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Matthew 2:1-12

And now we come to what one commentator calls the “’Adults-Only’ Nativity Story,”[1] Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus, the one without the census-taking, without the “no-room-at-the-inn” rejection, without the stable or the manger or the animals, without the angels or the shepherds, without the pondering in Mary’s heart.

Unlike Luke’s Gospel, in Matthew, we skip the birth narrative and go straight to the Epiphany, to the moment when wise men show up from the East, declaring that the child they seek is the King of the Jews.

We know this story. We’ve just heard the Gospel, just sung the song: The wise men (some say three) follow a star (some say for two years), until they find the Christ Child in a house (a house, mind you, not a stable) in Bethlehem (on this, Matthew and Luke agree). The visitors drop to their knees, offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (myrrh? The stuff you use to embalm a body???), and then leave, going home “by another road.”

But what if the story were told from a different perspective? What if, instead, we were to hear the story not of three wise men from the East, but of three wise women?

No, I’m not talking about that old joke about how the women would have asked for directions, gotten there sooner, made dinner and brought di-dis …[2]

I’m talking, instead, about a whole different approach to the Epiphanyt story, one that comes from retired Bishop Steven Charleston, a Choctaw and Native American bishop of The Episcopal Church:[3]

Three wise women set out to follow the star.

Each ended the journey and gave away her treasure along the way.

One dropped out when she was needed to heal the sick during a plague.

The second stayed behind to help prevent a war with her leadership.

The last remained in a great city to provide for the poor.

When the star left the heavens each awoke the next day to discover a gift placed beside her while she slept.

They never solved this mystery, but the meaning is clear:

They had arrived at their destination even though they had not completed their journey.

My friends, the Epiphany is not about the news that the Messiah has come into our lives. It is the story of what we are supposed to do with our lives.

For just as the Magi – two of them? Three of them? Heck, could have been 100 of them, as far as we know – came to make manifest to us the Good News that God is here for all the world, so we are to make that Good News manifest as well.

We are not here this morning to celebrate the arrival of Jesus in our lives.

We are here to celebrate what that arrival means in our lives.

We are here, my friends, to celebrate the revelation, the great “Aha!”, the epiphany that God came into the world, as one of us, to show us, in no uncertain terms, that God loves us.

And not just us not just those of us gathered here in this church … but all of us. The people we know. The people we don’t know. The people we love. And the people we could easily do without.

Brass tacks, my friend: Epiphany shows us the mission of our lives. The mission of living out God’s love with ALL of God’s beloved people.

I do not want us to leave this place this day thinking, “Epiphany – been there, done that, will do it again next year.”

Because Epiphany isn’t some one-day, one-off celebration that we do once a year and then forget until the next Jan. 6.

Epiphany is the revelation of God’s marching orders for our lives.

Marching orders that boil down to one thing, and one thing only:

Love.

Howard Thurman, the great theologian and civil rights leader, was speaking of this day when he wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.[4]

This is the day, my friends, when we turn the joy, the celebration, the glory of Christmas, into the work of the rest of our lives.

Instead of focusing so intently on what we want – more money, more security, less fear, more stability … losing weight, or running that marathon … the Epiphany of our Lord asks us to focus on what God wants … for us, and for all of his beloved people.

And what God wants is for us to live in love, every moment of our lives, in every place, with every person … whether we like them or not.

Imagine … just imagine … what life would be like if we were like those women of whom Bishop Charleston speaks?

What would life be like if we stopped our hell-bent journeys that focus so much on getting ahead and getting what we want, in order to heal the sick?

What would life be like if we stopped to prevent a war?

Or to provide for the poor?

Imagine what life would be like if we spent our lives doing what Rev. Thurman said …

… finding the lost?

… healing the broken?

… feeding the hungry?

… releasing the prisoners?

… rebuilding the nations?

… bringing peace?

… making music?

In a few minutes, we will baptize little Zoe Rose DiBiase, daughter of Lexy Rouse. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if she were to grow up knowing that her whole life is centered in love? That God loves her from before time began to the ages of ages? And that all God wants her to do with her life is to love?

And so, for little Zoe this morning, and for all of us every day, let us listen to yet another great theologian, Mother Teresa, who has the best guidance I know of for how to live our lives:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.

            Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.

            Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.

            Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you.

            Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.

           Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.

