Love and mission in Honduras

Episcopal News Service has a great article today by Lynette Wilson on Ministerios Nuestras Pequeñas Rosas, Our Little Roses, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Our Little Roses is a home for girls who have been abused, abandoned or orphaned. It is one of the best ministries I’ve ever seen – a refuge of love and care for those who are in such great need, most of all, to be loved. Diana Frade, the founder of OLR, is a friend of mine, and I’ve been privileged to visit and serve at Our Little Roses five times.

Twenty-five years ago, Diana started this ministry, as the article recounts, because she saw a need – for love – saw a way to meet that need, and made it happen. That’s mission. Diana and all those who have been involved in OLR are great role models for all of us, most of all because everything they have done, and everything they are doing, comes out of the bounty of their love.

From the ENS article:

Ministry empowers Honduran girls for life

[Episcopal News Service – San Pedro Sula, Honduras] Ministerios Nuestras Pequeñas Rosas began 25 years ago in a three-bedroom rental house in this gritty, factory town four hours from the capital, Tegucigalpa, because its founder, Diana Frade, recognized the need to educate and empower at-risk girls.

“I visited a boys’ home in Tegucigalpa, and could see the girls on the street,” said Frade, the founder, president and executive director of Ministerios Nuestras Pequeñas Roses, or Our Little Roses (OLR). “I thought, if the church is doing this for boys, why not for girls?”

Adhering to protocol, Frade introduced a resolution aimed at helping girls at a diocesan convention, but it failed – but she’d already promised judges (the court system manages child placement in Honduras) in Tegucigalpa a home for girls. So with $80,000 – part memorial gift, part matching grant – she rented a house and took in the first girl. By the end of the first year, there were 23 girls, a cook and two tias, or aunts, who at OLR handle the everyday needs, rearing and discipline of the girls living in the home, she said.

There are an estimated 200,000 orphaned children in Honduras, according to government statistics. Honduras, a Central America about the size of Tennessee, has a total population of about 8 million, close to 50 percent under the age of 18.

The first building, in Villa Florencia, was built in 1992 on property donated by the city’s mayor on two conditions, Frade said: OLR would be the legal name and listed on the legal documents, and the buildings would be designed in the style of San Pedro Sula. The home came first, and then came the infrastructure – water, sewer, electricity – and the neighborhood, she added.

Today, OLR covers 2.5 acres in Colonial Villa Florencia, five minutes from the central city, and includes Holy Family Bilingual School, serving the surrounding community; a residential home, where currently 56 girls, toddlers to teens, live together with their tias; and an off-site transition home for girls who have left the residential home and who are working and/or studying at a university. OLR Ministries also includes a medical clinic, a dental clinic staffed by Dr. Jensey Maldonado, who came to OLR with her sister when she was 9, and a recently completed mountain retreat and conference center, Our Lady of the Roses, in Santa Barbara, about an hour outside the city. ORL also has a Spanish-language school, offering instruction for students and housing on a weekly basis.

It was United Thank Offering, Episcopal Church Women and Daughters of the King who backed OLR from the beginning and it has been women, who recognize that “when you educate women you can change the future,” who have continued to support OLR, said Frade, who is married to the Rt. Rev. Leo Frade, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.

“The women were so excited and got behind it,” she said. “This ministry is really quite unique, putting women and girls first; when you put women and girls first, you’re changing the generation to come.”

Click here to read the rest.

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Losing our fear

For the last four weeks, the world has been transfixed by the events taking place in North Africa and the Middle East.

After 23 years in Tunisia and 31 years in Egypt, the people rose up and through mostly peaceful but still costly protests overthrew their leaders. In Libya, 42 years of oppression have brought about more protests, ones that have turned brutally violent, in an attempt to overthrow their own leader, Col. Moammar Khadafy.

Protests are also taking place in Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Oman and Jordan. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is making changes to avoid the same kind of protests. The grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, acknowledged publicly – in the New York Times no less! – that changes need to happen, that the governing philosophy of same-old, same-old no longer will suffice.[1]

In each country, the people have said that they are tired of their governments ignoring them. They want, the people say, jobs, freedom, opportunities to grow. They want to govern themselves.

