Monday, February 24, 2014

LOVE your enemies!

Epiphany 7, Year A
February 23, 2014
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

These past few weeks we’ve been listening to sections of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount series. But rather than the comforting words of the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.), we’ve been hearing an awful lot of challenging words come out of Jesus’ mouth. Two weeks ago it was about evangelism and being a light to others, last week it was about being in right relationship with each other and with God, and this week we are told to love our enemies. 

Jesus doesn’t say, “tolerate your enemies” or even simply “try to be nice to them.” No, Jesus tells us to love them. Think about an enemy from either your past or your present: maybe it’s a bully or someone who betrayed your trust or caused you pain in some way [pause]. Jesus is telling you to love them and pray for them. 

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be one of the most difficult things Jesus tells us to do. Now, I want to be clear that when Jesus tells us to love our enemies he is not condoning any acts of violence that have committed. Neither is he telling us that we have to like them as a person. Rather, he is telling us to let go of the toxic feelings that hate brings. There are some people from my past who just thinking about things they did or said to me makes my blood boil and my teeth clench to this day. But in reacting this way, I am giving them power over me; I am still under their grip! Bottling up the collective anger and hurt from over the years does us no good. And even if we had gotten even with our enemies (“an eye for an eye”), the feeling of satisfaction would not make up for the pain we experienced. And so Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them.    

A few years ago one of my friends was having difficulty getting along with someone. Since they lived in the same area and saw each other often, my friend decided that instead of complaining about the person or stewing about the unpleasant situation, she would try to do something about it. As luck would have it, the season of Lent was right around the corner, so my friend made it her Lenten spiritual practice to pray for this person every single day. Throughout the 40 days she kept up this practice of praying for this person she found so difficult to be around. When Easter came, my friend and this person had not magically become best friends, but my friend was able to be in the same room with the person without wanting to scream, so that was a major improvement. More than this, though, my friend had come to a deeper appreciation of who this person was as a beloved child of God. 

Another one of my friends was preparing for a month-long trip. She and a fellow traveler got into a huge argument in the weeks leading up to the trip. Wanting to have a good traveling experience, my friend called the other traveler to address their issues. In listening to one another, they discovered that their argument had resulted because of a series of miscommunications; once they figured out what the other person had actually meant, the hard feelings evaporated, and they were able to enjoy their trip, even becoming pretty good friends by the end. Imagine what they would have missed out on if they hadn’t addressed their issues!

These two examples are pretty mild ones, but they illustrate how prayer and intentional, honest, and open communication can sometimes be pathways to loving our enemies. 

The reading from Leviticus presents a different way of thinking about loving: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In this case, we’re not talking specifically about enemies (although sometimes our neighbors can fit that description); neighbor means anyone outside of your family circle. So often we can be tempted to stay away from anyone who acts or looks or speaks or dresses differently than we do. In this country we frequently isolate ourselves, surrounding ourselves with people who look and vote and believe the same way we do, just because it’s safer or easier than opening up to someone new (there’s less risk involved).

But I actually find that in many cases our biggest enemy is, in fact, ourselves. All of us experience times when we feel inadequate, overwhelmed by self-doubt and uncertain if we are up to the tasks before us. When the constant internal monologue turns into a negative stream of thinking, it can keep us rooted in a place of fear rather than of love.   

One of the best examples of loving your neighbor as yourself happened in 2006. On an October morning in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a man approached an Amish school. He sent away all adults and boys, barricading himself in the school with 10 girls as hostage. Two sisters figured out what he was doing and tried to convince the man to shoot them and let the other girls go. Police tried to intervene, but the man shot all of the girls before ending his own life. Four of the girls were killed. To this day, the motives of the man, who was not Amish, are unclear. But the Amish, deeply steeped in their faith, recognized that they must immediately respond to this neighbor with love and not vengeance. Just a few hours after the shooting, members of the community went to the man’s house to comfort his widow and family, one of them embracing the man’s father for an hour as the father cried. Thirty community members attended the man’s funeral, and his widow was invited to attend one of the funerals for one of the girls. What’s more, they even set up a fund to help the man’s widow take care of their three young children. 

