Proscar

Ephesians 4:1-16

For the past nine days, I have joined millions of people around the world to watch the Olympics, one of my absolutely favorite sporting events.

I love the Olympics. As a newspaper editor, I covered them from 1976 to 1996. As a fan, I’ve seen the games since 1968, although I have missed them since I went overseas on 2005. Every four years, I get caught up in them, summer and winter, and revel in them for hours on end. Ask my housemate and she will tell you: I live in front of the TV.

I love watching the big names like Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas and Dannel Leyva, because then I see near perfection in a sport.

And I love seeing a 15-year-old child, swimmer Katie Ladecky, do the unexpected in the 800-meter freestyle the other night. She lead from start to finish, and the whole time, the commentators, one of whom is a medal-winning swimmer himself, kept saying, “She has to slow down! She has to pace herself!” But Ladecky didn’t, and she won her race decisively, almost beating the world record, because she doesn’t “know” that she needs to take it easy and swim strategically.

And then there are the special athletes for whom I cheer, the ones who compete despite the incredible odds against them. Men like Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee from South Africa, the man called the Blade Runner. He was born without fibulae and drew up wearing prostheses. He’s a champion in the Paralympics and had to fight for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes. Watching him run the other day was inspiring!

If you read yesterday morning’s Washington Post, you know that these Games arethe first in which every country sent women athletes as well as men. Jacques Rogge, the head of the IOC, cracked down this year and told every country: “If you want to compete, you had better send some women as well.” For the first time in the history of the modern Olympics, there are women on every team.

Women like Afghan sprinter Tahmina Kohistani, whose Olympics lasted all of 14.5 seconds, when she ran – and came in last – in her 100-meters preliminary heat. Kohistani bettered her personal record in that race. And then there is Saudi judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, who competes in judo, the first woman ever to do so from her country. Her Olympics lasted all of 75 seconds before she was knocked down. What is amazing about both of these women is that they competed despite receiving death threats from Muslim fundamentalists.

And then … and then there are the underdogs, whom I love so much. Men like “Eddie the Eagle,” the British ski jumper who could barely ski jump in 1988. And “Eric the Eel” from Equatorial Guinea who barely knew how to swim and who had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool! Heck, he’d never seen a 25-meter pool. He did all of his training in a hotel swimming pool. Remember him? In 2000, he was in a preliminary heat with two other men who were disqualified for false starts, so Eric the Eel ended up swimming all the 100 meters all alone … and barely made it. I’m not kidding: He was dog paddling the last 10 meters and people thought he might drown!

Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel have been joined by “Hamadou the Hippo,” the rower from Niger who has only been rowing for three months – three months! – and yet still rowed his heart out in London.[1] He was last in his heat and was doing so poorly – heck, it looked like he was going to stroke out – that even the announcer was encouraging him: “You can do it!”

These athletes inspire me, truly they do, because they represent the Olympic ideal of faster, higher, stronger – even when they come to the competition on special exemptions.

But you want to know who really has inspired me in the last nine days?

Nathan Sorrell.

Do you know him?

Does that name ring a bell?

No?

Oh, you should pay attention to him. I’ve seen Nathan running in London perhaps four times now, and every time I watch him on TV, I think to myself: “Yes. This is truly inspiring.

I’m actually not surprised you don’t know Nathan, because, well, because he isn’t exactly running in London, England. He’s actually running in London, Ohio.

And he’s not running in the Olympics, either.

You see, Nathan is the 12-year-old overweight boy running – OK, he’s rather trudging – in the Nike commercial that is airing during the Olympics. The commercial is fascinating. It opens up on a country road, and you hear, in the background smack, smack, smack (stamp feet on ground for each step), and if you listen closely, you can hear pant … pant as well. When he comes into view, you can see that his shirt is soaked in sweat and his face is bright red from the exertion … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … and you can tellthat this “run” of his is just plain hard.

