Completed any miracles lately?

On All Saints Sunday, Jesus is clearly asking us to finish the miracle he began in bringing Lazarus back from death.

So the question I have for each of us is this:

Completed any miracles lately?

The video of my sermon at St. Matthew’s, Sterling, Va., is below.

 

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Mark 7:24-37

            A few weeks after I began my life as a student at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was sitting under a tree in the Grove, reading for my Systematic Theology class.

            Now, I knew an awful lot about systematic theology – I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic, I went to Roman Catholic schools and graduated from a Jesuit university. So I was actually pretty “up” on what I needed to know for this class.

But that day, sitting under that tree, I made a stunning discovery, one that changed my life. (Yes, a textbook can change your life.) I discovered Anselm of Bec, the 36th archbishop of Canterbury, who died in the year 1109, and who wrote a stunning piece of theology known as the Proslogion.

In that textbook of mine, I read, for the first time, this tiny snippet from the Prologion, from that masterpiece:

“God,” Anselm wrote, “is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”[1]

God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

I have to tell you, when I read that one sentence, my heart began to race and my body was quivering like a little puppy dog, and my mind was exploding like a supernova, going everywhere and racing around, and I thought, Oh, my God! Yes! This is it! I exulted. This explains everything I’ve ever wanted to know about God!

Think of the greatest love you have ever known – think of it –God’s love is bigger than that.

Think of the greatest suffering you have ever gone through – think about that –God’s suffering is greater.

Anything you can think of, any attribute you can describe, and God, quite simply, is greater than that.

Because God, my friends, is God.

Later on that year, I discovered the writings of Frederick Buechner, who was a theologian and a fabulous writer, and he wrote, among other things, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchiefs are called saints.”

When I read that quotation, I immediately knew of whom Buechner was speaking for me. He was speaking of Anselm.

Because, for me, Anselm was one of God’s handkerchiefs. Because Anselm could answer my questions, the question that I had for God: “Who are you?”

Anselm answered that. I’m sitting under a tree in the Grove at Virginia Theological Seminary, I’ve been a seminarian for a whopping two weeks, and this little handkerchief fluttered down into my life. And suddenly, all of the possibilities were opened, and all of my theology changed, and every way in which I lived my life changed – right then and there – because I no longer had to ask God, Who are you?, but my questions changed then to, God, what would you have me to do? How can I live into your love, which is greater than any love that I could ever conceive?

            It was an amazing moment.

I believe that God sends those handkerchief saints to all of us throughout our lives, so that we all can know more than we have ever known, so that we can go farther than we have ever gone, so that we can dream bigger than we have ever dreamed, so that we can do more than we have ever done.

God’s handkerchiefs are sent to us so that we can be better than we are, so that we can become the people God wants us to be.

The Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark’s Gospel this morning?

She was one of God’s handkerchiefs.

This is a woman who was considered, by Jesus and by his disciples and by anybody else in this story in the Gospels as an unclean woman. She was Syro-Phoenician. That meant she was a Gentile, and she came from mortal enemies of the Jews. And there she is, dropped into the story. Nobody knows where she came from. Nobody knows how she heard that Jesus was, in secret, alone, in Tyre. But there she suddenly appeared.

She goes to Jesus and bows down in front of him, honoring Jesus, recognizing him for who he is, the Son of God, God’s very handkerchief, given to the entire world, and she says, “Please. Cleanse my daughter, for she has an unclean spirit.”

An unclean woman went to Jesus to say, “My daughter has an unclean spirit. Please, heal her. Please.”

Now I need you to be very clear on this:

She had absolutely no business talking to Jesus. None whatsoever.

She was a woman. And ladies, you don’t go and talk to strange men. Certainly not alone.

She was a woman from the wrong tribe. She was a Syro-Phoenician.

She was a woman from the wrong people, a Gentile.

The wrong faith – also, a Gentile.

She was considered unclean.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (portion of “Forgiveness” by the painter Thierry Ona)

And yet … there she was, begging Jesus… begging him: “Heal my daughter.”

Because, first and foremost, the Syro-Phoenician woman was a mother. And her child was sick. And she needed help. And she recognized that Jesus could do this. That he was, indeed, the Son of God, and he could heal her.

And what does Jesus say? In his pastoral best, he says, “Nope. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Really?

