Losing our fear

For the last four weeks, the world has been transfixed by the events taking place in North Africa and the Middle East.

After 23 years in Tunisia and 31 years in Egypt, the people rose up and through mostly peaceful but still costly protests overthrew their leaders. In Libya, 42 years of oppression have brought about more protests, ones that have turned brutally violent, in an attempt to overthrow their own leader, Col. Moammar Khadafy.

Protests are also taking place in Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Oman and Jordan. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is making changes to avoid the same kind of protests. The grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, acknowledged publicly – in the New York Times no less! – that changes need to happen, that the governing philosophy of same-old, same-old no longer will suffice.[1]

In each country, the people have said that they are tired of their governments ignoring them. They want, the people say, jobs, freedom, opportunities to grow. They want to govern themselves.

But none of these demands are new. The people who are changing the world aren’t suddenly being confronted by a lack of jobs, or freedom, or opportunities. Those issues have been the order of the day for decades.

So what changed?

What happened to make people who for years were oppressed and subdued suddenly rise up and topple governments that were seen as secure?

If you listen to the protesters in each country, they all say the same thing:

“We have lost our fear.”[2]

In country after country, the people were able to rise up against injustice and oppression because, they said, they had lost their fear.

• • •

My friends, for the last five weeks, we have been immersed in Jesus’ magnificent Sermon on the Mount, where he has told the people, in every way possible, that it is time for them to lose their fear.

Nowhere in this sermon does Jesus actually use those words. Nowhere does he proclaim, as angels and prophets before him have proclaimed, “Fear not!”

But a key underlying message to this sermon truly is just that: “Fear not!”

And what is Jesus telling us to not fear?

Love.

Do not be afraid … to love.

To love God and love one another.

Those blessings Jesus laid out at the beginning of this sermon, in the Beatitudes? Those were given to people who were afraid – afraid that they were not loved, and afraid in turn to love.

That saltiness and light that Jesus commended us to be? If that’s not a message of “fear not,” I don’t know what is.

Those legalisms, all those Law-on-steroids[3] that we have heard for the last two weeks, the “you have heard that it was said … but I say to you” directions? That wasn’t Jesus trying to be more Pharisaic than the Pharisees. That was Jesus telling the people: Go beyond the Law … to love!

And now we come to today’s Gospel, the end of our five weeks of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us, “Do not worry” … about what we are to eat or drink or wear … or even about tomorrow, “for today’s trouble is enough for today.”

If we listen to this Gospel on its own, considering not that which preceded it, it would be easy to equate this message with Bobby McFerrin’s. You remember his song, right?

(sung) Don’t worry … be happy.[4]

In every life we have some trouble

When you worry you make it double

Don’t worry … be happy.

It’s a happy-go-lucky song that makes you feel good, right?

Now that I’ve planted those lyrics in your head – Don’t worry … be happy – go back and read the Gospel from Matthew again, and you can see how easy it is to think, “Why, they’re both about the same thing: ‘Don’t worry’!”

But my friends, Jesus is not telling us we should never worry … and that’s a good thing, because if he were telling us that, the truth is, most of us would not listen.

Because we do worry.

We worry about our health … our finances … our families … our friends … the economy … jobs … safety … We worry about the food we eat (“Is this good for me?”), the water we drink (“Is it clean?”), the clothes we wear (“Does this outfit make me look fat?”).

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that on any given day, we probably spend at least a few hours of it worrying.

So when Jesus tells us, “Do not worry …” our first reaction most likely, at least in private, is, “Yeah, right …”

But if we do that, we’re missing the point.

Because he’s not telling us to worry not.

He’s telling us to lose our fear. He’s telling us to be like those protesters in Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain and Yemen and Libya, where protesting has cost many of them their lives.

Jesus wants us to stop being afraid all the time and to start focusing on the things that really matter.

He’s telling us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness.”