But none of these demands are new. The people who are changing the world aren’t suddenly being confronted by a lack of jobs, or freedom, or opportunities. Those issues have been the order of the day for decades.

So what changed?

What happened to make people who for years were oppressed and subdued suddenly rise up and topple governments that were seen as secure?

If you listen to the protesters in each country, they all say the same thing:

“We have lost our fear.”[2]

In country after country, the people were able to rise up against injustice and oppression because, they said, they had lost their fear.

• • •

My friends, for the last five weeks, we have been immersed in Jesus’ magnificent Sermon on the Mount, where he has told the people, in every way possible, that it is time for them to lose their fear.

Nowhere in this sermon does Jesus actually use those words. Nowhere does he proclaim, as angels and prophets before him have proclaimed, “Fear not!”

But a key underlying message to this sermon truly is just that: “Fear not!”

And what is Jesus telling us to not fear?

Love.

Do not be afraid … to love.

To love God and love one another.

Those blessings Jesus laid out at the beginning of this sermon, in the Beatitudes? Those were given to people who were afraid – afraid that they were not loved, and afraid in turn to love.

That saltiness and light that Jesus commended us to be? If that’s not a message of “fear not,” I don’t know what is.

Those legalisms, all those Law-on-steroids[3] that we have heard for the last two weeks, the “you have heard that it was said … but I say to you” directions? That wasn’t Jesus trying to be more Pharisaic than the Pharisees. That was Jesus telling the people: Go beyond the Law … to love!

And now we come to today’s Gospel, the end of our five weeks of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us, “Do not worry” … about what we are to eat or drink or wear … or even about tomorrow, “for today’s trouble is enough for today.”

If we listen to this Gospel on its own, considering not that which preceded it, it would be easy to equate this message with Bobby McFerrin’s. You remember his song, right?

(sung) Don’t worry … be happy.[4]

In every life we have some trouble

When you worry you make it double

Don’t worry … be happy.

It’s a happy-go-lucky song that makes you feel good, right?

Now that I’ve planted those lyrics in your head – Don’t worry … be happy – go back and read the Gospel from Matthew again, and you can see how easy it is to think, “Why, they’re both about the same thing: ‘Don’t worry’!”

But my friends, Jesus is not telling us we should never worry … and that’s a good thing, because if he were telling us that, the truth is, most of us would not listen.

Because we do worry.

We worry about our health … our finances … our families … our friends … the economy … jobs … safety … We worry about the food we eat (“Is this good for me?”), the water we drink (“Is it clean?”), the clothes we wear (“Does this outfit make me look fat?”).

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that on any given day, we probably spend at least a few hours of it worrying.

So when Jesus tells us, “Do not worry …” our first reaction most likely, at least in private, is, “Yeah, right …”

But if we do that, we’re missing the point.

Because he’s not telling us to worry not.

He’s telling us to lose our fear. He’s telling us to be like those protesters in Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain and Yemen and Libya, where protesting has cost many of them their lives.

Jesus wants us to stop being afraid all the time and to start focusing on the things that really matter.

He’s telling us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness.”

Because when we do that – when God’s justice rolls down like waters and God’s righteousness like an everflowing stream[5] — then indeed, we will not have to worry about what we are to eat or drink or wear (“Does this outfit make me look fat?”).  Because in God’s very just and righteous world, all of us will have enough food to eat, clean water to drink and decent clothes to wear, for then we shall no longer live in a world where scarcity is king. Instead, we will inhabit a creation where God’s abundance reigns.[6]

Listen to how Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson has translated today’s Gospel in The Message:

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table … or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. … What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. … Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out … Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.[7]

When we spend all of our time worrying about what we have and don’t have, we are not living a life of God-worship. We’re living a life of fear.

Fear that what we have is not enough.

Fear that someone else might have more than we do, or something better than we do.

Fear that someone else might try to take away what we have.

Jesus wants us to stop being so afraid that we lose sight of what God wants for us. He wants us to set aside our fear and remember God’s promise to us: “Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand.”[8]

Jesus wants us to love – boldly … passionately … wildly … radically – the way God loves us.

