Monthly Archives: February 2017

Sermon for February 19, 2017: How do I love thee (Preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California)

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Sermon for February 19 How do I love thee

One of my favorite theologians, Linda Gavenda, told me that today is all about love.  She is, of course, right.  Not only because today is my last Sunday at St. Clement’s and we are expressing gratitude for the love that we have shared these last four years, but also because Hallmark has nothing on Christianity when it comes to celebrating love.  After all, the willingness of Christian clergy to advocate for the idea that love is love is love did not start in the twentieth century but back in the third century when St. Valentine defied the Roman Empire by performing weddings for Roman soldiers who were prohibited from getting married.  After being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for his “crimes,” Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s blind daughter, who promptly regained her eyesight before he was executed. So, Christians have been falling in love for a long time.  But is that really what Jesus meant when he said, “love your neighbor as yourself”?

The desire to love and be loved is so integral to our human nature that over the years our bestseller lists have been populated by hundreds of books on understanding, attracting, possessing, and even surviving love.  And, of course, that bestseller the Bible is full of love stories: Abraham and his soulmate Sarah, who he told people was his sister; Jacob and his two wives Rachel and Leah; and that old Nazarene carpenter Joseph and his child bride Mary – come to think of it, maybe these aren’t the best examples of romance, which makes sense, because the truth is that what we call “romantic” love – “eros,” is rarely referred to in the Bible, other than as a metaphor for another, more important love – the love of God.

And yet how we love each other is, for Christians, the primary way in which we demonstrate our love for God.  Because the bottom line is this: You cannot hate your neighbor and love God.  Of all the radical ideas that Jesus preached, the most countercultural of them all was the notion of loving others as yourself. And not for the reasons we might think.  The individualism that is so much a part of American culture is a relatively modern thing, growing concurrently with our developing nation during the seventeenth through twenty-first centuries – but we still can’t help but view everything around us through its lens.  When we read Jesus’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we instantly connect his words to our individual selves.  We think that God is telling each of us how to be better people.

But for the Jews of first century Palestine, like their Israelite ancestors, loving themselves meant loving and protecting their people – their tribes and families. The rules presented to Moses in Leviticus that we heard today are part of a much longer treatise – the Holiness code- that was established by God not for the purpose of turning the Israelites into better individuals, but into a better –and safer –community.     

They are practical: don’t strip your land bare – leave some for the poor folk or else they will rebel against you.  Don’t steal and lie because it makes people mad.  Don’t cheat and swindle others because you’ll end up dead.  And definitely do not hate your families and friends, because if you do your community will fall apart, and you will die.

It was the same law that Paul had to remind the Corinthians about.  “Here is what you do,” Paul says, “if you want to survive.”  Except Paul’s people were facing a different kind of extinction – a spiritual death.- because they were so busy fighting among themselves over which of their leaders had the right “rules” for being Christian that they were losing sight of the teachings of Jesus.  We are not, you see, the first people of God to fight amongst ourselves, to experience ourselves as knowing the “correct” interpretation of God’s word, to believe our brand of Christianity to be “right.”  The Corinthian church was splintered into factions and Paul knew that the “wisdom” of the world – the cares and confusions of their age – would destroy it if they did not understand that whatever their differences were, whatever “additions” each of these builders had added to their doctrine, the foundation of their belief was the same.  The foundation of their belief was love – love among and with all people.

This is still a radical idea – now in a time and a culture in which we are told that it is alright to mock someone if we have good reason, that hatred is a family value, and that truth is a relative concept. That is the “wisdom” of our age.  But God’s way is different. Because God is not a private God.  God does not belong to one person, one culture, one community, one religion. The holiness cods, the words of Paul, and most especially the words of Jesus, exist so that we know how to survive together.  Our likeness to God – our holiness – is something different.  That comes not from our ability as individuals to follow any set of rules or dogma, but by direct transmission from God, who is completely unique. Our holiness is “a likeness to the otherness of God, a way of being distinguished from the rest of humanity…a way of life that is pointedly different from the ways of the world.”[1]  It is this “otherness” that makes us a community.  It is this otherness that makes us part of the divine.

And it is this otherness that demands that we care for one another in a different way – not in a way that protects what is ours or improves who we are, but in a way that redefines what it means to love.  By all means, Jesus says, follow the ancient rules that you have been told again and again – they will help you survive.  But that is not enough.  It is not enough to try to be a “good person.”  It is not enough to “do your part.”  It is not enough to do what you can, given the limitations you have.

Because God has no limits.  That is the difference between secular humanism – the belief that human beings can behave ethically and responsibly using the strength of our own natures – and Christianity.  Our scriptures teach us that whatever innate goodness we have is not enough – that it is impossible to live together merely by “being the best you you can be” – that it is, in fact, fatally arrogant to believe that our own “goodness” is enough to combat the ignorance and evil that prey upon and hold sway over those who rely on themselves.  Scripture tells us that the only way to transcend our humanity and share in the holy perfection that is God is to live the completely countercultural, “alien” way that Jesus has identified for those who truly love him.

That means considering all people – of all colors, races, genders, and beliefs – to be our neighbors.  And that means sometimes loving those neighbors not for who they are, but in spite of what they believe – loving our neighbors- no matter how hard it may seem – loving our neighbors until they see God in themselves and one another.  Loving them zealously, fiercely, and without fearThere is an astounding freedom in knowing we are dependent on God.  We can accept that we will never be perfect individuals, by understanding that we are already a perfect community in Christ, through one another.  It is what it means to be a Christian.  It is why I love you.  It is how I love you.    It is all about love.  AMEN.

[1]Sheldon W. Sorge, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 364.