            Be happy anyway.

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.

           Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt.

            Give the world your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

            It was never between you and them anyway.[5]

It is Epiphany, my friends. The day when we receive our marching orders … orders to go into the world, and to love.

So …

Go!

Go on! Go love!

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2013, Year C, at St. Paul’s on the Hill, Winchester, Va.



[1] David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, “The ‘Adults-Only’ Nativity Story,” WorkingPreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=653.

[2] What would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts. (Anonymous)

[3] The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, Choctaw, Daily Devotions.

[4] Howard Thurman, “Christmas Poem,” via Facebook.

[5] http://prayerfoundation.org/mother_teresa_do_it_anyway.htm

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Don’t be a Pekinese …

Mark 9:2-9

                 This past week, two news stories having to do with perfection captured my attention.

                  The first story was that of the 136th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, where 2,000 dogs were primped and pampered, walked and watched, poked and prodded until, finally, one dog was judged Best in Show.

Now, I’m going to admit upfront: I did not like the results. The winner was a 4-year-old Pekinese named Malachy that to me looked like little more than a waddling dust mop. Me? I was pulling for the proud German shepherd … or the stately Doberman pinscher … or that gorgeous Irish setter. To me, those are dogs. But Pekinese, especially show-worthy Pekinese? Not my idea of perfection.

And make no mistake: The Westminster show is all about perfection. It’s about choosing which dog best exemplifies the written standard of “the ideal … of that breed, written by the breed’s national club.”[1]

By the time the dogs get to the group competition, they have been judged best in their breed. In the group portion, they are not competing against each other. They are competing against those written standards … choosing which of the best of each breed is, in turn, the best of that group.

In the final portion, they again are not competing against each other. They are competing against a standard … a standard of perfection.

That little Pekinese? The final judge thought he – and not the beautiful Irish setter, not the proud Doberman pinscher, not the exquisite German shepherd, and not the other three finalists (about which I truly didn’t care) – was as close to perfection as you could get this year.

The second news story that captured my attention appeared in The Washington Post on Friday morning under the headline: “Genome news flash: We’re all a little bit broken.” The reporter, David Brown, began the article in this way:

We’ve all had cars with a bunch of broken parts that get us where we want to go for years with no obvious problem. Does the human genome have the same tolerance for permanent damage?

The answer is: Sure.

A new study estimates that the average person goes through life with 20 genes permanently out of commission. With each of us possessing about 20,000 genes, that means 0.1 percent of our endowment is broken from the start – and we don’t even know it.

Whether being born with 20 broken genes is horrifying (“Get me customer service!”) or reassuring (“Whew, only 20!”) depends on one’s expectations of perfection.[2]

And there we have that idea of perfection again – this time, the news that unlike that little Pekinese that won the dog show the other night, none of us – none of us – is perfect! Each one of us, created in the very image of God, is flawed. Some parts of us are broken from the very start.

Now it turns out that the 20 genes (on average) that don’t work in our bodies don’t matter all that much. The ones that “go missing … aren’t involved in essential functions,” Brown wrote. “They control things that are nice to have (like a certain smell receptor) but aren’t required for survival (like an enzyme in a basic metabolic pathway).” The broken ones are, Brown wrote, “the radio and door lock, not the drive shaft and brake pedal.”[3] Which in the end really is good news for us. Our radios and door locks may not work, but as long as our drive shafts and brake pedals are fine, we’re good to go.

Perfection, it turns out, isn’t what we are all about.

And, it turns out, perfection is not what this day is all about.

This day, this Last Sunday of the Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, isn’t about us being perfect.

It’s about what the revelation of Jesus’ perfection means for us.

Jesus took three of his disciples and climbed up to the top of the mountain, where in their sight, he underwent a metamorphosis (that’s the word in Greek), a moment that revealed his inner essence.[4] That’s right: The Transfiguration is not about Jesus’ clothes turning a bright white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. That’s a by-product of Jesus’ transfiguration. And this day isn’t even about that. It’s really about the disciples being granted the glory of seeing Jesus in his truest, most glorious form … as God’s gift to us in human form. It was a stunning moment for Peter and James and John, the three chosen to witness this glorious glimpse of Jesus transformed and Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, standing on either side of Jesus and representing the fulfillment of the Law the Prophets. It was a moment that showed God’s complete connection with humanity and humanity’s complete connection with God.

