Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Surprise in the Story - a sermon for the third Sunday of Lent, 2014

The story we just heard about Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman at the well outside Sychar is a story full of surprises.
The first surprise is that the conversation happens at all. The barriers to it are great. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation no less than what in our time separates the Israeli from the Palestinian.
The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. To make a long story short, the Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.
There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to as an example of propriety. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.
Still more must be said about this surprising encounter. The nameless one is a Samaritan, and a woman. She is also someone rejected by her own people. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. Morning and evening are times to do the hard work of drawing water from the well and hauling it home. This is work that women do in company with one another. It is a chance for a chat, for some social contact. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she will be alone. She sees herself as a misfit. She avoids others in order not to be hurt yet again by their words, their attitudes, their hard looks.
It is a surprise, therefore, that this conversation ever happens. But the conversation itself contains more than one surprise.
It’s a surprise that Jesus promises living water. Living water is water that flows, that runs, that sparkles. Such water is a welcome change from water in wells or cisterns that may be flat or even stagnant.
Jesus and the woman meet beside an ancient well that’s more than 100 feet deep and seven feet wide. At first the woman presumes that Jesus is talking about some hidden stream he knows that is far better than this well. She wants the equivalent of a faucet in her kitchen, so she won’t have to haul buckets any more, and who can blame her? But what Jesus promises is a source of life in her heart, so that she can truly live. She is confused about what he offers, yet she understands it is something she needs, and needs desperately.
It’s a surprise that Jesus knows the details of this stranger’s life. These details remain unclear to us, but apparently she has had a painful and unhappy time. She’s had five husbands. Did the marriages end through death, or divorce, or desertion? Were they truly marriages, or something else? Why is her current husband not truly her husband? We don’t have answers to these questions, and perhaps we do not need to have them. Yet we recognize that this woman feels alone and exiles herself from her neighbors.
The woman is surprised that Jesus knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing the truth, he accepts her. For her, this is an encounter with the holy. The man must be a prophet.
And so we come to another surprise. The woman asks Jesus to resolve the long-standing and divisive question of who is right: Jews or Samaritans? Where is the correct temple: Gerizim or Jerusalem? The surprise comes when Jesus raises the issue to a new level. True worship will no longer depend on location, but will be a matter of spirit and truth.
The conversation ends with one more surprise. The woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus says he is that messiah. Jesus thus reveals his identity not to his disciples, not to his own people, not to their religious leaders, but to this person who is marginal three times over: She is a Samaritan, a woman and an exile among her own kind. We do not even know her name, yet Jesus entrusts her with his deepest secret, the truth of who he is.
The conversation ends because the disciples come back from their trip to buy food, but the surprises do not end. The woman leaves her water jar there at the well. It is valuable, yet it is heavy, and she wants to be unencumbered as she runs back into the city.
There in Sychar, she tells the people to come and see Jesus. “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done! Can he be the Messiah?”
Soon a crowd follows her out to the well. This crowd is so large that Jesus compares it to a field ready to be harvested. These people have accepted the woman’s testimony, and they are coming to Jesus.
It’s a surprise that someone like this bears witness. After all, she is a reject among her own people, a woman with no name, no social standing. Her experience with Jesus is very brief, she has no training, she has not been given a commission. It’s a surprise that people heed her. Yet they do, for there is something attractive, compelling, authentic about her witness.
Here then we have yet another surprise in a surprising story. This unlikely prospect becomes a witness to Jesus, and an effective one.
True, she may be a woman of questionable character, or at least she has had plenty of experience with the rough edges of life.
True, her understanding of Jesus is far from complete.
Yet she bears witness based on her personal experience. She speaks of what she knows.
Her focus is on Jesus, not on herself.
And not only does she point her own people to Jesus, but she shows us how we can witness to him.
If Jesus has spoken to us, accepted us, led us to see ourselves differently, then we can bear witness to others, even as she did.
We don’t need to have our life together in every way. We don’t need to know all there is to know. What we can do is tell others our experience, and leave the results to God.
We can help people to look, not at us, but over our shoulder at Jesus, who stands close behind us.
Then soon enough they will forget about our witness, and say, along with those people from Sychar, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

God surprises us in many ways, but none is more surprising than our opportunity to witness to Christ based on our own experience.

