Monday, February 22, 2016

Gather your children together

Homily notes for the Second Sunday of Lent (2/21/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Genesis 1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

One bright evening as the sun was sinking on a glorious world a wise old Cock flew into a tree to roost. Before he composed himself to rest, he flapped his wings three times and crowed loudly. But just as he was about to put his head under his wing, his beady eyes caught a flash of red and a glimpse of a long pointed nose, and there just below him stood Master Fox.

“Have you heard the wonderful news?” cried the Fox in a very joyful and excited manner.

“What news?” asked the Cock very calmly. But he had a queer, fluttery feeling inside him, for, you know, he was very much afraid of the Fox.

“Your family and mine and all other animals have agreed to forget their differences and live in peace and friendship from now on forever. Just think of it! I simply cannot wait to embrace you! Do come down, dear friend, and let us celebrate the joyful event.”

“How grand!” said the Cock. “I certainly am delighted at the news.” But he spoke in an absent way, and stretching up on tiptoes, seemed to be looking at something afar off.

“What is it you see?” asked the Fox a little anxiously.

“Why, it looks to me like a couple of Dogs coming this way. They must have heard the good news and—”

But the Fox did not wait to hear more. Off he started on a run.

“Wait,” cried the Cock. “Why do you run? The Dogs are friends of yours now!”

“Yes,” answered the Fox. “But they might not have heard the news. Besides, I have a very important errand that I had almost forgotten about.”

The Cock smiled as he buried his head in his feathers and went to sleep, for he had succeeded in outwitting a very crafty enemy. 

What do you think of the moral of Aesop’s fable? The trickster is easily tricked. Cunning outwits itself.

Parallels can be found between this fable of Aesop and the story that we have heard from the Gospel according to Luke this morning. In the story, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem (Luke 13:22), teaching along the way, when he encounters some Pharisees. This story’s placement within the overall narrative of the Gospel acts as a reminder of what is coming. Indeed, at the beginning of this same chapter thirteen, Luke makes mention of Pilate’s violent murder of the Galileans thus reminding the reader of the violent death that awaits Jesus at the same hands. Likewise, here Luke is drawing attention to the other “king of the earth”, Herod, who will figure in Jesus’ trial, suffering, and death. Moreover, the encounter prepares for the climactic role played by Jerusalem in the story. This first explicit announcement of its guilt a foreshadowing of the rejection that will come.

We can see in this story a bit of Aesop: Jesus is the hen with Herod the fox, slyly trying to entice him. The dog is, perhaps, John the Baptist or maybe the prophets of old and the lion king is, of course, God. While Aesop’s sly fox lied to the hen about the decree of universal peace, the story of the kingdom of peace preached by Jesus is true – it is at hand, present in deep and surprising ways.

It is quite an interesting and somewhat surprising metaphor for Jesus to use, comparing what he has done or is doing to a hen gathering her brood under her wings. No, the lowly chicken is not what I think of when I imagine a protective animal. I might imagine the lion, fierce with its claws and intimidating with its roar. I might think of a bird of prey, able to swoop upon an enemy of its offspring, swift in response with sharp talons. I might even imagine the mighty whale with its massive bulk a bulwark against enemies. Regardless of what I might imagine, the chicken does not come readily to mind when I think of the protective animal.

But Jesus chooses the metaphor of the hen gathering her brood as an image demonstrating God’s immense care for and protection of God’s people. God is the mother hen who calls us to the safety of the nest, to hide beneath the shadow of her wings, behind the heart that beats beneath a vulnerable breast. And when I look, there is power in the image, an immense power that is tied also to Abram’s covenant with God, an immense power tied with strength in vulnerability.

Abram and Sarai were originally called out of their barrenness (Genesis 11:30) by God’s powerful Word (Genesis 12:1). Their pilgrimage of hope thus began on the basis of God’s promise, which stood over and against their barrenness. When the reader arrives at chapter fifteen, which we heard this morning, the barrenness is persistent, leading to questions about the promise and even doubt. Chapter fifteen opens, then, with a crisis of faith – a typical pattern of divine promise (verse 1), Abram’s protest (verses 2-3), God’s response (verses 4-5), and Abram’s acceptance (verse 6).