It was, in other words, perfect.

But remember: That perfect moment is still not the point.

The point, the meaning, of the Transfiguration is not about three disciples seeing for themselves who and what Jesus really was and is. Because the full meaning of that moment didn’t reveal itself until after Jesus transformed.

Jesus went up the mountain, and that was important, yes.

Jesus was transformed, and yes, that was important, too.

But it’s what happened next, what happened after Jesus was transformed and his clothes became dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah stood there with him, and God’s voice boomed from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” that is important.

Because afterwards, Jesus went down the mountain.

He left that place of transfiguration, of transformation, of metamorphosis …

… and he went right back to God’s people, to the ones God entrusted to him, to care for them, to feed them, to heal them, teach them, bless them, live with them and die for them.

Let’s be honest: Jesus could have stayed up on that mountain (and Lord knows, that’s what Peter thought was going to happen).

But he didn’t.

Instead, he came back down the mountain.

He came back down … to live out his mission in this world, a mission of living, of reconciling, of loving.

Transfiguration, whether for Jesus or for his disciples, or for us, is not a one-time event that takes place on a mountaintop and then is over.

Transfiguration … transformation … is about the revelation of our inner essence, the essence of being created in God’s image, the image of love and community, so that we can do something with it!

That’s what Jesus did: He did something with his inner essence.

He didn’t stay up on that mountaintop reveling in his perfection! He did something with it!

He came back “down into the mundane nature of everyday life,” as theologian David Lose puts it[5] — and listen to this, because it really is elegant writing. Jesus cam back “down into the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Down into the religious and political quarrels of the day.” (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) “Down into the jealousies and rivals both petty and gigantic that color our relationships. Down into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”[6]

Which is exactly what we are supposed to do, when God’s perfection in us is revealed (not withstanding those 20 or so genes that are broken from before we were born).

We are called to back into the world in which we live and move and have our being – which is just as messy as the one in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being – so that we, by our very lives, can transform the world!

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to live into the image in which God created us, the image of love and community that God reveals to us …

… so we can live in love and community.

God does not create us in God’s very image just so we can look pretty! We are not champion Pekinese show dogs, primped and pampered so that we can be walked and watched and poked and prodded and then judged best in breed, best in group, best in show!

We are a bunch of broken human beings – even science tells us that now.

But in God’s eyes, we are perfect.

                  Each and every one of us is – in God’s eyes – perfect.

And God would appreciate it … God would very much appreciate it … if we would do something with our God-given perfection!

God would appreciate it if we would transform the world, just like Jesus did.

And we can do that, you know.

We can give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty.

It is entirely possible for us to give sight to the blind and voice to the voiceless and hearing to the deaf and hope to those who know no hope.

We can make the lame leap for joy! We can, should we decide to accept this mission, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!

In three days we will begin the season of Lent, the season of fasting from that which keeps us from God and God’s vision for us, the season of feasting on that which brings us closer to God. On Ash Wednesday, we will, once again, undergo our own transfigurations when the ashes of death – the death that no longer has hold over us, the death that no longer stings – are placed on our foreheads.

What shall we do with that moment of transfiguration, that moment of transformation, that moment when we are reminded of our own metamorphoses?

Shall we surreptitiously wipe those ashes from our foreheads when we leave this place (or whatever place we go to receive them), hiding our transformations not only from others but from ourselves?

Or shall we go boldly into the world to live the Good News that in God’s eyes, we are perfect, and with that perfection, we can change the world?

Transfiguration, my friends, our transfiguration, is not about being the prettiest one in the show. It’s not about fixing those parts of us that are broken from before we were born. It’s not about staying up on that mountaintop, refusing to engage in God’s very good creation.

Transfiguration, our transfiguration, is about taking that glimpse of glory that God reveals to us out into the world and doing something with it.

So what are we going to do?

Primp and preen and stay up on our mountaintops, satisfied with the vision?

Or shall we go into the world and get about the business of transforming it?

With this season of Lent upon us, I ask you … I beg you … please. Please. Don’t be a Pekinese.

Do. Not. Be. A. Pekinese.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Last Sunday of the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, Year B, at the Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, Va., 19 February 2012.


