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Sermon for June 4, 2017: The Ember and the Flame (preached at Grace Episcopal Church Martinez, CA)

You may listen here:

Last Sunday, a beloved long-term member of our parish announced that he is moving away and, necessarily, leaving Grace behind.  This is a loss felt by many of us, including me, but it is particularly painful for those who know his generous and loving heart best.  “What,” lamented one such person, “are we going to do without him”?  It is the same question that so many of us have asked on other occasions – when someone we love dies –after a divorce –when a long-term beloved rector retires from a parish – and it is the same question that scripture tells us the first apostles asked and prayed about during the fifty days after Easter.  “What will we do without him”?

Today we celebrate the event that answered that question: the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost, best known to most Episcopalians as “that Sunday when we wear red,” is probably the most undervalued feast day in the Christian calendar.  Few of us understand the great significance of Pentecost and many of us don’t even show up for it, since it often coincides with “summer vacation time.”  But we should, because, just as the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter teaches us what we believe, Pentecost – the fiftieth day after Easter- tells us what we should do – and gives us the strength to do it.  We call that power the Holy Spirit.

For the last several weeks, we have been hearing the story of the post-crucifixion disciples, who appear to have spent most of their time after the resurrection hiding together in locked rooms and arguing over whether Jesus really appeared to them after his death.  It’s hard to blame them for this behavior – remember that every one of them left their professions, families, and homes to follow Jesus.  They believed they were prepared to give up their lives for him, but after witnessing his death they were almost quite literally paralyzed with fear and grief.  Jesus was their friend, their teacher – their whole lives –and they didn’t know what they were supposed to do without him.

As with many things, Jesus anticipated this, which is why he reassured them prior to his death with the words that we heard just two weeks ago.  “I will not leave you orphaned,” he told them – or, as it is alternatively translated, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  I will send you an Advocate – and that entity will never leave you.  That is the Holy Spirit.

But what, exactly is this “Holy Spirit”?  That’s what Sally Hanson wants to know – so much so that she chose it as the topic for the sermon she won as a raffle prize at the Spring fashion show.  It’s not an easy question, and not one that Jesus answers very well himself, telling the disciples only that, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.”[1]  So, does that mean that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’s holy ghost?  Or another form of God?  Or, as George Lucas would have it, the Force?  No, yes, and maybe.

At the most basic level, what the promise of the Holy Spirit means is that the disciples – and all followers of Jesus – are permanently connected to him – and that that connection transcends life as we know it.  It is unbreakable.  Maybe that’s why we have so much trouble comprehending it – because there is no real analogy for it in this world, where, ultimately, everything – including the earth itself– is all too breakable.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit is hard to describe because it is bigger, stronger, and more elemental than anything we can think of to equate it to.  The Holy Spirit is simply more.  Nonetheless, Jesus’s apostles still tried to explain it – doing their best to express it in terms that we can grasp by relating it to the most powerful – and essential – things in our limited understanding.

It is from these comparisons that the church developed its Pentecost traditions.  For Luke, the Holy Spirit is fire – dangerous, powerful, and potentially deadly, but also critical to life- thus the color red.  Paul describes the Holy Spirit as water, essential for health and well-being –and in washing our souls clean through the action of baptism.  And in John’s gospel the Holy Spirit is represented by our very breath, without which we cannot survive.  Fire, water and air – three common, everyday elements, without which we will die.  Just as without the Holy Spirit we cannot truly live.

Which is why God has not only given us this Spirit, but provided us with an abundance of it.  Listen to Luke: “there came a sound…and it filled the entire house;” and, quoting, Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit;” and John: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  The Holy Spirit is not a “light breeze.”  It is not a trickle of refreshment.  It is not a single flame.  The Holy Spirit is a hurricane.  It is a deluge.  It is an inferno.

But only when we share it.  Because God did not give the Holy Spirit to the disciples alone.  It was not sent to one nation or one culture.  It did not arrive in private.  The Holy Spirit came to people from “every nation under heaven,” in a place where many people were gathered – for a Jewish festival of Thanksgiving. And it brought them together.  Their sudden ability to “speak in tongues” did not separate the people; instead it “broke down [the] dividing wall [between them].”[2]  They all understood what they were saying – they just couldn’t figure out how they were doing it.  These apostles –these future evangelists – were given a spirit not of confusion or exclusion but of comprehension and inclusion.  They were given the power to speak like God – the power to speak for God.  The “pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church [was] both the sign and the instrument of the launch of the church’s mission.”[3]

A mission that belongs to all God’s people.  A mission that cannot be accomplished by any one person, sect, or denomination.  A mission that requires the followers of the risen Christ to work together – to trust one another – and to love one another.  “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”[4]  We too must be “involved” with humankind, because each of our own gifts of the Spirit is worthless unless they are shared with the greater whole.  By describing the many disparate gifts of the Spirit, St. Paul tells us that the differences between us are not only acceptable, but necessary – that each of us has within us an ember of the Holy fire – a breath of God’s tempestuous wind – a drop of the sacred water – but without one another to immerse, stir, and fan that Spirit, it remains a token of God’s love, rather than the consuming force it is meant to be., a force for inspiration, instigation and creation.

