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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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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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Sildenafil

John 15:12-17

Ba ism al Ab wa al Ibn wa Roho al Kudus, Allah wahed.

En nom de Dieu unique, Pere, Fils, et Sancte Esprit.

In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

On the morning of Feb. 23, 1992, I was received into The Episcopal Church at St. George’s, Arlington. I had first come to that parish more than a year before, full of fear and trembling, for I was born and bred to the Roman Catholic Church, raised by Dominican nuns, trained by Jesuits priests, and I knew, on that first day I entered St. George’s, that what I was doing was a sin. I was turning my back on my heritage, my ethnicity, my training and my faith as a Catholic to worship – fully and freely – in a Protestant church.

On that morning in 1992, I listened carefully as The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, the 12th Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, preached about what it meant to be a Christian.

“To be a good Christian,” he said, “you have to be boundlessly happy, entirely fearless and always in trouble.

To be a good Christian – one who lives fully into the scandalous message of Jesus – you have to be boundlessly happy, entirely fearless and always in trouble.

You are boundlessly happy, my friends, because God loves you, and what more could you possibly want to know, to experience, in your life? Isn’t that what we all want to know: That we are loved, from before time until the ages of ages?

The good news that Jesus brought in his scandalous message is just that: You are loved. I am loved. Each of us is and all of us are loved. Which makes us happy.

You are to be entirely fearless because the worst thing that will happen to you is that you will, one day, wake up and have breakfast with Jesus. And isn’t that what we pray for each time we pray the Nicene Creed? That we will have breakfast with Jesus?

The good news that Jesus brought us in his scandalous message is that because we are loved, we will indeed have breakfast with Jesus. So be fearless!

And you are to be always in trouble because, let’s face it, Jesus was always in trouble. It’s why his message of unconditional love was so scandalous. The sermons he preached – “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – the miracles he performed – raising the dead, curing the sick, restoring lepers and shamed women to full membership in their communities – the parables he told – And who is your neighbor? – the people with whom he spoke and ate – the Samaritan woman at the well, Wee Zaccheus the tax collector – all of that was troubling to the powers-that-be, because the powers-that-be don’t like surprises, they don’t like having the apple cart (OK, it was probably a date cart) upset, they don’t like it when someone comes along and challenges the way things are. Because when the way things are are thrown out of whack, the powers-that-be no longer are in control, and that is very, very scary – for them.

The good news that Jesus brought us in his scandalous message was so troublesome that it cost him his life – and it is going to cost us ours as well, if we listen, if we act.

But not to worry: Because we are loved from before time began to the ages of ages, and because we will have breakfast with Jesus, so ….

Let’s get in some trouble.

Let’s be scandalous!

You know what the most scandalous thing was that Jesus said?

Listen, my friends … listen:

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. … You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit …

(Sung)

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?

Will you let my love be shown?

Will you let my Name be known?

Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?[1]

This is our call in life, my friends: Following Jesus, who is calling us – each of us – by name, asking us to go to places we don’t know – far away or close by – so that God’s love can be shown, so that God’s name can be known, so that God’s life can be grown.

And that, my friends, is scandalous!

Because it means that if we are faithful, we will end up in places we have never been (Samaria? Sudan? Haiti? The poor side of town? The other side of the tracks?) … we will meet people we never thought we would meet (The Samaritan woman at the well? The poor? The sick? The disenfranchised? Those people?) … we will let God’s name be known (as St. Francis is alleged to have said, “Preach the Gospel always … if necessary, use words.”) … and if we do all these things, God’s life, God’s love will be known.

Are you ready to live your life in this way?

Are youeach of you and all of you – ready to be scandalous?

(Sung)

Will you leave your self behind if I but call your name?

Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?

Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?

Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?[2]

If we decide that we are ready to say “Yes!” to Jesus, to answer his call, to live scandalously, upsetting the apple carts and overturning society’s ways – ways that make the rich richer and the poor poorer, ways that deny basic medical care to people, that leaving people starving when our storebins are overflowing – if we’re ready to do all this, then indeed we will live scandalous lives.

Mother Teresa, who knew a thing or two about being scandalous (touching the untouchables, welcoming the unwelcomed, loving the unloved),

Mother Teresa

offers us this advice:

The good you do today (she said) may be forgotten tomorrow.

Do good anyway.

Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable.

Be honest and transparent anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.

Build anyway.

People who really want help may attack you if you help them.

Help anyway.

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

Give the world your best anyway.

I can assure you: The most radical thing we can do in our lives is to love. The most dangerous action we can take is to love. The most scandalous deed we can perform is to love.