As you watch him trudge along, you hear a voice talking about greatness. Nike’s ‘Find Your Greatness’

“Somehow, we’ve come to believe that greatness is a gift reserved for a chosen few … for prodigies … or superstars. … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … And the rest of us can only stand by watching,” it says. [And isn’t that the truth. We do believe that greatness is only for the special few. The rest of us? Well, we’re just plain old us, aren’t we?] … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant

But, the voiceover says as Nathan keeps running, “You can forget that. Greatness is not some rare DNA strand. Not some precious thing. … Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. … We’re all capable of it. … All of us.”[2]smack, smack, smack, pant, pant

The final shot? Nathan’s labored efforts, with the words “Find your greatness” superimposed over him.

Find your greatness.”

If ever you wanted to find a modern translation of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this morning, that’s it.

Paul is begging the Ephesians to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

Or, as Nike puts it, “Find your greatness.”

Paul says that each of us – each and every one of us – has been given a gift by God, some, he says, to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors, some to be teachers.

All of us have gifts, and all of us, he says, are to use our gifts. That’s how we live lives worthy of our calling. We find our greatness.

Now, Paul is clear, in this letter to the Ephesians, that the only way to lead lives worthy of our calling is to love one another, not merely as we love ourselves – because, face it, far too often we don’t love ourselves very much, do we? – but to love one another as Christ loved us.

It’s a pretty tall order, this living our lives in love.

And frankly, far too often we think we can’t do it.

Oh, we know it can be done. All we have to do is look back across history to know that living a life of love is possible. All we have to do is name those who have been great examples of that love.

People like, oh, say, Mother Teresa.

Or Gandhi.

Or Martin Luther King Jr.

They all lived lives worthy of their calling, didn’t they?

But us?

How often do we say to ourselves, “I can’t do that.”

How often do we say, “I’m not good enough.”

Or, “I can’t love like that.”

Or, “I could never do that … it’s too hard … too stressful … I’d have to give up too much … go too far … suffer too much.”

But the fact is, my friends, we aren’t called to be Mother Teresa. Or Gandhi. Or Martin Luther King Jr. either.

We are called to be ourselves … to find our own greatness as beloved children of God, created in God’s very own image – living as God created us to live, in love and community.

Paul is begging us to figure out how we are going to live in love and community.

He is begging us to find our own greatness.

He’s not saying, “You have to be great like … (fill in the blank).” He’s saying, “Be the great person God created you to be.”

Sometimes that greatness will be feeding the hungry – even if it’s just one person at a time.

Sometimes that greatness will be caring for a sick friend.

Sometimes, it will be listening to someone who doesn’t need us to solve her problem, but to simply be present for her.

I don’t know what your greatness will be – heck, there are days when I have no idea what my greatness will be. All I know is that each of us has greatness in us.

Because God gives it to us.

Never, not in a hundred years, could we swim like Michael Phelps, or twist and turn through the air like Gabby Douglas.  Most of us will never face death threats, like those brave women, Tahmina Kohistani and Wojdan Shaherkani.

Heck, most of us aren’t even good enough to be Eddie the Eagle or Eric the Eel or Hamadou the Hippo.

Most of us, when we are honest, are far more like Nathan Sorrell, trudging along a country road in the middle of nowhere … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … . We’re not great athletes. We’re not going to compete in the Olympics.

We’re just trudging through our lives … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … trying to do the best we can, trying to be the best we can.

But we don’t have to be the best ever.

We simply have to be the best we can be.

What is your greatness?

Because the Nike ad is right: We are all capable of greatness.

Now go find it!

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, Year B, at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, 5 August 2012.

 

[1] Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards was the British ski jumping champion who couldn’t jump worth spit in the 1988 Olympics. Eric “the Eel” Moussambani was the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who achieved fame with his flailing doggy paddle at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. And Hamadou “the Hippo” Djibo Issaka is the rower from Niger who got into this year’s Olympics not because he knows how to row, but because of a special exemption in order to promote rowing.