The believing response in verse 6 stands in contrast with the resistance of verses 2-3. The passage stands as a sharp exchange between Abram and God in which Abram first tries to refute the promises and assurances of God. Clearly, the faith to which Abram is called is not a peaceful, pious acceptance. It is, rather, a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction. Abraham will not be a passive recipient but is prepared to hold his own against the God who called him out of Ur. The faith of Abram bears a freedom not unlike that found in the creation narratives: The Lord invites but never coerces. Abraham is not forced into covenant no more than creation is forced to obedience.

Let’s jump to God’s reassertion of promise in verses 4-5, after Abram’s double protest. The text is unambiguous in that nothing is offered beyond God’s word. No stratagems are offered and no plans made. Abram and Sarai are left with God’s word alone. It is God’s promise, spoken in Lordly majesty, that stands as the impetus for Abram’s faith. And the promise is not fool-proof, an argument without challenge. They are signs that, in human wisdom, prove nothing. We struggle as readers, like Abram, with an expectation of the emergence of certitude but are left wanting. Instead, what we have is not based on human reason or expectation or certainty but on the realization that God is God. The God who makes the promise is the same God who makes is believable.

And so Abram believes and “it is credited to him as righteousness.” Abram believes by the persuasion of God’s self-revelation. The next scene (verses 7-12, 17-18) demonstrate the confirmation of Abram’s faithful response. This scene presents a curious ritual that is undoubtedly very old. While is history is obscure, the ritual suggests a solemn and weighty binding of two parties. It is reminiscent of an oath blood which visibly reinforces the promise. It is a covenant ratified in blood that is all encompassing that fully binds the two parties together.

God has established covenants with a variety of people in the sacred story. There is another with whom a covenant is struck with blood. Jesus, who has set his face to Jerusalem, will walk the via cruces to Calvary and blood will be shed, a covenant ratified in blood that binds.

As I mentioned earlier, Luke is surely alluding to what will become of Jesus in Jerusalem. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems very much aware that he is prophet and Son of God. And Jesus knows the stakes.

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”

Jesus knows what it will mean to be what and who he is. Yet, while knowing, he still goes. He sees his role, assigned by God, as a mother hen gathering her brood under her wing. Are you familiar with what happens when a fox gets into a hen house? My great uncle was a farmer of sorts. I don’t think he made a living of it but he had a hen house. Coincidentally on a day that we were visiting my great-uncle-farmer found a hen that had been killed by a predator. It might have been a fox. The hen was found at the small entrance to her roost. Inside that roost was a small score of chicks, each chirping madly and flittering wings. The mother hen had shielded the chicks under her wings for protection and ushered them into the roost. She would have then faced the predator, baring her breast so that the fox would kill her first, protecting her chicks. It is the only real defense the hen has against the wily fox. The flutter of feathers and chirping of young beaks were made by motherless chicks. Though their mother may be dead, they lived.

This is the image that Jesus chose to bring to us. Our covenant with God, formed through the blood of Jesus, means everything. The season of Lent is a time of repentance and a time to consider what it means to be in covenant with a vulnerable God, with a God who will suffer death, even death on a cross for us. And when we encounter our vulnerable God – when we encounter Jesus in the incarnation, in the garden, on the cross, and in the grave, the more we can grow to understand the strength of our own vulnerability. As we received the cross of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. We were reminded exactly how vulnerable and human we are in this world. We are chicks shielded by our mother hen.

Similar to our marking on Ash Wednesday, we are also marked at our Baptism (though this marking is permanent). We are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever. In so being marked, God, through the Sacramental ministry of the Church, charges us with the imperative to love like that mother hen who opens her wings wide and exposes her heart to the fox. God charges us to love like someone who is in covenant with God. God charges us to love with a fierce and trusting love that encompasses all that which God possesses.

It is a love found in the universal reign of peace, described in the Franciscan blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships,
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer from pain,
Rejection, starvation and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in this world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.

(Irish Franciscans OFM)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart

Homily notes for the First Sunday of Lent (2/14/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

This past Wednesday I was struck by the raw power of ashes, of what they were and what they have become. Recall on Tuesday – Shrove Tuesday – we stood in the Saint Francis Garden with the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday in hand. And then we burned them. That’s right, those ashes were once the palms we waved in jubilation as we stood (in memory and in solidarity) with those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the highest.” Those palms became a mere remnant, a shadow of their original purpose, much like the shouts of “Hosanna” would turn into shouts of “crucify him, crucify him.” The palms become ashes, reminding us of our fragility, of our humanity.