“What will we do without you,”? the disciples asked, and Jesus answered, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  I will send you a Paraclete, one who walks alongside you.  I will send you an indestructible spirit of love.  You will see me no more, but you will see one another – and, if you look closely, you will see me in one an other.  Light the spark of the Holy Spirit within you by sharing it with your neighbor; breathe on one another with the breath of God that the tempest of God’s grace will blow wherever you are; baptize each other in my names and together you will become a river of life.[5]  Victor Hugo said, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”  May it be so.  AMEN.

[1]John 14:19

[2]Stephen A. Cooper, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 17.

[3]David P. Gushee, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 14.

[4]John Donne (1624),”Meditation XVII,” in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

[5]Thomas G. Long, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 25.

Sermon for April 2, 2017: The nature of the flesh (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

You’ve got to give it to the church. The liturgical calendar is a work of art.

Because the church year is very complex. If you don’t believe me, try to explain it to a

newcomer (or a teen in a confirmation class). We have our own seasons (which are

different than the seasons of the year that everyone else knows about), feast days (on

which we often actually fast), and days to honor saints that most people have never heard

of (Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, anyone?) Not to mention the fact that said

calendar is color-coded, so that we can spend lots of money on serious liturgical concerns

like making sure that the altar hangings match the presider’s chasuble. Still, you’ve got

to love a calendar that asks you to observe a 40-day period of meditation and preparation

in which we refrain from most of the things that make church (and life) fun, but then puts

in little breaks to help you get through it. For example, last week we enjoyed “Laudate,”

or “refreshment” Sunday, which basically just confused the Altar Guild, who tried

desperately to figure out why the church calendar was pink.

Which brings us to today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, known in my house as

“Zombie Sunday.” Our first lesson tracks Ezekiel as he carefully following the directions

of the Lord to prophesy to a collection of bones in order to make them come alive, after

which we hear St. Paul admonishing the Romans that setting our minds on “flesh is

death,” and, for the finale, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, complete with Lazarus

wandering out of the tomb, smelling like rotten garbage and trailing dirty bandages

behind him. The mummy lives!

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The question is, what does all of this great night of the living dead action have to

do with becoming closer to God? The answer is, “resurrection.” Because the true art of

the Christian liturgical calendar is that it moves us through the cycles of our own lives

onto a path toward inclusion in the resurrection of Christ and oneness with God. It also

reminds us that resurrection is a process –a process that requires faith and patience.

Ezekiel demonstrated such faith. According to today’s Hebrew scripture, he was

bodily lifted by the hand of God and put down in the middle of a boneyard. That’s

frightening enough – but then immediately the Lord asked him to “Prophesy” to the

bones around him in order to make them live- a feat he could only accomplish by

allowing himself to become the vessel of the mighty power of God. By obeying the

commands of God, Ezekiel was able to resurrect his dead ancestors and to bring them up

from the depths of the grave to their proper place in the sight of God. This scripture is

incredibly important from a theological point of view, because it is the first indication in

the Hebrew Bible of the possibility of life after death and, for Jews and Christians alike,

an extraordinary sign of the power of God.

It is also a sign of the way God considers the body – our flesh. Most early

Christians believed that resurrection required a body. “Without flesh,” [they believed],

there is no person to overcome death, because a human being, in this life and the next is

an intermingled soul and body… [so] for the miracle of resurrection to occur, there must

be a corpse.” 1 But here we are told that even in a valley filled with bones that have no

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flesh – that have been separated and broken- that have dried up – God can bring life. God

can bring life to arid bones and to parched spirits, to spirits that are mired in concerns of

the flesh, that long to drink from the waters of forgiveness, that thirst for the fountain of

new life. That desperate thirst – that deep well of despair – is what happens when we

become too focused on the flesh. That is what the author of the letter to the Romans

means when he says, “to set the mind on the flesh is death.” The evangelist did not, as

has often been argued, say that all material things are evil, that our bodies are innately

bad. He knew all too well that we are human beings, made of flesh and subject to it; he

knew that we have fleshly desires. He knew what it was to crave chocolate, Diet Cokes

and pancakes – to experience hunger and fear and cold – and he never said that we should

be able to resist all these physical desires or ignore our material needs. He said that

things of the flesh are natural, but worshipping them is not. When we choose to put our

material needs before God, we are misusing our flesh. We are “putting [ourselves] rather

than God in the center of the universe.” 2 “Christian life is a material life…. [What we

need to worry about is not ignoring our bodies so we can practice our faith, but how we

use our bodies]…how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we

care for our neighbors and for our planet.” 3 It is about how we conduct ourselves when

1 Kelton Cobb, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in Lent),

David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 124.

2 Kenneth L. Clark, Sr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in

Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 138.

3 Amy Plantinga Pau, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in

Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 134.

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we are in the depths of our lives. It is not about whether or not we can, but how we wait

for resurrection – how we wait for the Lord.

Because we do wait. God does not always answer our prayers immediately – or in

the way we think God should. Jesus made the disciples wait to go to their friend Lazarus,

even though he knew that during that delay, Lazarus would die. Jesus did not answer the

prayers of Martha and Mary as they would have liked, by saving their brother. Instead he

waited. He allowed them to suffer – to mourn and to weep – and to fear. He allowed

them to consider and question and worry and wonder until they knew, deeply in their

hearts, that any life they had -and any rebirth their brother could have – would come

through Jesus Christ their Lord. And their faith was rewarded.