Because when we do that – when God’s justice rolls down like waters and God’s righteousness like an everflowing stream[5] — then indeed, we will not have to worry about what we are to eat or drink or wear (“Does this outfit make me look fat?”).  Because in God’s very just and righteous world, all of us will have enough food to eat, clean water to drink and decent clothes to wear, for then we shall no longer live in a world where scarcity is king. Instead, we will inhabit a creation where God’s abundance reigns.[6]

Listen to how Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson has translated today’s Gospel in The Message:

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table … or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. … What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. … Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out … Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.[7]

When we spend all of our time worrying about what we have and don’t have, we are not living a life of God-worship. We’re living a life of fear.

Fear that what we have is not enough.

Fear that someone else might have more than we do, or something better than we do.

Fear that someone else might try to take away what we have.

Jesus wants us to stop being so afraid that we lose sight of what God wants for us. He wants us to set aside our fear and remember God’s promise to us: “Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand.”[8]

Jesus wants us to love – boldly … passionately … wildly … radically – the way God loves us.

When we worry … when we are afraid … when we spend our days focusing only on ourselves and our belongings, and not on God and God’s other beloved children, and what they need, we cannot love.

It’s OK to worry … we’re human beings, and worry is part of our genetic make-up.

It’s not OK to let those worries consume us, to keep us from seeing God’s abundant love in our lives – and from acting on that love, from living that love.

My friends, we are created by God to love.

We are created … by God … to love.

That’s what Jesus is saying to us: Live in love.

And if we want to live in love, if we want to live as Jesus tells us to live, not worrying but loving, the first step we have to take is become like those protesters all over the Middle East and North Africa, the ones who have inspired us and kept us glued to our TV sets for weeks on end.

First, we must lose our fear.

Thenthen … we can love.

Amen.

————————————————————

A sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, 27 February 2011, Year A, at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior, Montpelier, Va.

 

[1] Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company and the Alwalaeed bin Talal Foundations, “A Saudi Prince’s Plea for Reform,” The New York Times opinion page, 25 February 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/opinion/25alsaud.html?scp=2&sq=alwaleed%20bin%20talal%20bin%20abdul%20aziz%20alsaud&st=cse

[2] Sarah A. Topol, aolnews, “Egyptian protesters vow they will remain: ‘We lost our fear,’” http://www.aolnews.com/2011/02/03/egyptian-protesters-vow-they-will-remain-we-lost-our-fear/ (See also numerous other reports in February from Egypt and Bahrain.)

[3] David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, on http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=452

[4] Bobby McFerrin, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, released September 1988, lyrics from http://www.lyricsondemand.com/onehitwonders/dontworrybehappylyrics.html

[5] Amos 5:24

[6] Paraphrase from Lose, “Picture This,” at WorkingPreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=458.

[7] The Message (MSG), © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson, via http://www.biblegateway.com.

[8] Isaiah 49:15b-16a.

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This morning brought an e-mail from a former bishop in Rwanda, The Rt. Rev. Venuste Mutiganda, of a marvelous article published today in the New Times of Kigali. The article tells the story of two British diplomats – the High Commissioner to Rwanda, Ben Llewellyn Jones, and the Director of the Department for international Development (DfID), Elizabeth Carriere – who spent three days living with rural families in Rwanda.

Why?

So they could experience “firsthand what it means to live off less than one dollar a day.”

Fortunate Ntawoyangire, left, wife of Theophile Manayiragaba, center, and Ben Llewellyn Jones, right, the UK High Commissioner, sharing a light moment with his hosts. (By D Umutesi of the New Times of Kigali)

The article, found here, explores how these two high-ranking diplomats got to know the people, and what their lives are like, first-hand.

This was no “grin-and-grip” visit, whereby the officials showed up in big cars, looked around, shook some hands, hand their photos take and then left.

This was life – real life – experienced at its most basic. Llewellyn Jones, the High Commissioner, got up at 5 in the morning and tilled a field with a hoe and then planted some beans. Carriere, the Director of DfiD, stayed with two sisters whose parents were killed in the 1994 genocide.

The visits were arranged and facilitated by ActionAid Rwanda, an NGO that is a “country programme of ActionAid International (AAI) – an anti-poverty agency working with poor and voiceless people and communities and with like-minded partners worldwide. ActionAid is a non-partisan, non-religious development organisation that has been working in Rwanda as a full country programme since 1997 to eradicate poverty and injustices with focus on tackling the root causes of poverty rather than just meeting people’s immediate needs.”