For God so Love the World - a sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, 2014

It's a verse many of us probably know by heart. It’s a verse most sports fans will recognize, it being held up on painted signs at games just about everywhere. It suggests the heart of the Christian message, summarizing what God did in Jesus. “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.” “God so loved the world.” That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? It's the good news in a nutshell.
Today, I’d like to invite you to a deeper story, to a journey into the distant past. Let’s go all the way back to the people of Israel in the desert, half-heartedly following Moses on the circuitous trek toward a land that God has promised the ancestors of these former slaves. They are following half-heartedly because after all this time they have begun to doubt their leaders and even wonder if there is such a land at all.  Moses' rag-tag band of pilgrims have begun to "murmur"- to complain about the hard life of the desert and the strange diet of manna and quail that God has given them. They are uncertain of their somewhat serpentine route.
And then, in the midst of their arduous journey, somewhere in the seemingly endless desert, comes a plague of snakes. And they are very poisonous, very deadly snakes. I don't know about you, but I don't particularly like snakes. No, not in the least. But my mother had an outright phobia of snakes. The problem was that mom was a bit of a gardener and one can hardly garden in Florida without coming across a snake or two. Now, every time mom would see a snake among the bushes she would go a little crazy. She would take the hoe to that snake like a whirlwind. It was usually just a little garter snake but, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she would pummel that poor thing.
It was perhaps worse for the Hebrews, however, for the snakes they encountered were many and they were poisonous and people began to die. The people went to Moses, suspecting that the snakes were some kind of divine retribution for their complaining. They asked that Moses intercede for them. 
So Moses did intercede. And God tells Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and have the people gaze at it. Seriously? This was God’s response? Okay! So Moses did that and when the people who were bit by the snakes gazed at that bronze serpent, they were healed. It worked!!! It was a miracle.
Now, fast forward to the time of the kings. The people have been settled in the land for some time when they suddenly decided that they needed to have kings like other nations. Many if not most of those kings were a little disappointing, somewhat corrupt, and exactly what could have been predicted. However, there were a few who were righteous. One of those righteous kings was named Hezekiah. He would clean things up in the land: “He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole.” He destroyed the places of idol worship, which had cropped up around the land. And then he did this: “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”
Do you see what had happened?  Five hundred years after Moses had made the bronze serpent as a means of healing, they Jews still had it. But, it had become an idolNot just any old idol, though, for they had dedicated that pole to a completely different god than YHWH. Yep, that sign of healing given them by their God was offered to another. So, instead of pointing toward the God who had given them healing and sustenance, the Jews had made it into an object of worship for another. And more, they even named the pole. They gave it a name just like God had given them God’s own name. And they named it Nehushtan.
Fast forward again. Come now to Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, visiting by the light of a candle with a man named Nicodemus. In the third chapter of John, it is reported that Nicodemus, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders of Jerusalem, came to Jesus under cover of night. The purpose of this clandestine meeting was to ask serious questions of Jesus, for I suspect that Nicodemus was a genuine seeker who had urgent and searching questions.
So Nicodemus asks, his voice in whispered tones: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” With these words of Nicodemus, a door is opened and Jesus steps through. “You must be born from above,” Jesus says; but Nicodemus misunderstands. Because the Hebrew can be taken either way, Nicodemus thinks Jesus has said, “You must be born again.” What, he asks, you mean I have to go back into my mother's womb and be born all over again? 
No, says Jesus, you need to be born for water and spirit. You must be born from above!
How interesting, that in all our talk about being "born again Christians," we have joined Nicodemus in his misunderstanding! What Jesus really said was, “You must be born from above.” You see, he was trying to lift the eyes of this religious leader to take in higher things, so that he might begin to see his life from a spiritual perspective.  You must be born from above!
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he “must be born of water and spirit.”  Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus!  “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”  Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus!  There's more to life than you know!
And here it is. You all know John 3:16, “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.”  But do you know John 3:1315, the verses that comes just before?  “
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.”
So there it is! The bronze serpent has returned! That old bronze serpent made by Moses and smashed by King Hezekiah has come back at the end of this serpentine story. Jesus is not saying that a serpent on a pole can heal you. What he is saying that just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to heal, so he, Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, must be lifted up on a cross to save.  You must lift up your eyes, Nicodemus!  You must be born from above.  You must discover the incredible world of the Spirit.  And if nothing else will lift up your eyes and your heart, then the sight of me lifted up will lift them up.
Do you see where this serpentine, meandering story of the snake has taken us? From the desert wanderings of Moses' rag-tag band to the hill of Calvary, where we hear the call to lift up our eyes and see the one who saves us and gives abundant life.
Now the snake of Moses has led us to that favorite verse, that “gospel in a nutshell.” “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.”