It is hard to wait for the Lord, much less with such faith and patience. In 1994,

after six years of marriage, my husband and I decided to start a family. The fact that our

first attempts did not work did not initially bother us. After all, we had married young.

We had time. But two years later our attitude had changed. We had begun to be afraid

that we could not conceive a child. Over the course of the next three years, we attempted

all of the homeopathic, medical and even superstitious treatments that we could try – all

without result. And during that time I tried to do things to bolster my chances that God

would answer my prayers; I read the Bible stories of Sarah, Elizabeth, and Miriam. I

proclaimed my belief in God’s faithfulness. And I prayed. I prayed loud and I prayed

long. And I wept, just as my sisters Martha and Mary wept for their brother Lazarus.

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Just as so many others have wept in pain, in fear, and in desperation. Just as we have all

wept while waiting for the Lord.

God knows our pain. We know this. We know this because in what is perhaps the

shortest and most significant verse in the Bible we hear the words that can, if we allow

them, provide us with all the comfort we need to wait patiently and with faith. We hear

that Jesus also wept. He wept because, like us, he was disturbed and distraught by the

sorrow of his friends and by the finality of death. But unlike us, Jesus had the power to

overturn it. Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from the power of the greatest and

deepest darkness of all – the power of death. Jesus never doubted the power of God.

Jesus knew that Lazarus could and would be raised. We know this because he thanked

God for his miracle in advance. Jesus believed that God would provide for him and God

did.

That is what we must do. We must believe. As the calendar of our church and our

lives marches on toward the day when we can again celebrate the resurrection of our Lord

Jesus Christ we must wait – but not quietly, not stoically, and not passively. We must

wait as Mary and Martha did – as Jesus did – actively, hopefully, and gratefully. God has

heard our cry – and God has already given us what we need – but we must be ready to

receive it. That is what Lent is about – making ourselves ready to receive the miracles

that God is so very eager to provide for us. As God did for me. “Wait for the Lord, for

with the Lord there is mercy. With him there is plenteous redemption.” With him there

is resurrection. AMEN.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017: Fast, Pray, Love (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, California)

 

At a recent vestry retreat as an icebreaker we went around the room and identified our favorite holiday.  No one said “Ash Wednesday.”  I wasn’t surprised.  While many of our biggest holy days are about adding things to our usual worship, Lent is all about subtraction.  We take away the fancy vestments, the parties and, most painfully for many of us, the “Alleluias.”  Quite honestly, one of the first things that came to my mind when we decided that Ash Wednesday would be my first day as the Rector of Grace was that no matter how excited we were to embark on this journey together, we would have to wait a full forty days before expressing that joy by saying the “A word.”  No wonder people find Lent depressing.

But the truth is that it’s not supposed to be.  Lent is not some kind of   endurance test to pass in order to be allowed to celebrate Easter.  Lent is not about making church boring.  And Lent is absolutely not about keeping people away from church – away from God.  Lent is about becoming closer to God – not by making ourselves sick or angry or depressed, but by making us think about our relationship to God – and to one another.

That was the original idea behind the ancient customs of self-sacrifice instituted by the first Christians, who created Lent as a season of “penitence and fasting” for all Christians, but especially for those who had committed “notorious” sins and were separated from the church.  It was a way to get people back to church.  Of course, those people had to wear hair shirts for the entire 40 days to do it, so it required quite a bit of dedication.

The modern church doesn’t generally ask for that level of repentance and self-denial, but we do ask for some dedication – dedication not to suffering, but to learning and growing.  Because the idea of adopting some special discipline for Lent is not about the action itself, but what it means to each of us.  If it helps us feel closer to God and one another, then it’s accomplishing its purpose.  If we simply lose five pounds and make a one-time donation to charity, we might be missing the point.  God wants us to pray and fast and give things away not because we deserve to suffer (although we may), but because God wants us to experience his compassion and mercy when we do repent from our sins.

Physical deprivation has become, for many of us, what Lent is about.  “What,” we ask each other, “are you giving up for Lent”?  For the 25 percent of Americans who observe Lent, half say they do it by giving up a favorite food or beverage.[1]  The idea is that for many of us, giving something physical up causes us physical suffering – and we think that’s good because God we believe that God wants us to suffer.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  What our scripture tells us that if we feel closer to God when we suffer – if physical discomfort helps us understand how much Jesus suffered for us – if emotional catharsis opens us up to the Holy Spirit, then we will experience God’s compassion and grace.  But not if our Lenten discipline is a leftover New Year’s resolution that we have decided to give another try.

The key, I think, is to start thinking of Lent as an opportunity instead of a punishment – to experience our faith in a different way, to grow as Christians and as human beings; to rend our hearts and not our garments.

A few years ago I decided to try “taking on” something instead of or in addition to giving something up.  I don’t know if it is ultimately any more helpful in bringing me closer to God than giving up chocolate, but it definitely gives me something to think about, requires me to lean on God to do it, and provides me with a sense of love and hope that giving up chocolate never could.