In other words, in order to lift people out of poverty through charity alone, ActionAid works on helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

One way to get out the message: Getting high-level diplomats, many of whom have never quite experienced deep poverty, to go live among the people, and develop relationships with them, at the most basic level.

We are all called to do this: to development relationships at the most basic level. To live together, to eat together, to work together, to struggle – together. When we do so, we no longer look at people as “other.” When we have shared a small space, tilled the land by hand, gathered water and lived in extreme poverty – when we have done that personally – we no longer see the world as “us” and “them.”

Then, we see the world as “us.”

When the visit was over, Carriere and her host both “cried uncontrollably.”

A new relationship was born, a relationship based in our common lives together.

This is what mission is all about, folks. It’s not about “saving” people, or simply handing out our treasures. It’s about relating to each other as God relates to us – in love.

Living with the poor – as they live, experiencing their lives every day – takes us outside of our own lives, our own perceptions (and misperceptions) and helps us to see all people as God’s beloved. Far too often, we see the extreme poverty of the world, we see people – from a distance – who have so little, and we throw up our hands and say, “Well, the poor we’ll always have with us.” Or we wonder, sometimes aloud, sometimes right in front of those poor people, why they haven’t done more to help themselves.

But living in poverty is not a sin.

Poverty itself is the sin.

Not for those who experience it, but for those of us who have enough and allow others to not have enough. That’s the sin.

Will these little visits change everything overnight in Rwanda? Nope.

But will they help two high-ranking British diplomats view the world differently? Most likely.

Relationships do that to you. They change you.

These relationships, this change, has all the hallmarks of the good mission into which God calls each of us.

 

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He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice,

to love kindness

and to walk humbly with your God?

(Micah 6:8)

In just one week, the U.S. government could come to a crashing halt.

Really.

All because our Senators and Representatives have not bothered to do their jobs.

Since receiving, in January 2010more than a year ago, mind you – President Obama’s proposed budget, Congress has managed to pass no spending bills. That’s right. Not one. All our representatives have managed to do is pass continuing resolutions, leaving for tomorrow what they could have done today – or yesterday, for that matter.

I’ve been trying to figure out what will happen next week, when the government does shut down. You can go on-line and find all kinds of analyses about who will be considered essential (um, our representatives, the leaders of government, claim this for themselves) and who will not be (um, those would be the people who actually do the work of government). The people who make sure Americans get paid? Non-essential. The people who make sure contractors get paid? Non-essential. The people who fill out the forms that ensure that Americans receive their benefits? Non-essential.

This list goes on and on, but you get the idea. In the minds of our representatives, they are essential. Most every else? Not so much.

So I wonder, as I have many times before, how our representatives are meeting God’s injunction to us? How is shutting down the government over ideology doing justice? How is it loving kindness?

\And how, pray tell, could anyone think that this massive power play – mirrored by the one playing out in Wisconsin right now – has anything to do with walking humbly with God? (Posturing instead of caring for the people entrusted to them shows a distinct lack of humility, I believe.)

In all this grandstanding, no real efforts are being made to trim the budget or lessen the deficit, because only small portions of the budget are actively in play. And the parts that have been put into play? Why, those would be the parts in which the poor, the needy and the forgotten are cared for. Those would be the parts in which women are treated with respect and dignity, in which children who have had the bad fortune to be born into poverty are fed, in which our veterans are cared for by a grateful nation that thanks them for their service. Those are the parts the so-called fiscal conservatives are chopping. Defense? Never on the table. Poor people who don’t contribute to campaigns? They are being ignored and forgotten.

Jim Wallis over at Sojourners wrote an excellent article yesterday on the God’s Politics blog (click here or look under “Articles you should read” for the link). In it, he points out that all this posturing is not about money, not about deficits, but about politics, ideology and hypocrisy.

In closing, Mr. Wallis writes:

“Let me offer a word to those who see this critique as partisan. I’ve had good friendships with Republican members of Congress, but not the kind who get elected by their party anymore. But let’s be clear, when politicians attack the poor, it is not partisan to challenge them; it is a Christian responsibility.