But we shouldn’t stop at John 3:16. There is even better news in the next verse. “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.”

Lent: A Season of Conversion - a sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2014

Over the last month, we’ve been focusing intensely on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus stresses that we’re supposed to be different from everyone else, that we’re supposed to be like him, that we’re supposed be holy, that we’re supposed to behave as true sons and daughters of God the Father. Today, to help us to begin Lent, the Church wants us to focus on the section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus speaks to us about how we’re supposed to give alms differently than the rest, to pray differently than the rests and to fast differently than the rest. Insofar as these are the three great Lenten penitential practices geared to helping us reorder our relationship with God (prayer), with others (almsgiving) and with our own appetites, hungers and desires (fasting), we ought to listen with greater attentiveness to Jesus as he shows us not only how to do these right as Christians but how properly to reorder our entire life as we enter into this holy season of conversion.
“When you give alms,” Jesus says,” do not blow a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.” He was pointing to the fact that when the Jews gave alms in the temple and in their synagogues, there was a tuba-like twisted funnel in which they’re put their coins and it would roll down the spiral pipework into a locked box. There would be many people who would give in order to “make a lot of noise” as their gifts descended through the funnel, turning the heads of those who were at the temple at the time. Jesus said that we are supposed to give almost in a totally different way. “When you give alms,” he insisted, “do not let your left hand know what your right is doing so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” We are to give alms, in other words, in communion with the Father, for his pleasure and for his glory, so that others, receiving the alms, may thank him instead of us. God, after all, is the one who gave us the alms to give to others in the first place.
With regard to our prayer, Jesus says likewise that we’re supposed to pray differently than everyone else. “When you pray,” he declares, “do not be like the hypocrites who loved to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.” The word “hypocrite” means “actor,” someone who’s pretending, someone who seems to be praying but really isn’t focused on God at all but in gaining the attention of others. Jesus tells us, rather, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” The word he uses for “inner room” refers to the “store room” that Jews would have in their houses. The outer doors were in general not locked and people could enter easily when they were not there. But they retained a “store room,” a locked closet inside where they would place all their valuables so that they couldn’t be taken. Jesus said that we should go to our inner room within us where we store our valuables, where we store our inheritance, and meet God the Father there. Prayer is supposed to be an intimate exchange of persons with God the Father and just like married couples don’t engage in their most intimate moments in the middle of the public square for everyone else to see, so when we pray we should do so in a way that maintains that great intimate communion with God. That’s why Jesus, immediately after telling us how we’re supposed to pray differently than all the rest, tells us — in a section that’s been excised from today’s reading — that we’re supposed to pray to our Father who knows what we need before we ask him in this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Prayer is about seeking the hallowing of the Father’s name, desiring the Father’s kingdom, hungering to do the Father’s will, confident that he as a loving Father will give us each day our daily bread, as a merciful Father will forgive us as he calls us to forgive others, and as a protective Father will help us in temptation to avoid doing evil.
And Jesus today describes how we’re supposed to fast differently, too.  “When you fast,” he says, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others to be fasting.” Their fasting, he said, was a show. To others they seemed to be intent on atoning for their sins — the principal purpose of fasting — but they were only adding to their sins by proudly faking their penitence out of vanity. Jesus said that we’re supposed to be fasting in a totally different manner. “When you fast,” he said, “anoint your head and wash your face so that you may not appear to be fasting except to your Father who is hidden, and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” We’re supposed to be fasting in a way seen only to the Father, because it’s he before whom we need to atone, it’s he whom we must ask for forgiveness. As we see with Jesus’ fasting in the desert and the temptations that the evil one gave him at the end of that first Lent, our fasting is meant to help us to detach ourselves from stuffing our physical appetites and desires so that we might hunger for “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When we fast, we do prayerful penance with our body for all the times that we’ve sought our pleasures over God’s will and with God’s help we gain a self-mastery so that we are able to hunger after what’s most important, God himself, his Word, his will, his kingdom, and his glory.
