother who made sure we remained close to that surviving aunt.  And when my aunt developed Alzheimer’s disease, it was my mother who absorbed her confusion, anger, and fear – even when she accused my mother of stealing from her.  Even when my aunt insisted, in front of her, that I stop calling “that woman” my mother.  It was my mother who continued to care for her, up to and beyond her death.  Like the woman with the alabaster jar, my mother focused not on what would be said of her or to her, but on what was right – on what was needed.

I think the Pharisees who were dining with Jesus that night, like David, forgot that.  The woman of the city knew what it was to need – and so gave all that she had – and loved with all of her heart.  But indebted to no one and not recognizing the need of their own hearts, the dinner guest gave Jesus little.

I think something similar has happened in this country – and perhaps it is one reason for the steady decline in religious belief over recent years.  So many of us have so much that we have started to believe that we don’t really need God.  We have forgotten what it means to have nothing but our ideals and one another to cling to.  To have, like the woman of the city, only our faith.  Maybe we are, like my aunt, too self-sufficient, too competent, and too correct to admit how much we need each other.  Perhaps we have become too dignified and too proud to kneel at the feet of God and brokenly beg for mercy.  Maybe we are just afraid of what we might lose if we throw ourselves into the powerful, exhausting, and sometimes ugly struggle that is true relationship.

But some of the greatest of us – those like my mother – do it all the time.  And we can too.  It is, as she would point out, simple.  We merely need to let go of our pre-conceptions and our fears – to renew our relationships with God and one another by remembering who we are and what we have been called to do.  Love God.  Love one another.  And then go in peace – knowing that our faith has saved us.  AMEN.