“This is wrong, this is unjust, this is vile, and this must not stand. Next week, thanks to your support, look for a full-page ad in Politico signed by faith leaders and organizations across the country that asks Congress a probing question: “What would Jesus cut?” These proposed budget cuts are backwards, and I don’t see how people of faith can accept them. And we won’t.”

Our elected leaders are not doing their jobs. Instead, they are playing games – and getting paid, handsomely, to do so.

Just as we want these leaders to listen closely to what God has to say through the prophet Micah, so we need to listen as well. If we want justice done, if we truly love kindness, and if we are willing to walk humbly with our God, then we need to step up as well. That’s what has been happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana for the past several days: The people have turned out in force, claiming their voices, claiming their rights.

If we want to avoid another government shutdown fiasco – which, by the way, will ultimately cost us billions, according to estimates – then we need to speak up. We need to make sure our Representatives and Senators understand that it is time for them to set aside their agendas and ideologies and do the right thing, which is to be responsible, to be caring, and to serve the people entrusted to them.

Shutting down the government serves no purpose other than to harm those most in need, while those with the most suffer not at all.

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Good news/bad news on missionaries

Titus Presler has an excellent commentary on the good and bad news about Episcopal missionaries. The good news: We, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, have missionaries in the field (yeah!). The bad news: Not so many, and the ones we have and are not well-supported.

As World Mission Sunday approaches (6 March), take a look at what Titus has to say, and think about what it means for The Episcopal Church to be a missionary society.

The column can be found here.

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The art of the possible

“Politics,” I said to a 20-something friend recently, “is the art of the possible. It is not evil. It is about how we work together to do the most good for the greatest number of people at any given time.”

The 20-something was surprised.

“What did you say ‘politics’ is?” she asked.

“It is the art of the possible,” I told her. “I may not get everything I want, and you may not get everything you want, but in the end, if it is done correctly, if we are faithful, together we achieve the best result possible at that moment.”

The 20-something was excited to learn this. She had never thought of politics in that light before, and frankly, I’m not surprised. She’s grown up in an age when politics is so partisan that it’s hard to remember that both sides of any given argument are even discussing the same thing, much less striving to work together.

As I watch what is happening in this country right now – particularly the budget debates taking place in Congress and the union-government showdown in Wisconsin – I wonder if those who are professional politicians remember the definition of their jobs, to care for the people.

Instead of standing up and taking responsibility for what they have done, veteran lawmakers in Congress pretend they have had nothing to do with the last 10 years of running up the deficit to the point that it endangers all that we do, and now threaten to slash and burn not just the budget, but many of the good things our government does.

Newcomers to Congress act as though they have no responsibility for any program that existed before they arrived inWashington, and that they do not care for the outcome of any action they take … as long as the deficit is reduced.

Now, threats swirl throughout Washington about another federal government shutdown, which we haven’t seen since the mid-1990s. No one seems concerned about the economic impact of a shutdown, either on the government, on the people of this land who would be directly affected, or even on the hot-dog vendors on the street, who would lose their income as well.

The Speaker of the House, when told that his recommended budget actions would mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of federal jobs – this at a time when the unemployment rate is still at 9 percent – shrugs his shoulders and says, “So be it.” (Does the Speaker know that this is the English translation of “Amen,” which comes from the Hebrew Scriptures? Is he aware that in saying, “So be it,” he is endorsing “job-killing,” which he claims to be fighting?)

I think it is safe to say that every single one of us in this country knows that we have to do something about the budget and the deficit. But this slash-and-burn approach has nothing to do with the art of the possible.

Instead of working together to achieve the best possible results, both sides seemed locked in a battle of egos, with the American people suffering the consequences.

How does intransigence fulfill the art of the possible? What good does it do to continuously say, “Read my lips”? (Doesn’t that remind you of children on the playground, saying, “Am too! Am not!”)

Leaders do not lay down ultimatums while simultaneously refusing to listen to anyone. Leaders make the hard decisions necessary to care for the most people – that, after all, is government’s purpose, to make secure the lives of the people.

