We are the link …

John 14:6-15

          When Bonnie asked me to come here to preach on the Feast of St. Augustine, I started looking for stories about your patron saint. Most of stories I found are ones you already know, but there is one story that dates back to his youth, when his mother, Monica, wanted him to embrace the Christian faith in which he was raised and become a priest.

            Augustine, we all know, had other ideas.

            The official biographies, which I think you well know, tell the story of how he left home to teach rhetoric.

The unofficial biography apparently says – or so the story goes – that he told his mother he was leaving to get a loaf of bread … and went to Egypt instead.

But as Augustine learned – and as we know – no matter where you go, God is there.

No matter how far you run, God is there.

Because there is no place you can go, no place you can run where God is not.

Augustine learned that … he ran. But, as the saying goes, he couldn’t hide.

The same is true for us.

We may try to run, but we can never hide.

Because God is always there. And God is always there because God loves us.

There is no more powerful lesson on earth than that, is there? The lesson that God loves us?

There may be days when we doubt this is true, when we think that we are too much like Augustine was in his youth (which as you know was not a pretty picture).

But in spite of what we may think of ourselves, the good news is, God loves us – God still loves us – whether we are good or bad, whether we are high and mighty and lowly and poor … because none of that matters.

All that matters is that God … loves … us … that we are God’s beloved children.

And we know this because the Bible tells us so.

The Bible tells us that in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … meaning, God was before we were, and God will be after we are.

Which means, quite simply, that we are not necessary to God.

God is necessary to us, yes. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today.

But we are not necessary to God.

Which in turn means, quite simply, that God wanted us, that God desired us, that God loved us into being.

This is what God meant when God said, way back in the beginning, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness …” God’s image, God’s likeness, has nothing to do with the color of God’s skin (does God even have skin?) or God’s gender, or God’s height or weight (does God have any of those attributes?). God’s image, God’s likeness, is center in one thing only:

Love.

But God’s love, my friends, does not exist in a vacuum.

Yes, God loves me.

And yes, God loves you.

But because God loves me and because God loves you, God intends for us to love each other.

Since we each are beloved of God and since we each are created in love, God intends us to live in love.

With each other.

That’s called community.

And our mission in life, the very reason for which God created us, is to love the community.

Augustine, despite fighting God and fleeing God, learned this in his own life.

“What,” he asked, “does love look like? It has the hand to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That,” he said, “is what love looks like.”[1]

So in the words of one of the greatest theologians of our faith, in the words of your own patron saint, our very reason for existing is to take care of each other, to love one another.

That is our mission in life – loving those whom God loves … every moment of our lives.

It’s not an easy task, this mission that God gives us.

But we know we can do it.

We know we can do it because Jesus – the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for us – because Jesus said so.

Throughout his entire ministry … through his preaching and teaching, his feeding of the hungry and giving of water to the thirsty, his healing of the lame and returning of sight to the blind and hearing to deaf and speech to the mute, through every meal he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, his every touch of the lepers, his every willingness to include the excluded, to love the unloved, to give hope to the hopeless … Jesus taught us what to do. He taught us how to live our lives on a mission from God.

And then, facing his own end, he bequeathed to us his great command:

Love one another as I have loved you.

With that love, he told us, we will do great things.

In fact, he said, our mere faith, in him will make us do the work that he did, and indeed, he said, we will do greater works than these!

Can you imagine that?

Can you imagine what it would be like to do greater work than Jesus himself did?

New Testament professor Jaime Clark-Soles heard those words and wrote, in great astonishment,

Those who are “left behind” when Jesus goes to the Father have [an] advantage beyond all telling of it. Because Jesus goes, they will get power they wouldn’t get otherwise. Instead of wannabes, they’ll be the real deal – they’ll be the Jesus in the world.[2]

 

You want to know what it means to be on a mission from God in the world?

Being on a mission from God means we get to be Jesus!

Well, OK. We don’t get to actually be Jesus. But we get to do that which Jesus did, only in a bigger way. Perhaps even in a better way.

So long as we understand: Everything we do is to come from God’s love for us, and God’s love for everyone else.

In 1969, Neil Diamond debuted a song called Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show. It’s a great song – it has a great beat (even though you can’t really dance to it) – not just because of the story of the traveling salvation show, but because of its theology.

Do you know this song? You don’t?

            (Sing) Brother Love,

            I said, Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.

            Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies

            And everyone goes

            Cuz everyone knows

            ‘Bout Brother Love’s show …

            Hallelujah …

What’s amazing about this song, though, isn’t that chorus. It is that in the middle of the song, there’s a sermon. Now, if you look up the words online, you won’t find the words to the sermon. You’ll just see the word “sermon” printed in the middle of the lyrics.

But it’s the sermon that provides the power … the message … that we all need to hear, every single day:

This is what Brother Love preaches:

            Brothers! I said, Brothers!

Now you got yourself two good hands.

And when your brother is troubled

            You’ve got to reach out your one hand for him …

            Cuz that’s what it’s there for.

            And when your heart is troubled

            You got to reach out your other hand …

            Reach it out to the man up there …

            Cuz that’s what he’s there for.

 

            (Sing) Take my hand in yours

Walk with me this day

In my heart I know

I will never stray.[3]

Halle. Halle. Halle! Halle …!

 

We each have two good hands. And with those hands, we are called, as people on a mission from God, to always … always … reach those hands out to those who are troubled, who are in need, who need to be reminded of God’s love for them.

This is what it means to be a missionary, my friends. To reach out to others, while at the same time, holding on to God.

We are the link … everywhere we go, with everyone we meet.

Because wherever we go, God is there. And everyone we meet is a beloved child of God.

You want to be a missionary?

Reach your hands out …

That’s all there is to it.

Now, I’m a missionary. I spent four years as a missionary in Sudan, and one year serving in Haiti. And I know … I know … that many people are surprised to discover that The Episcopal Church even has missionaries. Even though we are The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America – that’s our official name, you know … quite impressive, isn’t it? – even though that is our formal name, people are surprised when they find out that I am, indeed, a missionary, and that I’ve been one for years.

Well, let me tell you something:

You are missionaries as well. And not just because you are Episcopalians.

No, you’re a missionary because God said so.

And your mission – if you choose to accept it – is to live in love and in community … to reach your hands out to those who are troubled … every moment of your lives.

Just last week, NPR interviewed Stephane Hessel, a former World War II French resistance fighter who narrowly escaped execution by the Nazis in two concentration camps. Hessel’s book, Time for Outrage, was published in the United States this week; in it, he argues that indifference is the worst possible attitude we can adopt.

