Courage

Who will separate us?

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

At the end of that statement, St. Paul drops the mic and leaves the stage. But what is he talking about? Paul is talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. It’s easy to have vague and misleading ideas about the Holy Spirit, so let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it. The Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. What that Greek word means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems; or a friend to stand along with a friend in need.  In the church, where Jesus is no longer physically present, God’s Holy Spirit stands alongside us, enabling us to love one another, incorporating our lives into God’s compassion.

Paul says, “The spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” It’s common to think that good prayer is somehow an output of a well-informed or disciplined mind, or that somehow if we just pray with enough fervor in the right way we can get God to do the things that are important to us.

Actually, prayer does not work like that at all. In prayer we stand, or sit, or kneel in God’s presence; our desires, our feelings, our needs are there. Our care for other people and perhaps even our words are there.  But it is the spirit of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, that joins us to God in prayer. We are joined, upheld and helped in our weakness, even when we are unaware, even when we may feel that our prayers are going nowhere—indeed, God’s presence is not based on what we feel or perceive at all—often, it is at times of dryness, desolation or even despair that we are being transformed into the compassion of God—into Christ. It is in God’s design that God’s children are formed together for the sake of the good of this world—in Jesus’ resurrection he is the firstborn of a large family.

But this good—the growth of God’s love—is not happening in a world where everything works out easily, where people can do whatever they want and it’s just fine. Paul lived in a world where truly advocating the mercy of God and the good of God’s most vulnerable could trigger the anger and even violence of a world that valued the self-interest of those who wanted to keep power and privilege. So do we. Being formed in the love of God does not protect us from the consequences of this world—of loss, or ostracism, or anger, or attacks by those filled with self-pity.  Paul was arrested more than once, for telling about Jesus. Standing courageously for the values of Christ’s compassion in this world takes a similar risk of real loss, at least if you actually mean it. The Christian life in the Spirit is not happy talk, or silver linings, or magical wishes coming true. It is living by choosing what is valuable, true and permanent over the illusory and the selfish. It is in this context that Paul says,

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

The reality of Jesus’ life and death make it clear that the truth of Christian life takes place in a world where there is suffering and death, indeed in a world where there is cruelty and injustice near at hand. The Resurrection of Christ isn’t something that takes away the reality or the permanence of death; the Resurrection is new life, in which the love of God’s Holy Spirit overcomes the fear, anger, cruelty and despair that bind people into the compromised existence of a selfish world. Paul continues:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or nakedness or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The thing that has distinguished the Christians whose wisdom has most influenced me over the years is that they share in a complete lack of self-pity. Some are great theologians and others regular parishioners. At another church where I was serving I visited a woman in the memory unit of a nursing home. She was a lifelong devout Episcopalian and a tough businesswoman. The church remembered that thirty years ago, she told them that that congregation would never realize its building fund goals unless it dedicated ten percent to outreach to the community. Now she has no memory, except what her friends remember for her. But her character is intact, with no trace of self-pity.  I would visit her, and ask her to pray for the parish and people in the parish, and she would sometimes say something insightful and loving about one of them. The last time I saw her, I asked her to pray with me for the vestry deliberations. At the end, she said, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul…

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…

That’s a quiet enough phrase. Simple really. We have one teacher, Jesus. It is enough to be like him. I take him at his word, that’s all that’s required of us, nothing more.

Then you think about it—it is pretty scary. Jesus went about healing, but many took offense. Why? I don’t have a special conduit into the minds and motivations of people today, let alone 2,000 years ago. But in a world in which many are ill, and where illness permeates the society or the system, somebody benefits.  It may not always be one hundred percent clear, how, but for instance, beggars on the street are an easy source of virtue for those who give small alms and go on their way. You may remember in Lent, Jesus healed a blind beggar who then stood up for himself, challenging the condescension of the Pharisees—that was troublesome. Jesus cast out demons and changed the perspective of who was holy and what was holy and when they were holy. Real compassion brings about change and it will make people uncomfortable.