But … radically, dangerously, scandalously loving one another as Jesus loves us is exactly what we are called to do … no matter how hard it is, no matter how many obstacles we encounter, no matter what other people say, because really, in the end, the only thing that matters is love.

Doing this will not be easy. We will try to love, and find our love rejected. Others will heckle us and wonder if we’ve lost our mind and our way. We will be accused of tilting at windmills and called Pollyanas. But we know what Jesus is calling us to do, don’t we? We know that we are the ones who are called …

… to make the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute sing, and the lame leap for joy! And yes, we are called to raise the dead, and to proclaim the year of the Lord not every 50 years but every year, to set the prisoners free!

In this case, with this charge, it really does become all about us, because Jesus is talking to each one of us. This is not a message for the guy next door, the stranger down the street or around the world. This is a message for us.

The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes

Peter Gomes understood that. Listen to what he has to say on this subject, this subject of God calling us:

The question should not be “What would Jesus do?” but rather, more dangerously, “What would Jesus have me do?” The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semi-divine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live in the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.[3]

God is calling us. God is telling us – again and again – that we are not created to live in a world where the people are hungry, either for food or for love. We, my friends, are created in the image of God, which means that we are created to live in love in community.

Being created in the image of God means, first and foremost, that we are created in the image of love. We know this because we know that we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, yes, but we cannot possibly be necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so God does … not … need … us. Therefore, God must have wanted us, God must have desired us, God must have loved us into being.

And being created in the image of God means that we are created in community because we are Christians, and in our understanding of the Scriptures, of the Word of God, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit never work apart from each other. Since we are created in God’s image, we are created in the image of community as well.

Which means …

… That we are created in love and community to live in love and community.

Pretty scandalous, eh?

To have our whole lives dictated by the fact that like it or not, we are created to love? That we are created to love in community?

Now we could, if we wanted, be like one of my favorite literary characters and say, “It is hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re only a Very Small Animal.”

Because this is a seemingly overwhelming call that God is issuing to us.

It is hard to be brave …

But … unlike Piglet, we are not very small animals.

We are God’s beloved.

And we have a job to do, a mission to undertake: We are to love one another, not as just we love ourselves (trust me, on those days when I do not love myself, it is terribly easy for me not to love my neighbor!), but to love one another as Jesus loves us!

(Sung)

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?

Will you set the pris-’ner free and never be the same?

Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen?

And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?[4]

Living scandalously, is not, as I said, easy. But it is our call, it is, in fact, the very reason for which we were created, it is our mission in life. This is why God put us on this earth: to live in love and community, which is a very scandalous thing indeed.

I want to leave us tonight with a prayer by Archbishop Oscar Romero, the holy man of El Salvador who put his life on the line – and who lost his life

Archbishop Oscar Romero

– because he dared to live a scandalous life, siding with the poor and downtrodden, challenging the powers-that-were in El Salvador to do the right thing all the time. For his courage, he was killed while celebrating the Eucharist – literally while elevating the wine and saying, “This is my blood” – on March 24, 1980.

Archbishop Romero’s prayer for all of us:

It helps, now and then (he said) to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Archbishop Romero’s prayer for us is my prayer for you:

Go forth from this place, my friends, and be scandalous.

It is what Jesus wants.

Amen.

A sermon preached during the Preaching Mission: The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, at Grace Episcopal Church, The Plains, Va.,

28 March 2011.

 

[1] Will you come and follow me … (v. 1) Words from the Iona Community © 1989 GIA Publications

Music Mary Alexandra, John L. Hooker, © 1996

[2] Ibid. (v. 2)

[3] Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, page number uncertain.

[4] Will you come and follow me … (v. 3)

 

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‘Stronger together than apart’

From the Anglican Communion News Service this morning comes a report of a meeting of 19 bishops from around the world who met in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, at the end of February.
The essence of the meeting: “We really need each other. We are stronger together than apart.”
The essence of relationships, of community, of being created in the Image of God: We really do need each other, because we are stronger together than apart.
Any time a group of people gathers, there is the opportunity to build the community for which we were created. Any time those people take the time to listen to each other, to hear each other’s stories, to learn about each other, there is the opportunity to build that same community. As the bishops point out in their statement: “Dialogue is about turning to one another with openness.”
Talking with each other is not always easy. Even when a so-called “common” language is used, there is the opportunity for misunderstanding, willfully or unintentionally. That’s why dialogue – not just the conversation between two or more people, but the “exchange of ideas or opinions … with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement,” as the dictionary defines it – is so important.
When you tell me your story, you express you understanding of that story, you teach me to see the world through your eyes. When you then let me do the same with you, we have created a relationship. We may not see things the same way, we may not agree, but at least we will know how each other thinks, how each other approaches an issue or situation, and that understanding alone can be enough to build community.