[2] Nike™ Commercial via Kim Painter, USA Today, “Nathan Sorrell, 12, inspires in Nike’s ‘Find your greatness’ ad,” http://yourlife.usatoday.com/health/healthyperspective/post/2012-08-02/nathan-sorrell-12-inspires-in-nikes-find-your-greatness-ad/817082/1

 

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For four years from 2005 to 2009, I was an Appointed Missionary of The Episcopal Church, serving in Sudan. That means that I was your missionary, representing you, to the people of Sudan, the largest nation in Africa.

I was there at the end of a long civil war, a 23-year civil war, and I lived on the border between North and South, where Northerners met Southerners, where Arabs met Blacks, where Muslims met Christians. I lived in an area that is now the northernmost point of the new country of South Sudan.

The area in which I lived, called Renk, was an area during which the 23-year civil war, the North was in control. Which meant there was no fighting going on. So people would flock to Renk from all over South Sudan, so that they could avoid a brutal civil war.

By the time I got there, the town was about 3,000 people and we had members of least 15 different tribes living in this small town. Now this is highly unusual in South Sudan, because that was a country, still to this day, where your tribe counts – more than anything else. Not the nation in which you live, not the region in which you live, but what tribe you belong to.

Because we had people from so many tribes living in South Sudan, it meant that our common language was Arabic, the language of the oppressors of the North. We didn’t speak classical Arabic; we actually spoke what is known as Sudani Creole, meaning, “Heaven forfend we should bother to conjugate a verb.” We never conjugated our verbs; that’s what Creole means.

And so the language I spoke, and the language in which I still pray, is Arabic. But every once in a while, people would challenge me on this and want to know why I was not learning the language of the predominant tribe in the area in which I lived. That tribe is more commonly known as Dinka; they are correctly known as the Jieng.

It was very important for them, they thought, that I spoke their language because then I would be proclaiming that I belonged to their tribe.

Well, one day, I was up in Khartoum, in the capital of what was then the whole country, now the capital of the northern part known as Sudan, and we were sitting on the street corner of a dusty road, and we were drinking tea, because Starbucks in Sudan – wait a minute, no, I’m up in New England – Dunkin’ Donuts in Sudan is out on a log, and the lady makes your coffee or your tea over a little open charcoal fire.

And so a bunch of us were sitting out there, and dusk was coming, so the heat was coming down, and we were drinking our tea, and these three young men, who did not know me – but they knew I was a white person, and they knew I was with the Church – challenged me. “What tribe do you belong to?” they said.

Now, I have to tell you by this time, I was tired as spit of this question. I was tired of being told I had to declare for one of the tribes, when I had friends in all 15 of the tribes in my own town. I was tired of being told I had to learn one of the tribal languages, which would exclude, necessarily, all the other people.

And so I looked at these young men and said, “I belong to the most important tribe there is. I belong to the tribe of God.

They looked at me, and I said, “There is nothing more important, nothing else I need to know in my life. I belong to the tribe of God.”

I went back to my town, and I found out that word was spreading, that people were saying, “Lauren is refusing to join any of our tribes because she belongs to the tribe of God.”

And that is what the Church in South Sudan is doing. The Church in South Sudan is breaking down those barriers, overcoming those barriers, crossing all the boundaries, so that they can proclaim that all of us are indeed of one tribe, the tribe of God.

My friends, I need to tell you, this is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesians this morning. Now if you go back and look at the letter to the Ephesians – which I highly recommend you do – take a look at what Paul is saying in there.

I’m going to tell you that lots of preachers right now are talking about how this is a way in which we’re supposed to come together in unity and stop arguing over the color of the carpet in your church.[1]

This is the time when we’re supposed to stop arguing over whether we heat the water in the bathrooms. That’s how this letter is used – very mildly, very tamely.

Anybody who uses it that way, though, is not paying any attention to Paul. Because this letter of Paul, this section of Paul’s letter? This is a cry for revolution!

This is a cry to turn over the powers and principalities which in Paul’s day were known as Rome.