This past Wednesday I was struck by the raw power of ashes, of what they were and what they have become and what they will be. This past Wednesday we received the cross of ashes on our forehead and we struck out into the wilderness, into the desert space alongside Jesus. We struck out on our Lent.

I noticed on Wednesday as I was imposing the ashes that tiny grains would periodically fall into your eye lashes or on your noses or down upon your cheeks. I suppose I knew that this happened but, for some reason, this past Wednesday I really noticed it, almost in slow motion. And I noticed, too, that your hands would come up to rub your eye or brush your cheek. I noticed some of you, as well, would check with your fingers to see how big or how thick I made the cross.

The ashes are gone now. They have been washed off our foreheads, for some as soon as we left church. My brother and I used to leave Ash Wednesday service, always the 7 am service so that the ashes could be there all day, and wonder how we might get them off. How can we get them off without mom noticing. How can we get the ashes off before we get to school or to work or to the market, out in the real world where most people don’t even know it’s Ash Wednesday and where most people no longer remember Lent?

The ashes are gone now, washed off our foreheads, but the darkness remains as a reminder as we begin our Lent once again. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our fragility. It reminds us that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our humanity. The scripture lessons for this first Sunday of Lent call to mind that same humanity, the same fragility highlighted by our tenuous grasp on life. The lessons today lay out some of the many ways we are called to respond to and from our humanity this Lent.

The reading from Deuteronomy is a story full of light and goodness. It reminds the reader of God’s gracious gift to Israel of a land flowing with milk and honey. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is an image of peace and beauty, the people acknowledging their rescue from the Egyptians by the God who heard their cries of affliction. The story demands a response on the part of the Israelites to live with thankfulness, giving the first fruits as an offering of gratitude. Indeed, though hands have toiled the earth to bring forth its fruits, it is the Lord who owns the land and has blessed us to inhabit it. We are called to be good stewards and to give back out of what we have been given.

“He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.” The psalmist’s prayer today is another image of a God who hear our cries. At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded that God has not abandoned us. We are not alone. Rather, God is “so bound to me in love,” as the psalm says, that God will deliver and protect us. Even though we might fail in our own love, focusing on ourselves to the point of sin, God remains steadfast in mercy with long life and salvation. In other words, God is with us, ready to brush the ash from our face.

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” wrote Paul to the Romans. That is the word of faith proclaimed by those who call upon Jesus name and also the very “Word” of God in who they put their trust. “You will be saved,” he says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Is there any better news than that? This is an incredible, empowering call to humility. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” All who confess or witness to or proclaim Jesus are not just opened to the possibility of but are promised life, redemption, and reconciliation. We are not saved by works or by merit but simply and wholly by grace – a grace that comes from orienting our lives with and toward Jesus. The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. This speaks to us of God’s inclusion of all people – no exceptions.

What will this Lent be for you? Where you are on the journey toward Jerusalem? What place does thankfulness have? What of trust? What of humility will you seek to help you as you progress toward new life in and through Jesus?

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”

As I look at the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, I note that Jesus didn’t enter the wilderness with a stack of commentaries under one arm and sack of good under the other. No, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. For forty days Jesus was tested by Satan. He didn’t have crib sheets or notes or supplies. Jesus was stripped down. Jesus was naked, metaphorically in contrast to his physical nakedness during the scourging. He was naked now, stripped down to his truest self. He was naked, faced with the incredible temptation of his humanity and fragility. And he was offered a way out, a defense against his fragile humanity. He was tempted by the ability to control his fragile humanity – to create food where none had been, to rule over everything to his own comfort, and to defy his physical nature by jumping from the precipice.

But Jesus instead chose his humanity. Jesus resisted the very real temptations thrown his way. He was clothed with thankfulness, grateful for the promise and nourishment that comes from God alone. He was clothed with trust, knowing God’s faithfulness and so worshipping and serving only the Lord God. He was clothed with humility, obeying his God and not putting the Lord to the test. Jesus resisted the temptation and in doing that prepared himself to begin his ministry.