There’s a hard-and-fast deadline coming up that means that something has to be done, and soon. If our representatives bothered to work together, they could achieve the possible.

We know that is possible to cut spending, to balance the budget, to lower the deficit, because all of that happened in the Clinton administration. Of course, first we had to go through that shutdown during that same administration.

So what would it take to move from stubborn “Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” gamesmanship that serves no one to a dance that actually will lead to the best possible solutions for everyone?

How much longer will it take for everyone to realize that all things indeed are possible – but only when we remember to follow the instructions we have received from God, and not from polls, not from lobbyists, not from people more concerned with advancing themselves at the costs of others?

Is there waste in the federal budget? Absolutely. Some of the rules are so convoluted that of course we are paying too much to implement them.

But it is not faithful, to God or to the people, to slash and burn simply to make a point, or to get back at someone  you don’t like.

This country right now is faced with the ultimate opportunity to achieve the possible, to work together for the good of the people.

After all, isn’t that why those in office ran for office? So they could care for the people of this land?

McClatchy-Tribune New Service, 2011

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Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”

Welcome to Let’s-Get-Legal Sunday.

At least, that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it?

Jesus is still preaching his magnificent Sermon on the Mount, that marvelous sermon in which he blesses those who have been labeled outcasts, and challenges the people to be God’s salt and light in the world.

And suddenly, he goes all legal on us and jacks up the intensity of an already detailed, already limiting, already very, very serious Law … that’s “Law” with a capital “L.”

“You have heard that it was said,” Jesus says, discussing murder, adultery and swearing falsely. (And just to let you know, Jesus stays on this legal kick for another week, so don’t think you’ve heard the last of this.) Then, Jesus continues, “but I say to you …” And he lays down a whole new interpretation of the Law-with-a-capital-L, one that is much stricter than anything anyone has ever heard before.

Murder is wrong, he says, quoting the Law. But so is treating people badly, thus elevating being angry at or insulting someone to new heights.

Adultery is wrong, he says. But so is even thinking less-than-pure thoughts about another person, he tells us. And if any part of our body causes us to sin, he adds, tear it out or cut it off (even though if you do that, according to the Law-with-a-capital-L, you can’t get into heaven, because you can’t be deformed!).

Swearing falsely – telling lies in legal situations – is wrong, he says. But now, under this new interpretation of the Law, all swearing – all taking of oaths – is wrong!

What’s going on here? How did Jesus go from been blessing people and healing them and preaching the Good News of Salvation to making most Pharisees and Sadducees, whose lives are wrapped up in fulfilling the law – every jot and tittle of it – look like legal wimps?

This is not the Jesus most of us want. We want the gentle Jesus. We want the healing Jesus. We want the Jesus who raises us from the dead.

We do not want the Jesus who tells us that we who are trying to follow the already difficult Law, are not doing enough, that even our thoughts fall short of God’s laws for us.

• • •

There’s a new TV show on the USA network called “Fairly Legal,” in which a young lawyer becomes a mediator, using her skills at negotiation to solve problems that normally would end up in the courtroom. In one of the teasers for the show, the main character is seen talking on the phone, saying something like, “The law! The law! The law! What is it with you people and the law?!”

And of course, in the course of 42 or so minutes, this young woman manages to negotiate her way to miracles.

The young man, a college student on scholarship, who is going to jail for his involvement in a car crash? She gets him off. (Turns out he didn’t cause the accident after all.)

The two drivers on the edge of a knock-down, drag-out fight in the streets of San Francisco? She gets them to apologize for each other.

The aging but still powerful father who can’t recognize that his son is a good man, ready to take over the family business? She achieves reconciliation and a major reorganization of that family business … all in 42 minutes.

If you watch the show, you think to yourself: Yeah, right. That’s not going to happen. It would take a miracle …!

And yet … isn’t that what Jesus does? Take impossible situations and do miracles?

That’s what Jesus is doing in this morning’s Gospel … he’s taking impossible situations and making miracles out of them.

Jesus is trying to show us that the Law-with-a-capital-L does not exist for itself – but for us.