This year, I encourage you to do something different for Lent; take something on instead of giving something up – or give up something different.  Give up the internet instead of chocolate!  You can participate in the diocesan carbon fast or join national church efforts for social justice.  Repent, grow, and seek the presence of God in whatever way works best for you.  But whatever you do, do it with joy and compassion – do it faith and love – do it with – dare I say it? – the spirit of Alleluia.  AMEN

[1]Bob Smietana, (February 15, 2017), “Eat, Pray, Lent: Here’s what Americans actually abstain from,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/eat-pray-lent-what-americans-actually-abstain-from.html.  

Sermon for December 4, 2016: Prepare ye the way of peace (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

Listen here: 

I have recently noticed that I spend a lot of my time preparing for things.  Every week, I prepare for our worship services by meeting with clergy and staff members, proof-reading announcements, and studying sacred – and not-so-sacred – texts.  I prepare for meetings by writing emails, summarizing information, and answering questions.  I believe in preparation.  As Max Brooks, author of the important practical text, “The Zombie Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead,” says, ““If you believe you can accomplish everything by “cramming” at the eleventh hour, by all means, don’t lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining.”  So, fear not, I am certainly ready for any zombies that wander into St. Mary’s.

But I am not ready for Christmas.  I know this, because I am worried about it.  I’m worried that my mother will get sick because she’s coming from Connecticut to visit me.  I’m worried that the printer will break again and we won’t have bulletins on Christmas.  I’m worried that our pledge drive will fail and we will have to lay off people.  I’m worried about getting Christmas wrong.

As if we could.  Any five year-old who has viewed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” knows that no one individual can ruin Christmas – that Christmas comes “without ribbons! It [comes] without tags!  It [comes] without packages, boxes or bags!”[1] It comes without pageants and music and greens.  It might even come without Altar Guild teams.  Christmas, you see, “doesn’t come from a store.”[2]  Christmas, we know, means Jesus- that’s all].            And that is more than enough.  But it’s easy to forget that.  Because “the church’s traditional Advent practice stands in tension with contemporary culture. [For many people]…preparations for Christmas have been reduced to hanging twinkling Christmas lights, listening to cheery holiday music, and gazing at an abundance of material goods for the buying, all of which we hope will evoke in us a sense of magical, childlike wonder and goodwill…Our own ideals and longings, [rather than] the promises of God, have become the focus”[3] of our “preparations” for Christmas.

And those longings are often about the wrong things; about worrying over when I will put up my Christmas decorations rather than praying for the 25 people missing in the fire in Oakland.  Because we want the “Christmas season” to make us feel good.  To make us feel the way we did when our lives were simpler.  I was accosted by this truth in my own life recently when I stared at the December calendar and realized it was probably going to be impossible to do all of my family’s annual Christmas traditions –cutting our own tree, going to festivals, decorating the house.  But my distress rapidly turned into embarrassment when I stopped to consider what was getting in the way of these “important” Christmas preparations – things like a funeral for a beloved parishioner, a thank-you reception for individuals who take part in food delivery ministry and church services.   I discovered to my dismay that I was actually resenting “having to” do exactly what is most important in preparing for Christmas – spending time with my community of Christ.

But that’s the power of anxiety – and nostalgia.  Our desire to have everything in our lives be perfect is potent.  It’s one of the reasons Christmas is such a delicate and terrifying time for many of us.  There is an incredible amount of pressure to get things right and potentially terrifying consequences to consider if we don’t.  “What,” we think, “if everyone is disappointed?  What if I ruin Christmas”?  It is a trap, set by our own irrational and self-absorbed minds and aided by a society that has become focused on what we have – or should have- rather than who we are.

That’s why we have Advent – to remind us of what we believe and what we are waiting for.  Advent means “coming,” and everything we do in this season is about our expectation that God –Emmanuel -will again come to be “with us.” In fact, according to eleventh century Christian Bernard of Clairvaux, Advent is a season of not one but three comings.  [It] prepares us not just for the first coming of Christ to Israel in the humble and vulnerable form of a baby, or even [his] second [coming to judge the world] at the end of time.”[4]  It also prepares us for the third coming of Christ – one that happens both in between Jesus’s first and second coming.  It is the coming we have to work for, to prepare for.  It is the coming of Jesus into our hearts.  It is when Jesus fills us with God’s peace.

But that can’t happen if we are not ready to accept it – and to understand that the peace we seek so desperately in the world and in our lives cannot happen until we find God’s peace – in ourselves and in one another.  And that peace is not cheap.  It is not peace that can be found through yogic breathing or listening to ethereal music.  It is not peace that can be found in a bottle or under a blanket.  It is peace that is won through action – righteous action.  That’s why God’s appointed ruler, the psalmist tells us, shall be judged not on his ability to strike the earth and kill the wicked, but by how he treats the most vulnerable of his people.  This “prince of peace,” as Isaiah calls him, will rule a kingdom in which there is no hurt or destruction, but understanding, security, and love.

We have been given the opportunity to live on that holy mountain. God wants us to take what he has to give. Why else, St. Paul writes, would God send her son into the hurting and hurtful human world to live among us if not to show us how to accept that love – and how to share it with others?  But God knows this will not be easy- because we are human beings, people obsessed with our own troubled hearts and unwilling to forgive our own sins, let alone those of others.  But learning to accept God’s love first requires that we accept ourselves – that we acknowledge all of the hurt – all of the anger – all of the fear we carry in our hearts – and love ourselves anyway – just as God does.  That is what John the Baptist means when he calls us to repent – not to bemoan our moral failings, but to accept them – and change. 