For many, there is no greater fear than being naked in front of others. Struck by social restrictions, mores, and taboos, the realness of our own bodies becomes frightening and shaming. Confronted by unrealistic and unnatural body images and our lack of control of youth, we want to hide from our naked bodies. And not just literally, we hide behind work and family, behind productivity and profitability, behind fears and scars. We hide. And not just from others but from ourselves as well.

So this Lent, I have a challenge. Stop hiding! Be your true self. This does not mean that you should be more of what the world is calling you to be – the easy and unrealistic thinner, fitter, smarter, and faster one. This does not even mean that you should be more of what your community, your family, or our church are calling you to be – though they can be sounding boards. I challenge you to be the one who God is calling you be. So be naked and unashamed, confront yourself, your fragility and humanity.

What does this look like? What does our naked look like? What does our fragility look like? It can be hard to see but look to Jesus who found in his frailty the strength and will to be humble in bowing before God, to trust, and to give thanks. Jesus did that in the wilderness and came out ready to minister. He came out of the wilderness ready to see others in their humanity – the poor and the hungry, the rich and wanting, the sick and the well, everybody dying, the weak and powerful, the lonely, the alone, the possessed and dispossessed, the sure and the unsure, the Jew and the Greek.

Its forty days in the wilderness. Lent leaves forty days for finding ourselves, for seeing our true selves. Seeing ourselves, we begin to see those around us. And after the forty days, there is a triumphant entry and a table full of friends. Then there’s a cross on which to lay our humanity and a tomb waiting for every one of us. And then there’s Resurrection.

But for now its Lent, a time to simply look and know that the Word is so very near to you, “on your lips and in your heart.” Amen.

Monday, February 8, 2016

“In a land of myth, and a time of magic.”

Homily notes for Saint David's Day (2/7/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

(nota bene - The Feast of Saint David of Wales is March 1. Because his feast normally falls during Lent, we rarely have the chance to celebrate our patron. The Bishop granted our request to move the feast to the Sunday before the start of Lent.)

Proverbs 15:14-21; Psalm 16:5-11; 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12; Mark 4:26-29

King Arthur and the knights of the round table have captivated our imaginations for generations. We are captivated by the stories of Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the battle with evil Mordred at Camlann, the beautiful and graceful Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, the utopian Camelot, and the wizard Merlin. Consider some of the twentieth century versions of the story that you might have read or seen: The Once and Future King, Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, The Mists of AvalonMonty Python & The Holy Grail. We are captivated by the romance, the chivalry, the sword fights, and, above all, by the quest for the sacred and right. A BBC version of the story called Merlin, which aired a few years ago, began each episode with the catch phrase, “In a land of myth, and a time of magic.”

Much of what we know about Arthur and Merlin, Camelot and the round table is legend that borders on myth. But beneath all of the legend and myth, there is a deeper story the pervades that tells of a time of tremendous upheaval and transformation. What we see in the Arthurian stories is a tension between the “old ways” and the “new ways.” The stories themselves are simply a stage on which is playing out the same tension in the world at large. Consider the broader historical context. The late 5th or early 6th centuries CE, during which the original Arthurian legends were cast, was a time when the Western Roman Empire was crumbling, falling in on itself. After the Gothic general Alaric, sacked Rome in 410 CE, the Roman emperors tried to consolidate forces. Part of this consolidation was the essential abandonment of their province on the island of Britain. The people that lived there, Romans in culture, language, and identity, were thus left to fend for themselves after four centuries of Roman protection and rule. And with Roman retreat came the bands of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, invading from across the channel and beyond the sea.

This was the context in which the earliest Arthurian legends arose in Wales, where one named Arthur is king and defender of the land from the beasts and demons of the “Otherworld.” In other words, Arthur arose as the defender of Briton from the savage Anglo-Saxon-Jute hoards. One of the earliest known references to Arthur is attributed to the bard Aneirin, a Welsh or perhaps Cumbrian bard, who was a contemporary of the Welsh hero Saint David, our patron and protector, in whose memory and honor this Eucharist is celebrated today.