Projection is a wonderful thing. Someone is upset or offended by something someone says, or does, and the only way they can deal with it is by attributing their own motives, fears or evil intent to the person who is upsetting them. Jesus’ opponents had seen Jesus casting out demons and they said he must be in league with Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons. But what they were really doing was projecting their own fears, or their own malice.

Let me say something here about demons and the demonic.  Demons are in fact real. The demonic crops up in our lives far more than we recognize. I’m not talking about cartoon or movie versions of the demonic, I’m talking about the reality that our Baptismal service is addressing when we are baptized:

Do you renounce Satan and all the Spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

 

Demons are human realities, human creations, not divine ones. They are realities in the same way an image or a brand or a belief are real.  For instance, the image of Marilyn Monroe has a power and a social significance separate and apart from the person who is associated with it.  In fact, it exists and exercises influence apart from anyone who might own or purport to control trademarks or property rights involved with it. Demonic realities are slipperier and have more power.  That is because they carry the power of evil which everyone avoids taking responsibility for.

The easiest demon to see in our country is racism. Some individuals might be said to be possessed or consumed with racism, but even if you eliminated those, racism would persist, even among those who can’t see it or deny it. The dignity, even the very visibility of African Americans and others is dismissed without thinking about it, suspicion and distrust based on no evidence except race crop up, and find expression in actions even when we don’t think about it, or approve of it, and particularly when we aren’t thinking. The thing is, no living person is responsible for the existence of racism and no action by any individual or group will make it disappear, though it may be cast out or its effects ameliorated at some times and some places.

But this isn’t a sermon about racism, it is about the demonic, the insidious evils that affect our lives—not things that we will, or things that we created, at least not as individuals. You can see the demonic in abusive families or addictions. You can see it in political discourse. Nowadays we can see that pretty close up. The demonic lives by fear, anger, hate and resentment—but not just any fear or anger. The demonic arises when people deny and cover up those things to the point that nobody really remembers where they came from—everybody, when confronted, can point to a prior instance of offense or terror, unkindness or disrespect that comes from somebody else.  Jesus, in his compassion began to cast out these demons, and triggered the vast resentment that got him crucified.

Jesus wasn’t naïve, he knew what was happening and what was going to happen. But the evil in this world, embodied in those demons was destroying human life, ripping apart society—and Jesus had come to bring life.

So Jesus turns to his disciples and says:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

Jesus is talking to us. The only way to cast out or limit the demons of this world is through stopping the denial and holding them up to the light—in compassion, and not in self-serving fear or anger—but in the compassionate love of Jesus. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

This is not without consequences, Jesus would not expect it of his followers if it were not important; if life itself did not depend upon it. Pain, conflict, ostracism, even death can result from not cooperating with the culture of denial, anger and fear in this demon filled world.  It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and not to be undertaken flippantly or with any self-regard or self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Do not fear them, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The much greater danger is the death of the spirit that comes from accepting the demonic as normative, denying that evil exists, and taking that fear and anger and despair into your soul.

The peace that Christ brings is not cheap. In a world where human beings hurt and demean one another daily, a life of respect and compassion is outside the norm, it requires attention and courage, else we slip into the morass of self-serving anger and cruel despising of others. Yet it is peace, and it is a joyful thing to live in Christ’s love—life is indeed possible, we are not dominated by the despair of this world.

As St. Paul said it today:

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also much consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

Show us the Father and we will be Satisfied

A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

How many are you are familiar with this number? 80 sextillion, 268 quintillion, 300 quadrillion? …. That’s the number of miles a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled since the big bang (give or take a few hundred quadrillion).  So you can imagine that right?  Maybe we can make it a bit more familiar—think of an airline pilot, flying the maximum number of hours per year over a 40-year career.  That might reach nearly 20 million miles—so this number is only a bit more than 400 trillion times that distance. The thing is, we don’t have any scale to make any sense of those distances. And over those distances what we might experience is vastly more diverse and unexpected than the variation between a life on a sailboat in the ocean, or living in the high desert where I grew up, or the dense, big city of New York, or the Himalayan mountains where my niece’s mother grew up. Reality: Richer, bigger and more complex than we can actually imagine.