To repent means “to turn” – to turn around and look at those around us – to turn around and see what kind of footprints we are leaving behind us – to turn ourselves inside out and empty ourselves of the brooding, fearful, thoughtless separateness that is our sin.  We are asked to do this not because God wants to punish us, but because God loves us – and because God loves us, God wants us to become our best selves.  After all, “if God loves [us] enough to welcome [us] into Christ’s family, then God loves [us] enough to expect something of [us].” We cannot be made whole –as individuals or as a communityby saying it is so.  We may not be called to judge one another, but we are called to help one another.  That means calling out sin when we see it and seeking to right it.  As Christians, we [can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility].”[5]  We have to try to turn our lives – and our world – around. What our gospel reminds us is that repentance is not…about our… moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to [have us live in] accord with Christ’s life [and teachings].[6]

Advent provides us with the time and space to try to do that.  It is a time during which we are asked to put away life’s sorrows and look forward to a promised season of grace – to let go of our righteous indignation and “prepare the way of the Lord.”  It is an opportunity to cleanse not our consciences, but our souls.  Our culture may tell us that acquiring and planning are the milestones on a path to a Happy Christmas, but Matthew’s gospel says something different.  It says that in order to receive Christ, we must give of ourselves and to ourselves.  Truly preparing to celebrate the birth of our Savior can only occur after we have examined what is inside us and made peace with what we find there.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you offer rest for our hearts and peace for our souls.  Prepare us for the birth of our savior by giving us grace to seek – and accept – your peace in our lives, in this community, and in the world.  Amen.

[1]Dr. Seuss, (1957), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

[2]Ibid.

[3]John P. Burgess, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1692.

[4]Crossroads International, “Three Comings of the Lord: Bernard of Clairvaux,” https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/three-comings-of-the-lord-st-bernard/.

David L. Bartlett, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1756, 1769.

[6]John P. Burgess, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1709.

 

Sermon for November 13, 2016: Rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen to sermon here:

 

My husband is not a man who is prone to overreaction.  Having spent 27 years in the U.S. military (and 30 years with me!), he is generally calm and easy-going, taking many of the things that bother me in stride.  And he’s funny – one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long is because we are often able to find the comedy in even the most difficult situations. Which is why I was surprised when he woke me up at 12:04 a.m. on Wednesday and, looking at me with absolutely no humor in his eyes, asked me if I thought we are now living in the end times.

Four hours later when I heard a noise and found my 17 year-old daughter sitting on the couch in the dark, morosely eating cereal from the box, she asked me a similar question, “What are we supposed to do now Mom?  All of things we believe- I thought most other people believed them too.  What are we supposed to do now?

The people of Thessalonica wondered the same thing.  In fact, they obsessed about it.  In last week’s reading from the evangelist’s letter to the Thessalonians, which we didn’t hear because we read the scriptures appointed for All Saint’s Day instead, the people wanted to know when Jesus was coming back.  They believed that they had waited -and suffered- long enough.  The author’s response was not the good news they were hoping for.  “Let no one deceive you,” he wrote, “for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.  He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”  In other words, their suffering was not over – and, based on how people have characterized each other as a result of this election – neither is ours.

This is not the answer we want to hear either, not in this week when so many people are in pain and despair – when we are struggling to find hope in the face of an uncertain and frightening future – when we are confused by the feelings of people we thought we knew – people we love.  And, like my husband and my daughter, we all have questions – not only about what will happen to our country, but also about what did happen – about how we have understood so little about so many of our friends and neighbors.  If nothing else, what the election results tell us is that the choice to ignore the divisions and deep anguish in our society is no longer acceptable.  We have become not one Christianity but many – with one – the one to which I feel I cannot belong – claiming sole ownership of the phrase, “under God.”  Evangelical leader Franklin Graham went so far as to say that, “at this election, God showed up.”[1]

Such a statement seems completely inconsistent with the words of today’s Hebrew scripture, “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes will burn them up.”  For many of us, it seems that the opposite has happened – that we have been surrounded by arrogance -and it is difficult to imagine that so many could be so confused about how this divisive electoral battle was about upholding Christian values like loving our neighbor, judging not lest we be judged, and giving to those in need.  And yet, the truth is that half of the people in this country different opinions – or they may have had the same opinion, but didn’t vote based on it.  The thing is: we don’t know – not really.  We can stare in dumbfounded desperation at editorials and exit polls, and still end up with only one sure conclusion: those of us who profess to follow the way of Jesus Christ have become so divided that we do not recognize each other.  We cannot imagine being able to live together, much less work together to bring the Kingdom of God to this suffering nation and the world.

It is the same situation the Thessalonians worried about in the first century of Christianity.  In their case, they were having trouble living out the Christian ideal of sharing everything in common.  “Why,” they complained, “should people who aren’t working for the community benefit from our labor”?  They are “moochers.  [They work] the system [instead of] the [working] a job.”[2]  Concerns about the fair distribution of goods can be found throughout Christian history – and in the campaign rhetoric of the 2016 election.  This passage has been cited as the basis for what has been called, “The Protestant work ethic,” a deeply held American belief that being industrious is biblically mandated – that there is no free ride – and that people who need help drain the community of resources.  It is one explanation for why some Christians vote to limit programs to assist those who – for a variety of reasons – have fewer concrete assets than others.