 

If you want to be a real human being – a real woman, a real man [he says] – you cannot tolerate things which put you to indignation, to outrage. You must stand up. I always say to people, “Look around; look at what makes you unhappy, what makes you furious, and then engage yourself in some action.[4]

 

This is what Jesus was talking about – look at what makes you unhappy (the suffering of others, the needs of others, the desires of others to be loved) – and do something about it.

Our mission – which we accept every time we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant – is to do something – something greater than the work Jesus himself did!

Just because it seems hard, just because the world tells us it can’t be done (we can’t possibly feed all the hungry in the world, despite the fact that we throw away more than enough food every day to feed every single starving person out there; we can’t possibly provide health care for all – even though that’s what Jesus did; we can’t possibly … we can’t possibly … we can’t … we can’t … we can’t …), doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.

We start by reaching out our hands … one to the person in need … the other to God … and being the link between the two.

And when we doubt (which we will)?

We go back again to your own patron saint, to Augustine of Hippo, who once told his mother (or so the story goes) that he was going out for bread and never came back. He once wrote:

Hope has two beautiful daughters.

Their names are anger and courage;

anger at the way things are, and

courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.[5]

We never give up hope, and we pray to have the courage to live our lives on a mission from God, to be missionaries, living every moment of our lives in love and in community.

It’s why we were created.

(Sing) Take my hand in yours

Walk with me this day

In my heart I know

I will never stray.

Amen.

A sermon preached on the Feast of St. Augustine (translated), at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Kinston, N.C., 25 September 2011.




[1] As quoted in Quote, Unquote, by Lloyd Cory, p. 197.

[2] Jaime Clark-Soles, Associate Professor of New Testament, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Teas, commentary for 20 April 2008, emphasis added, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/20/2008&tab=4

 

[3] Neil Diamond, Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show, on the eponymous album, UNI Records, 1969.

[4] Stephane Hessel, author of Time for Outrage, in NPR interview, http://www.npr.org/2011/09/22/140252484/wwii-survivor-stirs-literary-world-with-outrage

[5] As quoted in by Robert McAfee Brown in Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy (Westminster John Knox Press, 1988), 136.

 

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Gospel-worthy

Philippians 1:21-30

                   The House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church is meeting in Quito, Ecuador, this week. One hundred and sixteen bishops from the 109 dioceses spread out over 16 nations have gathered to pray, to learn … and to think …

One thing they were asked to think about came from Don Compier, a liberation theologian who recounted to the bishops a recent conversation he had had.

Compier told them that “he was recently asked by someone in another denomination: ‘If you care about the poor, why are you an Episcopalian? Aren’t you just interested in liturgy?’ Compier reminded the bishops that “our tradition of witness to the concerns for the poor is not well known, even by us.”[1]

What Compier was asking the bishops to think about was, in essence, the same thing St. Paul asks, in a variety of ways, throughout his letters: How then shall we live?

Shall we live as people who are in love with liturgy?

Or shall we live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, as Paul exhorts us this morning?

And what, pray tell, does that even mean, to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel?

For Paul (and implicitly, for the person who asked Compier that question), Gospel-worthy lives begin and end in community.

Gospel-worthy lives are never about us … They are never about getting ahead or getting more, never about adopting the attitude of “I’ve-got-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-get-yours,” never about leaving others behind.

Gospel-worthy lives are about love.

Gospel-worthy lives are love.

Paul makes this clear in what is known as his “love letter to his friends in the church at Philippi.”[2] Everything he writes them is about how we are to live in love and in community because this is what God desires for us.

As Walter Brueggemann, one of the most respected theologians of our times, preached not long ago:

Paul says to his beloved church, imagine your life caught up in the great divine drama in order that you may not imagine your life as a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, in order that you may not imagine your life as an endless rat race that no one can win, in order that you will not imagine your life as an endless series of accidents that amount to very little. Christians (he says) are people who imagine and receive their lives differently, bracketed and ordered by God’s goodness and God’s resolve for us.[3]

 

Our lives will have meaning, our lives will fulfill God’s desires for us, if we bracket and order our lives in God’s goodness, in God’s resolve, if we live focused not on ourselves but on God’s beloved community.

                  That’s what Paul is talking about when he says “living is Christ,” that living is “fruitful labor” for him, that it is “more necessary for you.”

Paul is talking about community, which can only be lived in love.

Even the word Paul uses to instruct his beloved friends in Philippi underscores this. The Greek word for “live your life” is politeusthe – which comes from the Greek word for “city” – polis – which according to one commentator “has the sense of ‘live as a free citizen,’ [or] ‘conduct your public life.’”[4]

So Paul is crystal clear that our lives are never to be about “me-me-me, mine-mine-mine.” Not only are they are always to be focused on others, but, Paul insists, we are to bring our focus as a community.

Because we are the Body of Christ, Paul teaches, we are to act as the Body of Christ.

If all of us were to focus our lives and our love together, there wouldn’t be 52 million Americans living in poverty right now. There wouldn’t be 48 million Americans living right now without health insurance.

If we focused our lives and love together, there wouldn’t be 14 million unemployed people in our own country, there wouldn’t be millions of our children going to school hungry every morning, there wouldn’t be a wealth disparity in this country and in this world that more closely models medieval times than modern times.

If we brought our Gospel-worthy lives to bear on the problems of the world, do you really think there would be 650,000 Somalis about to starve to death in the Horn of Africa right now, because no one will give them food?

Would there really be children who die of easily cured diseases – diseases we can cure for less than one dollar per child – because no one will give them medicine?

If we lived Gospel-worthy lives – and we can easily choose to do so – each person, each beloved child of God in this world – would have enough – not too much, not an over-abundance of things, but enough ­– enough food and water, enough shelter, enough education, enough money to not just survive but thrive.

Paul “is speaking (to us) about how a community whose common life is founded and sustained by the crucified and risen Christ should live together.” [5] And, he’s telling us, this is our choice to make.

Now, I need to warn you:

Being Gospel-worthy – living Gospel-worthy lives – is dangerous. It gets us in trouble. It upsets the status quo. And sometimes, when we focus our lives in this way … sometimes … we end up in jail … like Paul. Sometimes, we end up dying … like Jesus and Paul.

You don’t think Paul was hauled off to prison – which is where he was when he wrote this love letter to the Philippians – just because he didn’t pay his taxes, do you?

As Paul himself would say, Me genito! By no means!

Paul ended up in jail – Paul ended up being executed – because he upset the Roman apple cart!