The Son of God, who came to be with us as one of us, who came to show us what God’s love looked like and tasted liked and felt like and sounded like and yes, even smelled like, the first thing he does is he insults this woman, with the worst insult you can give in that culture? He calls her a dog? And worse, he calls her child a dog???

Let me tell you, I have lived in cultures, I understand this … I have lived in cultures where calling a person a “dog” is enough to start a fist fight. I have lived in cultures where making this symbol (curling a finger to call someone) to come here – that’s how you summon a dog. I have watched two men pick up pickaxes and go at each other over it, because one called the other a dog and went Sssst (and made that gesture). In Africa you do this (curling four fingers under) for a human and this (curling one finger up) for a dog. Dogs are the lowest of the low, they are unclean … they are not my Great Dane puppy, Julian. OK? That’s were dogs are. Lower than even the snakes.

And Jesus calls her a dog.

What does the woman say back to him?

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Boom!

            Take that, Son of God! Let me show you something about loving! Boom!

Just like that, Jesus has his comeuppance. Because this handkerchief from God floated down in front of him, and said, “Open your eyes. Open your heart. Open your mind, Jesus. This is my child. And I need her to be better, and you’re the only one who can do it.”

And that’s what Jesus does.

You notice that he never says, “Your faith has made her well?” No! He just acknowledges, “Wow. You said that, boom, it’s done.”

Jesus needed to have his horizons expanded, his boundaries expanded. He had blinders on. He was so set on going to the chosen people of God that somehow, he had either forgotten or not quite realized that all people are God’s chosen, that all people are God’s beloved, that all people deserve God’s love, and that all people deserve God’s healing.

He was very, very focused on God’s Chosen People, capital C, capital P, the people of the Jewish tradition. And this Syro-Phoenician woman – an unclean woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit – opens Jesus’ eyes.

From that moment forward, Jesus starts going out, and healing Gentiles, as well as healing Jews. From that moment forward, Jesus starts breaking more and more rules, because he realizes that he is there for everyone, and not just for the chosen few.

Now, before we say, “Well, jeez, Jesus, I thought you were the Son of God, you should have gotten that from the beginning” … before we get all smug knowing the end of the story – because, remember, at that point, even Jesus didn’t know the end of the story … before we feel like, “Oh! We’re better than this because we get it,” I want to ask you something:

What blinders do you wear?

What boundaries do you refuse to cross?

What stops you from embracing the world?

Is it, people who don’t agree with you?

Is it, people who are different from you?

Is it, “I don’t want to go there because it is too hard, too far away, too different”?

What blinders do we need removed and what boundaries do we need expanded so that we can live, most fully, into God’s promise to all of God’s beloved creation?

What is it that we need changed?

I’m telling you, God drops handkerchiefs on us all the time. And those handkerchiefs, they open our eyes, and our hearts, and our minds.

You never know where you’re going to find them.

It could be … the person in the grocery store.

It could be … the stranger who smiles at you as you walk down the street.

It could be … the people who come from far away to work up on a mountain so that they can learn how to improve our lives.

It could be … the successful businessmen who travel the country.

It could be … anybody you meet.

So, I want you watch out for those little handkerchiefs. Because they are in our lives every day, and they are there not to tell us how wrong we are, not  to pull a Boom! moment on us, but to say, “Look at it a different way.” Or, as one of my friends likes to say all the time, “Turn the stone over, and look at it from the other side.”

God sends us handkerchiefs so that our blinders can be removed, and so that we can live more faithfully, not as we think that we should, but as God dreams we will.

God has dreams for us, and we put limits on those dreams.

So what does God do?

He drops a little handkerchief in your lap, so that your eyes are opened, and your hearts are opened, and your minds are opened.

You could be sitting under a tree.

You could be driving through the mountains.

You could be flying across the country.

And you never know …

You could be a handkerchief, too.

Your very presence in somebody else’s life could be enough to open their eyes, and their heart, and their mind.

You could be God’s blessing.

Actually, you already are.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year B, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., 9 September 2012.


[1] Anselm of Bec, Proslogion in The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm with the Proslogion, Benedicta Ward (Translator, Introduction), R. W. Southern (Foreword), Penguiln Classics, 1979.

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The Last Seven Words: “I thirst.” (John 19:28) 

For the last week, I have been staying at the house of a friend while she and her family are on vacation. My job is to care for the house without breaking too  many things, and to care for the family’s two dogs without letting them get away.

It is a lovely house in an older section of Arlington: Large, airy, filled with light, obviously much loved, and very much a home.

