Healing

That the World might be Saved through Him

A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

As we journey through Lent, we are recalling that the whole thing is about the overwhelming mercy of God. Our salvation is not mostly about God and a little bit about good things that we do, and it is definitely not about God, plus making some good choices, and being nice, and pretty good-looking and saying a few of the right words, either. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that the whole world might be saved through him. It is God’s mercy; God’s love for every one of us that makes life and hope possible.

The text for today’s sermon is the Gospel of John, chapter three, verse seventeen. Why didn’t I choose John 3:16, like those guys write on the signs they wave at the football games and anywhere they can get in front of a TV camera? Because if we stop at the end of John 3:16 without including the next verse, we misunderstand completely what Jesus is saying. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. . . . Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Some mistakenly think that John 3:16 is about believing, and earning eternal life through believing. That couldn’t be more wrong. We who believe know that God has come into the world to save this world, through his life, his overwhelming mercy brought to us in spending that life with us and for us, even to being lifted up on the cross. But when I say us, I don’t mean this small group gathered here this morning, or some people who wave signs in front of cameras. I mean that God sent his Son into the world—that the whole world is saved by him.

The Gospel passage does talk about condemnation. Condemnation is real. Most of us have felt it, experienced it. Indeed, the question of God’s mercy and salvation wouldn’t be very meaningful to us, or at less not very compelling, if it were not for the reality of condemnation. What is that condemnation, where does it come from? The Gospel says this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come into the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” People condemn themselves by turning from the light and running away from the truth.

The Old Testament lesson is a story from the fourth book of Moses, the Book of Numbers. It is another grumbling in the wilderness story—there are a lot of those, perhaps because people grumble a lot. Here is their complaint: “There is no food… and we hate this food that God has given us.” The food available for the Israelites back then probably did not compare with Calvary Church’s St. Patrick’s Day potluck next Saturday—where we share with one another as in God’s heavenly banquet.

Have you ever noticed that the people who complain the most and pity themselves the most are those who are used to having the most and being the most privileged? So in this story, God basically says, “Oh you don’t like the food? Try snakes.” For some reason they did not like the snakes either. Of course, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” I don’t think my kids would have liked the snakes either. But somehow, in this story, the children of Israel end up knee-deep in snakes.

Somehow, a lot of people end up deep in trouble, deep in condemnation, and they don’t see that it is the result of their own self-pity and anger; or in accepting the hurt and anger of other people and letting that define them. While we do this, God has something else for us. God’s way is mercy, not condemnation. His way is constant love from the beginning and healing of our hurts.

And that’s where those snakes come in. God had Moses lift up a snake, and the people focused on something beyond their self-condemnation and they were healed, they were saved. And so our Gospel lesson begins: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It is the mercy of God, the gift of God, that heals us, that heals this world.

We are invited to live in the light of Jesus—by living a life of welcome and acceptance, of generosity of spirit, of being merciful and leaving self-pity behind. We are called to proclaim God’s love for the entire world, to live together as a body building one another up, not as individuals competing against others for a reward they can’t have.

He sent for his word and healed them; and saved them from the grave.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy;

and the wonders he does for his children.

Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving;

And tell of his acts with shouts of joy.

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Have you not known?

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

In our Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. On the second Sunday of Advent, I preached about this same chapter of Isaiah, but the earlier part, based on Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.” This beautiful chapter tells of God’s caring and protecting of people, despite the difficulties and dangers we face, and contrary to fearful and idolatrous human solutions.

Today’s lesson talks about the real nature of God. “He who sits above the circle of the earth”—that is to say outside of human experience, transcending the cosmos as we can understand or envision it.  It is naïve of some modern people to think that the prophet thought of God as a man sitting in outer space or physically above the sky.  The disc of the earth was the entire cosmos of people’s experience and imagination for the people of ancient Israel—the stars were on a huge inverted bowl that defined that disc—God is beyond all that they, or we understand, beyond the horizon of our experience or imagination.

That’s in contrast to the idols of our construction and imagination: things that can be manipulated and used for self-serving purposes. Today’s passage follow’s one that discusses idols that are simply made of wood with gold overlay. People are inclined to regard power and wealth as things that will protect them, make their lives better.
But Isaiah observes:

[God] brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Security via power and wealth is an illusion, or perhaps, more properly, a delusion. It is tempting to think that, if having enough is good, or being confident and strong makes us feel secure, then having more than we need will keep us from ever being in need and having huge power that makes us stronger and more dangerous than others will protect us from ever feeling unsafe. This is something that is abroad in our country today: very popular and very dangerous. It is what Isaiah saw, and what he was called to speak the word of God against: “he brings princes to naught, and the rulers of the earth as nothing.” Though fear tempts us sometimes to follow these delusions, we know that they don’t work.