A world map showing the Provinces of the Anglican Communion (Blue). Also shown are the Churches in full communion with the Anglican Church: The Nordic Lutheran churches of the Porvoo Communion (Green), and the Old Catholic Churches in the Utrecht Union (Red).

These bishops deserve kudos for their work in building up the beloved community of God.

From the ACNS report:
By ACNS staff

Nineteen bishops of the Anglican Communion this week announced that the Communion was stronger together than apart and that its members needed one another.

In a joint statement issued after a “Consultation of Bishops in Dialogue” meeting held in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania the church leaders said they had shared testimonies about partnership mission work.  Through this a common thread had emerged “our experience of finding ourselves in each other.”

“Across the globe, across the Communion, we actually really need one another,” the bishops’ statement said. “We are stronger in relationship than when we are apart. This, we believe, is a work of engaging in Communion building rather than Communion breaking. In the words of the Toronto Congress of 1963 we are engaged in living in ‘mutual responsibility and interdependence’ (Ephesians 2:13-22)”.

The bishops hailed from Sudan, Botswana, Malawi, Burundi, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Canada, the United States and England. They met at the end of February as a group of partner pairs and triads and discussed a range of issues including human sexuality, slavery and tackling poverty . …

“We have been engaged in a process of patient and holy listening, as Anglicans, coming from a wide diversity of contexts and theological positions, who have chosen to listen to one another (Colossians 3:12-17). …

“We have found that in the wider context of conflicts around sexuality in the Anglican Communion, the conflict has provided us an opportunity to build bridges of mutual understanding to us as we choose to turn face to face with each other. We know that this topic requires the best of us in our dialogue: our mutuality and humility and prayer in listening and in speaking as we seek together for God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). ….

“We are aware that when we talk, the words we use may not be heard in the same way as we intend and we do not always understand language in the same way. We are engaged in a quest for language that will bring us to common understanding and to better dialogue. That does not mean that we agree or that we seek an agreement on particular issues. …”

To read the ACNS story, with the full text of the statement attached, look here.

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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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Seeing and being seen: A lesson in community

Luke 19:1-10

Almost half my lifetime ago, I left my newspaper editor’s job in cold, wintery Bismarck, N.D., to serve overseas as a Peace Corps volunteer. I ended up in Kenya, in Eastern Africa, where Peace Corps, at my request, trained me to become a water technician.

For the first 10 weeks in Kenya, I lived in the central part of the country, attending classes every day, with the greatest focus on cultural and language training. At the end of that time, I was fairly proficient in KiSwahili, the national language. And then Peace Corps, in its wisdom, sent me out to the western part of the country to live and serve among the Luo peoples.

I wasn’t in my village but a few days before I realized that the Swahili I had labored so hard to master wasn’t quite the same Swahili the Luos spoke. I had learned classical KiSwahili; the Luos spoke something I later learned was called “dirty Swahili.” The former is highly technical and intricate; the latter is very simple and ignores all rules of grammar.

Which meant that my training, which had led me to believe that I could live and move and have my being among the Luo, was insufficient at best, a barrier at worst.

Kenya

All this became crystal clear to me within my first week in my village. Wherever I went, whenever I spoke Swahili, people looked at me in confusion. I couldn’t communicate that well, despite my high score on my language exam.

Worst of all, I could not properly greet people.

And greeting people, in Africa as in much of the world, is a very important part of life. Whether you greet them … how you greet them … even if you are just walking down the street (or the dirt path, if you live in much of the developing world) … all of those things place you in society. So if you can’t properly greet people, you really don’t have a place … you don’t know where you belong … or even whether you belong.

One morning, as I was walking down a dirt road, an old woman – and I mean, an old woman, with frizzy little tufts of grey hair on her head and a face filled with wrinkles and dark, dark eyes that peeked out from between those wrinkles – one morning, this woman greeted me on the road.

“I see you,” she said.

I was so startled that she spoke to me in English that I didn’t respond at first. I simply while I thought, I see you? What kind of greeting is that?

So I responded in kind.

“Um, I see you?” I replied, questioningly.

The woman smiled at me and stood there and waited for me to go on.

“Um, how are you?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.

“I am here,” she said.

OK, I thought.

“I am here, too,” I replied, thinking, Isn’t that obvious? We’re standing in the middle of a dirt road, face to face. Of course you’re here. Of course I’m here!