Sermon for January 29, 2017: If you love something, set if free (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

          Commitment can make you do strange things.  As someone who performs premarital counseling, I have had the opportunity to hear several unique and very strange promises couples have made to each other prior to getting married, including not to root against each other’s sports teams, not to buy one another body fat scales, and, in my own case, making my husband promise to allow me to die first.  There was some logic to this demand -having watched my mother widowed twice, I had a clear sense of the kind of fortitude it takes to move forward when you have lost someone who is as much a part of you as your own heart, and I doubted I was capable of it and had no desire to find out.  Still, he might have been put off by this request.  It is, after all, just a tiny bit morbid.  But Gary, not missing a beat said, “Sure.  No problem – because I plan to stuff you and put you in a rocking chair when you die anyway.”

Which may explain why our relationship works.   Our relationship fears are compatible.  This may seem like a strange measure for the potential success of a marriage – and not one you often hear in pre-nuptial counseling – but as a psychologist, I can tell you with complete confidence that there is no such thing as a completely healthy relationship, and sometimes the best you can do is to be aware of your own neuroses, and work through them together.  We are all afraid of something – and we are all flawed.   No one on this earth leads a blameless life and does what is right –does no evil to his friend –gives money without the hope of gain, and swears to do no wrong and is able to keep his word.  No one.

Which makes me wonder why there are so many scripture readings that seem to suggest that that kind of perfection is exactly what God wants from us.  The answer is that God doesn’t.  Notice that the laundry list of goodness we heard in today’s psalm does not end with a promise that if we do these things we shall not be overthrown.  It ends with the statement, “Whoever does these things shall never be overthrown,” the “whoever” in this case, being God alone.

It does feel like a bit of a tease though – because it certainly seems like God is presenting us with some pretty clear directives for how we should live our lives – so it only makes sense that we would adopt these as goals and assume they are achievable.  Except there’s nothing in the Bible that supports that assumption. The truth is that we are the ones who have decided that if we try hard enough we can actually rise to this standard.  We are the ones who seek perfection – who deny our fallibility – who chain ourselves to a perpetually-turning wheel of desire, expectation, and inevitable disappointment when we find we cannot achieve what we set out to do.  We are the ones who set ourselves up for the frustration that comes when we think things are unfair.

The other day my son couldn’t find his bicycle.  It turned out he had left it in a bike locker at BART.  When I berated him for not keeping track of his bike, he told me it was his father’s fault because Gary had unexpectedly offered to give Nick a ride home from school, thus making Nick forget he took his bike in the morning.  Back in approximately 700 BCE, the people of Judah demonstrated a similar logic, asking God how he could possibly be angry with them when they had been sacrificing their best livestock to him for years without him even asking them too.  “They thought that religion consisted of worshiping ‘correctly’ and staying away from those who didn’t.[1]  Seven hundred years later the Corinthians demonstrated that didn’t know any better by assuming that deciding which Christian leader they should follow was the best way to get worship “right.”

The crowds following Jesus had a simpler motive.  They wanted to know what he could do for them – and what he wanted in return.  But the series of statements that Jesus made to them – what we have come to know as “the beatitudes” – turned out not to be the prescription for how to live that they were looking for.  Instead, they were a description of the realities of human life.  What Jesus told the crowds was not how to be blessed, but instead that blessing was not something they could acquire –that it is a gift.  “Blessed,” Jesus told them, is not something you strive to be.  “Blessed” is something you already are.

That makes blessing is not a challenge but a promise – a promise that whatever state we are in, whatever our circumstances, God remains the source of our life and the one thing on which we can depend.  It is a deeply comforting idea – and one that I still struggle intensely against.  That’s because accepting it – truly believing that there is nothing I can do to attain piety – to achieve sanctity – to prove my worthiness –means I am not in control of my life and, even more frightening, it means that all that I have gained through my own efforts – whatever knowledge, power, or strength I possess – have no part in my salvation.

There is a saying, “If you love someone, set them freeIf they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.” I’ve always hated that saying – because I don’t want to let go of the things I love.  I don’t want to risk losing them.  I want to hang on to them with both hands.  And yet I know from tragic experience that love which suffocates kills as surely as that which neglects.

True love – godly love – is not safe.  It is not tame.  Real love challenges us. It helps us to grow, to learn, to evolve.  And while it is true that much that is worth having cannot be achieved, it is also true that many things can be accomplished – and that we attain much more when we work together.  That requires allowing those around us the opportunity to seek wisdom on their terms, to take risks, to make mistakes – and to live without fear- and that includes the fears we project unto them.

It is hard to fight the fears we have for those with whom we are in relationship – harder perhaps than confronting that which we fear for ourselves.  I admit that I fear many things. I fear that when my daughter leaves home to live on her own, she will not be ready.  I fear that when my son attends a protest in downtown Oakland he will not be safe.  I fear that when my mother drives herself from Connecticut to Pennsylvania her weakened heart will not be strong.  And I fear for the people of St. Mary’s.  I fear that instead of the self-awareness, spiritual connections, and compassion you have gained through the challenges of this last year, it is the sorrow you have endured, the divisions you have suffered and the desire to forge ahead and forget that you will take from this interim time – and from your relationship with me.  I fear to leave you until I am sure you are ready, that you are safe, that you are strong.

But that fear, like the belief that anything we have achieved together is a result of our own strengths, is an illusion, based on pride.  The truth is that I we can set one another free without fear.  In relationship with one another and out, we are in God’s hands– and, whatever we become, we are already all we need to be.  Blessed are you, children of God.  May you continue to hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you are already filled.  AMEN.

[1]Brett Younger (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 295.