When we worry … when we are afraid … when we spend our days focusing only on ourselves and our belongings, and not on God and God’s other beloved children, and what they need, we cannot love.

It’s OK to worry … we’re human beings, and worry is part of our genetic make-up.

It’s not OK to let those worries consume us, to keep us from seeing God’s abundant love in our lives – and from acting on that love, from living that love.

My friends, we are created by God to love.

We are created … by God … to love.

That’s what Jesus is saying to us: Live in love.

And if we want to live in love, if we want to live as Jesus tells us to live, not worrying but loving, the first step we have to take is become like those protesters all over the Middle East and North Africa, the ones who have inspired us and kept us glued to our TV sets for weeks on end.

First, we must lose our fear.

Thenthen … we can love.

Amen.

————————————————————

A sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, 27 February 2011, Year A, at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior, Montpelier, Va.

 

[1] Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company and the Alwalaeed bin Talal Foundations, “A Saudi Prince’s Plea for Reform,” The New York Times opinion page, 25 February 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/opinion/25alsaud.html?scp=2&sq=alwaleed%20bin%20talal%20bin%20abdul%20aziz%20alsaud&st=cse

[2] Sarah A. Topol, aolnews, “Egyptian protesters vow they will remain: ‘We lost our fear,’” http://www.aolnews.com/2011/02/03/egyptian-protesters-vow-they-will-remain-we-lost-our-fear/ (See also numerous other reports in February from Egypt and Bahrain.)

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

[4] Bobby McFerrin, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, released September 1988, lyrics from http://www.lyricsondemand.com/onehitwonders/dontworrybehappylyrics.html

[5] Amos 5:24

[6] Paraphrase from Lose, “Picture This,” at WorkingPreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=458.

[7] The Message (MSG), © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson, via http://www.biblegateway.com.

[8] Isaiah 49:15b-16a.

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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.

————————-

[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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Matthew 5:13-20

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

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

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

So what exactly are we supposed to do?

Cut back on our salt?

Or be the salt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt was worth more than gold.

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

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

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

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

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

So you see, salt indeed can lose its flavor.

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

That’s why we were created, my friends.

To let God’s love be known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Jesus’ message to us as well.

We are precious.

And we are powerful.

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

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

This isn’t about us.

It’s about God.

So what are we going to do?

How are we going to glorify God?

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

• • •

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

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

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

This is your charge:

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

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

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

Go into the world, my friends.

Be salty.

Blaze your way through life.

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

Not for your sake.

But for God’s.

Amen.

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

——————————–

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

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

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

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God is depending on us

Luke 18:1-8

There are times when our Lord Jesus Christ is trying to teach us something and to do so, he tells us a parable – and then he pretty much leaves us to figure out what the parable means in all its aspects, and we often end up … confused.

This morning is one of those times.

The parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge is one most of us have heard before. Jesus tells his disciples to pray always

The Widow and the Unjust Judge

and not to lose heart, and then illustrates that command with a parable that at first blush seems to back up his instructions.

But then we take a deeper look at it, and we think, “Wait a minute.”

Are we being told that God doesn’t answer our prayers unless we storm the gates of heaven, that God pays no attention to the first time, the second time, the third, the fourth, the fifth time we pray?

Are we being told that God is like this unjust judge, who only gave in to the widow because he didn’t want a black eye (that’s the literal translation from the Greek of “wear me out”)? That God only answers our prayers in order to avoid being publicly embarrassed (as if that were even possible)?

At first blush, those do seem to be the points of the parable.

Thankfully, the parable is about neither of those points.

We do not need to storm the gates of heaven repeatedly, hoping that eventually, God will pay attention. (God hears us the first time we pray.) And we do not need to worry about whether God is just or unjust. (We know God is just, because if God were not just, God would not be God.)

This parable, my friends, is about the kingdom of God on earth. It is about God’s will being done. It is about God’s justice reigning in this world.

Only by turning this parable over and focusing on the widow and what she does in the face of great injustice do we figure that out.