In the kitchen, there is one thing, however, that has completely captured my attention: a perpetual waterfall.

It is one of those things that is mounted on the wall, with a copper base that hides a small motor and water that flows continually down a slab of dark-green granite.

The waterfall flows day and night, making a gurgling, dripping noise that you can hear throughout my friend’s home.

I have not told my friend, and probably never will, but I can tell you:

This thing is driving me nuts!

I cannot stand the thing.

I know that it is a perpetual use machine, that the water is recycled constantly. I know that water is not being wasted.

Really. I do understand the mechanics of the thing.

And I know that this is supposed to be a soothing sound, the flow of water down the slab, the drip of the water when it hits the pool at the bottom …

I know all this …

And yet, the thing still drives me nuts.

Because more than most people, I understand the importance of water in our lives. I understand that without water, we cannot live.

A quarter-century ago, I was Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. I was a water technician – meaning that I did water engineering projects sans the benefit of an engineering degree.

It was in Kenya, in the semi-arid portion of that nation in which I lived, that I learned more about water than I had in the previous 25 years of my life.

Like most of us here, I grew up with water – with clean water – readily available. Open a tap, and presto! There was life-giving water. Whenever I felt like it, whenever I was even mildly thirsty, I had water to drink.

In Kenya, I learned, first-hand, what it meant to live without water.

I learned what it was like to stand on the edge of the largest fresh-water lake in all of Africa, Lake Victoria, and not be able to take a drink.

I led a project that was bringing that water, with the assistance of two motors, up the steepest hill overlooking Lake Victoria, to a series of water tanks that my group built, and then flowing that water for miles – literally for miles, because the water tanks were on the highest ground around – so that people could have water.

And not only would they have water, but they would have clean water, because those three tanks I helped build would filter the water before it flowed out again, down the hill and across the plains to taps, where people would, many for the first time in their lives, be able to simply turn a faucet and … drink … water …  clean … life-giving … water.

One day, when we were still in the construction stage, mixing cement and placing rocks and building the walls of these tanks, my crew and I ran out of water to drink. It was a blistering hot day, which was the norm on the equator in Kenya, and I had taken three bottles of water with me, water that I had boiled the night before … but now, it was all gone.

And there I stood, on the beach of the largest fresh-water lake in all of Africa, knowing that if I drank that water, I would take ill and possibly die, and that if I did not drink that water, I would take ill, and possibly die.

One of the young men who worked for me, who was learning to become afundi wa maji – a water engineer, one of the most exalted positions in Kenya – looked at me and said, “We have to drink that water. We have to. You have to. Or you will get sick. And you might die.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, the people face this dilemma every day of their lives. They build up some immunities to the various parasites that abound in their waters, but still, they take ill all the time. And some of them, especially their children, die.

My worker, my friend, Baraka (whose name means “blessing” in DhuLuo, his native language), was indeed a blessing to me that day.

So we both bent down, we filled our water bottles, we drank deeply of Lake Victoria, we poured the waters of that great lake over our heads … and we went back to work.

Both of us indeed took ill – which is the chance you take in Africa.

Neither of us died, which only came about by the grace of God.

So I know something about water … and I know a lot more about being thirsty, about crying out, “I thirst,” about being so dehydrated that my body feels on fire, my brain begins to cease its proper functions, my skin crawls with tightness …

All of which is why that perpetual waterfall in my friend’s kitchen is driving me nuts.

Because, even though I know it is not a waste of water, it sounds like a waste.

And I, who have been thirsty nearly unto death, cannot abide by wasting water.

Whenever I go to a friend’s house – which I do a lot, because I am a missionary with no fixed address and no fixed income – I have to restrain myself from turning off the water. I use little when I’m washing dishes (which drives my friends crazy). I take the shortest showers possible. I refuse to let a tap run while I am brushing my teeth. Sometimes, in other people’s houses, I cannot help myself – I walk boldly up to the kitchen sink and turn off the water that they have left running while cooking, or cleaning, or even filling cups. My friends, God bless them, understand this about me. They always make sure I have water to drink, and they try, once they get to know me, not to waste water in my presence.

I learned even more about water, and about great thirst, when I served as a missionary in Sudan, living on the both the edge of the Sahara and the banks of the mighty White Nile River, the longest river in the world.