The thing is, God is much bigger than that. 80 sextillion miles? In the palm of God’s hand. The truth is richer, bigger, deeper and more wonderful than we could ever fit into our minds. So even when we think we are being hard-headed and scientific, our minds work in a universe of metaphor.  So when Philip says to Jesus, “Show us the Father…” what could that mean? When it says, no one has ever seen God, it’s not because God is shy, or because God is hiding. In this world, where we cheapen words by using a dozen superlatives to describe things that are quite ordinary, God is truly in-comprehensible—more than the circuits of our brain can take in. And the person who thinks they might aspire to that… well they have to increase their brain power a little just to get to the point of seeing that they really can’t.

In a mechanistic universe, where physical manipulation was what counted, that would be all we could say. But that’s not where we live. God, the vast and the incomprehensible, is love. The source of life and the source of love embracing and upholding the universe. So show us—with all the un-love, death and destruction in this universe—show us the Father of Love.

Jesus replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus was the one sent into this world, a person from God’s point of view, not from the point of view of human fearful confusion or self-serving hate, but the very image of the infinite God. Remember this, love is not just whatever we want it to be, all comfy and without pain or loss or challenge.

Those of you who were at Mary Pierce’s funeral two weeks ago, may remember that my homily was on this same lesson from John.  I will repeat a bit of what I said then: Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper and he has given them the only commandment that he ever gave: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Judas has left the supper to go arrange his betrayal, and Jesus assured Peter, the one who was most confident and demonstrative about his dedication, that he too would deny him.  Those were the facts and Jesus says immediately, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus’ compassion was not about everything being just fine, or nothing to be troubled about. Jesus says this in the midst of a real loss.

We know the love of the infinite and eternal God in his son who was betrayed, executed, died and was raised by God from the dead.  God among us, and that’s how we can see and know God. I heard a review on the radio of a new documentary about Roger Stone, who is a political operator. He’s had a lot of recent success, and one thing that he has said more than once, is “hate is a stronger motivator than love.” He’s right of course. If you want a shortcut to power in this world, find what people fear and hate, then amplify and steer it. It’s much easier to find a thousand cowards to hate and kill, than fifty courageous people who will suffer in order to be compassionate to those who suffer. That does not change reality—the living God is the God of love, we see him, we know him, we can talk about him because we see and know who Jesus was, how he healed, and listened, and cared for those who suffer. How he stood up for them, and was taken up on the cross.  This talk of the origin of all things as love, is it strange? Is it made up? The creation is the intimate fruit of its creator, the creator created because he loves that creation.

Today is Mother’s Day. When we think of mothers, we can get all sentimental and tell a bunch of half-truths, or we can think about real mothers: my own, yours, your own experience of being a mother, or the husband of a mother, or a daughter or a son. There are all sorts of people who are mothers, but one thing they have in common, whether they like it or not, is an intimate relationship with a person. Sometimes a person becomes a mother by adoption, or nurtures others who are not their children. Other times a biological mother isn’t involved in the raising of her children, and sometimes women lose babies or are unable to have a child. And they grieve. But in every case that bond between a mother and child is a powerful connection—a creation of an independent life. The love between mothers and children is as complex as all of human life—the 3 a.m. feedings, or the meltdown of a mom who’s frustrated at no time for herself, are just as much a part of that love as the beautiful moments of affection and the joyful rewards of happy, growing children becoming responsible people in this world. It’s not just a responsibility, or a gift—it is real life moving forward in its deepest connection—the creators living for the creation.  And thanks are never what motherhood is about. Though these human beings who have become creators deserve our recognition and gratitude. Thus the Day, which is only a sign, not any real compensation.