Last Sunday we gathered together and worked very hard for several hours. Basically, we were listening to one another’s experiences about what had made us feel most alive, most spiritually engaged, most deeply satisfied. What you came up with can be summarized as our experience in this community of being welcomed, accepted, included, and having the opportunity to extend that to others, and to worship God together in that community of welcome, acceptance and inclusion. None of the lasting and permanent values that we shared had to do with holding power, or achieving or keeping great wealth. Whenever there are fears, they are fears of not having enough to continue to welcome and be welcomed, to open ourselves to accept others, to have regular, deep and nourishing common worship of God. The source of our bounty is the God of all creation—none is hidden or exempt from God’s love or God’s justice. The manipulations of the powerful or the privileged will not prevail, indeed they are illusions which will end quickly in embarrassment.

Our Gospel lesson today continues directly after last week’s lesson where Jesus taught in the synagogue and healed the man with the unclean spirit, the one who was fearful that Jesus would destroy them by bringing the truth of God among them. They went from that synagogue to Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. He reached out his hand to her, he supported her and the fever left her. She was returned to health, and she did what she was always about, hospitality and welcome, serving the guests in her home. The point of the story is not about magical healing powers that do away with germs, the story continues with Jesus healing the whole town—bringing health and return to healthy, welcoming, accepting and including ways of living. It says that Jesus cast out demons and silenced them—they wanted to say how they knew him, put their own spin on the situation through fear, anger, selfishness, hunger for power, manipulation—but Jesus brought health, welcome, God’s compassion into that town. Then he continued and brought the same: the message of the Kingdom of God, throughout his country of Galilee.

It is the Kingdom of God to which we are called together. Health and fearlessness, not the fear and manipulations of this world. We live in what is permanent and not what is illusion.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

With Authority, and he Commands the Unclean Spirits and they Obey…

A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Today is a special day of discernment for Calvary which will finish with our Annual Parish Meeting. 2017 was a year of transition for Calvary. Father Harry Mazujian left as Rector at the end of February. Mother Ann Holt and Deacon Jack Hain stepped in with outstanding liturgical and pastoral leadership. The people of Calvary took responsibility for the activities and programs of the church with the faithful and diligent leadership of our Wardens, Jean Good and Karen Sammer. Karen Sammer and Doug Reagan organized the discernment team, which has put in an incredible amount of work in preparing Calvary’s profile and vision for a new rector. Jennifer Poruczynski has been marvelous in staffing Calvary’s ministries as our diligent and reliable administrator. We have also been blessed by the work of the Way of St. Paul team, Bob Violette and the wonderful choir, our youth, the Tuesdays at Ten Group, the Shepherds who visit the sick and shut-in, and parishioners who organized new initiatives this year, including being a part of the Flemington community’s Halloween observance and Christmas parade.

Thank you to all, and thank you to all our members and friends who support one another and what we mean to God’s people.

I came to Calvary in September because working with churches in transition is what I do. What I love about this work is that transition is a time of change, a time when we can recognize what is vitally important and what can just … change. An important part of our time together today is appreciating together how important what happens at Calvary really is. Our mutual support and witness, and living God’s love for the world together make a real difference for that world, especially here in this community of Flemington and Hunterdon County. Calvary is a resilient community and as this congregation goes through the changes of this transitional time together, it is becoming stronger and more focused on what is truly meaningful.

Becoming whole is what our Gospel lesson is about today. It’s important to remember that Jesus was a healer. We often think of him as a teacher and preacher, which can make us miss how important healing was to him. What he did was to heal and cast out demons, far more than even teaching and preaching.  We see this here in the Gospel of Mark. It starts with John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and then Jesus comes to Galilee and gathers his disciples.  And then this story, the first time that Jesus is teaching a congregation.

What’s of note in our Gospel lesson today, is that though we are told that Jesus is teaching or preaching, what is it that he’s really doing? He’s healing.

We don’t actually hear the content of Jesus’ teaching here, but we are told about his hearers’ reaction. The congregation at that synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, were astonished. This was something new. This is what they said: “What is this? A new teaching, with authority, and he commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.” And that was the foundation of his ministry.