We do not know a lot about the life and ministry Saint David of Wales. Like Arthur and Merlin, David is shrouded in mystery. There is an endearing legend which posits a direct connection between the great King Arthur and our Saint David. The connection comes through David’s mother, Saint Non or Nonnita, the daughter of a local chieftain named Cynyr Caer Goch. The very same chieftain, Cynyr, was also convinced by Merlin to raise the child Arthur on behalf Uther Pendragon, with Merlin as his tutor. King Arthur was, therefore, Saint David’s foster uncle.

March 1, 589 has been the accepted date of David’s death since the ecclesiastical histories of Saint Bede the Venerable. 589!...Eight years before Pope Saint Gregory the Great would send Saint Augustine to “Christianize the Kingdom of Kent.” Even before England, the heart of the British Empire, and before Canterbury, the focal point of global Anglicanism, Christianity had filtered into Britain. Christianity had filtered into Britain, not through its center and its strength but through the periphery. Christianity seeped in through the edges, on the borders, through the small channels and in the thinly veiled places: Cornwall, Galloway, the Isle of Wight, Iona, and Wales.

As the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes were altering forever the cultural and political landscape in the East and the South, the “Old Ways” continued on the borders in places like Wales. Yes, the “Old Ways” of the folk traditions that gave rise Merlin and Arthur but also the already “Old Ways” of Celtic Christianity, in which asceticism was key and in which a welcoming of all God’s creatures was at the root of common life. The forces that were bearing down on east and south would reach Wales soon enough but, for now….well, this was the land into which David was born and over which he would be made priest and abbot and bishop: A land of Arthurian legends and Celtic Christianity.

About David….
  • David was a vegetarian who ate only bread, herbs and vegetables and who drank only water, for which he became known as Aquaticus or Dewi Ddyfrwr ("Water Drinker" for those of us who find that Welsh is filled with far too many consonants to actually speak). 
  • As self-imposed penance, David would stand up to his neck in frigid Welsh lakes, reciting Scripture. 
  • David traveled throughout Wales and Brittany as a missionary, founding at least twelve monasteries on the way – the furthest afield across he Bristol Channel in Glastonbury. 
  • David’s Monastic Rule followed the severe asceticism of the Eastern desert fathers. Monks must drink only water and eat only bread with salt and herbs, and spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. No personal possessions were allowed, even saying "my book" considered an offence. David also prescribed that the monks had to pull the plow themselves without draft animals. 
  • He took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he took a strong position against the Pelagians. It was in Jerusalem, as the legend goes, that David was made Archbishop – making him the first of such in the British Isles, before even Canterbury and York. This, however, may have been a later Welsh nationalist tradition as a counterpoint to England’s perceived supremacy.
  • One of the best known stories of David’s life took place during an impassioned sermon at the Synod of Brefi, called to condemn the same Pelagians. As David was speaking, either he was so eloquent or else someone shouted, “We can’t see or hear!” (Two versions of the story disagree.) In any event, a small hill was said to have arisen beneath him, allowing all in attendance to see and hear just fine. The noted Welsh historian John Davies has commented that “it would be difficult to conceive of any miracle more superfluous” than the making of another hill “in view of the nature of the landscape of Ceredigion” (A History of Wales, 74). Be that as it may, during the same sermon (or maybe it was a different one) a dove is also said to have settled on his shoulder, a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit which gave him such great eloquence.
  • The monastery that he founded at Minevia on the Pembrokeshire coast alongside the river Alun on the western coast of Wales – on the border near the sea – would become the seat of his episcopacy, his final resting place, and the locale where stands today the Welsh city of Saint David's with its eclectic neo-Gothic cathedral built over the tomb of the Welsh Apostle.
To be sure, many of these stories are legend, emerging from a land shrouded in mystery, magic, and myth. What is enduring, however, about these tales – what is true and real about the early history of Welsh Christianity, about David and his monasteries and his sermons, about David’s connection to the legends, is that no matter where or when Christianity has always seemed to plant and firmly root itself in the borders – first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. It’s the places on the edges, on the borders that seem to grow strong, vibrant Christian places.