Our life, and our world are God’s creation. In creating, God has bound himself as a mother is bound to her child. In Jesus, we know that God has not abandoned us, or left us to our fear and hatred. In Jesus we have the love of the Father and of the Mother, we know compassion and we are invited to live in that compassion—a life of love for others.

Here are the first and last sentences of our epistle lesson today from the first letter of Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—“ “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”

Let us live in God’s mercy and as God’s mercy and rejoice.

It is finished

A sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“It is finished.”

What is finished? We might be tempted to pass over these last words—Jesus has been through a lot. So have we—all through the journey of Lent there are references to Jesus’ cross or his crucifixion, and then this week the story is told at least two different ways. It is draining to go through this execution—and there are so many ways, in the mass of the detail of Jesus’ suffering, that we can miss the point.

One way is to abstract from Jesus’ real life and reduce the crucifixion to a theological principle. One way this has been done is to assert that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy the debt owed to God for all the sins and crimes of humanity. Other times I run into preachers and theologians who are at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ suffering was the most or the worst possible. In both cases, Jesus suffering and death becomes symbolic and detached from his actual life and from ours.

At the other extreme, it is common to focus on our own emotional response, and all the details of Jesus’ suffering to the point where we are overwhelmed. There is a great danger in this—when faced with such enormity of suffering, human beings lose their perspective, and either fall into despair, or disavow their own place in this—“Who is responsible for doing this injustice to this good man?” How often in Christian history have people asked that question and then answered it with… “The Jews”? And it’s not any better to ask the same question and answer it with “the Romans,” or “the military industrial complex” or “the Tea Party.”

The life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels is, above all, a real life of a real person. The authenticity of his humanity shows us who God is. The way in which he lived his life reveals to us what we can be. If we say that he is sinless or perfect, it is not a perfection that makes Jesus distant or unapproachable…it is not in trivialities that Jesus is perfect, but in his life of love. We see it in the joyful teacher, the host who gives bread to the crowds on the mountainside, the obedient Son who supplies gallons upon gallons of wine for the wedding guests. We see his love in the courage to heal people when he wasn’t supposed to, for loving people who everyone knew were sinners.

And he led his disciples, inexorably, and against their better judgment, to Jerusalem. In that sacred city, all that was significant of humanity was gathered: pilgrims and people celebrating the feast, imperial bureaucrats and soldiers to enforce empire, religious officials trying and hoping to keep everything from falling apart, and religious zealots and nationalist insurrectionists trying to blow everything up. Jesus came to them in Jerusalem—as he comes to us in the Central Valley of California—to love them. And what we see, in a concentrated way, is what people usually do: they are fearful, greedy, some scheme and find ways to assert power over others, others avoid doing what they know is right because it will be difficult. They are all concerned for themselves, afraid to give, because they might lose something. Each person plays a part, whether priest, or soldier, or disciple or bureaucrat—and Jesus, the real, living, loving Jesus—is put on the cross.

Looking down, he sees there a disciple whom he loved, and his mother. And he says “there is your mother” and “there is your son.” Look, and love. Attend not to your own hardship, but love and care for one another. Jesus had no power to stop all the ugliness and violence of the turn that human reality had taken on that day, but he looked with love on those people and reminded those who could hear to get outside of their own concerns and to take care of one another.

After this, … Jesus knew that all was now finished. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”

It was completed, this life of abundance and love. All aspects of humanity had been faced, and loved, and blessed. Even this ugly death, he blessed and embraced. For three days, it could not be known that the ugliness and fear and cowardice and hate of Jesus’ friends and enemies alike had been redeemed and transformed by this Life.