Today, we will have time to think about our focus and what is it we want as our foundation for our ministry at Calvary and in our community. We’ll each have time to talk and we’ll each have time to listen. It will be a time of reflection and a time of fellowship.

Please take a few moments in silence, to reflect along with me:

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is welcomed into a place where God’s love shines and lives are nurtured and transformed in Christ…

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is valued as a unique Child of God and empowered to offer their gifts to the benefit of the congregation and the community at large…

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is inspired to live their dreams of making a better world in which Christ’s peace, justice, and love is available to all…

Our imagination is based on remembering things we have seen and experienced, what we know is possible and is real. As our Psalm for today says:

God’s work is full of majesty and splendor,

And his righteousness endure for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him;

He is ever mindful of his covenant.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;

All his commandments are sure.

 

Come, let us remember who we are, and whose we are, and imagine what we can become as the People of God…

After this Holy Eucharist we will gather in the parish hall, and work together on remembering Calvary Church as the people of God.

 

Listen to him

A sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration August 6, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is fixed on the day of August the sixth. Every few years that day is on a Sunday, and since it is a major feast of the Lord, it supersedes the lessons for the Sunday.

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing, or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.

The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.

The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we are looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  In other words, as, God did with Moses, he set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost-free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being Jesus’ people—living in his resurrection—is not cost-free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own self-righteousness or entitlement.

But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence—and not what we tell God, or what we think we want.

God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face.  So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets and Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. “This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.”

Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one—the Chosen.

And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.

There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”

We listen to Jesus’ compassion, we know his healing; healing of hurt, sorrow, or despair. We listen to his words of hope—hope that will not disappoint us, because it is grounded in Jesus’ real presence with us, courageously, in this real world. The glory of God shines in his love that will never fade or abandon us.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

God’s love has been poured into our hearts

A sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

 

This year, the lectionary takes the gospel lessons from the Gospel of Matthew. You might remember that in January and February, there were several Sundays from the Sermon on the Mount, which is Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teachings. The first section begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and its last section begins, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” That is chapters five through seven.

Today’s gospel reading begins in the last part of the ninth chapter. What happened in the two chapters that lead up to it? When Jesus came down from the mount, he began healing people. In these two chapters, I count nine separate stories of Jesus healing one or more people, as well as another when he calmed a storm while his anxious disciples were out at sea in a small boat. There is nothing accidental about this. Hard-headed historical scholars agree that what we know about Jesus is that he was crucified during the time that Pontius Pilate governed in Jerusalem and that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. Jesus was not a generic miracle worker, and he was not an innovative philosopher—his teachings were clarification and holding people accountable to the scriptures: Jewish law and the teachings of the prophets.

So he looks up and sees the crowds—I think we can safely take that to signify all of humanity, every person, particularly at some time—and Jesus has compassion, because there they are harassed and helpless—the Greek could as easily be read, “troubled and cast-down, or oppressed.” They are like sheep without a shepherd: anxious, aimless, in danger of being scattered and harmed. Jesus had been healing, bringing health to a number of people, but unhealth and evil still affected the community.

At this point in the Gospel the section introducing Jesus’ teaching and healing comes to an end. The call of the disciples, which began just before the Sermon on the Mount is completed, and we get the list of the twelve. Now they have seen, and learned, and Jesus sends them out: “Proclaim the Gospel, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Notice that Jesus sends them out without equipment, supplies or the wherewithal to purchase them. The disciples are not donors or patrons or the people in charge. All they have to give is peace. In other words, they bring the compassion of Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. The compassion of the one, who they would learn later, would be crucified for that very compassion.  What they bring is the Spirit of God, which is the love of God, caring for the well-being of God’s creatures before all else—before even self.

Jesus can send out these twelve because they themselves have been healed. They have received not just the outward blessing of a commission, but also the inner healing from God as they have gone about with Jesus. They have not only seen him giving peace and healing, but he has given his peace to them—in that little boat, he woke up, and rebuked the winds, and there was total calm. It is out of that calm, that peace, that they can now go to the towns and villages and tell about the Kingdom of Heaven.

At this point, Trinity Church is at a somewhat similar time. Mother Margo has begun her sabbatical, and so also Trinity as a congregation begins its sabbatical. A sabbatical is a time of refreshment more than anything else. We are Christ’s disciples because of what we receive, not because of what we do. In living lives of thankfulness and embodying Christ’s compassion many things may be done. Yet all that we can really share or give is the peace of God and the compassion of God, as did the twelve that Jesus sent out.

A sabbatical is a time for reflection on the gifts of God’s compassion that we have received and continue to receive. This is an opportunity to pause—and listen. The peace of God comes to the fore—at the right time, in God’s time, all of Jesus’ disciples become part of the network of Christ’s compassion in this world. In other words, things do happen, but in this summer of sabbatical, let us take time to listen—to realize the true source of our peace, which is God—to put aside the anxieties of our world, our country and our personal challenges, and believe in the truth—the compassion of Jesus. We have one shepherd, it is Jesus. Our faith is in him.

St. Paul put it this way, in his letter to the church at Rome:

Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Once you were darkness

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Another long story this week. In the progression of our instruction for baptism, we have a story of a person being enlightened: literally regaining his sight, and spiritually coming to see the truth in Jesus. It’s a long, complex story with a lot of details and controversy between Jesus and the religious establishment of the Pharisees.

But we start with Jesus own disciples. These guys are following Jesus, as we follow him—and so we like to assume they would get it right. They aren’t so different from us, right? Well, actually, yes. They look at people and they make wrong assumptions just like we do. They see a man who is a blind beggar and they make assumptions that his condition is the result of something.  People experience things, they look around and they decide that events are connected with one another. And generally speaking, that’s correct. People’s actions have consequences; they are connected with one another and affect other people, they affect children and neighbors and parents. And, anyone who reflects honestly on their own life and behavior has ample empirical evidence that people sin. That is to say, people act selfishly without regard to the good of others or their needs and eventually someone gets hurt because of that.  What we see in the first verse of today’s gospel lesson is the next step that people often make—the disciples make conclusions about other people’s sin from results that they see.  “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” It had to be one or the other, right?

Not exactly. We like to use our analysis to find the badness in something, anything other than ourselves, and to assume that the connections that we see explain everything—one or the other, the man or his parents—somebody’s a sinner. How did Jesus respond? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” There is more to the connections between people and events than the disciples saw, or that we see.

One interpretation of Jesus’ words could be that he is referring to the healing of the man’s blindness that he is about to do. Fair enough, that certainly shows the works of God. But I think there is a more general application of Jesus’ response. In the infinite number of connections between events and people and God, there is always far more than we perceive.  And certainly, if we are living in a world governed by anger or self-pity or despising some subset of our neighbors, our view and our understanding will be severely limited, indeed it can be like blindness.

This man was a disabled beggar until Jesus took the mud of the earth, like that from which God had formed the man in the garden. He spread it on the man’s eyes and sent him to be washed in the pool—not so much different from the pool of baptism. When the man emerged from the pool and was able to see, everyone was confused. He was the same man, but he was not what anyone expected. Was it that they could not believe in a healing miracle? Perhaps, though skepticism about miracles was much less common in those days than now. But if you look at the story, it wasn’t the miracle that they couldn’t recognize, it was the man who was formerly blind. They knew him when they could see him lying by the road, “Oh yeah, there he is the sinful progeny of sin” or maybe just, “poor, pitiful, blind beggar.” But standing up, walking around as a responsible and articulate adult?  That’s not visible to them. It is so easy to dismiss those who are different—not powerful, not wealthy, not comfortable. But it is the Glory of God that loves and blesses every person, not just those that Jesus’ disciples might be comfortable with.

This man witnessed and explained what he had experienced: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  The scene that ensues is actually pretty funny, because there were these very devout religious types who did not like Jesus, and they had caught him out doing something on the Sabbath Day that they thought was a violation of the rules. They interrogated this man repeatedly, and tried to get him to agree that Jesus was a sinner and not from God. But when they put it to him, this man said, “He is a prophet.” It goes on and he says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” As they persisted in harassing him and looking for evidence against Jesus, he answered them, “I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples?”

This story is the story of the man’s spiritual formation and his conversion. As he spoke the truth, he was driven out by those who would not hear the truth. It is only near the end of the story that the man who was healed by Jesus actually has the opportunity to see Jesus and the conversion is made complete:

“And who is he sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.

The man who was blind could see, he could see and witness to the truth; but those who thought that they could see and that they knew how things should be done and how they would work out, turned out to be blind. In focusing on their own limited set of connections and presumptions, they missed the glory of God—the mercy and compassion of healing. From Jesus we have joy, not fear. Though the man had been blind from birth, his life was filled with the witness to God’s goodness and the glory of God.

As our Epistle today says:

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is god and right and true… Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

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