In the days when Paul walked the earth, people were segregated. They were segregated by their tribes, their race, their ethnicity, their language, and most of all, by their jobs. You didn’t get to choose what job you had in those days. If you were born into a family of farmers, you were going to be a farmer. If you were born in a fisherman’s family, you were going to fish. If you were born into a tentmaker’s family, you were going to make tents. This was not an option. This is how society worked. And people gathered together around their jobs, and then they subdivided around their race, their ethnicity, and their language. That was how you got protection. They formed unions to take care of each other. If you got sick, and your family was a thousand miles away, the union took care of you. You paid your dues in, and they took care of you. Everybody was subdivided that way, and Rome used this to rule the world. They

made sure that everybody knew their little place, and by God, don’t you ever get out of place. Because any time you tried to get out of place, it was like Whack-a-Mole™ – whack! And they would knock you down.

So what is Paul talking about in his letter to the Ephesians? He’s talking about those who were aliens and strangers now being joined together. The circumcised – the Jews – and the uncircumcised – the Gentiles – are now coming together. He’s talking about tearing down all the barriers, all the boundaries; he’s talking about tearing down the walls that divide us, so that we could all unite in the one tribe that matters, the tribe of God.

He is preaching sedition.
“Let me just send a nice little letter to the people in the church. ‘Dear People of the Church of St. James in Amesbury, Massachusetts: RISE UP! TEAR DOWN YOUR WALLS! IT’S TIME FOR REVOLUTION!’” This is subversive.

That’s what Paul is doing!

He’s calling for a revolution. No wonder the Romans couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Paul was doing the same thing that Jesus did. He was changing people. He was changing society.

My friends, this is our call. In this day and age. We are hearing a clarion call to subversion, to revolution, to tear down the walls!

Now I know y’all know something about tearing down walls. Because I understand you had to tear down this wall (in the back of the church) down to its bare basics, and change out the window. You had to do something different, and you had to rebuild it.

That’s what you are being called to do in society.

So that nobody ever says, “What tribe do you belong to? What tribe do you belong to?” and separates you out. Nobody says, “So what do you do for a living,” knowing that you can only hang out with people who do the exact same thing.

The revolution we’re being called to participate in, the revolution we’re being called to lead, is to tear down all the walls so that we can all proclaim that we … belong … to the … tribe … of God. And that the tribe of God is the only tribe that counts.

It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what your age is, doesn’t matter where you came from, it doesn’t matter the language you speak. Nothing matters at all; that’s all gravy. The only thing that matters is that you are a beloved child of God and belong to the tribe of God, and that’s it. Everything else? Meh! That’s just the way the genetics worked out. It’s a chemical crapshoot. It’s not important.

The revolution we are being called to lead, my friends, is a revolution that lets every person in the community, every person in the world, know that they belong. It’s a way of saying to every person, “You are a beloved child of God.” It’s a way of saying, “God loves you. And God loves you. And you. And you. And you. And you. And you. That God loves you. And you. That God loves you. And you. And you. And you.

If we all belong to the tribe of God, and we’re all beloved children of God, then our call is to live out that love in the world.

Now I want to take a moment to kind of do a sidestep in this sermon and to address something that I know is on everybody’s hearts and minds, which are the shootings out in Aurora, Colorado, that took place on Thursday night/Friday morning. Where a young man, for unknown reasons, walked into a movie theater and shot 70 people, killing 12 of them.

We don’t know why he did it. We know enough of this young man’s history to know that he is brilliant. He was a PhD candidate soaring through his program in psychology. And then something happened. And we don’t know what.

Well, I can tell you this:

If we were all out there proclaiming revolution, proclaiming the revolutionary idea that you are a beloved child of God and you belong to the tribe of God, I can tell you that incidents like this would happen a whole lot less.

Was this this young man’s cri de couer, “Pay attention to me, notice me, let know that I’m important”?

I don’t know.

But if we take the time to let each person know that they are important, that they are beloved, that they are accepted, that they belong, I am telling you there will be fewer incidents like this.