In Sudan, water is an even more precious commodity than in Kenya, for much of Sudan, especially the northern half, is the Sahara. In Sudan, water is the symbol of hospitality – to friend and enemy alike, you always, always offer water first.

The cruelest month in that arid land is April, when the Fall rains have longed ended and the Summer rains are but a dream in the far distant future. In April, the temperature routinely soars to 140 degrees, while the humidity dives down to 4 percent.

In April, nature itself is so desperate, so thirsty, that it sucks all that water out of you that it can, drying you out, turning you into a husk … and once that water is gone from you, nature sucks other moisture from you as well, so that you can be walking along – trudging is more like it – with the sun beating down on you so hard it feels like a 50-pound weight is sitting on your head, and suddenly, you have a runny nose, which startles you, because your sinuses long ago dried out, leaving you with a constant, pounding headache, and it is only when you go to wipe your nose that you realize you have a nosebleed, that nature is now sucking out your very life.

In April, no matter how much water you drink – no matter how much water you filter so that you can drink it – it is never enough. Daily, I would filter up to three gallons of the precious commodity simply so I could drink. Three gallons. And still, it was not enough. So I would drink the water that others would offer me, knowing, as I had in Kenya two decades before, that if I drank it, I would take ill and possibly die, and if I did not drink it, I would take ill, and possibly die.

So I drank the water that was offered to me in hospitality, by friend and enemy alike, and I did take ill, and I would return to the States with various parasites, so much so that I told my physician, who was constantly confounded by my diseases, “Don’t worry. I’m giving you more free continuing medical education than you ever dreamed of.”

And by the grace of God, I have lived through my ravaging thirsts.

As Jesus was hanging on the cross, wracked by pain and his own ravaging thirst, he, too, asked for a drink.

Some will say[1] that he did so because one of the intended by-products of crucifixion, a by-product of which the Romans knew well, was dehydration and powerful, body-wracking, brain-numbing thirst, and that Jesus’ cry was the fulfillment of Psalm 22, verses 14 and 15: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death,” which is a terribly accurate description of a crucifixion, which, many say, was presaged in this particular psalm.

And some will say[2] that Jesus cried out, I thirst, because it was the fulfillment of Psalm 69, verse 21, “For my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink,” even though the “vinegar” or “sour wine” they gave him was nothing more than the common wine that all people drank during the day – because they knew that their water, polluted as it was, would kill them, and that cheap wine would not.

And some, too, will say[3] that by having Jesus proclaim, with nearly his dying breath, that he was thirsty, the evangelist John was proving, once again, that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.

All of these interpretations may very well be true, alone or even together.

But I will say that Jesus, who knew more about life and giving life, actually was crying out for life itself. That his thirst was not just for water – he was dying, and he knew it, and no mere sip of water or wine was going to change that fact – that his thirst was for life itself.

The Crucifixion, by He Qi

And not just any life … not the life in which man oppresses man, and humanity turns its back on God and God’s desires … but the life that is nourishing and fulfilling and like that silly waterfall in my friend’s kitchen that drives me nuts, is perpetual.

Jesus’ thirst was more than just a human one brought on by torture and temperature and pain and agony.

His thirst, from the moment he first appeared on the banks of the River Jordan, was for a better life, for a life that was and is and ever will be centered in God, and in God’s great love for us.

At the end of his life, Jesus cared only for our lives.

He knew of the great thirsts that ravage our lives – pain, hunger, physical thirst, illness, oppression, war, hatred, division, poverty – and he desired to end all that.

His whole mortal life was lived as an example of how we could overcome those thirsts, lay aside our differences, unite in God’s love for us and our love for each other.

His thirst was for life.

For our lives.

Not as we know them.

But as they can be. As God declares they can be.

Jesus thirsted … even in those last, agonizing moments of his mortal life … for us.

• • •

Whenever I hear Jesus’ cry from the cross, I flash back to those days in my life when I, too, cried out, with great meaning and desire, “I thirst.” In the same moment, I am carried back into my own past, and to my old homes in Kenya and Sudan and to the people there, who still thirst every day, not just for water that will not kill them, but for the life that Jesus imagined for them, and as well into the future, to the place that can be, to the life that can be.

Jesus’ cry, for me, is not just about fulfilling the Scriptures, nor is it just about proving a theological point.

Jesus’ cry, for me, is about life.

God’s life – in us and through us and for us and with us.

Amen.

A sermon preached on Good Friday, 6 April 2012, Year B, at St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, Va., in conjunction with the Great Falls Ecumenical Council.