Meaning: The Law is not about how to live your life within legal constraints.

The Law, Jesus is telling us, is there to help us live together in relationship – with God and with each other. (Can’t you just hear Jesus saying, right about now, “The Law! The Law! The Law! What is it with you people and the Law?!”)

The late Verna Dozier, an incredible lay theologian of the Church, taught that God’s desire, God’s dream for us, is that we become “a good creation of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”[1]

Dozier is using the word “friend” the same way Jesus did in John’s Gospel, when he said, “I no longer call you my slaves but my friends.” “Friend” is a theological term for Dozier.

And the only way we can become that good creation of friendly folk beneath that friendly sky is if we go beyond the Law – to love.

God’s true desire for us is not that we fulfill the Law.

God’s true desire for us is that we love.

For you see, we are created in God’s image, and that image my friends, is first and foremost one of love. We know this to be

true, because we know, without a doubt, that we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, we believe, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so God does not need us to exist in God’s very good creation.

Since we are not necessary, God had to have wanted us, God desired us into being, God loved us into being.

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So we were created – each of us – in love.

And because we are Trinitarians, because we believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We believe in the community of the Trinitarian God.

Which means that we who were created in God’s very image of love were also created in God’s very image of community.

Which means … which means … that we are created in love and in community to live in love and community.

In the end, as it was in the beginning, we are created by love to love.

So when Jesus is upping the ante on the Law – when he’s giving an even harsher interpretation of the Law than anyone had previously heard – he isn’t turning into an über-Pharisee.

He’s reminding us, once again, that the Law was created to help us live as God’s beloved with and for God’s beloved.

He’s asking us, once again, to remember – every moment of our lives – that God loves us, and (and this is hard for some of us to hear some days) God loves everyone else just as much.

Professor David Lose of Luther Seminary in Minnesota tells us that:

Jesus intensifies the Law – not to force us to take it more seriously … but instead to push us to imagine what it would actually be like to live in a world where we honor each other as persons who are truly blessed and beloved of God. It’s not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder (or adultery or anything else that is against the Law); you also have to treat each other with respect, not letting yourself fly off the handle in anger because that … demeans and diminishes God’s children.[2]

Fulfilling the Law – especially the Law on steroids[3] that Jesus proclaims today – is not about how closely you can toe the legal line for the sake of toeing the legal line.

That’s not enough, in Jesus’ mind. Jesus is calling us, as Professor Lose says, “to envision life in God’s kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting that they are doing the same for us.”[4]

Now that’s a tall order, isn’t it? Not only to care for our neighbors’ welfare, but trusting that they are doing the same for us?

When you think about it, that’s an even taller order than fulfilling the Law-on-steroids that we thought we were dealing with when we heard this morning’s Gospel.

Because it means that we have to put others first, and sometimes those others? The ones we are supposed to love? We don’t like them so much. And when we don’t like our neighbors, it’s easy not to love them. When we are afraid of them, it’s easy not to love them. When we don’t know them, it’s easy not to love them, or even care for them. And when we hate our neighbors – then it’s really easy not to love them.

But in God’s very good creation, in God’s friendly creation, whether we like someone, whether we are afraid of someone, whether we know someone, whether we hate someone – it’s not important.

Not in God’s eyes.

Because in God’s eyes, we are all beloved. The truth of the matter is that God loves each of us. God loves you … and you … … and you … … and you … … and you … … and you … … and you …

And because God loves each of you – because God loves each of us – God is asking us to love each other. To remember that the Law is there to help us love each other. That every moment of every day of our lives, we are called, first, last and always, to love.

Jesus is not on some kick this morning to elevate the Law to the point that none of us can achieve it.

Jesus is telling us, that yes, actually, we can fulfill the Law, every jot and tittle of it.

If – and only if – we remember to love.

I want to share with you with a prayer I found this week, the author of whom is unknown, but who nevertheless speaks wise words the echo Jesus’ preaching and that will send us out into the world … in love:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Amen.

————————

A sermon preached on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 13 February 2011, Year A, at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Leesburg, Va.