Because he kept getting in the face of those in power, he kept threatening those in power, with the Gospel … with Jesus’ instructions to care for those in need, to feed the hungry, to cure the sick and touch the leper and eat with the tax collectors and worship with the prostitutes and the destitute … to give hope to the hopeless and power to the powerless, to include the excluded, to love the unloved.

And that’s just not where the world – or, I should say, where the powers-that-be in the world – want us to go.

The powers-that-be in no way want us to stand up and say, No more. Nada mas. Bas. Basta.

In no way do the powers-that-be want us – members of the Body of Christ – to upset their apply carts.

But we are the Body of Christ, commanded by none other than Christ, to love God and love our neighbor – to live in love and community every moment of our lives, to make choices – every moment of our lives – that are for the common good, not for our own good only.

• • •

This past summer, I was at Camp McDowell, the Diocese of Alabama’s camp and retreat center, helping to lead a week-long summer camp program for 125 seventh- and eight-graders. Our program was focused on how to live together as the Body of Christ.

We called it, OMG, Y’all! (That stands for … wait for it … wait for it …) On a Mission From God, Y’all. (Not what you thought, eh?)

One part of the camp program was a game called “Survival,” in which we asked each small group of about 10 campers to become a “nation,” to which we then gave red and green beads.

Each red bead, we told the campers, represented 1,000 people.

Each green bead, we said, represented enough food for 1,000 people.

No group – no nation­ ­– started off with an equal amount of beads.

Some nations had lots of red beads – lots of people – and very few green beads – very little food.

Other nations had enough food to feed their people several times over.

The goal of the game, we said, was for each nation to end up with an equal number of red and green beads – with enough food to care for all their people.

Now, what normally happens in this game is that the nations swap food and people with each other – all the while dealing with disasters or blessings, with locusts or emigration, with tornadoes or gentle rainfall, with drought or bumper crops, with whatever disaster or blessing we decided to drop on them, whenever we decided to do so. What normally happens is that at the end, each nation has enough food to feed its people, but some nations are huge, and others are small.

That’s what normally happens.

Not at Camp McDowell, of course.

There, the kids decided first that they would take care of each other. One group,  every time it found itself with a surplus of food,  started going to other groups and simply giving their extra food away for free, asking nothing in return. Others entered covenants: You take care of us, we’ll take care of you. Still others formed coalitions, sharing food and people equally.

And then, in the end, in a completely unexpected turn of events (which I have never seen before), the groups decided they no longer wanted to experience famine or overcrowding. So they joined together.

All 12 groups.

Into one nation.

That way, they reasoned, everyone would have enough to eat. No one would go hungry ever again.

May I remind you that these children were in seventh and eighth grade? That they ranged in age from 11 to 14?

These children understood what it means to live Gospel-worthy lives.

And then they lived them.

Let me tell you: Those children in Alabama? They knew how to answer Paul’s great question of “How then shall we live?” Yes, it was just a game in a week filled with games. But they still did it. For them, it was a no-brainer! (Actually, I believe what they said to me was, “Duh!”)

And if those children can do it, can’t we as well? If they can see this solution as a “Duh!” can’t we do the same? After all, we are the adults here!

The children already know this, and they teach us about our call in life. Their answer Paul’s question:

We are called … as members of the Body of Christ … to live Gospel-worthy lives.

We are called to be Gospel-worthy.

Gospel-worthy.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A, 18 September 2011, at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va.



[1] Quoted in “Theology of Liberation” on the blog of The Rt. Rev. Michael Hanley, Bishop of Oregon, http://www.bishop.episcopaldioceseoregon.org/, 15 September 2011. Compier is a professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary,A Love Letter…concerning a Work in Progress,” First Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Mich., 6 December 2009, http://www.fpcbirmingham.org/worship/sermons/a-love-letter/, emphasis added.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Susan Eastman, Assistant Professor of the Practice of the Bible and Christian Formation,

Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., “Reciprocating Glory,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx.

[5] Stephen E. Fowl. Philippians (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary), 79, Kindle Edition.

 

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Antabuse reaction

Matthew 18:21-22

How many of you have found yourself weeping this week?

How many of you have found yourself turning off your televisions and radios, turning past stories in the newspaper, skipping the Facebook comments …

… because you just can’t go there again?

Ten years after the horrible tragedies of 9/11, many of us, myself included, are still filled with grief.

We have moved on from the immediate shock, from the numbness, from the piercing pain that came with the attacks.

But we are still filled with grief.

• • •

This morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew – chosen years and years and years ago, long before September 11, 2001 – is about forgiveness. In it we hear the story of Peter – poor, befuddled Peter, who never quite gets it but never stops trying – asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive.

“As many as seven times?” he asks, knowing that seven times’ worth of forgiveness would be wildly extravagant.

No, Jesus replies. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

This is, I tell you, a lesson in extravagance, in the extravagant, wild, radical, never-ending love of God that Jesus proclaims in his preaching, in his teaching, in his healing, and in the end, with his own life.

We are, Jesus says, to forgive extravagantly. More than we want. More than we can imagine.

And yet, on this morning, on this tenth anniversary of terror and murder, that kind of forgiveness seems … well, it almost seems out of our reach.

It almost seems as if God is asking us to do something far greater, far grander than we can possibly imagine, much less accomplish.

And yet … it is what God is asking of us.

Forgive.

More than you want.

More than you can imagine.

I don’t know about you, but I need to admit something, I need to put something out on the table:

I am not certain I know how to do this.

I am not certain I can forgive as extravagantly as Jesus asks.

And I think that is why I am still weeping, 10 years after the fact.

Like you, I remember that day.

I remember hearing the plane fly over my parish in Annandale and saying to the secretary, “Wow, that guy is way off course.”

I remember hearing the plane hit the Pentagon and saying to her, “Man, that guy just dropped a load,” because I thought it was a construction accident.

I remember returning hours later to my apartment, less than a mile from the Pentagon, and finding it filled with dust and ashes … because I had left the windows open – it was such a beautiful day, wasn’t it?

I remember being unable to keep my apartment clean or to sleep soundly for weeks afterwards, because the trucks carrying the debris – the dust and the ashes – drove by my place, day after day, night after night, constantly spreading more dust, more ash, constantly rumbling along.

Like you, I remember the military jets that flew overhead night and day, watching as they left lazy contrails in their wake.

I remember the fear … the grief … the loss …

I remember …

And because I remember … so vividly … so profoundly … I think I cannot fully forgive.

Not as Jesus asks.

Not seventy-seven times.

Not yet.

• • •

And yet …

I want to forgive.

Really, I do.