Love like this can only come from a place rooted in peace and the practice of loving your neighbor as yourself. We root ourselves by coming together to pray for the world, our neighbors, and our enemies. We root ourselves by reading and then incorporating into our daily lives the tough lessons Jesus teaches us. We root ourselves by passing the peace and then joining our neighbors around the Eucharistic table, sharing together in the Body and Blood of Christ that propels us into the world. In these ways, we invite God to dwell in us.      

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, tells us that we “are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in [us]” (1 Cor 3:16). If our “foundation is Jesus Christ,” and “God’s Spirit dwells in us,” then perhaps, over time, we can learn to love our enemies, neighbors, and ourselves (1 Cor 3:15-16).  

Image found here.

Info about the Amish school shooting found here:

Sunday, February 16, 2014

right relationship

Epiphany 6, Year A
February 16, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

I think whoever came up with today’s selection of readings wanted to throw preachers a curve ball. All week long those of us now standing behind the pulpit have struggled with these texts, willing a sermon to spring up out of the difficult lessons. In the readings we’ve got life & death choices, “jealousy and quarreling,” Paul calling the Corinthians babies, murder, adultery, divorce, a hell of fire, and tearing out of limbs. While it is very tempting to avoid all these difficult topics and find only the parts that are easy or straightforward, that’s not what we’re going to do today. 

Today in the readings we hear several times about commandments. For the Israelites, there are not just the 10 Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain, but there are 603 others. 603! They deal with pretty much all aspects of life, from temple practices like sacrifices and offerings, to how to conduct oneself in times of war, to what kind of fabric to wear/not wear, to how to treat the poor, most especially widows and orphans. 

To outsiders, these commandments may seem oppressive. It’s hard enough to follow the 10 commandments, let alone 603 others. I don’t know about you, but I found honoring my father and mother to be quite difficult growing up, especially when I was a teenager. And I often catch myself coveting other people’s stuff. At least I’m good as far as the murdering part is concerned, and I’m not planning on getting a divorce--that counts for something, right? Wrong, at least according to the Gospel reading for today. Jesus says that “if you are angry with a brother or sister” you might as well have murdered them. And if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you have already committed adultery. C’mon, Jesus, give us a break! What’s with all of these rules? 

I think when God gave the 10 commandments and then the 603 others, God’s purpose wasn’t trying to figure out ways to make life more difficult for the Israelites. I believe God’s purpose was to make sure that in every aspect of our life we were thinking about God--that every decision we made required us to take into consideration that we are children of God and should therefore behave accordingly. That every minute of every day we remembered that God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the promised land. That every time we come into contact with another person we remembered that all people are a creation of God and should receive our respect. The commandments are really about relationships: our relationships with God and with each other. 

Jesus is reiterating these relationships in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s not enough to just look at the big picture: just because we don’t shoot someone when we’re angry with them doesn’t mean we should get a pat on the back or a gold star. All the little things we do, like being jealous or angry or calling people names, all these little things tear apart--literally dis-member--the Body of Christ. These things we do to each other eat away at the fabric of our community, weakening our relationships with each other and also with God. 

We come to realize how important these relationships are because we are able to see the pain that results when they are broken. Family members estranged because of an argument. Friendships ruined by deceit or jealousy. Marriages ended by lack of communication or betrayal. Not one person here hasn’t been affected by bitter arguments, lost friendships, or divorce on some level. The more we have committed to a relationship, the more pain we feel when it comes to an end. That’s why we are urged to take our commitments to each other seriously. To take our vows seriously. To take the commandments seriously. Relationships are not to be taken lightly; they are  everything. In fact, the whole concept of the Trinity, of the essence of God, is relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this, then you are not alone. In fact, you’re actually right where you’re supposed to be. Another point of the commandments is to help us to realize that we are unable to keep them on our own. The commandments remind us that we desperately need God in our lives. We are constantly doing things which fall short of where we are called to be, constantly damaging relationships with each other and with God. 

But this is where God steps in. Throughout the course of our relationship as God’s people, the pattern is as follows: we get ourselves into a mess and God comes in to fix it. We say we’re sorry, God forgives us, and all is well...until the next time we mess up. God doesn’t have to, but time and time again God chooses to bail us out. We push against God and God’s ways, but God does not abandon us. And to show us just how much God really loves us, God became one of us, came and met us on our terms, reached us on our level. God came to us to try to repair the damage we had done, to fix the tear in our relationship with God. Jesus taught us how we should act toward God and how we should treat each other. He never said it was going to be easy, he just said, “Follow me."  

A friend of mine recently posted a quote by G. K. Chesterton in one of her blog posts. The quote read, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” [repeat] The readings for today are compelling us to do the hard work of being Christian, of being in right relationship with one another and with God.  

There’s a thanksgiving prayer in the back of our Book of Common Prayer that expresses these thoughts better than I can. Everyone please take out your BCP and turn to page 836. [pause] The prayer I’m referring to is called “A General Thanksgiving” and was written by a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. I want to draw your attention to the third and fourth paragraphs. Pray with me: 
“We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, 
and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. 
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures 
which lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone” (BCP 836).

These powerful words were written after the professor's daughter died suddenly in a tragic accident.

Every day we have on this earth is a gift. The experience of being in right relationship with each other and with God is challenging, yes, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Through it all God will be cheering us on, there to pick us up when we fall and to celebrate with us when we succeed. 

In the words of today’s Collect: “O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

one of the frescoes by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel 
[image found here]

Sunday, February 9, 2014

"e" who must not be named

Epiphany 5, Year A
February 9, 2014
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

The scene opens in a dark chamber, the light from the wildly flickering candles creating shadows that dance ominously on the stone wall. A blonde (it’s always a blonde) woman is tied to a chair, struggling mightily but unsuccessfully to free herself. At that moment the door opens and the villain enters, his lips curling into a sinister grin at the sight of the damsel in distress’ vain attempts to get free. “What do you want from me?” she cries. “You can have my money, just let me go!” “You know what I want,” he replies. “I’ve already asked you.” The woman’s eyes open wide and she recoils in horror. “No, not that! Anything but that! I won’t do it. You can’t make me!” 

This, my friends, is the scenario that I imagine whenever someone mentions the dreaded e-word. You know which e-word I’m talking about: EVANGELISM. This word strikes fear into the hearts of most Episcopalians. Yet this is exactly what the readings for today are urging us to do. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14,16). We are to share the Good News of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven with the world! “A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14). We are that city on the hill. For various reasons, we have chosen to follow Jesus, but his story is not meant to be a well-kept secret; it’s not meant to be hidden but shared with the world. 

So what exactly is it about evangelism that terrifies us? Maybe it’s that we are afraid of offending people. We don’t want to be accused of forcing our religion on others--and that’s definitely not what I’m advocating. Too often evangelism conjures up images of people shouting on street corners or handing out frightful tracts, of judgement and condemnation, hellfire and brimstone. The word evangelism has been hijacked and it’s time we reclaim the word. Instead of speaking from a place of fear, we are spreading the Good News of God’s incredible, unending love for us.  

Now, I don’t live under a bushel basket; I know that not everyone will appreciate your invitation. And I’m not telling you to be pushy or rude about it, either; after all, as the saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” If you’ve made an offer and someone declines, don’t push it.

Perhaps the biggest fear about evangelism is that we believe ourselves to be insufficient to the task; we are not faithful enough, or educated enough in matters of faith to speak with any sort of authority. Paul, himself, speaks of his insecurities in his letter to the Corinthians, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:1-3). 

Throughout the Bible, we see that God chooses unexpected people to further God’s will, people no one would consider “worthy” for the task. Esther, a humble Jewish woman, becomes queen and uses her new position to save her people, risking her life in the process. Moses, a murderer with a stutter, leads the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, a journey that will eventually bring them to the promised land. Fishermen, tax collectors, and other “lowly” men are chosen to be Jesus’ disciples. Saul, a persecutor of Christians, becomes Paul, who after his conversion, spends the rest of his life teaching about Jesus, spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. If God can work through them, then God can definitely work through us, no matter how unworthy we feel. After all, it is not our own ability; it is Christ working through us that will give us the words we need. 