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Matthew 17:1-9

Icon of the Transfiguration by Andrei Rublev (1405), now located in the Moscow Annunciation Cathedral

When Peter and James and John went up the mountain with Jesus that long-ago-but-memorable day, they literally had no idea what was about to happen.

 

They thought they were going to pray. After all, that’s what Jesus regularly did, and so for them, this was just another day following their teacher and Lord.

But, really: They had no idea what was in store.

Up they go, and boom! Jesus is transfigured right in front of them! His face shines like the sun, his clothes are dazzling white, and right there stand Moses and Elijah, chatting with Jesus!

You know that was a surprise. You know this was not on their agenda for the day. (Take a walk with Jesus? Check. Climb the mountain? Check. See Jesus transfigured? Huh?)

But the surprises didn’t stop there.

Because just as Peter in his great excitement was babbling away – “Lord, this is great! Let me make three little houses for you …” (perhaps to fix Jesus, Moses and Elijah in that moment?), just as he was reacting as only Peter could react, God spoke.

Now remember:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God speaks to people all the time.

But in the New Testament, in the Gospels, God only speaks a few times (one of them being up on that mountain, when God interrupts Peter to proclaim Jesus as God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is most pleased).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands all the time (often on a mountain – remember Moses and the 10 Commandments?)

But in the New Testament, God only commands once.[1]

Only one time – right here, right on the mountaintop – does God issue a commandment:

Akouete![2] Listen to him!

Like the commandments of old, this is not a suggestion. This is not God saying, “Hey, you know, when you’ve got a moment, I’d really like it if you’d pay attention … but only if you want to.”

This is not God throwing a hissy fit like a little kid who’s trying to win an argument on the playground and whining: Listen to me!

This is God in all of God’s glory – remember Jesus’ shining face and dazzling clothes? Remember Moses? Remember Elijah? This is God on high booming out (because you know God wasn’t namby-pamby here):

Akouete! Listen to him!

Not “Listen to me,” but “Listen to him.

If ever you have wondered whether Jesus was the real thing … if ever you wondered – and many have – whether perhaps we got it all wrong, that perhaps Jesus is more of a prophet and less the Son of God … now’s the time to pay attention.

Because right now, in this moment, on this mountaintop, God is making it crystal clear:

This is my son.

He is my beloved.

And you had better for darned tootin’ listen to him!

• • •

For the last eight years, the non-profit organization StoryCorps has been collecting the stories of Americans “of all backgrounds and beliefs.”[3] The stories are great; I listen to them on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday. But to me, what’s more important than the stories themselves is the idea behind StoryCorps:

Listening, StoryCorps proclaims, is an act of love.

Listening … is … an act … of love.

That’s important for us to remember, because, you see, we are created in love. Remember, 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 possibly be necessary to God. So God must have wanted us. God must have desired us into being. God must have loved us into being. So we were created in love.

And this command, Akouete? Listen to him?

This command is our blueprint for how we are to live in the image of God in which we are created. It is our blueprint for how we are to love.

I have something to tell you ... will you listen?

If we want to be faithful servants of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, if we really want to live our lives as God would have us live them, we … need … to … listen … to … Jesus.

Listening is how we love.

When we listen, we are loving God.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as ourselves.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as Jesus loves us.

The great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich once proclaimed that “The first duty of love is to listen.”[4] That duty comes from God’s direct command, not through prophets and apostles, but from God on high to the actual witnesses – Peter and James and John, who heard God speak to them, who heard God say to them, Akouete!

And now, today, on this last Sunday of Epiphany, with Lent beginning in just three days, God is speaking to us.

God is commanding us: Akouete! Listen to him!

And if we are wise, if we are caring, if we are faithful, we will listen.

For when we listen and are wise, we can see what is happening around us, and figure out what God wants us to do about it.

When we listen and are caring, we can build the relationships God is calling us to build, with God’s beloved children.

When we listen and are faithful, then … and only then … can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

What it all boils down to is this:

Listening is an act of love … so listen up!

We already know what Jesus wants us to do … because he’s already told us. But sometimes, we need to listen again, because sometimes, once is not enough.

So what is it that Jesus wants us to do?

Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Make the blind see … the deaf hear … the mute speak … the lame leap for joy.

When we listen to Jesus, what do we hear him saying to us?

Live lives of love.

Live lives of wild … radical … inexplicable  … never-ending … love.