“It is good to be seen,” she said.

And then we began to talk, mixing Swahili, the version I didn’t really know well, and DhuLuo, the tribal language that I really didn’t know yet, and English, which she didn’t know well, and somehow she managed to teach me that in her tribe, as in much of Africa, a proper greeting begins with, “I see you.”

The proper response is, “I am here. I see you.”

The one who began the conversation concludes the greeting with, “I am here. It is good to be seen!”

In much of Africa, this greeting is what gives people life and builds community. You don’t walk down the street and ignore people – you see them. And by seeing them, you do more than acknowledge their presence in the same piece of earth that you occupy. You acknowledge their whole being. You grant them meaning. You name them as part of your community.

As we parted, she in her direction and I in mine, I realized: I had just been introduced to a whole new way of being.

I was seen.

Therefore I belonged.

And I saw.

Therefore the other person belonged as well.

Yes indeed, it is good to be seen!
• • •
Seeing and being seen is what today’s Gospel lesson is all about.

We have Luke’s story of Zacchaeus, the wee little tax collector who was so anxious to see Jesus that he climbed a sycamore tree in order to see over the people in the crowd.

Now most of the time, the focus for this story is on Zaccheus giving away half his fortune and paying back four times what he might owe to people because he had defrauded them. That focus centers on Zaccheus’ conversion and subsequent repentance for the wrongs he had done.

But this story is not so much about repentance as it is about inclusion. Or, more accurately, about God’s wild, radical, inexplicable inclusion of all of God’s beloved children, no matter what the world might think of them or how the world might treat them.

Zaccheus and Jesus

Zaccheus, remember, was the chief tax collector in Jericho; therefore he was:
(a) Rich. Luke says so;
(b) Despised. Tax collectors, as all who witnessed this event knew, were employees of the oppressive Roman government. Any Jew who worked for the Romans was considered a traitor. Any Jew who collected taxes for the Romans, thus keeping the Romans in power, was a double traitor; and
(c) Pretty much an outcast in his own society. See (a) and (b) above.

So when Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the tree – where he really had no business being, since he was both a grownup and a powerful man – Jesus was setting, yet again, another example of God’s incredible love, even for those whom society does not love.

Jesus teaches us, yet again, that God’s love trumps society’s hate. You see, society would have preferred that Jesus ignore that little traitor up in the tree, and society expected the Jesus would never have gone to that little traitor’s house, much less eaten with him.

But Jesus never paid much attention to what society wanted, did he? Instead of letting society dictate to him, Jesus dictates to society. He declares who is good, who is worthy. He determines who belongs, who is part of the community.

So what if society despises this wee little man? Jesus doesn’t.

So what if society has judged this tax collector and found him wanting? Jesus doesn’t.

Instead, Jesus declares that Zaccheus is a son of Abraham – a beloved child of God!

Jesus saw Zaccheus and declared him good.

Take that, society!

Jesus demonstrates to and for us an in-your-face, I-really-don’t-care-what-society-thinks radical hospitality that declares, once and for all, that all of us – that each of us – is a beloved child of God. That all of us and each of us belongs to God. That our community is in and with and through God – because God said so!

How many times have we declared that someone is not welcome in our community, is not one of “us”? We’ve all done it – we decide that because someone is different, looks different, sounds different, smells different, that he or she cannot come in to our community.

And how many times have we been told that we do not belong, that we can’t come in, that we are not welcome in a community? That has happened to all of us as well.

But both stances – saying no and being told no – violate the very image of God in which we are created.

We are created in God’s image of love, because we are not necessary to God (God was before we were and will be after we are, so we can’t possibly be necessary), and God’s image of community (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, always together). Since God created us in God’s image, God gets to decide who’s in and who’s out. And since God never votes anyone off the island, and God never says, “You I love; you … eh …” we are called to do the same. To include people.

To see others – really see them …

… and to be seen.

I see you, Jesus said to Zaccheus

I am here. I see you, Zaccheus replied.

I am here. It is good to be seen! Jesus said.

Zaccheus’ story is a lesson in community – in God’s community, and how God wants us to be in community. It’s a reminder that we don’t get to make the rules; God does.

God sees each and every one of us, welcomes us into the household of God, makes room for us, sits down and eats a meal with us.

And then God asks us to do the same. God asks us to see each other not for what we think they are, but for what God knows they are: God’s beloved children.

It indeed is good to be seen!

Amen.

A sermon preached at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Richmond, Va., on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October 2010, Proper 26, Year C.

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