One of the problems we have with evangelism is that in our society we tend to think of faith as merely personal. But this is not true Christianity. Matthew’s Gospel says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). We come together as a community to learn from one another. God is working through all of us, and your experiences of struggle and success can give the rest of us insights into our own faith journeys.  

You may be saying to yourself, “Who am I, to speak of this?” Who are you not to?

“But, Mother Lara, what about that quote by St. Francis? You know, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words’?” First of all, I love this quote, and it has a great message. I think the point the quote is trying to make is that you have to walk the walk if you’re gonna talk the talk. Yes, how we live our lives, how we choose to act toward one another is an important part of the Christian life. But talking is part of it, too!  

How has your belief in Christ changed your life? How have you been nourished by the Gospel? How have your struggles with faith led to a deeper relationship with God and with the world around you? This is what I’m suggesting you share with your friends, and ask about their experiences, too. You don’t have to talk about certain theologies or the nitty gritty details of faith. You just need to be real. 

This past Thursday the Episcopal Church remembered the sacrifice of the martyrs of Japan. In the 1500s Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries went to spread the Gospel to the people of Japan. They actually ended up getting quite a following: around 300,000 people by the end of the century. Sadly, because of unfortunate circumstances including the capture of a foreign ship loaded with ammunition and the captain’s explanation that after Christianity spread invasion usually followed, the Japanese government outlawed any religions other than Buddhism and Shinto. Not only did they outlaw Christianity, however, they made an example out of the followers. 26 Christians, both foreign priests and local Japanese, were hung on crosses and then stabbed. Japan then effectually shut down trade with most foreigners. After about 250 years, commerce with the outside world was once again allowed and religious restrictions were lifted. People discovered that the church, thought to be annihilated during the time of persecution, had gone underground. There were pockets of Christian communities, about 30,000 people, who had secretly kept the faith. It had changed somewhat, but Christianity was still alive. 

The Word of God cannot be killed by human action or inaction; it has survived countless threats and persecutions. 

You know, I have a hard time with evangelism, too. It can often be quite awkward. Yes, I went to seminary for 3 years at a great school and I learned so much, but you can spend a whole lifetime and not come close to understanding God. Every week I stand up in the pulpit and attempt to communicate the love of God in Christ. If I happen to succeed, it is only because the Holy Spirit has somehow taken my muddled words and translated them into a truth you are able to understand.

Friends, I am not asking you to teach theology but to share why you love Jesus, why you love the church. How about inviting someone to join you on Sunday morning, or participate in handbell practice, or come listen to one of our amazing concerts? If your neighbor is struggling with something, offer to come over and pray with him or her. If a friend is trying to find meaning in their lives, share what has brought meaning to yours.

Evangelism doesn’t have to make us think of old horror movies. We are called to plant the seeds of faith and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Let the love of Christ work in you and the light of Christ will shine through you. “You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14,16).

Information on the martyrs of Japan found here and here.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

a meditation on sacrifice

The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, Year A
February 2, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen. 

Presentation of Jesus in the temple

Today we commemorate the feast of the presentation of our Lord. In Jewish tradition, all firstborn sons were to be taken to the temple around 40 days after their birth. There, the parents would sacrifice a sheep--or, if they couldn’t afford a sheep, some birds--to redeem, or buy back, their sons from having to serve as temple priests*. This served as a reminder of the tenth and final plague in Egypt, where the angel of death killed all the first-born sons of the Egyptians, but left the Israelite children alone (Exodus 13:15).  

I don’t know about you, but I get a little uncomfortable when I think about religious animal sacrifices. They seem so barbaric or cruel, like a waste of life. I’m grateful that, as your priest, I don’t have to slaughter animals and burn them on the altar; it would be a bit much for this vegetarian to handle. 