Paul is telling us to tear down the walls. If we tear down the walls, more people will belong, more people will understand that they are beloved, and fewer people will do what Mr. Holmes did in Aurora, Colorado, at 1 o’clock in the morning on Friday.

I want to step back in and tell you that for two weeks, I was at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. It was my fifth General Convention, and I love going. I love going to big family reunions where we engage the entire world and stare at our navels at the exact same moment! I love it when we have amendments to the amendments to the substitution, call the question! I love what we do at General Convention. I walked out of this particular General Convention, where we as a church said, “By God, we’re going to include people. All means all, and all belong, and all are beloved children of God.”

I walked out of that Convention going, “Yes! Finally we’re beginning to get it.” And I walked right to the airport, smack dab into an article in The Wall Street Journal, where some guy in New York says, “I’m an Episcopalian. I didn’t like what they did. They have lost their way. Those Episcopalians are too liberal. Those Episcopalians are just following society.” And then he told a bunch of lies about what we did there. It would help if he had paid attention. But he actually did not pay any attention, and so he was misquoting us 17 ways from Sunday, and he said we did things we hand’t done, and I’m like, “Dude. You so missed that boat.”

I was ready to write him off. Until The New York Times, on Sunday, last week, decided to run an article by Ross Douthat, who is – for some unknown reason – supposed to be the spokesman in the country right now about the future of Christianity. I don’t know why – because he says we’re dead.

And he turns around and he says, “The liberal Episcopalians are doing nothing, except following society. The liberal Episcopalians have no idea what their theology is. The liberal Episcopalians” – he must have called us that like, 14 times – and I’ll tell you something. You know what my answer is?

We are not following society willy-nilly. We are dragging society forward to where God wants us to be! We are at the forefront of saying to people, “Enough! Tear down the damn walls! Everybody belongs! All really does mean all!” God does not differentiate. God doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re in, and you’re out.”

There are no “us’s” and “thems” in God’s very good creation, folks. There are no “us’s” and “thems.” God does not say, “Well, I don’t like you. But I like you.” God doesn’t run around doing that! God says, “You are my beloved.”

God created us in God’s image, an image of love – because we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot be necessary. So guess what? That means God loved us into being. That God desired us into being. So it means that we are each beloved.

And because we are Trinitarians, we are Christians, we believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, we believe in community. Because nowhere in the way we read the Scriptures do God the Father and God the Son go off and do the work while God the Holy Spirit is over here, drinking a martini. If they’re drinking martinis, they’re all doing it together! If they’re working, they’re all doing it together. We’re created in that image. That means we’re created in community.

So, we are created in love and in community to live in love and in community. And The Episcopal Church is leading the way in doing this by saying, “All does mean all. There will be no more walls! You come into this church, we baptize you, you have access to everything in the church.” We’re no longer going to say, “Well, we’ll baptize you, we’ll confirm you, but we won’t marry you. We won’t let you be a priest. Or we’ll let you be a priest, but you can’t be a bishop. Uh, uh, uh, uh, we have limits.” No! Because there are no limits to God’s love.

That’s what Paul is talking about in this morning’s epistle. It’s not some namby-pamby-don’t-argue-over-the-color-of-the-carpet-in-the-church.

He’s calling us to revolution.

And I want to know:

Are you all ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries?

Are you ready to go into the world and to show the world a whole new way to live?

Are you ready to be bold? (A young teen cries out, “Yes!”)

You are! Good!

Are you ready to be bold and to say, “All means all”? That each of you is a beloved child of God?

I’ve got one volunteer here, do I have any more?

How many of you want to be told you don’t belong? How many of you want to stand at that door and be told, “You can’t come in”? Anybody here?

If you’re not willing to be excluded, if you are not willing to be told that you are not loved, then how dare you exclude? And how dare you tell anybody that they are not loved? Because then you have to answer, not to me, not to Susan, not to your bishop. You have to answer to God.