As we hear Jesus speak to us in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s key for us to grasp that Jesus takes it for granted here that we will be giving alms, praying and fasting. To be his disciple, all three need to be routine parts of our life, not just during the Lenten season but throughout the year. To be a Christian is to pray. To be a Christian is to fast. To be a Christian is to give generously to others of what God has given to us. If we haven’t been living these Christian realities throughout the year, Lent is a new beginning. But the Church reminds us of these words of Jesus at the beginning of Lent because many times when we’re praying, fasting and giving alms, we, like those in his day, are doing them externally, as mere duties, perhaps to impress others by our religious observance, or to receive some other human “reward,” rather than inwardly as something that restores and reorders our divine filiation, our loving communion as sons and daughters with heavenly Father, and seeks the reward of the Father himself. Jesus today focuses less on the action itself, which he presumes we’ll know we need to do, and far more on our motivation, to do each of them, in fact to do everything good we do, with the proper loving, filial heart.
This whole discussion of how we’re supposed to pray, fast and give alms brings us to the main point of Lent, which is the conversion of our hearts, our insides, our motivations, our aspirations, so that from the inside out, in all our actions, we might live as Christians ought, in the love of God the Father. Lent is the time when we relive the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we come to our senses as to how we’ve treated God as if he were not a loving Father, wandered from his house, squandered the inheritance he has given us and make the journey home. It’s the time when God the Father runs out to meet us, to cleanse us, to restore us to our full dignity and to rejoice with us at our conversion.
That journey is what God himself summons us to do through the Prophet Joel in today’s first reading, “Return to me with your whole heart!” God loves us and he wants us back! But he doesn’t just want part of us to return. He wants us fully to return to him. He wants us to come to back to him with our all our heart, and with all our strength, and with all our mind and all our soul. He tells us through the prophet. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” The Jews, when they beheld serious sin, would always rend their garments, which meant to rip open the upper parts of their tunics and cloaks near their neck, which would be laced together like shoelaces. When they rent their garments, they broke the shoelaces in testimony that what they had observed was immoral. God tells us he doesn’t want us ripping open our clothes. He doesn’t want our repentance to be external. He wants us rip open our hearts, our whole hearts, “with fasting, weeping, and mourning,” three activities all associated with repentance, so that we can restore and rebuild those hearts to be the inner room where he can come in and enter into life changing, loving communion with us.
“Our conversion,” the Holy Father said, “is the conscious response to the stupendous mystery of the love of God. When we see this love that God has for us, we feel the desire to draw close to him. This is conversion. Lent must be lived as a time of conversion, or personal and communal renewal through drawing close to God and faithfully adhering to the Gospel.” Just as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we start the road home to the Father’s house, we grasp that he has already long been awaiting our return and runs out to embrace us, to restore us to our divine filiation and to restore us as true brothers and sisters of each other. That’s the encounter God wants to have with us in the inner room of our prayer. That’s the embrace he wants to have with us as we hunger for what he wants to give. That’s the effects he wants to bring about in us as we feel moved to share his loving generosity with others by giving of ourselves and what we have in alms.
That’s what can happen in Lent. That’s what’s God wants to have happen in Lent. But whether it does or not depends on our response as free sons and daughters. God is calling us to return to him, he’s awaiting us with love, but he doesn’t force us home. We have to take him up on this loving offer. We have to act. And we have to act urgently, living this Lent as if it is the last and only Lent we’ll ever have. St. Paul reminds us of the grace we’ve been given but also the urgency with which we need to respond in today’s second reading. As an ambassador for Christ, an emissary, a spokesman for Jesus himself, he tells us, “We implore you on behalf of Christ. Be reconciled to God.” He begs us “not to receive the grace of God in vain,” not to waste this time of conversion, not to squander this great opening to encounter God in the depth of his merciful love. He urges us to repent and believe in the Gospel without delay, reminding us that “now” is the “acceptable time,” “now” — not tomorrow, not next week, not when I’m older, now — is the “day of salvation.”