But before we get too smug and think that Christianity is different than or superior to other religions because we don’t have these types of sacrifices, remember that sacrifice, in one form or another, is a component of pretty much all major world religions.  We worship a God whose Son willingly sacrificed himself for our sins. The symbol for Christianity is the instrument of his death. When we gather together for Communion, we break bread and drink wine, but it is more than just food and drink; it is the Body and Blood of Jesus, shed for us. 

If you think about it, sacrifice is essential to Christianity. But most of the time, we don’t like to think about it. It’s much easier to just think of God as this nice but far removed entity who created us and then pretty much left us alone and just wants us to be happy. This, however, is not the God we worship. But--we might think--what kind of God would demand human sacrifice? Isn’t that extreme?

In the letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). The collective sin of humans couldn’t be ignored, but had to be addressed. If there were no punishment for misbehavior, then what would stop people from doing wrong? Our sin demanded a response. 

But the beautiful and amazing thing about this is that God responded by providing a way out for all of us. God, in Jesus, became flesh and blood, just like us. Jesus was raised by his mother and adopted father, roughhoused and argued with his siblings, experienced fear and love and temptation, just like us. Jesus taught the world about God’s love for us and how we are to respond with love for God and all of God’s creation.   And in response to our sins, Jesus offered to take our place, once and for all. Jesus freely gave up his life for ours, restoring our relationship with God. 

Our eucharistic liturgy uses sacrificial language to commemorate this incredible gift. Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” (BCP 362). After the bread is broken we say, “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (BCP 364). 

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus sacrificed himself for us and promised us eternal life, redeeming us--buying us back--from the hands of death. But while there is no longer a requirement for human sacrifice, it does not mean that sacrifice isn’t still in the picture.  

Sacrifice is a part of everyday life. In sports, there’s the familiar saying, “no pain, no gain.” Olympic athletes sacrifice money as well as years of their lives devoting themselves to a particular sport. They train, pushing their bodies beyond normal limits. They have special diets. They often have to be away from their families for weeks, months, sometimes even years. They give up normal lives for the chance to represent their countries doing what they love. 

The same goes for musicians. In order to become proficient at or master playing an instrument, you have to practice, sacrificing time spent doing other things. Performance majors in college are expected to practice anywhere from 4-10 hours a day, depending on their instrument. I can only imagine that professional musicians practice more. 

Other professions require sacrifice, as well, whether it be the money and time spent on getting the degree or certification, or the long hours and extra projects, or the medical charts or grading papers or planning curriculum. 

Almost anything in our lives, or at least anything worth doing, requires some aspect of sacrifice. Relationships between people are no different. We compromise on everything from meal choices to vacations to how to discipline kids to where (and when) to retire. We sacrifice time spent with friends to spend time with our spouses, and vice versa. We sacrifice living near our families if we find our dream job. We sacrifice sleep if our loved one needs help writing a last-minute paper or *ahem* sermon. 

Having a relationship with God involves sacrifices, too. Going to church on Sunday morning instead of golfing. Giving up a few extra minutes of sleep in order to start the day in prayer. Setting aside some of your hard-earned money to give back in thanksgiving for God’s blessings. Spending the morning ushering or serving or being a crossing guard or teaching Sunday School rather than sitting in the congregation. Volunteering at the thrift shop or homeless shelter rather than relaxing at home. The eucharistic prayer even speaks of the celebration of communion as a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (BCP 363). We offer up to God our praise and thanksgiving for the gift of life in this world and for the sacrifice Christ made so we could live in the next. 

After her husband dies, the prophet Anna devotes the rest of her life to fasting and praying to God. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, has been promised by the Holy Spirit “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26). Both Anna and Simeon, in their old age, recognize the hope of redemption that the child Jesus brings to the world. As he cradles Jesus in his arms, he says words immortalized in the service of compline, “Lord, you now have set your servant free* to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,* whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A light to enlighten the nations,* and the glory of your people Israel” (BCP 135). 

The assurance of God’s love comes to us in the form of our Savior, Jesus. In his sacrifice, we have been freed from the bondage of sin and are welcomed into eternal life. Because of his sacrifice, we are also able to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God!” (BCP 366).

Image found here.

*Information on the Jewish custom of presentation found here.