 



[1] The United Presbyterian Church of Middletown NY in ministry with Interim Pastor Jack Lohr, http://unitedinterim.blogspot.com/2009/04/good-friday-reflection-i-thirst-john.html, Friday, April 10, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine asked on Facebook what we would say if we had to Tweet the Good News of God in Christ Jesus on Easter morning.[1]

You all know what Twitter is, right? It’s that instant messaging service in which you can say whatever you want in 140 characters or less, including spaces and punctuation.

I have to be honest: I have not been a fan of Twitter. I find it to be terribly narcissistic, that most of what goes out to the world is useless, vainglorious nattering.

But Twitter now has a place in our lives. Look at the role it has played in the Arab Spring … in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria. More than 26 million Americans alone use Twitter … tens of millions more people use it around the world, and tens and tens of millions more people follow it without every posting a thing.

Which means that if we can come up with a really, really, really great Tweet on Easter, we could reach tens of millions. And if our Tweet is really, really, really, really great, we can reach maybe even hundreds of millions of people!

All we have to do is figure out what to say about the Risen Lord in 140 characters or less … including spaces and punctuation.

So here’s our challenge on this Easter morning:

What should we say?

How should we announce the greatness of this day?

The Women arriving at the Tomb, by He Qi.

Should we edit Peter down and say, “Jesus Christ is Lord of all, raised from the dead on day three. He is ordained by God as judge of all. All who believe receive forgiveness”? (That’s 138 characters, by the way.)

Meh … too complex.

Perhaps we could turn to the Psalmist: “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! The right hand of the Lord is exalted! This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”? (That’s 139 characters.) But … that’s not quite clear, is it? And it is very triumphalist. So this won’t work either.

Now we could quote Paul, the apostle who never met Jesus in the flesh, only the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. His Tweet could read: “You have been raised with Christ. Set your minds on things above where Christ is. For you have died, your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Ha! That one is exactly 140 characters!)

Um … I’m thinking this isn’t the good news we were looking for.

So what about quoting the Risen Lord himself? “Jesus says: Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Ninety-five characters – pretty concise.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell people that Christ is risen, does it?

There’s the message from the angel: “Do not be afraid. He is not here. He has been raised.” That’s fairly straight-forward, and it only takes 53 characters.

It is Good News, but is it enough? Does it really convey what we want it to convey? Is it enough to convince people that this is the Good News of their lives? I don’t think so.

So even though we know what the Gospel, the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, is and what it means, we still don’t have a message to Tweet that is good news for our readers.

And we do want to convey good news, because this is our job. We don’t just get the Good News this morning … we have to give it as well. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, on the day he died for us, “It is finished.” He was saying that his work on this earth was done, and now he was turning it over to us.

Make no mistake: This is our job. We have to spread the Good News to a world that does  not know the Good News is even there! There’s a whole world out there that hasn’t quite gotten the message. For far too many people, this day isn’t about resurrection. It’s about Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies!

But Jesus gave us this job, and we’d better get working.

So tell you what.

Let’s roll up our sleeves, and let’s build a Tweet together.

Let’s figure out how to share with the whole world the Good News we receive on this holiest day of our lives.

We can start with the words of the ancient song, the Exsultet, which can only be sung on Easter.

The Empty Tomb, by He Qi.

 

(chant)

Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels,

And let your trumpets shout salvation

For the victory of our mighty king.

Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,

Bright with a glorious splendor,

For darkness has been vanquish’d by our eternal King.

Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church,

And let your holy courts, in radiant light,

Resound with the praises of your people.

That’s a pretty good message, don’t you think?

A little long, though … it kind of blows the 140-character limit.

So let’s reduce it down.

Let’s just make the first part of our Tweet say, “Rejoice!” That’s eight characters – still plenty of room to work with.

But to be effective, we have to be clear why we’re rejoicing.

What is it that makes us so happy on this holy day?

Is it the knowledge that Jesus died for us? For each of us? Personally?

Yes. But what does that mean?

That God loves us, perhaps?

That is why Jesus died for us, you know – because he loved us.

So I think that might be the next part of the message.

God loves you.

That’s another 14 characters, so we’re still in good shape.

But even though that message has been repeated many times before, there are still some people who don’t quite believe that God loves them. Some people don’t believe Jesus died for them, and others say, “Yeah, OK, he died for us, but how does that prove that God loves us?”