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[1] Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return. (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1988), p. 125.

[2] David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, on http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=452 with my addition.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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Matthew 5:13-20

Last Monday, the U.S. government[1] issued new guidelines for how much salt we Americans should consume on any given day. The new recommendations are far more restrictive than they have been in the past, because of our country’s battle with obesity and heart disease, cutting us back to less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day.

In essence, the government is saying, quite bluntly: Stop eating so much salt! It is killing us!

And then we come to church this morning and we hear Jesus tell us that we are the salt of the earth!

So what exactly are we supposed to do?

Cut back on our salt?

Or be the salt?

This morning’s Gospel is a continuation of Jesus’ magnificent Sermon on the Mount – the second of five Sundays in which we hear this beautiful sermon (it’s not just the first 12 verses of chapter 5). Last week we heard those shocking beatitudes that showered blessings on those who all their lives had been told by society that they weren’t worth spit.

Today, Jesus continues to shock the people, telling them that not only are they not to consider themselves downtrodden, but that they are powerful … that they are necessary … that without them, God’s creation cannot be very good.

Today, Jesus proclaims, to the people then and to us now: You are the salt of the earth.

Now, in light of those warnings from the government, this may come across as an odd statement. But to the people listening to Jesus 2,000 years ago, it made perfect sense.

You see, in Jesus’ day, salt was not only necessary, it was priceless. Salt was hard to get. It was a controlled substance. It was a commodity so precious that it was used to pay Roman legionnaires (and hence we get the word “salary”) and to buy slaves (and here we learn the origin of the expression “not worth his salt”).  Salt was so important in the ancient world that kingdoms rose and fell because of it (and if you remember your history, you know that was true right up to 1930, for it was through the great Salt March that Mahatma Gandhi began to break the back of British Raj in India). (from “The History of Salt.”)

Salt wasn’t just a condiment you added to your food to enhance flavors.

Salt was worth more than gold.

So when Jesus says to the people, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was saying to them – to us – that we are priceless.

Which is why Jesus adds that little caveat: “But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

I know a lot of people wonder about this salt-losing-its-taste part. It’s been a topic of discussion for preachers all over the country this week, with many asking, “How can salt lose its taste?” If you want to see the discussions, just look on Facebook. Most of us know that in this day and age, in this country, at least, salt doesn’t go bad. You can put a box of Morton’s salt on your shelf – you remember Morton’s right? It’s the brand in the blue container with the little girl in a raincoat and hat and rain boots, holding an umbrella over her head? – you can put that box on your shelf, forget about it, come back 22 years later, and it will still be salty. I know; I’ve done this! Our salt doesn’t go bad, because it is sodium chloride – NaCl, for those of you who took chemistry.

But in the days when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ walked the earth, the salt people used wasn’t sodium chloride. It was a rougher salt, a rawer salt, made from evaporated sea-water or water from the Dead Sea, or produced from rock, which, when exposed to the air could lose its saltiness.[3] And if you expose that kind of salt to even the tiniest bit of moisture, the salt turns rancid. It tastes like mildewed peanuts, actually – I know, because I lived in Sudan, where salt is still a precious commodity, and sometimes loses its flavor and sometimes becomes rancid.

How many of you use sea salt? That’s good – the federal government thanks you for that. How many of you who use sea salt like this (Mediterranean sea salt) know that it can go bad, that it has an expiration date on it? No? You didn’t know that? Check the label – it says “Best by 2013”).

So you see, salt indeed can lose its flavor.

To sum up what Jesus is saying to us this morning:

Salt is a precious gift that should not be allowed to go to waste.

And since we are the salt of the earth, that means that we are precious gifts who should not be allowed to go to waste either.

• • •

Jesus also clearly tells us that we are the light of the world, created not to be hidden under a bushel but to shine forth so brightly that others see us, and through us, give glory to God.

We are God’s gift in creation. And as God’s gift, we are supposed to shine – no, not merely to shine, but to blaze forth in the world – so that God’s gift can be seen, so that God’s gift can made manifest, so that God’s gift … the gift of love … can be known by all.

That’s why we were created, my friends.

To let God’s love be known.

Every moment … of every day … with every person we meet.

We are not created to indulge ourselves (which is why the government is trying to get us to cut back on our salt intake … too much of a good thing is a bad thing and we all know it).

We are created to make manifest, to incarnate God’s wild, radical, improbable, inexplicable, eternal … love.

That’s a pretty scary thought, isn’t it?

First we find out that we are precious gifts so important that kingdoms rise and fall, all because of us. Then we are told to take the gifts of who we are, created in the image of God, and blaze that image across all creation.

And make no mistake here: Jesus is not suggesting that he would like us to become salt. And he’s not recommending that perhaps if we feel like it, we should shine forth in the world.

Jesus is laying it on the line, telling us that, whether we like it or not, this is who we are: Salt and light. Precious and bright. Necessary and powerful.

Theologian Marianne Williamson, in her book A Return to Love, knows how scary it can be to hear these statements from Jesus.

“Our deepest fear,” she writes, “is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us; we ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’

“Actually,” Williamson writes, “who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born,” she says, “to manifest the glory of God that is within us.”[4]

Williamson is doing nothing more than echoing Jesus’ words to us today: The people he was addressing in that Sermon on the Mount? Remember them? The poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful and pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled. …  First Jesus tells them they are blessed, then he tells them they are precious … and powerful.

This is Jesus’ message to us as well.

We are precious.

And we are powerful.

Now before we let this message go to our heads, before we decide to overindulge ourselves on just how precious and powerful we are, remember that Jesus was very clear in his message:

All of our preciousness, all of our power, is given to us so that we can glorify God.

This isn’t about us.

It’s about God.

So what are we going to do?

How are we going to glorify God?

We have all the tools we need. We are, as Jesus says, salt and light. We are, as Marianne Williamson reminds us, brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous.

• • •

Yesterday, I presented a dear friend of mine at her ordination to the priesthood. At the end of the sermon, the preacher asked my friend to stand to receive what is called her “charge” as priest. The “charge” is the set of personal instructions a preacher gives to the person being ordained. It is a challenge, a caution and a commission, all rolled up into one.

Today, I would like to give you your charge – your challenge, your caution, your commission.

So I ask you now to stand, please, for it is the tradition of the Church that those being charged stand to receive it. Stand up, please, and I ask you to turn around and to look out the doors of this church, out into God’s very good creation, because the charge you are about to receive is not about you here in this place only. It is about the world in which you live and move and have your being.

This is your charge:

You are the salt of the earth. You are precious. Do not lose your flavor. Do not let it go to waste.

You are the light of the world. You are powerful. Do not hide your light. Do not let your power fade.

Take your salt … take your light … and go into the world, into God’s world, and use your gifts, which God has given you because God loves you, and make God’s love be known in all of God’s very good and beloved creation.

Go into the world, my friends.

Be salty.

Blaze your way through life.

Be brilliant and gorgeous and talented, and most of all, be fabulous.

Not for your sake.

But for God’s.

Amen.

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, College Park, Md., on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 6 February 2011, Year A.

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[1] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines on salt intake, Jan. 31, 2011, via http://www.internetbits.com/diet-guide-issued-by-government-eat-less-salt/57392/.

[3] James M. Freeman, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” p. 335, via http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Can_salt_lose_its_flavor

[4] Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

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Last weekend, I participated in the 92nd Council of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, where I did a presentation on Haïti and how we can be involved in partnerships there.

The joy of learning in Haiti

At the presentation, I showed a movie I have made, Bondye di ou: Fè pa ou, m’a fè p’am (“God says to you: You do your part, I’ll do mine). It is a 12-minute video on the history of the Diocese of Haïti, and how that Diocese is leading the way in helping the nation recover from the devastating earthquake of 12 January 2010. It also describes the ways in which parishes, other institutions and organizations can become partners with the Diocese of Haïti, the largest diocese of The Episcopal Church.

The video is available for free for anyone who is interested in seeing it or using it themselves. Simply go to

http://gallery.me.com/merelaurens/100031

and you can see it, and if you want, you can download it and make DVD copies of your own.

Haiti video

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