You see, in the days when our Lord Jesus Christ walked the earth, widows had nothing. They had no rights – no right to speak in public, no right to property, no right to testify in a court of law. Everything their husbands owned went to the husbands’ male relatives. If those relatives didn’t like the widow, or were greedy and wanted everything for themselves, they could throw the widow out on the street, and there was little the widow could do about it. Because widows had no rights. They had no one to speak for them. No one to stand up for them. No social safety net. No women’s center. No pro bono lawyers – no one.

The widow in this story? It’s obvious that she was all alone. There was no one was standing up for her. She wasn’t getting any justice from her husband’s family … that’s why she was going to the judge repeatedly. No one was taking her side – that’s why she argued before the judge alone. But even when that fool of a judge – and he was a fool, because he wasn’t even smart enough to fear God and he had no respect for anyone in the community – even when he refused repeatedly to hear her case and give her the justice that God demands, the widow refused to quit.

She knew her rights, this widow, the rights that came directly from God. She knew that from the beginning and to the end of time, God was on her side. Throughout the Torah, the Law of Moses, God places special emphasis on caring for widows, orphans and strangers.[1] Eleven times in Deuteronomy alone, God commands his people: Take care of the widows, the orphans and the strangers.  So this widow knew: God was on her side. And no foolish judge was going to stop her from getting what God said was hers.

And therein, my friends, lies the real lesson of this parable:

Do not quit.

Even when the odds are against us, this parable teaches us that we are not to stop working for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s love, for God’s hope.

Even when the kingdom seems out of reach, when there seems to be no justice in sight, or love to embrace, or hope to cling to, Jesus tells us to keep trying, to keep pushing. Because one day – one day – when enough people focus on God’s kingdom – and not their own; on God’s justice – and not society’s; on God’s inexplicable, eternal, wild, radical love – and not humanity’s limited, short-sighted, mean-spirited imitation of the same; when people embrace God’s incredible hope – and reject humanity’s hopelessness – when all that happens, God’s justice will roll down like waters and righteousness will flow like an ever-flowing stream.

No matter how hard it seems, Jesus is telling us, no matter how hopeless it seems … do not quit.

So why does Jesus tell us this in the context of a command to pray always?

Because in Jesus’ scheme of life, prayer is more than simply asking for something. Prayer is about doing something. It’s about doing those things for which we pray!

The Statue of Reconciliation, by Josefina de Vasconcellos. It sits amid the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed by German air forces during WWII. A replica of this statue was donated by the people of Coventry to the peace garden of Hiroshima.

It is not enough to simply ask God for peace in this world. If we want peace, Jesus says, we’re going to have to work for it. We don’t have peace in this world because there are far too many people who reject it. Those of us who want it, who pray for it, Jesus says, are going to have to work for it.

It is not enough to simply ask to God to watch over those in need this day. If we want people to have enough – not everything, but enough – we are the ones who are going to have to give them enough. This day!

Jesus tells us this parable so that we can understand: We have to actively work for that for which we pray, even when it seems hopeless. Because in God’s scheme of life, there is always hope. There is always justice. There is always love.

I know this. I have witnessed this.

For four years I served as your missionary in Sudan, a war-torn nation where more than 3 million people have died in the last 40-some-odd years of war, and another 5 million people have lost their homes. At one point in Sudan, someone was dying – either in civil war or as a result of civil war – every 6 seconds.

Every day, the people pray for peace. They’ve been praying for peace for decades. But they don’t simply ask God for peace and then sit around passively waiting for it. They work for it! Like the widow in today’s Gospel, they refuse to quit. The odds are against them, the world is pretty much ignoring them, their enemies are salivating over the chance to annihilate them. But they won’t quit working for peace.

Right now – facing yet another civil war that is threatening the lives of nearly 10 million southerners in that divided land – they are working for that peace they so desperately desire. This very day, the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan is in this country, seeking the help of the U.S. government and the United Nations, so that they don’t face yet another genocide come January, when South Sudan will vote on whether to become an independent nation. Every day, our brothers and sisters in Christ in Sudan, who are related to us not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism, not only pray for peace. They work for it.

And this is our mission, too.

This is the mission of the Church:

To actively work for that for which we pray. Even when the world tells us it’s never going to happen. Even when the world conspires to stop us.