Well, we have that answer, don’t we? It’s pretty simple, actually:

Jesus’ tomb is empty.

(chant)

This is the night,

When Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,

And rose victorious from the grave.

The women went to the tomb on the third day so they could anoint Jesus’ body, but he wasn’t there. He was gone. It was the angel who told them the God’s-honest truth: He has been raised from the dead – just like he told you.

In that rising, my friends, God proves his love for us by not just defeating but by annihilating the one thing we fear the most: death itself.

Jesus loved us so much he died for us – for each one of us, right here.

God loves us so much he destroys death for us – for each one of us, right here.

So let’s make that the next part of our Tweet:

The tomb is empty! Jesus Christ, who died for us, is risen!

That takes us up to 83 characters. Meaning, we still have some room to get more of our message across.

So let’s explain some more why this is all Good News.

(chant)

Easter Morning, by He Qi.

 

This is the night,

When all who believe in Christ

Are delivered from the gloom of sin,

And are restored to grace and holiness of life.

How blessed is this night,

When earth and heaven are joined,

And man is reconciled to God.

And there you have it.

The gloom of sin, which leads to death – emotionally, spiritually and physically – has been lifted. Our lives, which sometimes can seem so empty, so pointless, so difficult, so draining, are restored to grace and we are made holy again.

Any separation from God that we may have experienced in our lives is over and done with. We have been reconciled to God. Our relationship has been put to right, we have been brought together, our accounts have been squared. We are reunited with God, and all our differences have been patched up and resolved.

By dying for us, Jesus wiped the slate clean.

By raising Jesus from the dead, God keeps that slate clean … forever.

And that is Good News indeed. Why, it’s such Good News that I think we ought to praise the Lord for it.

So let’s put an “Alleluia!” in our Tweet. We’ve got the room.

And look! We still have some room left.

He Is Risen, by He Qi.

So let’s go back to where we started. Let’s put in another “Rejoice!

Put it all together, and I think we just might have our Tweet. I think we are ready to proclaim to all the world what makes us so very happy on this Easter morning.

Rejoice! God loves you! The tomb is empty! Jesus Christ, who died for us, is risen! All of us are reconciled to God! Alleluia! Rejoice!

And we did it in 135 characters, thank you very much! I think my friend on Facebook would be pleased.

Yeah.

We have Good News to share this morning:

God loves us, and we can prove it. The tomb is empty, Christ is Risen. Alleluia!

And you can Tweet that!

Amen.

Easter sermon, preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Arlington, Va., 24 April 2011, Year A.

 

[1] The Rev. Mark Delcuze, Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms, Mass., “Tweeting the Resurrection,” 13 April 2011, https://www.facebook.com/mark.delcuze?sk=notes

 

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Matthew 5:21-37

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

Welcome to Let’s-Get-Legal Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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Sometimes we are called to hate

Luke 14:26

It would be so much easier this morning if we were listening to Matthew’s Gospel, wouldn’t it? The Gospel where Jesus, pretty much in the same setting, says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”?

But we don’t have Matthew this morning, with its emphasis on love. No, we have Luke. And in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is not as gentle, not as nuanced, not as loving.

For in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Whoever … does not hate …

At best, when we hear Jesus say this, we cringe. At worst, we ignore him. Because hate is not something that we associate with Jesus.

When I work with children and youth, I always stop them from using the word hate. You know how kids can be: I hate … broccoli. Or I hate my teacher … or that TV show … or that song. Kids use the word hate all the time. And when they do, I stop them. “You can’t use that word,” I tell them. “Jesus doesn’t tell us to hate things, so you can’t hate. You can despise. You can even severely despise. But you cannot hate. God did not create us to hate. God created us in love to love,” I tell them.

Which is true.

We are created in God’s image, and that image is, first of all, one of love. We know that because we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God. And we know that because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so therefore we simply cannot be necessary to God. So God must have created us because God wanted us, God desired us. Which means God created us out of God’s love for us.

Which is why we simply can’t go around hating things, hating ideas, hating people. It simply is not how or why we were created.

But then we come to Luke’s version of Jesus’ saying, where Jesus is not gentle, not nuanced, not loving.

Jesus has just finished dining with a leader of the Pharisees, has just finished instructing the people to take the lower seat at the table, to feed the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick. Now he turns his back on that town and begins traveling, with “a large crowd following him.” And suddenly he turns to them and out of the blue says:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

What brought this on? Where did this come from?