This is our mission in life, my friends. This is why God created us: to go into the world and love … just as God loves us … wildly, radically, inexplicably, eternally.

But … we say … but … this is hard! How are we supposed to love like this? We don’t know what to do? (And yes, all of us say this, all the time … because loving like this really is hard and we really do need a set of directions, we really want to see a blueprint before we begin.)

The good news is, God already has told us what to do and how we are to do it. God has already given us the directions and shown us the blueprint.

Step one: We listen.

As a missionary – I served for five years overseas on your behalf (all Appointed Missionaries represent the entire Episcopal Church, not just our own dioceses, which means that I was your missionary) – I can tell you that listening is key to serving.

Listening is how we learn of other's needs, desires, joys and sorrows.

Wherever I have served, particularly as a missionary – in Kenya, Sudan, Haiti, Honduras, Appalachia or Pine Ridge, in homeless shelters and food pantries, with poor, inner city residents and rich suburbanites – I have learned that when I listen to the people of God, I hear the voice of God. I hear Jesus’ commandment to love.

And this call I hear?

It’s not just mine. It’s a call to all of us – because all of us are God’s missionaries in God’s very good creation.

How many of you are Episcopalians? Did you know that the legal name of our Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of The Episcopal Church of the United States of America? That we made that change in 1821? And that we made that change in our name because we determined then that we were going to a Church that went out into the world and preached the Gospel, and if necessary (as St. Francis is reputed to have said) using words? Which means that all of us here are missionaries.

So all of us are sent forth into God’s world, not to speak, not to tell others what to do, not to be so all-fired certain that we are right and everyone else is … well, they’re just delusional!

No!

God tells us: Akouete! Listen to him!

Listen to Jesus as he tells us: Love your enemy. Tend the sick. Visit the prisoners. Bring joy to the sorrowful. Give courage to the fearful.  Feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and voice to the mute and dancing to the lame!

Jesus has told us … in no uncertain terms … what he wants us to do. Jesus wants us to love!

And the first act, the first duty of love is to listen.

Not just to the people we love, not just to the people we know. No! We need to listen to each and every one of God’s beloved children, because God doesn’t discriminate. In God’s very good creation, there are no us’s and them’s. In God’s very good creation, no one gets voted off the island!

Only when we take the time to listen to God’s beloved children, only then do we hear their joys and sorrows, their dreams and disappointments, and their hopes and their desperate desire to know that they are loved, that they are the beloved.

Make no mistake, my friends:

God is speaking to us. God is on this mountaintop with us, right here, right now, and God is telling us – in every way possible – that our call is to love.

So listen up!

Amen.

A sermon preached on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, 6 March 2010, Year A, at St. Stephen’s, New Hartford, NY, and St. John’s, Whitesboro, NY.



[1] Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks Christian Resources, Matthew 17:1-9, Transfiguration of our Lord, Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A,  http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Paul Tillich, German-born American Protestant theologian (1886-1965), in a story about Tillich, as quoted in O Magazine, February 2004.

 

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Metformin mechanism of action

Matthew 5:21-37

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

Welcome to Let’s-Get-Legal Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelangelo's Creation of Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not in God’s eyes.

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

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

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

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

If – and only if – we remember to love.

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

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Amen.

————————

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

————————-

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

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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Salt and light. Precious and bright. Necessary and powerful.

Matthew 5:13-20

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

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

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

So what exactly are we supposed to do?

Cut back on our salt?

Or be the salt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt was worth more than gold.

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

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

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

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

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

So you see, salt indeed can lose its flavor.

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

That’s why we were created, my friends.

To let God’s love be known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Jesus’ message to us as well.

We are precious.

And we are powerful.

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

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

This isn’t about us.

It’s about God.

So what are we going to do?

How are we going to glorify God?

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

• • •

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

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

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

This is your charge:

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

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

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

Go into the world, my friends.

Be salty.

Blaze your way through life.

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

Not for your sake.

But for God’s.

Amen.

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

——————————–

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

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

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

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God says to YOU

My sermon on Haiti, preached the Third Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Hot Springs, Va. I have preached here many times on Sudan and this parishes partnership with the Renk Theological College.