Our mission is to never give up.

Whenever we see an injustice, whenever we are encounter hatred, whenever we feel hope slipping away, Jesus says to us: do not quit. Do not give up.

We are supposed to be like the widow in today’s Gospel: Always striving for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s love, for God’s hope.

God is depending on us.

Amen.

A sermon preached on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year C, 17 October 2010,  at St. Anne’s Parish, Scottsville, Va.



[1] Exodus 22:22; Deut. 10:18, 14:29, 16:11, 16:14, 24:17, 24:19-21, 26:12-13, 27:19.

 

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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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Walking in death to life

Maundy Thursday in Haiti:

Dear Friends in Christ:

In Haiti’s epicenter, anywhere you walk, you are walking in death.

Everywhere you step in earthquake-devastated epicenter of Port au Prince and Leogane and the surrounding areas, your feet get dirty. There are few open spaces left, and what once was open is now filled with tents and tent cities. There is little sanitation. Garbage is picked up some days, but piles up most others. The rains sweep everything down the streets and sidewalks: raw sewage, mud from the crumbled buildings, the decaying remains of those who died and who have still not been found, still not been uncovered in the rubble.

If any one group of people need their feet washed, especially on Maundy Thursday, it is the Haitians, for they walk in death every single day.

But foot-washing — a part of the Christian tradition that comes from the Evangelist John’s description of the Last Supper, in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples — is not a tradition in the Episcopal Church here. I’m not certain why it isn’t, I simply know that when I asked, “Do we wash the people’s feet here?” I was told, “No.”

I wish that were not so, because right now, Haitians need that foot-washing.

Not just because they are walking in death.

But because I think that most Haitians – those living in tents and tent cities, and those who are in their own homes – need the rest of the world to bathe them in the same love in which Jesus bathed his disciples’ feet.

The standard explanation of the foot-washing scene in John’s Gospel is that Jesus wanted to show how far he was willing to go to be a servant to his disciples, to set an example for them, so that they in turn might be servants as well.

But I have always believed that there is so much more to the story than simply example-setting. I believe that Jesus got on his knees and washed his disciples dirty, smelly, probably ugly feet — that terribly despised portion of the body that most people really don’t want to have washed in public  — I believe Jesus did this as an act of pure love. I believe Jesus took each foot and caressed it, rubbed it, washed it clean, and gently rubbed it dry out of pure love.

And if anyone needs to experience that kind of gentle love, it is the Haitians. They have suffered so much for so long, and then have been torn asunder physically, emotionally and psychologically by this earthquake. Now, the very ground on which they walk is filled with death. What would it be like, I asked the small congregation gathered for Maundy Thursday services at St. James the Just, if we were to have OUR  feet washed, and then were to go across the street to the Tent City where approximately 6,000 people are encamped, and wash THEIR feet? What would happen if we were to show to all those in such great need the same absolute, tender love that Jesus showed to his disciples?

We don’t do foot-washing in Haiti — at least, not yet. Pere David Cesar and I talked about possibly introducing the service next year.

But right now, I said, I think it’s something that Haiti desperately needs: Gentle, tender, pure love. Each of us, I said, needs to take the love of Christ that we feel — however big or small — and share it, gently and tenderly — with those who need it so much more.

When Jesus got down on his knees, I said, he did it out of love. And that very act alone changed the world.

We, too, I said, can do this. We can get on OUR knees, figuratively and literally, and in doing so change not just Haiti, but the world.

I don’t want to walk in death any more. The Haitians don’t want to walk in death any more. What they want — what they NEED, right now — is to walk in love.

What better way to show that love than to have our dirty, smelly, ugly feet washed, and then to wash the dirty, smelly, ugly feet of others?

That kind of love, that kind of willingness to lessen ourselves so that others may be loved and may find life — THAT kind of love changed the world once, and it can change the world again.

I really wanted to wash some feet tonight, and I wanted my own feet washed, in the pure, tender, gentle love of Jesus. We did so figuratively. Hopefully soon, we’ll do so literally as well.

Blessings and peace in this Holy Week,

Lauren

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