I want to forgive because it is what Jesus taught us to do. It is what we pray for when we pray in the very words that Jesus gave us: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

I want to forgive, because I think if I don’t, my very soul may be in danger.

But I’m not certain I’m there yet.

Which is why, especially this past week, I have cried.

• • •

You know what is that I cannot forgive?

It’s not the hijackers, Mohammed Atta and those 18 others who turned airplanes into missiles.

And it’s not Osama bin Laden and all who have followed his misbegotten ideas of faith.

No, what I cannot forgive is the hatred that fueled those men to do commit these atrocities.

What I cannot forgive is anyone bastardizing the love of God for all of God’s beloved children.

And what I cannot forgive is the suffering that these men caused, all so they could – they thought – have their own way.

I agree with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who wrote, in 1955:

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and a willingness to remain vulnerable.”[1]

The hatred they rained upon us, the deliberate misinterpretation of God’s will, the suffering they caused … for what? I ask you … those are the stumbling blocks on my path to forgiveness.

From conversations I have had with others, from news stories I have read and the very few news shows I have watched or listened to, I think I am not alone in this pain.

And so I think that perhaps now, on this day, the tenth anniversary of that awful day, which we cannot escape no matter how hard we try, I think that perhaps today is a day to … let go.

A day to … set my feelings free.

A day … for release.

For that is what the word forgive means, in the Greek. It means release. To let go. To set free.

Because only by releasing, by letting go, by setting free, do we have a chance … a chance … not of moving on, but of moving forward.

Author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor, writing in 1998 – again, years before 9/11, proclaimed:

When you allow your enemy to stop being your enemy, all the rules change. Nobody knows how to act anymore, because forgiveness is an act of transformation. It does not offer the adrenaline rush of anger, nor the feeling of power that comes from a well-established resentment. It is a quiet revolution, as easy to miss as a fist uncurling to become an open hand, but it changes people in ways anger only wishes it could.[2]

I want fists to uncurl today. Not just my fist, but all fists. I want our hands to be open … to the possibility of transformation … to the possibility of peace … to the possibility of love.

The Rev. David F. Sellery, a priest in Bay Shore, N.Y., wrote about forgiveness in a reflection for today:

Forgiveness, he says, “is the essence of Christian love. … It is not a largesse we dispense by power of our innate superiority [but rather] the grace of God transmitted through us. It is,” he says, “the ultimate witness of Christ’s love in the world.”[3]

Sellery knows that the pain of 9/11 remains. And he is clear that forgiveness is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card for perpetrators.” God, he says, “has not issued an easy-pass for evil in the world to benefit the bad guys.”[4] There is to be justice – as long as it is not revenge.

Sellery concludes: “The choice is ours. We can live in love or we can live in hate. Both are transformative forces. We can become what we value and love or we can risk becoming the evil we obsess upon.”[5]

Forgiveness, it seems, really is about opening our fists to the possibilities of new life.

Writing in The Washington Post last Tuesday, Lynne Steuerle Schofield, whose mother, Norma Lange Steuerle, died on American Flight 77 when it flew into the Pentagon, suggested the same kind of transformation, the same willingness to open our fists to release. She said that with every anniversary, it is as though she is being asked to go to her mother’s funeral over and over and over again. Instead, she wrote:

What if we all spent the 11th anniversary of the attacks (she is speaking of next year) reflecting on what we admired most about our lost loved ones and trying to emulate those ideals? Or what if we spent time building not another structure in memorial but, instead, building our relationships with others? Or raising money for our favorite charity?[6]

If we want the world to be more compassionate, safer and more equitable, she writes, we have to work to make that happen. We all have to be on board. We should reflect on the characteristics of our loves ones that we want to keep alive, and then we must behave that way.[7]

Our Gospel today, my friends, teaches us about forgiveness. It teaches us about extravagant forgiveness, which can only come from extravagant love.

Not our love.

For our love is, sadly to say, far too often far too small.

But God’s forgiveness?

God’s forgiveness is extravagant. It is overwhelming.

Because it comes from God’s extravagant love.

And it is what God is calling us to.

I may not be there … yet.

But if I can’t forgive extravagantly, perhaps I can love … just a little bit more extravagantly. Perhaps I can, as Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says, be “more inclined toward peace,” at least a little bit more extravagantly.

Perhaps I can relax my hand on the pain that still grips me – and in that moment, release the pain as I reach out to others still in pain, still in mourning.

I think that this morning, I am more like Peter than I realize: I haven’t quite gotten it yet, I still can’t quite go to where Jesus wants me, but I am still trying to understand. Still trying to be extravagant with my forgiveness, my release, my love.

My prayer for us this morning … for those of us here, for the Church as a whole, for this nation and for the world … is that we relax our hands, opening them as much as we can. My prayer is that we focus on the extravagance of God’s love for us, and in the releasing of our pain and sorrow, we set that love free for the whole world to see and know and hear and feel.

We do not have to forget.

We cannot forget.

But perhaps … just perhaps … with the help of our Lord, we can forgive.

Amen.

Sermon preached for the Service of Remembrance on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Leesburg, Va., Sept. 11, 2011. (Proper 19, Year A)



[1] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Christianity Today, Feb. 9, 1998.

[3]The Rev. David F. Sellery is rector of St. Peter’s By-the-Sea Church and Day School in Bay Shore, New York. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/80050_129713_ENG_HTM.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lynne Steuerle Schofield, “A 9/11 event that embraces the future,” The Washington Post, Sept. 6, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-911-event-that-embraces-the-future/2011/09/01/gIQAm6np7J_story.html?fb_ref=NetworkNews&fb_source=profile_multiline.

[7] Ibid.

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Accutane cost

The keynote address at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, College Park, Md., at their Homecoming Dinner, 10 September 2011.

A story from the 2nd century after Christ, of two monks in the Egyptian desert:

 A disciple went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast and my little prayer. I strive to cleanse my mind of all evils thoughts and my heart of all evil intents. Now, what more should I do?”Abba Joseph rose up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He answered, “Why not be transformed into fire?”[1]

Why not be transformed … into fire?

• • •

My friends, how many times have we been like the disciple seeking guidance from the Abba? How many times have we said, “Now, what more should I do?”

The disciple kept all the rules of the monastic community, what he calls the “little” things – not meaning those things of minor importance but rather his private disciplines. He followed the rules set out for each monk: good works, hospitality, moderation of the mind and mouth, humility, obedience, communal living and communal property, stability … His “little fast” was eating two simple meals a day, less in Lent and Advent … His “little prayer” was the private prayer time each monk was enjoined to have daily … He did his best to cleanse his mind and heart of evil thoughts and intentions …

In other words, the disciple was as faithful as he could possibly be.