The healthiest Christian communities to which Paul wrote were Thessalonica and Philippi. They were both large cities, yes, but they were also both cities on the outskirts of Greece proper. They were both on the edges, between cultures, on the borders, away from the center. And it seems to me, that is where faith has thrived – in the in-between places, the borders…in the misty valley of Glastonbury, on the wind-swept shores of Iona, and in the rocky crags of Pembrokeshire… with mountain dwellers of Central India, among the wandering herdsmen of the Masai, in Coptic Ethiopia, and among the Maori of New Zealand. Wherever it is, Christianity seems to do best (maybe not biggest) on the borders. When it’s not at the center and when it’s not in power, the Christian message thrives. When it’s allowed to be challenged and when it’s allowed to challenge, Christianity flourishes. We might be comfortable in the position of power but the Christian faith, for whatever reason, has always thrived in the wilderness – in the in-between spaces – in the thin spaces – where God meets us in the mess, the unrehearsed and unresolved times and places in our lives.

This is where Jesus met us. Jesus came to us on the borders of our comfort. There’s a poem by American Edwin Markham (1852-1940), that I return to when I need a reminder about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, liar, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.
For me, this poem speaks volumes about discipleship, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to be in the Jesus Movement, to be a light-bearer and a Christ-bearer. It speaks volumes, I think, about what Saint David was about, about what Saint David knew of God:
  • That God is the power of love – love that is extravagant, indiscriminate, abundant, unconditional, and all-inclusive. 
  • That Jesus is the embodiment of love, who loved extravagantly, indiscriminately, abundantly, unconditionally, and all-inclusively.
  • That discipleship is a commitment to demonstrate love extravagantly, indiscriminately, abundantly, unconditionally, and all-inclusively. 
Now, I don’t do it very well myself but I know that I’m supposed to. So, if I call myself a disciple, if I truly want to be a student Jesus of Nazareth, I need to remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“Go and learn what this text means, ‘I desire steadfast mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
Mercy, or hesed in the Hebrew, indicates God’s faithful and merciful love. “I desire steadfast mercy” means that God demands and expects of God’s people nothing less than what God offers: extravagant, indiscriminate, undeserved, abundant, unconditional, all-inclusive love. This love was embodied in the person of Jesus, who loved everybody: tax collectors and tax payers; pious women and those of ill repute; high ranking military officers and conscientious objectors; the deaf, the blind and the lame. Jesus loved the brilliant scholar and the village idiot; the ruthless merchant and the honest farmer; the exalted governor and the common thief; the rich and the poor; the oppressed and the oppressor; the clean and the unclean; the religious and the non-religious. Nobody was exempt from his love. Jesus also loved the birds of the air, the animals of the land, and the fish of the sea. He loved the flowers, the grass, the trees, the water, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Jesus loved the earth, the sky, the universe, and the rest of God’s creation. Nobody and nothing was exempt from his love. Jesus loved people whom nobody else could love. He loved folks who couldn’t love each other. He loved individuals who couldn’t love themselves. He loved those who had looked for love in all the wrong places.

He even loved those who tried to destroy him, those folks who drew a circle to keep him out. Jesus drew a circle that took them in: “Abba, forgive them” were his words of unconditional love. I think that those that Jesus ate with – Jesus’ table fellowship – was probably emblematic of what that kind of all-inclusive love looked like. And I think it was an example lived out by Saint David and his companions. Part of Saint David’s reputation arose not only because he was a great preacher but because everyone was welcome in his church and in his monastery. His order became famous for welcoming pilgrims, feeding the poor, and caring for the many orphans left by the ravaging of the Angles, the Saxons, and, later, the Vikings. Later, his followers would welcome the very same Angles and Saxons and Vikings, who were wayward and lost. All were included by Saint David because it is the very nature of God’s love to include us all. Sometimes we in the modern world, in our comfortable place, away from the border, forget the essential message of Jesus – abundant, indiscriminate, extravagant, all-inclusive, and unconditional love - love that is radical (deeply rooted and very extreme).

David’s last sermon, preached from his death bed, went something like this,
“Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.”
“Do the little things” is apparently a well-worn Welsh phrase. It reminds us that even in a time of great transformation n, in a land of myth and a time of magic, in a land of rugged individualism and extreme nationality, in a land of have and have-nots, the work of faith is still in the little things…in the relationships of love with those around us. They can be found in the daily work we have been given to do and in the small, incremental changes that we all can make.


Monday, February 1, 2016

Jesus loves us.