His life was really complete, facing and incorporating that universal human reality that we avoid: his death. Three days in the tomb. Yet we are here, the church is here, because God in Jesus did not let death be the final word or the defeat of that life—the generous, hospitable, and all-loving life of Jesus encompassed and incorporated all that human confusion and evil could muster, and brought forth a new creation.

But the resurrection … that’s the story for after sundown tomorrow.

Jesus Wept

A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus, as we heard in our Gospel lesson today, is rich, long and complex. But it also contains the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Or as our translation struggles to render the Greek verb tense more accurately into English: “Jesus began to weep.”  This story is filled with grief, and Jesus himself grieves. In all the other healings in the New Testament, we see Jesus encouraging faith and hope; we don’t see him being affected by doubt or fear or loss.

The previous paragraph in this story tells how Martha responds to Jesus. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And she responds: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” So we have the Son of God, coming into the world and participating in Martha’s and Mary’s grief: Jesus wept.  Jesus experienced his own human pain, in Jesus, God honors our own pain, our own loss, our own grief.

Like so many who grieve, Mary looked back at the event, and said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Is that true? It certainly expresses the intensity of Mary’s loss. And especially at intense times, people like to out-theologize God, to change the outcomes of creation and time for what they believe will be to their own benefit. Jesus had not been there and Lazarus had died. He felt the intensity of Mary’s loss, and, in his compassion, Jesus wept.

It is easy for us to presume what God or Jesus—or our own mother or father—would have, could have, or should have done—and then things would have been easier, the world would have been different, Lazarus would have died at a different time, and Mary and Martha would have grieved without Jesus. But Jesus did not explain anything to Mary.  He asked, “Where have you laid him?” He loved Mary. He loved Lazarus. And he wept. And he called Lazarus out of the grave: “Unbind him, let him go.”  And the Gospel says, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

And what did they believe? I remind you again that this story contains the confession of Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Or, as Jesus said it, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” He is the one coming into the world to give life—in him, God feels every pain, every desire and every loss. There is nothing insignificant or trivial in any loss that is grieved.

This story of Martha and Mary and Lazarus is framed in the Gospel of John by a significant and related story. Jesus went away from Jerusalem to the northeast, to the area where John had previously been baptizing. But he also left Jerusalem because there was danger—Jesus had nearly been stoned or arrested on a number of occasions. And the disciples were well aware that Jesus could be in mortal danger if he returned , as the first part of our story shows.

Lazarus lived in Bethany, a town on the very edge of Jerusalem, in the midst of this danger. Jesus decided to go and his disciples followed him. Immediately after the raising of Lazarus, some of those who witnessed it went and informed some of Jesus’ opponents who arranged for a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  In their fear of the Romans and of the people, the high priests decided that Jesus should die. Thus, Jesus’ return to bring to bring Lazarus to life was pretty much the direct cause of his own death. He came into the world, and into Bethany to face death for the sake of compassion for his sisters and brothers. Jesus courage is the embodiment of God’s generosity and compassion.

This Lent we have been walking the path of the Catechumens in their preparation for baptism. We have heard the traditional lessons for this preparation on these five Sundays. In the first, with the temptations of Jesus, we learn to focus on God alone, on Scripture and God’s love, not on our own comfort, popularity, possessions or power. In the second, we learn with Nicodemus that we must be born from above, abandoning our preconceptions and embarking on the long trek of transformation. With the Samaritan woman at the well, we receive Living Water and learn that we are known by God. On the fourth Sunday, the blind receive their sight and a beggar speaks the truth that he sees. We learn to see the transforming light of God in the works of Jesus, and in belief to give up our own blindness. And finally today, we see Jesus restoring the dead to life, and we learn with Martha and Mary to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the one coming into this world as the Resurrection and the Life. In absorbing these things, and taking them into their hearts the catechumens are prepared for baptism. In our baptism, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. Next week, we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday. It is that painful and glorious journey with Jesus through the last week of his life, through his death on the cross and into the joy of his Resurrection on Easter.