The only question God will ask you, when you get to those pearly gates: “Did you love?”

Tear down the walls that get in the way of God’s love.

Tear down the walls that separate us as a society.

Tear down the walls that keep us in, and them out, because there are no “us’s” and “thems.”

My friends, we’re supposed to be revolutionaries!

Are you ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries for God?

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B, at St. James Episcopal Church, Amesbury, Mass., 22 July 2012.


[1] Sally A. Brown, Princeton Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1&alt=1

 

 

 

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Words of hatred, words of grace: We must choose

A column written for McClatchy-Tribune News Service

By Lauren R. Stanley

The other day, I received a phone call from the garage where I had had my car worked on twice in two weeks. I was already on the phone, so I couldn’t take the call. But as soon as possible, I listened to the message, fearing something else was wrong with my car.

“Hi, this is …,” the owner of the business said. “You had your car back for service last week. Just calling to say thank you for bringing it back. Thank you.”

That’s it: Just a quick message meant to build a relationship with a new customer.

That’s the level of discourse I would like to see in this country – a simple “thank you” – rather the diatribes that fill the airwaves and jam the social networks.

Especially right now, in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, vitriol dominates our lives. Fingers are pointing and awful  words are being said about the shootings, about who said what that might have incited a mentally ill young man to kill  six and wound 14 others.

But our need to harm each other, to sear each other’s souls with words of hatred, isn’t limited to the shootings.

If you listen to the ubiquitous talk shows, you know what I mean. There, words of hatred are shouted hourly, threats are  made daily. Vitriol is the currency, and we have only ourselves to blame, for we are the ones who listen, who support, who participate.

Or look at Facebook, where seemingly innocuous events cause people to declare their desire to “castrate” someone (that was for a snow closing), to put others in the “cross-hairs” (those generally center on politics), to “get” yet another person who has somehow disappointed or displeased us.

And dip into – if you dare – Twitter, where people threaten each other daily. I pray that those who Tweet are not seriously considering acting upon their threats, but who knows these days?

If nothing else, the shootings in Arizona have shown that we have lost the ability to communicate with kindness.

In our rush to comment, we have forgotten how to set a guard over our mouths, how to keep our tongues for evil and our lips from speaking deceit, as the Psalmist warns us.

We have forgotten that as beloved children of God – which all of us are, whether we like it or not – the writer of Proverbs warns us that we must watch over our mouths and our tongues if we want to keep out of trouble. Rash words are like sword thrusts, Proverbs says, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

The writer of Ephesians follows up on that: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

“Give grace to those who hear …”

Would that that were happening right now in this country particularly.

What has happened to us that we have forgotten how to give grace, how to speak words that build up? Why are we so eager to blame, to hurt, to disparage? And when … when? … did we stop teaching people to be careful with their words?

This is not a diatribe against anyone in particular on the left or the right. This is not about politics, or gun control, or even the appalling lack of care for those who are mentally ill.

This is a discussion – I hope, I pray – about how we can find our way to being decent to each other.

We spend an inordinate amount of time disparaging others and speaking words of violence (really, who in the world wants to castrate someone over a snow closing? Does the person who wrote that even know how to do that? Or what it means?). We curse, we threaten, we denigrate, we abuse, we attack. We use words to hurt, to injure, to wound.

Why?

What purpose does it serve? It might make us feel better in that moment, but when we look  at what we have wrought – an atmosphere of hatred – do we still feel better then?

St. James wrote, “With (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and curing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

St. Peter added, “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit.”

Our words, our comments, have meaning and they have impact. When we choose to speak dark words, are we really surprised when darkness envelops us?

But when we speak words of grace, healing results. Isn’t that what we want in our own lives? And if so, isn’t that what we should want in the lives of others?

It really isn’t that hard to speak words of grace. A simple “thank you,” such as the message left for me by the business owner, can be so powerful.

If we want to improve our lives, and the lives of those around us, if we want to heal our ailing world, first, we need to guard our mouths.

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