Today, and the Lenten season of conversion that has begun today, is the time, through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, through our weeping and mourning, through our profound repentance, to return to God with our whole heart, to be embraced by him in his love, to be restored to the graces of our baptism, and to grow ever more to believe, proclaim and live his saving Gospel!

Actions of Faith - a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Epiphany, 2014

Once upon a time, in a land much like ours, there were some weary travelers who came to a village with nothing but a cooking pot. They found a place to camp near some water, filled up their pot, and put it over a fire. Then they took a large stone and put it in the pot as it simmered.
A villager, upon seeing this, becomes curious and asks, “What are you cooking?” The men explain that they were making a wonderful dish called stone soup. “We would be happy to share with the village,” they explain. “We just needed a few small things to make it extra flavorful.” The villager decides that he can part with a few carrots and he adds them to the pot. Another villager sees them and contributes some potatoes. So forth and so on the villagers add their ingredients until there is a wonderful, nourishing soup to be enjoyed by all.
This folk tale slyly illustrates what the concept of gleaning can look like in a community. By each contributing some, there is always enough for all. In the story, the villagers were sort of tricked into contributing, but they did contribute on their own accord because they believed that the end result would be something great. And it was. But it would not have been if they decided to keep their doors locked and never spoke to the strangers amongst them.
In the story, the stone was the base for the soup, with the villagers building upon that. Similarly, as Paul reminds us today, Jesus Christ is our foundation. We must choose with care how we will build on it – individually and as a community. We are the Body of Christ. We belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God. All parts of us belong to God: our hurts, our joys, our imperfections. If we believe that God’s Spirit dwells within us, that means that God’s Spirit dwells in others, too, whether we like it or not.
And this should matter to us. This should change us. This should transform us into being perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect.” Not an ethical or moral perfection, but a perfection based on the Hebrew sense of “wholeness” (tamim). To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly with a single-minded devotion. That is what we are striving for in this lifelong journey with Jesus.
So if we are striving for wholeness in God, then our lives as disciples will show it. Our love is not one of vengeful retaliation, as we see in our gospel story today (Matt. 5:38-48). Instead, our love extends even to our enemies, because that is what God calls us to: actions of faith. The thoughts and feelings that are inside us are acted out with the vehicle of our bodies. Are we God’s dwelling place? If so, how does anyone know?
Jesus calls us to radical hospitality – for ourselves and for others. God loved us first so that we could know what love is. It is because of God’s love for us and our love for God that we are able to love ourselves and to love others in return.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
Tax collectors were despised in Jewish culture for being unpatriotic and were seen as unclean by coming into contact with gentiles.
“And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?”
The gentiles were unbelievers and unclean to Jews. To be compared to such as them was insulting. Jesus calls the disciples…Jesus calls us to a higher standard than this. God’s love is seen in the world when communities are concerned with compassion, justice, and care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.
Have you ever walked into a party or a conference where you know only one or two people? Or have you ever been the new person at school, at work, at church? You look around and everyone else is chatting and seems to know each other and you just stand there feeling awkward. It’s hard to know where to begin.
It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life. Jesus calls us to discipleship. That means not just mingling with, but embracing the other. That means noticing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversation. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant.
Victor Hugo begins Les Miserables with the story of Jean Valjean. He is an ex-convict who has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. As he reenters society, no one will house him or give him work because of his criminal record — that is until he stumbles into the bishop’s house. Much to Valjean’s bewilderment, the bishop treats him with kindness and hospitality. Seizing the moment, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver plates and, then, flees into the night.
The bishop’s reaction to Valjean’s treachery is not what we might expect. Instead of being angry and offering condemnation, the bishop examines his own behavior and finds himself lacking in charity. “I have for a long time wrongfully withheld this silver; it belonged to the poor. Who was this man? A poor man evidently,” he reasons to himself. So when the police arrive with the captured Valjean, the bishop’s silver in his possession, the bishop calmly greets the thief and says, “But I gave you the candlesticks also ... why did you not take them along with the plates?” The police, surprised and confused, reluctantly let the thief go.
Jean Valjean expects blame and condemnation for his actions. Instead, he receives forgiveness and mercy. He expects hatred, and, instead, he receives love. At that moment evil is transformed into good.
Remember, there will be times when we are the awkward person or when we are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but very active and intentional. It means seeing God in the other, as God sets no bounds in loving. If we stay inside the boundaries of where we feel comfortable, wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue.
Look around you in the pews today, or when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Catch someone’s eye. Hold eye contact for a moment and really look at them. See them as God sees them – precious and holy – a child of God.
How does it feel to be beheld like that? What is it like to know that you are loved by God with such utter completeness?
Again and again and again, God gives us grace instead of grief. God gives us blessing instead of blame. God gives us comfort instead of condemnation
Hopefully, it is life changing. Hopefully, this love reminds us that we are all part of something greater – a community that is larger and more understanding than we know. Hopefully, we will know that we are cared for by a God who really see us and invites us to share what we have for the soup, no matter if we think it’s fitting or not.

This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts have changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that people want to gather around and be part of.