But this passage does not say that people who cannot work should not share in the fruits of the community; it says that the contributions of all members of a community are required for its survival – and that those contributions are not about meeting the needs of any individual, but rather what benefits the group as a whole.  The evangelist’s condemnation is not for those who have limited resources to contribute; it is for those who have plentiful resources and fail to share them – and for those who are too busy sharing their opinions of others’ work to do their own.

Such “busybodies,” as the writer calls them, may “speak with great authority about things about which they have information that is limited or just plain wrong… [but they] are good at keeping things stirred up.”[3]  Commentator Neta Pringle sees their behavior – their unwillingness to work within a system they don’t like coupled with a willingness to take advantage of it – as a different kind of drain on community – one that capitalizes on natural human worries like fear of the unknown and perceived injustice to sow division instead of unity.

We cannot allow this.  Because it is only by standing firm in our faith together that we can resist the powers that would destroy the sacrificial love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus the Christ that is at the core of our community.  It is not enough to have individual faith; it is only by living out our faith in community – by working together- that we can withstand the onslaught of fear and hatred in our world.

That requires knowing who we are – knowing which Christianity we belong to – and talking about it.  Much has been made of the decline of religious belief in our country.  But if this election shows us anything, it is that people want to believe.  They want to believe so much that they are willing to listen to whoever speaks the loudest, no matter how little sense they make – which is a problem if you belong to a denomination where we have never really learned to speak about our faith at all. 

Today’s gospel makes it clear that we have to learn – and these election results present us with an opportunity to do it.  In fact, these election results demand we do it.  “Nation will rise up against nation…and there will be dreadful portents…they will arrest you and persecute you,” but you do not need to be afraid – because “this will give you an opportunity to testify” – the opportunity to figure out who we are and what we believe and to explain that to others – and God “will give [us] words and wisdom” to do it.

We have to look beyond our immediate pain and despair and see the possibilities that lie beneath the suffering in our community.  We can no longer hide from the truth of the divisions among us.  We can no longer pretend that we can do nothing in the face of them.  And we cannot remain silent.  We have been given the gift of salvation – of resurrection – and we have the chance to share it with others.  That is a gift.

The truth is that there are always reasons to be afraid.  There are always reasons to despair.  There is always death.  But Scripture tells us that we need not give in to that despair.  We need not fear.  Because there is also always life – and for those who are patient, for those who endure, for those who are brave, and for all those who will believe, that life is eternal.  AMEN.

[1]Lindsay Bever, (November 10, 2016), “Acts of Faith: Franklin Graham: ‘The Media didn’t understand the God-Factor in Trump’s Win,’” Washington Post online, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/10/franklin-graham-the-media-didnt-understand-the-god-factor/

[2]Neta Pringle, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 Inclusive), (Kindle Location 11384). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[3]Neta Pringle, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 Inclusive), (Kindle Location 11391). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

 

Sermon for October 9, 2016: Now thank we all our God (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

sermon-for-october-9-2016-now-thank-we-all-our-god

I have a sign in my kitchen.  It says: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention.  Anything else that you get is a privilege.”  I got it in the gift store at Alcatraz after a particularly long day during which my two children seemed to be complaining incessantly – about their food choices, the amount of walking we had to do and, most frequently, about each other.  “Why,” my son wanted to know, “do we have to stop in all the stores she likes”?  “Mo-om,” moaned my daughter, “tell him he can’t do that!”  Cries of injustice rose again and again as each suggested that the other was getting some kind of advantage.  I was not, they told me, being fair.

They are, of course, not the only ones who decry the unfairness of the world.  Although some psychologists think that “fairness” is an advanced human construct, I think that the desire for justice is an extremely basic one.  You tell your two year-old that he needs to give up the bigger cookie to his cousin because she’s a guest and I guarantee you will get a loud chorus of, “But that’s not FAIR!”  And the desire for fairness is not limited to children.  I’m sure that every person in this room has at least one story of being passed over for a promotion that we felt we deserved, or being blamed for something we didn’t do, or seeing something we love end up in the hands of someone we think is unworthy of it.  Our desperate longing for fairness shows up regularly in our conversations about schools, sports, public policy, and yes, religion.

But what do we really mean when we say we want things to be fair?  For some of us, “fairness” is about making sure that everyone is equal – leveling the playing field.  For others, it’s about treating all people the same, without regard to their innate human differences.  But for many people, especially in this country, fairness is about making sure everyone gets what they deserve.  Or, as Sally Brown puts it in “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” “All I want is what I have coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.”   For better or worse, we live in a political system in which earning what you have is highly valued – where even a billionaire who has lived a life of incomparable privilege feels it necessary to describe himself as a self-made person.

The Apostle Paul was certainly a hard-working Christian.  Most of his letters contain at least some references to the hardships he endured in his efforts to spread the gospel.  Today’s reading from Timothy – which was probably not written by Paul – places the apostle in chains, having once again been imprisoned for his faith.  According to the writer, Paul is able to endure his suffering because he knows it will lead others to salvation through Jesus Christ.  He is “approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed” – an example of one who is willing to die for Christ in order to live with him, who, by enduring, will reign with him.  It seems like Paul has definitely earned his salvation.