Well, I’ll tell you: I think Jesus has had it.

I think he’s tired of explaining to people – high and low – what it means to be a disciple.

I think he’s tired of having large crowds follow him, without making any commitments.

I think Jesus knows that far too many people in the crowd were just along for the ride, wanting to see what would happen next with this young, itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who preached a radical message of God’s love and hospitality.

Remember, these are people who have been waiting for a Messiah for centuries. They wanted another David. They wanted Israel and Judah restored. They wanted the Romans out, their glory restored, their freedom back. Not that they were planning on doing anything about it. That’s simply what they wanted. So when Jesus showed up in their neighborhood, they followed him, just in case anything happened.

And I think, by this point in his ministry, Jesus has had it. He’s fed up with the freeloaders.

So he lays it on the line for them:

The only way to be my disciple is to hate everything else.

Now, to be clear, the way Luke uses the word hate is somewhat … slightly … different from the way we use that same word these days. And here I’m not talking about how some people use the word hate, like the kids in Youth groups do when they say they hate broccoli, or that TV show, or that song.

I’m talking about the kind of hate that is visceral, and emotional, and comes deep anger … the kind of hate that is the result of irrational fear … the kind of hate that nine years ago this Saturday flew into the Twin Towers in New York, slammed into the Pentagon, and brought down a plane in the Pennsylvania countryside, killing nearly 3,000 people … the kind of hate that tears apart the lives of people all over the world today: Israelis and Palestinians, Afghans and Taliban, Shi’a and Sunni Iraqis, Sudanese Arabs and Sudanese blacks … the kind of hate that is used to threaten people of faith here and around the world …

That is not the “hate” that Luke is describing in today’s Gospel. What Luke is talking is the disruption of the family in first-century terms. Hate here means disconnecting from everything that has previously defined a person: family, friends, genetics …  As one commentator describes it, when Jesus says to hate your family, he means to turn your back on the old ways of life, the old world as people in those days understood it, so that the new ways, the “new world of God,” can come into being.

So, you see, Jesus looked back and he saw all those hangers-on, all those free-loaders who were just along for the ride, who were following him to see what would happen next, but who would do nothing to make that next thing happen … he saw them, and he cut loose.

If you want to follow me, he said, be prepared. Following me is not easy. It comes with a cost. You want to be my disciple?You want to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength? You’re going to have to give up something. In fact, you’re going to have to give up a lot. Your family – which doesn’t want you to follow me. Your friends – who’d really rather have you come out and play with them. Your place in society … perhaps your job … your home … 

Because nothing – nothing! Jesus says – can come between you and God.

That’s what it means to follow me.

Not just traipsing across the countryside, waiting to see what happens next. Not just showing up when I preach, or coming to me when your need is great and you want to be healed.

No. You want to be one of my disciples? Jesus says.

Put God first. Every moment. Every day. In everything you do.

Jesus is being very clear: We are not created to be freeloaders in our faith. We are not created to simply follow along, so that we can see what happens next.

We are created to make the next thing happen.

We who are created in God’s image, out of God’s love, are the ones who are called to love in return. To feed the hungry and care for those in need … not “God on high,” not the “other guy around the corner” but us. It is up to us to make the next thing happen through our love … like your food pantry yesterday … and the Stop Hunger Now program this coming Saturday … and the FISH clothing bank this whole month.

We are the ones who are called to see the world’s needs about us, and do something about it, to change it … like this discussion that you are having about the possibility of nursery school here for that 40 percent of the children in this county who never have a chance to go to preschool.

This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ: We have to turn our backs on everything old, everything that defines us by society’s limited and often self-serving standards, so that everything new, everything that is God, can come into being.

And the only way that is going to happen is if we refuse to be the hangers-on and the freeloaders, just along for the ride, and instead actively decide to put God first … in every moment and every part of our lives.

Jesus is stunningly clear: Discipleship is not easy. Discipleship is not cheap. Being a disciple means that we have to be brave and stand up for what God wants, regardless of what society tells us.

And it means that sometimes, yes, we are going to have to hate, just as Jesus said – not in the visceral, evil way that we encounter so much in today’s world, but in the back-turning, decision-making, world-changing, radical way of which Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel.

Because that is the only way we can change the world.

Amen.

A sermon preached on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year C, by The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley at Christ Church, Millwood, Va.

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