Au nom de Dieu unique, Pere, Fils, et Sainte Esprit. In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, on behalf of the Bishop of the Diocese of Haiti, the Right Reverend Jean Zache Duracin, on behalf of the people of the Diocese of Haiti, and on behalf of the people of Haiti, I say to you this morning, Mesi anpil.  Thank you very much.

It has been twelve days since a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti and devastated our land and our people; it has been 12 days without food and water and proper medical care; it has been 12 days in which we have buried as much as 100,000 people, we now believe that over 250,000 will be eventually be declared dead, but we will never know.

The Church in Haiti has been devastated.  The Roman Catholic Archbishop was killed trying to escape from the Cathedral of Notre Dame; the assistant bishop was killed.  The Diocese of Haiti, your sister diocese, a full member of the Episcopal Church in Province II, the largest diocese of the Episcopal Church of over 200,000 members, has been devastated.  Our cathedral is gone.  Our senior secondary school, College St. Pierre, is gone.  The Holy Trinity Music School, which houses the national symphony orchestra and has the only concert hall in the country, is gone.  Holy Trinity Primary School is gone.  The University of the Episcopal Church of  Haiti is gone.  The Musee d’Art, the only museum of art in Haiti, which is run by the Episcopal Church, is gone.  To the best of our knowledge, 100 of our 254 schools are gone.  We know of several of our churches out in the provinces that are gone.

But I can tell you today, having spoken with Bishop Duracin yesterday, we are still a strong diocese.  We are still a strong people, because we have the people of God.  Bishop Duracin was offered the chance to be evacuated either to another city in Haiti or to a city in the United States, and he told me, “No, I will stay with my people.”  In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake he set up the refugee camp on the soccer field, which is nothing more than a sandlot between the College Saint Pierre and the seminary which is totally damaged and is probably gone, and within two days he had 3,000 people under his care.  The Saint Vincent Center for the Handicapped, where indeed the Scriptures were fulfilled in your hearing every single moment of every single day, is gone.  The majority of our 170 children were rescued and have been in the refugee camp and will be moved soon to safer quarters.

Paul tells us in his letter today that when one member of the Body suffers, we all suffer.  And I can tell you that a portion of your body, of our body, is suffering right now.  Haiti has been a nation of suffering since 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in what is now Les Cayes.  From the moment that Westerners arrived in this land, the people have been abused, they have been used.  The native Haitians are now gone, many of whom decided to die rather than to submit.  Our own leaders in Haiti have abused us, and used us, and oppressed us.  But in the last few years, with the help of the Western world, particularly the United States, Haiti has been making great strides forward.  Our government is stable, our people are beginning to be cared for; we actually raised the minimum wage in Haiti from $2 a day to $3.50 a day, which doesn’t sound like much to you, but take your wages and raise them by that proportion and tell me you’re not happy with that pay raise.  We were beginning to make progress and then in August and September of 2008 four hurricanes struck within three weeks, and so we had to take a major step back.  We were beginning to make real progress recovering from those four hurricanes in 2008 when the earthquake struck, the largest earthquake in more than 200 years.  Most of us in Haiti had no idea that we sat on a major fault line.  We did not know that there could be earthquakes.  Our land  is devastated.  Our government is devastated.  Our people are suffering.  And these people are your people.

I’ve told you this before when I’ve spoken to you about your Sudanese brothers and sisters in Christ, and what I’ve told you about them I tell you exactly the same about your brothers and sisters in Christ in Haiti:  they are related to you not by their blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism.  They are members of the Body of Christ and those people are hurting.  And we are asking for your help.  Because the Scriptures tell us that when one member of the Body suffers, the whole body suffers.  This is not a remote thing that happened to strangers far away; this is a disaster that has happened in your own body, and we know that you feel our pain.  We have seen the outpouring of support.  We have received your words and your prayers, and we are immensely grateful; and Bishop Duracin has instructed me to say to you over and over again, mesi anpil.  Thank you very much.

I want to tell you a little bit about this diocese about which so few people know.  I want to tell you how the Scriptures have been fulfilled in you sight and in your hearing.  I want you to tell you about we have done in the past because I want you to know:  We will do this in the future.  The blind do see in the Diocese of Haiti because we are the ones who run the Saint Vincent Center, the only full school for the handicapped.  We teach them to read in Braille.  So in our cathedral, which is no more, at every festal service at which the bishop is present, one of the many girls would come over from St. Vincent’s and she would stand in front of us with the reading in front of her, and she would run her fingers across the Scriptures and proclaim the Word of God.  The blind were made to see.