Homily notes for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (1/31/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He had just been baptized by another religious superstar, John the Baptist, in the River Jordan and filled with the spirit of God. He went into the wilderness and, having been tempted by the devil, came out the victor. Even in the short time since coming out from the testing in the wilderness Jesus has gained quite the reputation. He has healed the sick, expelled demons and preached the coming kingdom of God. He has picked up disciples in towns and villages around the Galilee. He even attended a wedding with his mother which was made glad by his presence not to mention the miracle of the water made into wine. He has preached and taught in synagogues and market places throughout the region.

Now, Jesus has returned home. His family, friends, and once-upon-a-time neighbors will now see and hear him for the themselves. What is all the hype? What is with all the buzz regarding this young man that they knew as a boy? Jesus had gained quite the reputation so there was surely some expectation as he stood in the chancel, reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And so it was that when he rolled up the scroll and sat down “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then Jesus sat down in the place for the one who would comment on the scriptures, looking like maybe he does belong there after all.

Jesus preaches a short sermon, one sentence – a very powerful word, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” A single sentence that I noted last week revealed the truth of not only Jesus’ coming ministry but the truth of the very character and nature of who Jesus is. It reveals how Jesus would fulfill the covenant, being the long-awaited Messiah. Then, almost immediately, the townspeople are on the warpath. They haul Jesus, this son of Joseph the carpenter, who has gotten too big for his small town britches up the path towards a cliff. They seem intent on throwing Jesus off, done with him and his preaching.
Yeah, I’m not feeling the love here. And we’ve been set up to feel the love. This homicidal mob is made up on long-known neighbors who taught Jesus to read Scripture and passed on the ancient wisdom; who rejoiced with his family when he became a man and grieved with him at a death; who celebrated, laughed, and cried with him; and, who ordered the table or the bread box from his shop. Now, after some length of time away – a time during which Jesus was baptized and claimed as Son by God the Father, Jesus comes home. Perhaps he came just to visit family but he ends up preaching the Good News of the coming Kingdom to the people. These people had known Jesus since he was knit together in Mary’s womb, yet they are also the first (though they will not be the last) to lose the love. The road to Calvary and the cross might not exactly begin in Nazareth but we see its first glimpses in that place and through its people.

No, we don’t feel the love here. In his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul say,
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:5-7)
It is quite clear: Love does not seek to throw its subject off a cliff.

Of course it is not love for love does not seek to destroy the other but to raise her up. Remember that Jesus had just read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18)
The people of whom Jesus spoke share (and perhaps still do share) something in common; namely, none of them were treated as creatures made in the image of God. They were not given the respect due them as creatures created in goodness but were assumed, rather, to be living in the consequence of sin because of blindness, oppression, captivity, or poverty. The Messiah, though, is sent by God as one who brings good news to the poor, releases the captives, gives sight to the blind, and liberates the oppressed. The men assembled in the synagogue that day could not have been offended by this reading. Indeed, as good Jews they would have heard such proclaimed and preached many times before. Such a proclamation is not just found in Isaiah but would be repeatedly heard in the sacred scripture as call to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger at the gate, the helpless and dependent.

No, Jesus’ proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor” was not was offended. I don’t even believe that it was Jesus own self-proclamation of himself as Messiah that caused the greatest ire. Hear what happens after Jesus’ announcement: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But they were still a little incredulous, asking in what seems a derisive tone, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” One reason that the crown in the synagogue might have responded the way they did was because the sacred writ had become a dead narrative – a flat, meaningless story. They heard it and respected it as their own long tradition but it long ceased having any impact on their daily lives. Many might even have given up looking for the Messiah. And it was beyond reasonable expectation that the neighbor boy all grown up could be the Messiah. There were any number of crackpots in that day that claimed to be the Messiah and, for the most part, they were crackpots. The promise of a Savior to liberate them form Rome had become a greatly diminished promise – its power to move people nullified by the many years that had passed since the Isaiah’s announcement. There were any number of crackpots in that day claiming to be the Messiah, and in most cases they were clearly crackpots. The promise of a Savior who would liberate them from Rome had become a greatly diminished promise – its power to move people nullified by the many years that had passed since the prophet’s announcement. Even so, it was not Jesus' announcement that he is the fulfillment of the prophet’s message, that he is the Messiah, the covenant promise, the fulfillment of the Scripture, the fulfillment of the story, is not what makes murderous mavens of past neighbors.