I invite all of you to join us in our Holy Week services which culminate in the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows and the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday morning.

This prayer is the Collect for that Monday in Holy Week. Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Six days later

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 26, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

Six days later than what? If you look at the Gospel of Matthew, a lot of things happened in the day that immediately precedes this statement. The lectionary puts in an introduction that wants us to focus on the very first part of that passage, which is the confession of Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But there is a lot between that statement and when the Gospel says “Six days later.” Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and this same Peter takes Jesus to the side and starts to lecture him that he should be a little more upbeat and appropriate—and what did Jesus say?  “Get behind me, Satan!” And what he said to his disciples was:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So that is the context when the Gospel says “Six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”

This is the story of the Transfiguration, and it can’t be separated from Jesus’ journey to the cross, of how he would be betrayed, of how religious and government people would be threatened by his witness and kill him.

They went up on the mountain and they saw the glory of God. And in it they saw Jesus’ face shining in the glory of God.  It makes no sense of course as a simple image. Any movie maker can do shiny. shiny-001 shiny-002And all that shines and glitters in this world contributes nothing to the goodness or salvation of this world or to our knowing about God. But in this context, Moses and Elijah appear. The two key prophets of Israel, who brought truth to God’s people. Our lesson from Exodus tells us about Moses. He went up on the mountain with his assistant Joshua. And for six days—notice that, SIX DAYS—they were on the mountain, covered by a cloud and the Glory of God appeared on them like a devouring fire.

The truth and holiness of God is not so much shiny as terrifying; overwhelming; purer than our impurity can handle.  This passage doesn’t mention what happens down the hill at the same time—the Israelites get nervous and scared, and while Moses is on the mountain getting the law directly from the all-holy, all-pure and all-wise God, they are leaning on Aaron the priest to make an idol for them, made from all their shiny jewelry, to assuage their fear by worshiping the graven image.

And Jesus is on the mountaintop with the two prophets most known for opposing and defeating idolatry, the three sages speaking, here in this context when Jesus and all his followers knew he was on his way to Jerusalem. And this same Peter guy, he sees it, and he volunteers to step in and do something.

I love Peter. His responses are so real, even when he’s doing the wrong thing, you know in your heart that his goof-ups resemble our own.  He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here, if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That’s not necessarily a goof-up. To dwell with the three prophets, to wait in the presence of the glory of God. Really, what aspiration could be better? There is no rebuke of Peter.

However, while Peter is still speaking a cloud comes down—just like the cloud that covered Moses and Joshua for those six days. Peter, James and John heard the voice and they hit the deck. This was the real deal. What did the voice say? “This is my beloved son—LISTEN TO HIM.” Listen to him. The whole scene clears, and that is what they are left with: “my beloved son, Listen to him.” “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus told the disciples to say nothing, because the image makes no sense until it is lived out through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. People are apt to confuse God’s glory with shininess, or the messiah with success, or the prophets with some sort of memorial. We do that. But for Peter and James and John, this was real, and it wasn’t about shininess, it was about Jesus and the journey they were taking with him.

Today is the last Sunday before we embark on the journey of Lent.  The season of Lent has been, since ancient times, the season of preparation for baptisms which were normally done at Easter. While many of us were baptized years ago, we are preparing to own our own baptism, our death with Christ and resurrection in him. It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and I invite you to a season of reflection. The Gospel lessons during Lent guide us through the catechesis, or preparation for baptism, and my sermons will be about that. On Monday evenings there will be a time of soup and study in Martin Hall. On Wednesdays, we will have Eucharist at 10 a.m. followed by a Bible study on the Virgin Mary, and at 4:30 p.m. we will have Evening Prayer at the Orchard Creek Lodge in Lincoln Hills. I encourage you all to prepare to own your baptism and walk with Jesus by living a joyful and holy Lent.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and we will observe it at the 10:00 a.m. Eucharist and at the 4:30 Evening Prayer at the Orchard Creek Lodge.