But he sensed … somehow … that there was something more. Or rather, that there was something missing.

So he went to the Abba, the abbot, of the monastery, to Joseph, a holy man, who led the monks, who directed them in the lives and prayers, a man, the disciple was certain, who would know what more the disciple could do.

The answer Abba Joseph gave was, most likely, not the one the disciple expected.

Because rather than focusing on yet another thing to do, Abba Joseph urged the disciple to focus on who he could be.

“Why not be transformed into fire?” the holy man asked.

And why not?

Why not be transformed into fire?

Why not become something entirely new, something possibly uncontrollable, something all-consuming, something passionate?

Abba Joseph didn’t tell the disciple he had to stop doing the “little” things, because Abba Joseph knew those little things were important. After all, who can argue with good works … hospitality … moderation of the mind and mouth … humility … obedience … communal living and communal property … stability (imagine what our world would be like if we practiced all those things every single day … intentionally)?

Who can argue with eating a little less … intentionally?

Who can argue with daily prayer … especially if it is intentional?

And who, pray tell, would ever argue with cleansing our minds of evil thoughts, or cleansing our lives of evil deeds?

So the abbot, you see, wasn’t saying: Stop doing these things.

Instead, he was urging the monk to let those practices take him to the next step, the next practice … to transformation.

Like the inhabitants of Jerusalem whom the prophet Jeremiah addressed, proclaiming, Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it …” the disciple was standing at a crossroad.

Do more?

Be more?

Focus on doing the little things?

Let those little things transform me?

Isn’t this the same place where we find ourselves this night, this night when you as the people of St. Andrew’s celebrate your Homecoming?

Isn’t this night a crossroads for you, as it was for the disciple, as it was for the inhabitants of Jerusalem?

You are gathered here this night to celebrate who you have been, and you are gathered there this night to consider who you might be.

Your parish has been here for 121 years. You began your life together in a small room over Calvert’s Hall, with a mission “directly related to serving the students of the Maryland Agricultural College, now the University of Maryland at College Park.”[2]

You moved from Calvert’s Hall to a building that first was a tobacco barn, then a stable, then a Presbyterian church. You built this church in 1930, added a parish house in 1954, and built the parish hall in 1967.[3]

But this is not a night in which to focus only on what you have done.

And it is not a night to focus only on what you might do.

No, my friends, this night is the night for you to focus on who you can be.

You have done, and are doing, many marvelous things. You have taken, and are taking, care of the little things that are so important. You follow the little disciplines, you pray, you feast when you can, fast when you must, you provide hospitality, you pay your bills and you practice, as best you can, humility.

But still …

Is there something more?

Not something more that you can do …

But something more that you can be …?

• • •

Another story.

But first … some background.

For four years, I served as a missionary in Sudan, living in the town of Renk, in the northernmost portion of South Sudan, at that place where North met South, where Arabs met Blacks, where Muslims met Christians.

I arrived in Sudan three days before the peace agreement that ended Sudan’s third – and longest – and deadliest – civil war went into effect. I arrived at a time when Northerners and Southerners, Arabs and Blacks, Muslims and Christians still distrusted each other, still grew still in each other’s presence, still judged each other by the color of their skin, the language they spoke, the tribe to which they belonged.

The town of Renk, in the Diocese of Renk of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, was, throughout the 21-year civil war (the third, the longest, the deadliest civil war) a garrison town, meaning that at some point early in that war, the North took over the town, stationed thousands of Northern, Arab, Muslim soldiers (and their families) there, and made sure that the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the army of the South, had no ability to function – or to fight – there.

Being a garrison town means that Renk grew from a small village of Southerners belonging to the Dinka tribe to a small town peopled by members of more than a dozen tribes from North, South, East and West.

Because each tribe speaks a different language, and each tribal language has up to 100 dialects, the most common language in South Sudan is actually Arabic. Not because the Southerners want to speak that language, but because the North forced that language upon them.

Which means that disparate peoples from all over Africa’s largest nation had only one way to communicate: in the language of the oppressor.

So when I arrived, on July 6, 2005, it was obvious to me that the language I most needed to learn was Arabic. Or, to be more accurate, Araby souk, known by linguists as Sudanese Creole. (In other words, heaven forfend we should bother to conjugate a verb!)

Speaking Arabic meant I could communicate with everyone.

But speaking Arabic also meant that I faced tough questions and uncomfortable moments.

Because I deliberately did not identify with any one tribe.

That’s the background.

And now, the story:

About three years into my service, I was sitting on a log on a dusty street corner in downtown Khartoum, then the nation’s capital, drinking tea. (Tea and coffee shops in Sudan are not like tea shops in the United States. We’re not talking about Starbucks here. There are no nice seats, no air conditioning, no espresso machines or milk steamers, no wi-fi … just low-sitting stools and logs, a charcoal fire, water purchased from the latest donkey cart to go by, powdered milk …)

Several young men, all from the Dinka tribe, became upset when they heard me speaking Arabic.

Why, they demanded – in English, no less –Why was I speaking that language? Why wasn’t I speaking Dinka?

Because, I replied, Arabic is the language most people understood in Sudan.

Did I even know Dinka?

Yes, I said – in Dinka. I know some.

After they berated me for not knowing Dinka, the language of the people where I lived, they challenged me: “To which tribe do you belong?”

Now, this might not seem like an important question here in the United States, but in Sudan, this is a loaded question … very loaded. Declare the right tribe, and you had friend for life, who would stick by you and defend you, no matter what.

Declare the wrong tribe, and you could find yourself caught up in a long-standing tribal or ethnic or blood feud.

So I thought carefully about my answer:

I belong, I finally said, to the tribe of God, to the only tribe that matters.

• • •

Far too often in our lives, when we find ourselves standing at the crossroads, trying to decide whether to go right or left, forward or backward, we fall back on our tribal ways. We rely on the practice of TAWADDI – That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It (you know the old Episcopal joke, right? Change that light bulb? Change that light bulb? You can’t change that light bulb! My grandmother gave that light bulb!)

But in doing so, we forget …

We forget that the only tribe that matters is the tribe of God.

The color of our skin, the language we speak, our gender, our sexual orientation, our ethnicity … none of those things matter. Not to God. Those things are but accidents of history.

Because to God, each of us is … and all of us are … beloved children of God.

Which is what we need to remember … when we are standing at the crossroads of our lives.

Before we can decide what to do, we need to remember who we are, and we need to remember whose we are.

We are beloved children of God.

And we belong to God.