The lame were made to leap with joy because at that particular school we are the ones who made the prosthetics; and not only did we make the prosthetics for those who need them, we matched them to the color of the skin of the person who is getting it.  And let me tell you, that is not the norm in the Third World; most of the prosthetics in the Third World come from the First World where the majority of the people are white.  Can you imagine being black and losing your leg and being given a white leg to replace it?  Not in Haiti.  We will match to the color of your skin and you will leap with joy and I have witnessed it.  And I can tell you right now that many of our handicapped people, children and adults, are sitting in that tent field that Bishop Duracin set up, and they do not have their prosthetics with them because they were destroyed in the earthquake.

We made the mute to sing with joy by teaching them music at our music school where we have the finest, the finest musicians in the country.  We allow the deaf to hear by teaching them sign language in French and Creole.  We have been fulfilling the Scriptures in Haiti for 150 years, since the founding of the Diocese.

Right now, we have nothing left.  Bishop Duracin has publicly proclaimed, “I have lost everything.  I have nothing left.”  When he says “I have lost everything,” he is telling you his house is gone, his office is gone, his car is gone.  But when he is telling you there is nothing left he is not talking about his personal belongings, he is talking about his diocese, about everything that for the past 16 years under his leadership and for the 20 years prior to that as a priest of the diocese that he helped build up.  Everything in his diocese is gone.  But we have the most important asset: We have the people of God..  The people of God in Haiti are strong.

We have an expression in Haitian Creole, and it is not the official motto of the Church but by God it should be: “Bondye di ou: Fe pa ou; m’a fe pa’m: God says to you, ‘you do your part, I will do mine.’” In Haiti for 150 years the people in Haiti have done their part.  They have always trusted God and God has always done his part and right now God will continue to do so because God promised it, and the people of Haiti know that.

Just as we believe in that in Haiti, I say to you now, “Bondye di ou: Fe pa ou; m’a fe pa’m: God is saying to you, ‘you do your part, and I will do mine.’”  And your part, because this is your body, is first to pray, because Jesus said first to pray, and pray always, and Jesus promised to answer our prayers.  And second, to pay attention.  Americans, who are the most generous people in the world–statistically I can prove that to you–tend to have short attention spans.  Already Haiti has moved off the front pages of many newspapers and newscasts.  Please don’t forget your brothers and sisters in Christ; please don’t forget your kin.  We need the abundance of your hearts.  We didn’t have a whole lot before the earthquake struck, and we don’t have anything left now.  Please give generously.  I know that if all you can afford is a dollar and all you give us is a dollar, that dollar means the world to us because as you give a dollar and you give a dollar and you give a dollar and we put it together as the Body of Christ, we will indeed be able to do what God is calling us to do, to do our part.  And when the time comes–please God, do not come now, Bishop has said do not come–but when the time comes we will need the skill of your hands and the strength of your backs and the sweat of your brows to rebuild so that our people do not have to live in tents during hurricane season and do not have to drink water out of the street and eat food that God knows when that animal was killed.  We need you to do our part.  We need you to realize that we are doing ours.

I want to put this tragedy into perspective because it doesn’t quite resonate otherwise.  Haiti is a nation of 10 million people.  One third of them live in Port au Prince and the area that was affected at the epicenter: that’s 3 million people.  If this were to happen in the United States, that would mean that proportionately 105 million Americans would have been at the epicenter.  As of yesterday we have buried approximately 72,000 people, the majority of whom we do not know their names.  If this were in the United States that would equal 2.25 million Americans buried without name.  On top of that, to make this come home to you, destroy the federal government, destroy the state government, destroy the county government, destroy the city government.  That is what happened in Haiti.

There is no word in any language that describes this adequately.  The portion of the Body that is suffering in Haiti is suffering terribly.  We know, and we have faith, that the rest of the Body of Christ will be right there with us, that you feel our pain, and that you will help to alleviate it.  God says to all of us, “Do your part, and I will do mine.”  And when we are faithful to that, my brothers and sisters in Christ, when we are faithful and do our part, then indeed, the Scriptures are fulfilled in our sight and in our hearing on this day.  Amen.

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