No, it was not his announcement of the year of the Lord’s favor. It was not his self-proclamation as Messiah. Rather, what gave the crowd pause and what laid the timbers for the conflagration to follow was Jesus’ quoting of Scripture in which God favors gentiles, favoring the enemies of Israel and those despised by Israel. When Jesus first notices the crowd’s bemusement regarding his reputation, Jesus acknowledges that prophets are not accepted in their own hometowns. This is no mean apology. Instead, with these words Jesus makes explicit reference to two of Israel’s most revered prophets, Elijah and Elisha. Elijah and Elisha both had the same problem in not being respected by their own. Because of this, God would send both of them to minister among the Gentiles, “the Great Unwashed.”

It was this reference that would light the fire and drive the people of Nazareth mad. Jesus reminds them that God sent Elijah to save the widow of Sidon and her son, neither of whom were Jews, the chosen people of the covenant. Jesus reminds them that God sent Elisha to heal Namon the Syrian. This was a staggering pronouncement to a people who had come to believe that God was theirs, that God’s Word belonged to them, that somehow the covenant promise was about them and not about God. To hear that the words of their sacred story applied to Gentiles and the impure, made them burn with an unholy and consuming anger. Hence the march to the cliff.

It is interesting, though, that their anger never touched Jesus, not physically. He walked with them along the path by the cliff but when he chose, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus did not react with anger or bitterness. Jesus was made incarnate – Jesus had come among us for one reason and one reason alone: to save us in his love. Jesus came to save God’s people for reasons of immense, complete, and radical love.

The love described by Saint Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is the kind of love that Jesus showed and continues to show. It is not love that many of us can understand or carry out, not fully at least. The that Paul describes, the love of God in Jesus is focused with absolute intensity on one thing: the well-being of that which God made and sustains. In other words, the love of God is solely focused on the other, the object of the love. On he other hand, when we love we tend to love with condition – because another loves us, because the other makes us feel good, because we by reason of biology or character. In the end, too often we love because of what the other does for us.

Saint Paul describes a love that is patient and kind. That is easy enough although we all probably have trouble being patient and kind when our family and friends are making our lives difficult. Saint Paul then describes what love is not: It is not envious, boastful, arrogant rude, insistent on its own way, irritable, or resentful. He has intensified things just a little. Then Saint Paul says, “[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Okay, fine….the ten commandments and all that. But then Saint Paul blows things up. Things get really, really difficult…maybe even outright impossible. “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Did you get that word – all things? Can you do all? Can I? No, we cannot. If we are honest, all is beyond us who are trapped in our own wants and needs, our own spirits and psyches. But all is not beyond God and the Spirit of God that fills us.

Saint Paul is writing to that troublesome congregation in Corinth, telling them that it doesn’t matter how powerful they are, how rich they are, how talented they are, how spiritual they are, if they do not have love – love like God’s love – they have nothing. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus came among us, putting aside immortality and divine glory to share in our humanity. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus trampled the roads and mountains and fields of Galilee and Judea, bringing the Good News of the coming kingdom of God to a people worn down by poverty, oppression, and captivity. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus allowed someone who should have loved him like a brother to betray him. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus was beaten, humiliated, and murdered. It is the love for the sake of which God’s glory was made visible to all in the resurrection. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus takes hold of each and every one of us in baptism, through his sacred Word, in the holy Supper, and in our prayer, fellowship, and service, and clings to us. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus abides in us and sustains us.

Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us (Period.)

Now, we can share the love of Jesus, with one another and with our families, with the sick and the hurting, with the lonely and abandoned, with the soldier far from home, with the old man with a bad heart, with the poor, the imprisoned, and the dying. Jesus loves us and because Jesus loves us with an undying love, we he can love like Jesus does. We can let go of ourselves enough to really love others – to love them for their own sake, not because of what they might do for us or because we might change them.

We are Church. We are the Jesus Movement. It is our stated intent as Jesus’ beloved people to share the love of Jesus. It might be hard sometimes. It might mean sacrifice. It might be uncomfortable. It might be a lot of things but I know one thing that it will be. It will mean life and salvation

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

God’s Holy Spirit calls us to mature in faith, a mature hope, and, most of all, a mature love that the light of Christ may be seen and the source of love known.