We know that we are beloved because God says so. God declared, in the very beginning, that we were to be created in God’s image. And what is God’s image, if it is not first and foremost that of love?

Our creation is not a matter of God’s need, for we are not necessary to God. We know that because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we simply cannot be necessary to God. Which means that God wantedus, that God desired us, that God loved us into being.

And isn’t that wonderful news?

To know that we are loved … from before time began, throughout our lives, and until the ages of ages?

Isn’t that what we all are seeking?

Love?

Let me be clear here: I tell this to every infant, every child, every adult I baptize. The most important thing about you, the most important thing you’ll ever need to know in your life is this:

God loves you.

God … loves … you. And you. And you. And you. And you.

As I’m walking each infant, each child, each adult up and down the aisle after the baptism, this is what I tell them.

God loves you.

And don’t you ever forget that!

The most important piece of your identity is this:

You are a beloved child of God.

Nothing else matters. Nothing.

So as we stand at the crossroads of our lives, before we decide to left or right, forward or back, we know who we are – we are the beloved – and we know whose we are: We belong to God.

But … (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)

This identity does not exist in a vacuum.

Our identity comes with responsibility.

Because, you see, we are Christians.

Meaning that we believe, we profess, we confess that we believe in a Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe, we profess, we confess the community of God.

Which means that being created in the image of God means that we are created in the image of community.

We, my friends, are created in love and community to live in love and community.

And that, my friends, is our mission in life.

To live … in love … and community … every moment … of our lives.

• • •

When the prophet Jeremiah spoke of seeking the ancient paths, he wasn’t saying that it was time for us to go back to what so many call the “good old days” that weren’t really that “good.”

No, Jeremiah was telling the inhabitants of Jerusalem that it was time to go even farther back … to the days when the people knew they were God’s beloved, and lived as though they were God’s beloved.

Jeremiah was taking the people back to that time when the Lord proclaimed,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born, I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations. …”

Jeremiah is taking us back to the commands of the Lord:

“… for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,” says the Lord.

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth;

and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.

See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms,

to pluck up and to pull down,

to destroy and to overthrow,

to build and to plant.”[4]

Lest anyone misinterpret these powerful directions, take a moment to think about them.

The command is go into the world (a command that would be reiterated over and over again, culminating with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’s command to do the same, at the moment of his ascension), the command to tear down that which gets in the way of God’s desires, God’s dreams for us so that in its place, we can build and plant that which fulfills God’s desires and dreams for us.

The late lay theologian Verna Dozier explained God’s dream for us; it is, she wrote, a dream of “a good creation of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”[5]

A “good creation of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”

Now, before anyone says (as one of my seminary classmates once did, with great disdain), “Friends? God wants us to be friends? That’s it?!” – he later was ordained), let me remind you: God’s definition of “friend” is not the same as that which most of us use for a definition.

Because when God talks about friendship, God is not talking about the casual acquaintance we may list among our friends. God is not talking about Facebook friends. No, in God’s mind, friendship, true friendship, comes when we abide with God and allow God to abide with us. True friendship is about living in God’s joy, which gives us joy.

On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.[6]

So for Jesus … for God … friendship is not some easy-going, casual, let’s- barbeque-on-the-back-deck-and-have-some-lemonade-to-drink kind of thing.

For God, “friendship” is about commitment to each other (“abide in me as I abide in you”[7]). It is about accountability (“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[8]). It is about love (“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”[9]) It is about obedience (“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”[10]) And it is, truly, about joy – the joy we take in each other (“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[11]).

• • •

Another story:

In World War II, a musician by the name of Larry LaPrise served in the European Theater. After the war, he and some friends moved moved to Sun Valley, Idaho – before it became Sun Valley, really – to ski and sing and work the after-ski crowd in that gorgeous mountain setting.

LaPrise and his friends formed a band called the Ram Trio that entertained the crowds coming off a day of skiing. One of the songs he wrote – or so the story goes – is one that all of us know: The Hokey-Pokey.

You know this song, right? Most of us have sung it and danced to it, usually as kids and then again, for some unknown reason, at weddings.

It goes like this:

You put your right hand in,

you put your right hand out,

you put your right hand in and you shake it all about.

Then you do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around.

That’s what it’s all about.

And you know how the rest of the song follows:

You put your left hand in, then your right leg, then your left leg, then your right side, then your left side (and then, if you want to draw this song out to its extremes), you put your nose in, your backside in, and then your head, and finally … finally! What do you do? … You put your whole self in.

The words “Hokey Pokey” come from the words “hocus pocus,” which most of us know are the words you speak when you’re doing magic. The words “hocus pocus” comes from the Latin phrase, Hoc est corpus meum – “This is my body,” the words the priest speaks when he or she elevates the bread during the Eucharist. In the old days, when the priests would celebrate in great stone cathedrals, they would turn their backs to the people (because that was how it was done in those days), and sign the Mass: Hoc est corpus meum. Their voices would reverberate throughout the cathedrals, and as the echo moved throughout the stone churches and cathedrals, what they would be signing – Hoc est corpus meum – would sound like Hocus pocus (drawn out).

From that term – hocus pocus – LaPrise came up with the Hokey Pokey (although there are some who claim that the song and dance existed in England during the war). In 1949, LaPrise and the Ram Trio recorded the song (now later, there was a lawsuit from people in England who claimed it was their song, but the suit was settled out of court, and that’s another story), and the song soon became nationally known.

• • •

How many of you have ever been to a wedding or a party where the Hokey-Pokey was played?

And how many of you have been called upon to participate in this dance? You may not have wanted to participate, but heck, everyone else was up there, so why not? So someone from the dancing group comes along, and grabs your hand, or waves at you extravagantly, and pretty soon, you’re up there putting your right hand in, and taking your right hand out … right there with the rest of the folks.

Pulled in, whether you wanted to dance or not.

Being a beloved child of God, created in love and community to live in love and community, means that you have been chosen.

Remember the words of Jesus:

“You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[12]

God chose you … each of you … each of us … to participate in the dance, the perichoresis, of the Holy Trinity.

British theologian Alister McGrath defines perichoresis as that which “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of” of others.[13] Now, McGrath and other theologians use perichoresis to describe the interpersonal relationship of the Holy Trinity.

But since we are created in the image of the Holy Trinity, of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we, too, are created to dance in the what McGrath calls the ‘community of being’ … .”[14]

This dance, this perichoresis, is why we were created.

It is the very reason for our existence.

We who have been chosen are chosen, we are appointed “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last … I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.[15]

This is our mission: to go into the world, to love one another as Christ loved us.[16]

As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, as the living embodiment of Christ in this world, is about committing ourselves – every moment of our lives – to living out God’s desires for us.

Desires of friendship – true friendship.

Desires of love – true love.

Desires of community – true community.

Nothing more.

Nothing less.

Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known Benedictine nun, theologian, spiritual director, author, preacher and commentator, says it this way:

Thomas Merton spoke out against the Vietnam War. Catherine of Siena walked the streets of the city feeding the poor. Hildegard of Bingen preached the word of justice to emperors and to popes. Charles de Foucauld lived among the poor and accepted the enemy. Benedict of Nursia sheltered strangers and educated peasants. And so must we do whatever justice must be done in our time if we claim to be serious about really sinking into the heart of God. A spiritual path that does not lead to a living commitment to the coming of the will of God everywhere for everyone is not path at all. It is, at best, a pious morass, a dead end on the way to God.[17]

When we are standing at the crossroads of lives, individually and as a community, trying to decide whether to go right or left, backward or forward, we are called, as beloved children of God, to always choose God’s path, the one that is for everyone.

We who are blessed, we who are chosen, we who have been consecrated since before we were born … we are standing at those crossroads right now.

We know that we are God’s beloved.

We know that we belong to God.

God is stretching God’s hand out to us … right now … right here … in this place, inviting us into the dance.

It’s decision time.

The question is,

Whatchya gonna do?

Are you going to get up and participate in the dance?

As you think about your decision, remember:

We are all on a mission from God, a “journey to the common good,”[18] as theologian Walter Brueggemann labels it, a “a trek that all serious human beings must make, a growth out beyond private interest and sectarian passion”[19] to all of humanity, not for our sake but for God’s sake.

It is not always easy – there will always be nay-sayers, even among us. Choosing the ancient path, the one that will give our souls rest, is hard in a society, a world, that is all about getting ahead, all about making sure that you have more than the Joneses, all about getting-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-get-yours.

Nobel Peace Laureate and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking from his own experience about making the hard decisions and choosing the right paths, affirms for us that “the demonstration of love in action can take us to dangerous places. [But] our love and our own goodness compel us to make choices that self-preservation would eschew.”[20]

Or, if you like, listen to American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who says:

Whatever course you decide upon,

 there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong.

There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe

that your critics are right.

To map out a course of action and follow it requires courage.[21]

But, Tutu points out, “the onerous duty of ‘doing good’ disappears once we recognize that we have no need to impress God with our success. When we really grasp our own goodness, we realize that we have no need to ‘buy’ God’s approval. We are already loved. We are already accepted. When we can accept our acceptance, the texture of life changes. The fear that has held us hostage will release its stranglehold on us.”[22]

So the question we face, as we stand at the crossroads, once again is this:

Whatchya gonna do?

• • •

Tutu ends his book with a love poem, from God, to us. I want us to listen to this poem, written by one of the holiest men of our time, speaking on God’s behalf:

You are my child,

My beloved.

With you I am well pleased.

Stand beside me and see yourself,

Borrow my eyes so you can see perfectly. 

When you look with my eyes then you will see

That the wrong you have done and the good left undone,

The words you have said that should not have been spoken,

The words you should have spoken but left unsaid,

The hurts you have caused,

The help you’ve not given

Are not the whole of the story of you.

You are not defined by what you did not achieve.

Your worth is not determined by success.

You were priceless before you drew your first breath,

Beautiful before dress or artifice,

Good at the core.

And now is time for unveiling

The goodness that is hidden behind the fear of failing.

You shout down your impulse to kindness in case it is shunned,

You suck in your smile,

You smother your laughter,

You hold back the hand that would help.

You crush your indignation

When you see people wronged or in pain

In case all you can do is not enough,

In case you cannot fix the fault,

In case you cannot soothe the searing,

In case you cannot make it right.

What does it matter if you do not make it right?

What does it matter if your efforts move no mountains?

It matters not at all.

It only matters that you live the truth of you. 

It only matters that you push back the veil to let your goodness shine through.

It only matters that you live as I have made you.

It only matters that you are made for me,

Made like me,

Made for goodness.[23]

• • •

So … let’s go back to the Hokey-Pokey. Think again about the last part of the song:

You put your whole self in,

you put your whole self out,

you put your whole self in and you shake it all about.

You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around.

That’s what it’s all about!

Participating in the dance … putting your whole self in … is a commitment not to silliness but to God.

It is a decision to walk in God’s ways and delight in God’s will to the glory of God’s name.

Whatchya gonna do?

Are you going to accept the invitation?

Is anybody willing to dance?

(Stand up … everyone dance … first verse and last verse of the song.)

It’s up to you, folks.

You’ve been invited into the holy dance, the dance of love and community.

Whatchya gonna do?

Amen.

 


[1] From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Cistercian Studies Series, number 59. This is saying 7 of Abba Joseph of Panephysis and appears on page 103.

[2] From “History,” St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, College Park, http://www.saeccp.org/history.php.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jer. 1:4-10, NRSV.

[5] Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1991), 125.

[6]John 15:12-15, NRSV.

[7] John 15:4, NRSV.

[8] Micah 6:8, NRSV.

[9] John 15:9, NRSV.

[10] John 15:10, NRSV.

[11] John 15:11, NRSV.

[12] John 15:16, NRSV.

[13] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, 325, emphasis added.

[14] Ibid.

[15] John 15:16-17, NRSV.

[16] John 13:34, Ephesians 5:2, NRSV.

[17] Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pa., from Good for the Soul, http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/chittister_4910.htm, sermon preached on 4 December 2005, accessed 9 September 2011, emphasis added.

[18] Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, 2.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, Kindle locations 432-433.

[21] This quote is thought to have come from Emerson, although no source can be found.

[22] Tutu, locations 2266-2269.

[23] Ibid, Kindle locations 2359-2385.

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Go ahead: I dare you. I double dare you!

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

       ‎In the summer of 2003, I attended the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, out in Minneapolis. You all know that Convention – that’s the one where Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire was consented to by the Deputies and Bishops. If you remember, after the House of Deputies consented to Gene’s election, but before the Bishops voted, allegations of sexual misconduct were raised against Gene.

My job at General Convention is not to be a deputy but to be a reporter for the Diocese of Virginia’s daily newspaper, the Center Aisle. Because I spent so many years as a journalist, I also spend time as an informal adviser to the secular press who come to cover Convention and often don’t know very much about the Church, about who we are and what we believe, much less what we do.