This idea, that the Bible tells us that salvation can be earned, is very dangerous.  It can be blamed at least in part for both the sense of entitlement that leads to religious intolerance and the unhealthy glorification of suffering.  Throughout history, the Christian precepts of hard work and sacrifice have been taken to dangerous extremes by those hoping to earn salvation through acts of self-abasement.  The notion that suffering is beautiful and holy has also created the myth of the “blessed” poor, whose anguish in this world will be offset by glory in the next – a view that some Christians have used to excuse themselves from helping those in need.

None of this is justified by this passage, which does not suggest that Christians should seek out suffering, nor does it tell us to die so we can be like Christ.  What it says is that suffering and dying are part of being human.  What is important is how we understand our human condition.  What is important is that we have faith – because it is by faith that we know that we will never suffer or die alone.  It is by faith that we recognize that all that we are and all that we have are part of something vastly greater than we can achieve on our own – and that the truest, best essence of who we are will live on in that holy communion.  That is what it means when Jesus tells the lepers that their faith has made them well.

Lepers, in Jesus’s society, were at the bottom of the social ladder.  They were not even allowed to come near healthy people.  They had to rip their clothing and announce their arrival in any populated location by calling out the word, “Unclean!”  Their illness was not just physical, but emotional, social, and spiritual.  They were so unwell that they did not even ask Jesus to heal them, only to have mercy on them.  This story is not, then, about their prayers being answered.  It is not about their faith being rewarded.  It is about the simple fact that Jesus had mercy on them, just as Jesus has mercy on us.  This story tells us that faith is not about believing our prayers will be answered.  Faith is believing that our prayers have already been answered. 

The lepers demonstrated only the most basic faith – the belief that Jesus would show them mercy.  But that simple understanding was more powerful than all of our sophisticated efforts to earn salvation by saying the right prayers, performing the most beautiful ritual, and offering the right interpretations of scripture.  Notice that the story does not distinguish among the lepers.  There is no good leper or sinful leper, because it is not what they do that matters – it is who they ask.  Because salvation is not something we can earn.  Salvation is a gift – and whenever we decide that we can earn it – that we have to earn it – we are rejecting that gift – and denying the power of Christ -the power to make us well – the power to make us whole.

That is what God wants from us – simply to accept the gift of salvation that we have already been given – and to accept it with gratitude and joy.  That is what made the Samaritan leper different than the others.  They were made clean through Jesus’s gift of mercy.  He was made well – in body, mind and spirit – by demonstrating the joy that comes through true faith – faith expressed not just in gratitude, but in praise.

We can do the same.   Instead of asking God for what we want, we can thank God for what we have.  We can live our entire lives with gratitude – by practicing our faith – by freely sharing our lives and our livelihood with one another with no strings attached.  We can stop and recognize the Amazing Grace that is already part of our communal lives – and we can remind one another that when we ask for God’s mercy we do not – praise Jesus! – get what we deserve; we get much, much more.   When we begin to live into the gratitude that comes from knowing what we already have, we stop worrying about what is fair – and we no longer need signs that tell us what we are and are not entitled to.  Instead we can focus on a much different message – the message that I posted right beside my sign from Alcatraz.  That sign reads, “But you always have love.  Love is neither an entitlement nor a privilege.  Love is always free.”   AMEN.

 

 

Sermon for September 18, 2016: Let us pray (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

 

The Olympics have always been a good source of sermon material.  Inspirational tales about parents who sacrifice for their children’s Olympic dreams, romantic stories about athletes finding love amidst the stress of competition, come-from-behind sagas about competitors defying physical and emotional handicaps to become champions – all of these are regular parts of the quadrennial international spectacle that serve to illustrate Christian values like grace, hope, and love.  Which is why I was surprised to read the following article in a Religion News blog:

“They prayed and prayed and prayed even more. Then they arrived at the Olympics and promptly lost every match. Did God have it in for them?

If the divine does play favorites in sports, the Argentine women’s handball team and the Mexican men’s volleyball team certainly aren’t the chosen.  Now the entire rosters of both teams are throwing in the towel on their Christian faith. ‘Six hail marys and six stinking losses,’ said Argentine coach Eduardo Peruchena. He estimated his handballers spent a combined sixty-six hours in meditation and prayer in the week directly leading up to their first match. ‘Since the prayers obviously didn’t make any difference, maybe less time on our knees and more practicing would’ve helped.’

 

…Mexican coach Jorge Azair agreed, but wanted to look to the future.  ‘When we compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, we’ll be competing as atheists.’”[1]

 

I could not believe it.  An entire team announcing to the world that they had lost their faith because of a losing streak?  Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t true.  I had failed to notice one crucial part of the article’s title – the part where it said, “Satire.”

But it says something that I believed it.  Because I know that it’s easy to lose faith when you pray and you pray and you pray and nothing changes.  It’s easy to get angry at God when you hear the news that the 28 year-old brother of a friend has suddenly died of pancreatitis. It’s easy to wonder if you are wasting your time when an entire congregation prays for the recovery of a beloved member only to have to attend her funeral a week later.  It’s troubling and, for Christians, hard to explain.  We not only feel like we have to deal bravely with what happened, but we have to somehow explain why God didn’t answer our prayers.  We’d much rather focus on examples of how prayer works.