Love God in Loving Others - a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany, 2014

One of my favorite stories that I read as a kid was Mark Twain’s classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In it, a Yankee engineer from Connecticut is accidentally transported back in time to the court of King Arthur, where he fools the inhabitants of that time into thinking he is a magician—and soon uses his knowledge of modern technology to become a "magician" in earnest, stunning the English of the Early Middle Ages with such feats as demolitions, fireworks and the shoring up of a holy well. He attempts to modernize the past, but in the end he is unable to prevent the death of Arthur and an interdict against him by the Church, which grows fearful of his power.
The story is about a stranger who enters a strange land. Living among unfamiliar people, the stranger brings his own values and traditions and worldviews – he even brings he own technology to life among the people he meets. 
One of the hardest problems we face in hearing or reading the Bible, is that of time. We don’t have time machines, and even if we did, we’d journey back in time with the ideas formed in us by our nationality, the communities in which we grew up, our family traditions, and the things we take for granted. If we tried to get back to the people for whom Matthew is writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, we’d land in a strange land, among unfamiliar people. No doubt they’d think us pretty odd, too.
The gospel today (Matt. 5:13-20) underscores the great gulf that is fixed between our time and the first century of the Christian era. The verse where the passage ends only makes matters harder for us to understand. St. Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who had been raised to attempt to keep the laws and rules of Judaism. Some of them had probably been Pharisees before their conversion. The word “Pharisee” is loaded with not always very complimentary meanings for us. We think of proud, intolerant people, filled with self-admiration for themselves and full of harsh criticism for people they believed to be sinners.
The Pharisees, or Pious Ones, began their history as a reforming group, intent on bringing the Jewish people back to faith in their God. They believed that the best way to do that was to stress the Law of God, as given by Moses and elaborated on in the religious books developed over the centuries. In Jesus’ time, some of these Pharisees opposed the teachings of Jesus because they thought he was undermining God’s Law. They saw him as a threat to religious purity. Not all of them opposed Jesus. Two are named as his supporters.
As the church grew, opened itself to non-Jews and developed its own teachings, a great debate arose about the place of Old Testament Law in the life of Christians. St. Matthew, a Jew himself, seeks to assure Jewish converts that Jesus hadn’t come to abolish God’s law. He records Jesus as saying that the whole law would remain in force forever. And yet in the gospel we just heard, he says that in keeping this law, we have to do much better than the Pharisees.
Is Jesus saying that we must keep the Jewish Law, all that stuff about what we can eat, or what we can do on the Sabbath? Are we to be like some people, perhaps we know a few, who think they are better, more moral, more upright, than the rest of us and are harsh in their judgment of others, intolerant of anyone who is different?
This rather difficult passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses gave the Law to Israel on the Holy Mountain, so now Jesus gives the law to his disciples and those who would follow him. He begins with a description of those who are happy or blessed. He will go on to expand, or “fulfill” the meaning of the Law. In the verses that come after this gospel, Jesus will warn against an anger that leads to violence. “You shall not kill,” begins with our dealing with what happens when we give way to anger, disgust, when we take offense. Jesus will teach us that we are to seek reconciliation with people with whom we quarrel, that we are not to “come to the altar” if we haven’t done all in our power to love our neighbor; for loving those close to us, those in the communities around us, is one of the commandments of the Law Jesus identified as the foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets.”
So what can we take home with us from the gospel today? Keeping the law of God is not a matter of feeling and acting as if we are superior to those who, in our judgment, fail to live up to our standards. We love God in loving others. St. Paul often reminds us that the Law shows up our own inadequacies. We are in no state to judge others. But having received God’s love in Jesus, despite ourselves, we are empowered to help those who stumble. It’s not that we are to abandon all hope of perfection, of holiness. Rather it’s a matter of understanding that the road to holiness is the path of love, compassion, of caring and sympathy, of helping each other along that journey, stopping to assist those who have become tired, have fallen on the way, or who have given up in despair.
Some of the most tragic stories that emerge from wars involve prisoners or refugees, walking along roads, herded by brutal guards. The heroes of these stories are those who in the midst of their own miseries, despite the dangers, share their meager rations, water supplies, even clothing, to help those who have fallen by the side of the road, who might well be shot by the guards because they can’t keep up.
On the journey of faith, we are not appointed by God to shoot those who stumble, who fail to obey orders. We are called to go out of our way to care. The whole point of God’s Law is to urge us to put God and others first and to die to our own self-love and desire for self-preservation.

Of course, the strength to live for God and for others will not come from attempts to keep God’s commandments. That strength comes from God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. We meet here today to receive that strength we call grace, not as the righteous company of God-supporters but as those to whom mercy is continually given. When we leave this place to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we go as forgiven, empowered people, strengthened to keep God’s Law by loving all who we shall meet.