When the controversy erupted over the misconduct allegations, I was but one of many Episcopalians trying to explain to the world that an allegation made between votes by the separate Houses was something new to us; that no, we actually did not have anything in our canons that covered this; no, we were not trying to hide anything from the world, and that yes, that we were investigating the allegations, for which we had a procedure.

       Forty-eight hours later, it turned out that the allegations were not valid, that Gene had not been involved in sexual misconduct, and the charges were dropped.

        Now, what was interesting is that as soon as that happened, my friends in the media rushed to ask, “What will you all do now? Will there be retribution against the person who made the allegations? Will Gene or the Church retaliate?” They were practically daring us to live out our revenge, our retribution, on the front pages of their newspapers and at the top of their newscasts.

         But we didn’t. We didn’t retaliate. There was no retribution. We simply asked forgiveness, gave forgiveness, sought understanding, and most of all, we loved.

         We did such a good job that a few days later, the Dallas Morning News, in an editorial, wrote:

         “…We have been struck by the calm and deliberative process the Episcopalians followed in reaching their conclusion. … Watching these Episcopalians of all beliefs reason their way through their disagreement on this issue could serve as a guidepost for the larger society. … Perhaps their thoughtfulness and mutual respect for one another on this issue will have a positive impact on how all of us Americans carry on our larger societal debates. At least we hope so.”

Now, I know that you, more than the majority of the Church, know how much pain the ultimate decision to consent to Gene Robinson’s election, and his subsequent consecration caused. You lost your home. You’ve spent the last four-and-a-half years in exile.

But you did not retaliate. You have not sought retribution. Instead, you have focused on the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who told us exactly how he wanted us to act as Church in this morning’s Gospel.

            Jesus says, If a brother or sister (and yes, he actually says “brother,” which in the Greek would include “sister,” and not just a “member of the Church”), if a brother or sister sins against you, go talk with him or her. Try to work it out.

            If that doesn’t work, Jesus says, go get one or two others, and all of you go talk to the one who has sinned against you.

            And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, well, heck, tell the whole church (and here Jesus does say Church), and try to work it out in church.

            And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, well, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

            Now, most people believe that in this passage, Jesus is telling us, “If you can’t convince a person that you are right and he or she is wrong, cast that person out. Make him an outsider. Turn your back on her. Shun that person.”

             But I don’t believe that’s what Jesus means. In fact, I think that right here, Jesus is being both subversive and subtle. Because he certainly didn’t do what most people think he did. He didn’t shun Gentiles and tax collectors, did he?

            Remember, this is the man who healed the centurion’s servant, who was a Gentile. (Matthew 8:13) He was the one who casted the demons out of the two demoniacs in Gadarene, which was Gentile territory. (Matt. 8:28-34) He healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman, a Gentile, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. (Matt. 15:22-28)

            And did he not say that we are to “go … and make disciples of all nations (meaning, the Gentiles), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”? (Matthew 28:19-20a)

            Jesus treated Gentiles with love and compassion, not with hatred and condemnation. He did not exclude them. He welcomed them in, showered them with love, healed their sick, fed them, preached to them, prayed over them.

            And how did he treat the tax collectors? Well, you know all those examples I just gave you? They come from Matthew’s Gospel … Matthew, the tax collector, whom Jesus called to be one of his disciples, a member of the inner circle, (Matt. 9:9-13), who was sent out by Jesus (Matt. 10), along with the other 11 disciples, to preach, teach, pray with and heal.

            What I’m saying is this: When Jesus said to treat those who disagree with us, who sin against us, as Gentiles and tax collectors, he was not telling us to turn our backs on them, to disparage them, to make them outcasts. Not if the examples from Jesus’ own life and ministry are to make any sense to us.

            In essence, Jesus was saying, Go ahead. I dare you. I double dare you. Treat those people the way I do: Love them!

            If you read Matthew the way most people do, which I think is the wrong way, you end up excluding people. And you all know about that – because that’s what happened with you.

            But if you read Matthew the way I think Jesus intended for us to read it, then you end up loving people. You end up doing exactly what Paul says in his Epistle to the Church in Rome:

            Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this word, Love your neighbor as yourself.

            Love, Paul says, does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

           The great German theologian Karl Barth, in his commentary on this epistle, sums up Paul’s words this way: “Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world, and it ought to continue without interruption.”[1]           

            Even when people sin against us.

Imagine what would happen if we actually took Jesus at his word, if we actually took him up on his dare and dared to love people, no matter what? Imagine what the world would look like then?

You all already know what it looks like when people read Matthew as permission to exclude. And you all already know what it looks like when you read Matthew as an injunction to include.

Now imagine what would happen if everyone read Jesus’ words as a dare to love … Wouldn’t that be a protest against the course of this world?

We live in a society where partisanship is our way of life. Look at the gridlock in Washington, just across the river. Look at it! Our leaders – with a whole lot of help from the rest of us (and yes, we are just as guilty as the politicians and their staffs are) – can’t get anything done because everyone, it seems, is committed to excluding, to condemning, to making sure that our way is the only way.

Is anyone in Washington – anyonedaring to take Jesus up on his dare?

You and I both know there are some people who are attempting to do this, but louder, more strident voices are drowning them out.

Which is where we come in.

We, who follow Jesus, are the ones who are called to set the example. To say to others, “Wait. There’s a better way.”

To say, “Actually, Jesus didn’t mean we were to shut people out. Jesus wants us to love one another, and we can’t do that if we exclude them.”

And we are the ones who are called to love one another – again and again, no matter how hard that is, no matter how many times we want to walk away, no matter now many times others walk away from us.

           We are the ones who have to dare to stand up against the vitriol, dare to include those with whom we disagree, dare to be with those who do not like us, much less love us.

My friends, this Gospel, which so many have used to exclude and to hate, is really a command to include and to love. It’s an instruction manual about how we are to love one another even when we don’t like each other, even when others are pushing every button we have, annoying us, hurting us, making us feel like dirt. In Jesus’ eyes, none of that matters.

Because above all else, we are still called to love.

One person at a time, one community at a time.

Edward Everett Hale, a 19th century author, historian and Unitarian minister, points the way for us when he says:

I am only one.

            But I am still one.

            I cannot do everything.

            But still I can do something:

            And because I cannot do everything

            I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.[2]

Each of us, alone, may not be able to do much.

But all of us, together, can change the world.

Jesus is daring us to do that. In fact, he’s double-daring us.

To love.

Amen.

 Sermon preached on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A, at The Falls Church (Episcopal), Falls Church, Va., on 4 September 2011.

 

[1] Karl Barth, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 492.

[2] Edward Everett Hale, “The One,” via Emergent Village Daily Communique, 29 August 2011.

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