That’s not necessarily the way it was for our ancient predecessors.  Far from making poetic “pretty please” prayers for non-specific things like, “those in need” and “those in positions of power,” the ancient Israelites poured their hearts out to God, expressing not only their deeply felt gratitude for all that God had done for them, but also their anger and fear when God failed to live up to their expectations.  “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt.  I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.  Is  there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why has the health of my poor people not been restored”?

Jeremiah’s cry to God on behalf of his people is just as resonant today as it was in the sixth century before the Common Era.  Perhaps the Babylonians are not at our borders, but our fear of terrorism is just as real.  Maybe the symbols of our religion have not been destroyed, but they have been perverted.  The cross that once stood only for love and forgiveness is now used as a club to promote exclusion and inauthentic moral rightness.  We, like Jeremiah, are sick at heart.

But unlike Jeremiah, we do not tell God how we feel.  We do not rage at the injustice in the world – at least not in church.  We have come to believe that lamenting is rude.  That’s too bad, because lamenting is a long and deeply-held tenant of our faith.  It’s too bad because lamenting together allows us to acknowledge that our prayers are not always answered in the way we hope.  It’s too bad because without mourning together we can never fully experience what it means to be a community of God.

Our ancestors knew the value of a good group cry.  About one-third of our psalms are classified as “lament psalms,” but we hardly ever hear those on regular church Sundays, toting them out only for funerals and global tragedies.  Today’s inclusion of Psalm 79, known as a “national lament,” is an exception.  Psalm 79 reminds us that we are allowed to question God.  We are allowed to be angry when things seem unfair.  We are allowed to tell God how we feel.

I think we often forget that.  We are so busy asking God to do things for us that we fail to tell God how we feel – and we fail to remember that our relationship with God has a context – the context of our lives.  All you have to do is look at how we pray to recognize the way we have taken prayer out of the day-to-day reality of our lives.  How many of us kneel and bow our heads on a regular basis?  When we pray this way, it tells us that prayer is a time to “withdraw into some otherworldly “religious” realm where all is sweetness and light.”[2]  But that is not what prayer is supposed to be.  Prayer is supposed to be an integral, expected, part of our lives.  Think about the person you are closest to in the world.  What would happen if you didn’t talk to that person for even one day?  But some of us only talk to God only once a week.

That’s what the author of Timothy was telling his people – that God wants to talk to us – that God sent Jesus into the world as a way for us to get to know him and as a way for us to be in dialogue with God.  Timothy’s letter tells us that when we pray, we have to open ourselves up to the possibility that anything can happen if you are in a relationship with a power beyond imagining.

Because you get what you pay for.  That’s the lesson of Jesus’s parable about the dishonest – or “shrewd” – manager, a man who’s already being fired for being dishonest who decides to ensure his own future by reducing the amounts people owe his boss so that they might take him in when he is tossed out.  Based on its completely unsatisfying ending, in which this scoundrel triumphs instead of being defeated[3], it would seem that Jesus is recommending that we “imitate the unrighteous behavior of the main character.”[4]  In fact, it sounds suspiciously like some of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the campaign trail – that it’s okay to use laws to your advantage, that it’s okay to be greedy, as long as it works.  And in a way it is – because what Jesus is saying is that your success is measured according to your beliefs.  If you believe that the world is a vicious, competitive and unjust place, then you will act accordingly – and you will succeed based on those standards.  The “shrewd manager” put his faith in the greed of men and his faith paid off.  He was successful because he was dishonest in a dishonest system, and we can be too – if that’s what we want – if that’s what we choose.  But remember, when we put our faith in a community of greed, fear, and lies, that is where we must live.  If we want to live in Jesus’s kingdom – a world of love, acceptance and peace – we have to live by the rules of that system.

And the first rule of Jesus’s kingdom is to love God – and that means talking to God – talking to God honestly, emotionally, and often.  It means praying – praying in a way that acknowledges our desire to be part of God’s will for creation – praying in a way that is not about what we want God to do for us, but about how we can be in closer relationship to God.  That kind of prayer is hardThat kind of prayer is exhausting.  That kind of prayer works. 

And that kind of prayer starts not with asking for God’s help, but by asking for God’s forgiveness –because we cannot even know what to ask for without knowing who we really are.  And we cannot know who we are – we cannot love God or ourselves -without facing the enormous breadth and depth of our thoughts, words and deeds, of recognizing what we have done and what we have left done, of examining our efforts and failures to love with our whole hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Real prayer is not about winning things or getting things or changing things.  Real prayer is about living our entire lives in the presence of God.  It will transform us.  It will transport us.  It will take us out of this dishonest, grieving, sinful world and into a realm of true wisdom, true power, and true peace.  So, let us pray.  AMEN.

[1]Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons (2016). “Olympic squads lose every match – and their faith,” Satire/The Literalist, Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2016/08/16/olympic-squads-lose-every-match-and-their-faith/.

[2]Donald K. McKim, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[3]Helen Montgomery Debevoise, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[4]Scott Bader-Saye, (2010),  Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY:Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

The Neuropsychology of Spirituality (presented at the Summer in the City Forum at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco on June 26, 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.