Let us pray once again our collect for today:

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Love your enemies

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

This is the fourth week that the Gospel in our lectionary is from the fifth chapter of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. Next week is the last Sunday before Lent, so this is the end of this series, even though the Sermon on the Mount continues for two more chapters. Jesus has been teaching us, just as he taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him. They followed him not only to learn about what he might teach, but because in encountering Jesus, people were healed. That’s sort of an odd thing. There is no doubt that Jesus was a healer and he cast out demons. If you approach the documents that we have with an historical eye, it is more sure that he was known for his exorcisms and healings than anything about his teaching. Yet when we get an accurate picture of him, he wasn’t a magician and did nothing particularly showy.  Despite the crowds, what we know of Jesus was how plain and ordinary he was. His healing and his teaching were the same thing: moving people from the self-absorption of fear and pain to the honesty of healthy life in God.

What Jesus presents is simple, anyone can do it—you don’t have to be smart, well-educated, or a religious superhero. However, it is a challenge to be honest in your life, and honesty requires courage, because there are real-world consequences for being honest in a world dominated by fear, selfishness, and self-serving dishonesty.

The Parable of the Good Shepherd Separating the Sheep from the GoatsSome people think that the things that Jesus says in today’s Gospel are unrealistic or even soft-headed.  But let’s look. This eye-for-an-eye thing was about holding to proportionality in pursuing justice: if a person caused you loss or injury, you weren’t entitled to have your posse go out and kill them and their whole family and take everything that they had. It was an eye for an eye, not nuclear war for an insult. But Jesus knows his customers. People rationalize and lie to themselves and others about how badly they have been treated and how terrible the others are. So, if you think you are wronged, accept it, live generously. Accept even a real wrong to your own interest, for the sake of truthfulness and justice in society. This is not about coddling wrong; it’s about stepping away from self-justification of entitlement to personal comfort. Even when we must stand up for justice, it is not for our own advantage or comfort that we stand, but for the sake of those who are harmed by the contemptuous and violent. The fierceness of compassion is far different from the rage of self-defense and selfish rancor.

So when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” isn’t that impossible?  I mean aren’t we going to be upset if people do bad things to us and our loved ones? If love were about feeling good, it would be impossible. But what Jesus has to say is not about making you, or anyone else in our country, feel good. We tend to think of love as some sort of positive feeling—nice disposition toward someone else, or some group of people—or kittens. But love, as Jesus teaches, is a disposition of the will—­a choice—for the good of someone else. Christian love is not desire, or even friendship, but concern and action for the good of others. ­

Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” He does not say, do everything they want, or pander to their cruel whims. Rather, we should look for their ultimate good, for their healing and health. If you are taking care of a cranky and spoiled child, it is not loving to let them run into a busy street or hurt their little sister or brother. Loving another means looking out for that other person’s well-being, not their whims or what they seem to think they want. Pray for your enemies, for their well-being, for them to be guided to just actions—even it is in spite of themselves. It sometimes means that you have to stand up to a person who is destroying their life or the lives of others. Sometimes it costs popularity for not being as “nice” as some expect or for failing to join in the ridicule and nastiness toward a person who is clearly troubled and a problem.

Does it require courage to follow Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount? Yes. Is it too hard for ordinary Christians? No. Healthy Christians know to seek the good of others before self. They also are honest about their own fears and their own selfishness, and they seek to repent and believe the Gospel daily. It is the pretense of acting like we are better than others, or the justification of selfishness and self-interested manipulation of the world around us that is unacceptable.

Jesus doesn’t say that life in the real world is easy. He just doesn’t pity us, rather he loves us and looks for our good.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We are blessed and we are healed by Jesus’ love for us and the courage of his honesty. We are called to be Christians in this world, in this country, at this time.

Let us pray once again our collect for today:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen