Love

A Great Multitude


A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Today we observe the feast of All Saints with the baptism of two new saints. In popular parlance, the term “saint” refers to some sort of religious superhero. But that’s not how the Scriptures describe the saints, and I think it is a mistake when the church looks at its saints that way. The word “saint” means holy—that’s its entire meaning both in Latin and Greek. A person is holy because they belong to God—and our reading from the book of Revelation shows a throng of saints, the holy people of God, more than anyone can count—all kinds of people, from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages—every sort and category of person: all holy and blessed and beloved of God.

The saints we remember are ordinary people, in whose lives some memorable things happened that illustrate the Christian life. Martyrs are ordinary Christians, who in the course of doing what Christians do, had a really bad day.

“They have come out of the great ordeal, they have washed their robes and made them white.” “A great multitude that no one could count…”

The image of the people of God—all of them holy, all of them saints. We here are among saints, people blessed and loved by God. We heard it from George last week—of being enfolded and nourished by the love of God in this place by the Body of Christ, which is to say: You.

This week I heard from a friend whose birthday happens to be on November 1, All Saints Day.  Thirty-seven years ago, I met him and his wife Ruth and their two eldest daughters when we were next-door neighbors during my last year of seminary. Sebastian wrote to say that Ruth died of cancer last month.

Ruth Bakare

Sebastian and Ruth spent their lives serving the church and people of Zimbabwe, courageously standing for justice and the poor. Ruth was president of the Mothers’ Union, and undertook projects for the education and wellness of girls and women in places where those things were hard to come by. Sebastian was Bishop of Manicaland and Acting Bishop of Harare, speaking for the church in a time of great conflict in his country. He told me that one time, while preparing the Eucharist at All Saints Cathedral in Harare, he went to the altar rail and said to riot police that had lined up there, “I am in your hands.” They walked away, and the congregation celebrated the Supper of the Lord.

We never know what will next occur in our Christian life, and in Sebastian and Ruth, I have known friends who calmly and confidently lived in God’s compassion, whatever came. Living a life of generosity and caring for others gave them joy, a joy Sebastian continues to share with his three beautiful daughters and grandchildren. We gather with them in Thanksgiving for God’s love embodied in Jesus Christ and known in the love of all God’s Saints.

There are stories like this in our own community. In our church and in our towns, the saints who have been among us and who continue still. The wonderful thing about this time of discernment at Calvary is that now is the time we can pause and listen to those stories.

This morning, Flynn and Grant are presented for baptism into this Body of Christ.  They are our youngest saints, incorporated into the witness of Christ. They are loved by God, more than any of us here love them—even more than their mothers and fathers love them—and I say that, having seen how precious these two children are to Sarah and Andre and to Kate and Frank. God loves each of us more than we can love ourselves. In a few minutes, we will join in committing to support Grant, Flynn, their parents and godparents in seeing that they are brought up in the Christian faith and life, in renouncing the forces of evil in this world, in affirming and holding the faith of the church, serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In other words, as a Christian community we are accountable to God and to one another for living and growing together. We are accountable to Grant and Flynn for being the community in which God’s love is concrete in our time and place. Flynn and Grant will likely live to see the end of the twenty-first century and the church will still be here, witnessing to the love of Christ, not because we are smart or efficient, but because God continues to love God’s people. There is no doubt that life will continue to be complex, that there will be doubts and discouragements. There is no saint that does not have doubts and discouragements—the wonderful thing about the saints is that they are real people, living in our real challenging and complex world.

With all the saints, we celebrate the God of Life—God who is the beginning and the end is not about death, but about life that is not stopped or defeated by those powers of evil and hurt that distract us. When we see and know and remember the saints, they affirm life and do not fear the powers that bring death. As my friend Sebastian said, “I am in your hands.”

We join with all the saints in the feast of life—if anyone is discouraged, or fearful, or confused, rejoice—that shows that you are a real person like the real saints. Rejoice that we have life to give, and we can live it for the new Christians in our midst—our love and accountability to Grant and Flynn is a gift from God, both the sign and the medium of our inclusion in the Resurrection of Christ.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the One who is seated on the Throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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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.

Called to our side

A sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter, May 21, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Jesus is talking here about the sending of the Holy Spirit. The word that Jesus uses that is translated as Advocate, is parakletos—Paraclete. Greek likes to make verb constructions into nouns and in this case, what it 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. So, Jesus is talking with his disciples about his own departure, his crucifixion, and he says, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another one to stand with you.” Jesus stands with us and God calls the Holy Spirit to stand with us in our life.

But what does that mean? The Holy Spirit is understood and misunderstood in many ways by many people, Christian and otherwise. And even those who claim direct experience of the Holy Spirit—surely most of them have some experience—but how do we know it is the Holy Spirit? What does Jesus have to say in our Gospel today? It starts, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And the passage ends, “and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The description of the Holy Spirit is about the love of God.

And it has to do with following Jesus commandments—but what are they?  If we have been reading directly through the Gospel of John, we know. In the chapter that has just ended, where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he gave them a commandment. In fact, it is his only commandment in the Gospel of John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Period. That’s it. Easy enough. Of course, the way that Jesus loved his disciples and this world was costly indeed—that evening he was led away to be tried and executed. We are invited, commanded really, to become part of God’s love by loving God’s children, in the most costly way, by giving of ourselves.

Love is not grandstanding, it is seeking the good of someone. You don’t have to die to do that, and no one has to know what caring for another person might cost you. Love is not how we feel, it is helping another, it is being called to stand along with them. Perhaps we do feel good when we do that, but the feeling is not the love, not this kind of love.

The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is God’s love. Simple as that: God standing with us, upholding us when we don’t know how to stand, for ourselves or for someone else. The Holy Spirit supports us and holds us together.

Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The Love of God is the Truth—as I talked about last week.  In the face of all the un-love, hatred and violence in this world, the Truth is the Love of God. Why can’t the world know this? First we should know that in the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John, that term “World” has a specific and special meaning.  It refers to that realm that looks to itself and its own benefit—to succeed in that world makes one powerful and wealthy, and in the world’s eyes those things are all that count.  It was pretty much the values of the Roman Empire, at least of the ruling elites of that empire, but sharply distinct from the values of Christ and Christians.  The values of the world, of course, reassert themselves from time to time, and it is pretty easy to see that now is one of those times. The World has no room in its values for the love of God—it encourages love of self and protection of self, not being called to support those who are poor, or sorrowful, or passionate for justice. The World cannot receive the Holy Spirit because it cannot open itself to love—if it did, it would cease to be the World.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, it is much larger and more inclusive than the Spirit of the World, which rules by fear, and even those most successful in it are fearful, perhaps even more than those who are less successful. We can all be distracted and drawn in by the Spirit of the World from time to time. It’s possible to even try to steer the church by guides of worldly success and measurement. I’m not talking about good management here—the worldly success measures by power, money, and security—Christ measures by the commandment of love: are we living in love.

That’s the reason that the Holy Spirit can be so surprising—it’s not that the Holy Spirit is whimsical, or arbitrary. It’s not that the Holy Spirit is some sort of whoosh of feeling. The thing is, distractible as we are, pre-occupied with our own concerns as we are, we sometimes miss the love that God has for us, and for all God’s children. There are opportunities to be generous or compassionate that are suddenly pointed out—movements of the Holy Spirit—God’s love moving into the world. When we see it, and are incorporated in it, and able to act in the generosity of God’s compassion, it can be a wonderful feeling—but that feeling is not the Holy Spirit. The Love of God moving in this world is the Holy Spirit.

Take a moment to reflect over the past year. In your mind, picture how you have seen or experienced the love of God here at St. James. …  I know that I have. I have received healing and growth. I have seen good people reach out to care for others at times when it was important for someone to stand by them. I have seen the prayerful dedication of those working in the discernment process, seeking how God’s love can be manifested in the years to come in this church. It is fair to say that the movement of the Holy Spirit has been in many ways surprising to many of us. Not arbitrary, not unreasonable when you look at it, but yielding unexpected things that build God’s love in this place, as we follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another.

He says, “I will not leave you orphaned… because I live, you also will live.” All of us are called at one time or another to stand with someone, to be their comforter or their guide.  It’s been a privilege to be called to be with you this past year. All that we have shared together we carry within ourselves.  We share in Christ. So for a time we sojourn together, but the Holy Spirit remains here, and in that Holy Spirit we live in Christ’s love, each of us, wherever we are called by God.

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.

In remembrance

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table”

It was a solemn feast, of deep religious and national significance when Jesus gathered his apostles with him that evening.  He says to them, “I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. His prayer for his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” was a prayer of the Kingdom of God. God’s direct rule of God’s people, the dropping of human manipulations and oppressions, the welcoming joy of life with God without the death and downward pressure of human sinfulness: that is the Kingdom of God.

This was Jesus’ last meal, certainly his last meal with his apostles. I have no doubt that he knew it, and all the others in the room were expecting it as well.  The Kingdom of God is hard for human rulers to take—and not just kings. Jesus had brought freedom and healing to people in ways that inconvenienced all sorts of people who profited or gained status by demeaning or hurting others. It was uncomfortable for them when Jesus revealed their hypocrisy, mendacity, greed or cruelty by speaking simple truths or telling stories with a humorous or ironic take on life.  This had reached a point when everyone could see that something was about to give, and Jesus entered Jerusalem in a mock triumphal procession—on a donkey, instead of the horse that a conquering king would ride.

The wine, the cup of blessing, the cup of the celebration of God’s Kingdom, “take this and divide it among yourselves.” Anticipating the Kingdom.

The bread, simple sustenance or bread of affliction. Perhaps the bread that the Israelites baked in such a hurry that they could not let it rise, because they were fleeing the Egyptians. But Jesus wasn’t going to flee the Romans. “My body” “For you” “Do this in remembrance of me.” In memory, we re-member, re-assemble the love of Jesus for us. We are one body in Him, because his love is re-membered in us.

And the final cup, the Gospel says it is the same as the bread—“Poured out for you as the covenant in my blood.” We are remembered by God in the remembrance of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Of course, no sooner had he said this than they began to act like every other church assembly or other human assembly since then. “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”  The text doesn’t say whether Jesus did a “face-palm.” It might not have been a current gesture back then, but nobody would blame him if he did.

“Not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Clearly, Jesus saying it hasn’t made it magically true among Christians of any age. But he is clearly meaning the same thing as in the Gospel of John where he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another,” as he interprets his washing of the disciples’ feet. The word “Maundy” refers to the Latin word for commandment, and there is only one commandment for Christians, that we love. That love is not so much a nice feeling as an attitude of our will to actively seek the best for another. In other words, we are commanded to serve God’s people as the love of Christ.

The institution of the Holy Eucharist is founded in this commandment of love. We remember that it is God who first loved us in Jesus Christ, we remember that we are bound together in his love, we remember that he is among us as our servant, and we become that love of God by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood in this bread and wine which he gives us.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings, and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 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

Yesterday and today and forever

A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

That sentence is the culmination of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews is an anonymous discourse, written in the first century.  Of all the writings of the New Testament, its writing is the most literary and polished.  The more polished a piece of writing is, the more difficult it is to convey in translation. I realized this when I looked at the Greek to see what word was translated as “mutual love” in the first sentence: “Let mutual love continue.” There is nothing wrong with the translation that we have—it translates the words and sentences accurately.  But on first reading, it can appear that it’s just a list of good things to remember, not particularly connected with one another. But in Greek, these exhortations are tied together by related words that show us the progressive logic of the Christian life of love.

Let me render this in awkward English to illustrate: “Let brotherly/sisterly love continue, but don’t neglect love of strangers, for hidden in that, some have entertained angels. And remember the prisoners, as though suffering the mistreatment they receive along with them in your own bodies. (And speaking of being in one shared body) keep the marriage bed undefiled. Be not-silver-lovers but be content with what you have.”

This passage weaves together the different kinds of love and not-love that make up the everyday Christian life and experience. It starts with the familiar: the everyday experience of love of the sisters and brothers who we know well and care for. This kind of love isn’t less than other kinds—it’s pretty much the foundation.

But what’s being emphasized, is that Christian love doesn’t stop there. Christian love isn’t just for insiders. Even more important is the love of strangers, which is what that word “hospitality” really means—the stranger. Not the ones we know and have social obligations and relations with, but the wanderer on the road, the one we will never see again. By illustration the text alludes to Abraham, who received his greatest blessing—that is to say, the promise of his son and a legacy of a great nation—he received that blessing by stopping and welcoming three strangers on the road on a hot summer’s day.

But it is not just the strangers who we may encounter, but also those who are locked away and out of sight. This could refer to Christians, who like St. Paul found themselves imprisoned because their witness to the Gospel challenged those in power to seize people and lock them up. Or it might recognize that people were seized for arbitrary reasons and held in terrible conditions unless they had the wealth or influence to gain release. These distant people who we can’t see; we are one with them as well, as if we are one body with them as we are with Christ.

Next, there’s the reference to a shared experience in the body, the text circles back from the most distant and invisible of relationships, to the most intimate and familial— “Let the marriage bed be held in honor by all.” All this love of brothers and sisters and strangers and far-away prisoners does not reduce one’s obligation to those closest or change those obligations. No other kind of love exempts us from the basics of cherishing those in our own household and maintaining the integrity of those relationships. After this exhortation is another word that contains “love,” but in this case it has the prefix that means “not”—literally, a “not-lover of silver,” is what the readers are exhorted to be. The opposite of being one in flesh with another is to focus your love, your life and your future on dead metal, on cash.  Chasing money will not take care of insecurity or of anxiety about it.

This is a simple summary of the Christian life, but Hebrews continues: “God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ “  So, when this text says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever,” it is this simple Christian life of love that it is referring to, living in generosity, with care for others, near and far, and with responsibility to one another, not looking for shortcuts through greed or self-indulgence.

Weekday lunch at the Church of the Holy Apostles, NYC

Weekday lunch at the Church of the Holy Apostles, NYC

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus has occasion to observe some people in a situation which they probably thought was hospitality. But rather than love of stranger, or even brotherly love, the gathering was quite the opposite: everyone was jockeying for power and prestige, looking for the best seats, which indicate proximity to power and would command high regard. And the host was a big part of this—the guest list was compiled with an eye to enhancing his prestige in the community and perhaps even enhance his wealth. Lives more akin to silver-lovers than stranger-brother-sister-lovers. And Jesus—who is the same, yesterday, today and forever—he gives them advice: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.”

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen