Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Day, 2013: Subversive love

Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector



En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Happy Easter!

Today we have the privilege of bringing another person into the community of love known to the world as the Church of the Redeemer in Shelby, NC. The Baptism of Aveleigh Craver is an important event because by it we are made whole in a new way. By incorporating the one, the whole of us is made new.

It is also a big responsibility for us who are her family of faith. God has created Aveleigh for a purpose. She has been gifted for that purpose, and it is up to us, her community of love, to help her discover those gifts, nurture them, and then use them to build God’s kingdom of love here on earth.

This is no small thing, and it isn’t just about Aveleigh. The same is true for all of us. We have a responsibility to one another to help each other discover our gifts, to nurture them through a life-long commitment to Christian formation, and then to use them where God has planted us, right here in Shelby.

Each one of us has been created by God, gifted, and sent into the world as partners with God bringing the redeeming love that was revealed to the world on that first Easter day.

In our gospel story, we hear that the women who were followers of Jesus went to the tomb to finish the burial rite and found it empty. As they stood there trying to understand how it could be empty, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes were standing with them, and they were terrified.

But the two men simply asked the women a question, “Why are you here looking for the living among the dead?” That might be an awfully strange question in most every other circumstance, but not this time, and here’s why: “Remember what Jesus told you…” the men said.

The women did remember and returned to tell the others – who, of course, didn’t believe them. They had all heard Jesus say these things, and yet, they still couldn’t believe it. So Peter runs off to see for himself. Finding it just as the women described it, Peter returned home amazed.

What amazed Peter? That Jesus hadn’t lied to them? That the women hadn’t lied to them? That he, Peter, who had a history of doing so, had missed the point again?

Everything was just as Jesus said it was going to be. So what amazed Peter?

I think what amazed Peter is that death was no longer what Peter thought it was – neither was life, for that matter. Peter was finally beginning to understand that the power of the love he had witnessed in Jesus, the Messiah, now risen from the dead, was an act of the subversive love of God which set humankind free from the bondage of sin and death forevermore. The resurrection ushered in a new thing, a new age, new life - just as Jesus said it would, and it took some time for his followers to let go of what was and live fully into this new thing.

Luke tells us in the first chapter of Acts that the disciples were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” in that upper room. The reason is, resurrection isn’t something we can understand ever - at all. We can only prayerfully respond to it.

The resurrection isn’t about bodies, or breathing. It’s about presence.

As we heard in Isaiah, God says, “Before they call I will answer.” God is present before, during, and after our understanding of anything.

That is the hope we proclaim: that in Jesus we have been given the gift of living in the eternal presence of God. God, whose mercy endures forever, God who is our strength and salvation, is always with us, IN us, redeeming all things before we even recognize the need for it. In fact, that’s how we recognize the need for it. God reveals that to us in prayer that so that we can use our God-given gifts to bring the light of Christ in us into darkness of the world.

It helps to remember that God shows no partiality. God didn’t pick Peter because he was so astute. Right? Yet look at Peter’s legacy. God created Peter, gifted him, and sent him to live out his purpose. And Peter did that – in all his imperfection.

God chooses each of us too. We were created us for a purpose and that purpose is simple: to do God’s will. So… what is God’s will?

According to our catechism, Episcopalians believe that it is the will of God that the whole world be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ by the forgiveness of sins. Reconciled people live in harmony and unity with one another and with God.

Our purpose as Christians is to find the one who is oppressed or exiled or lost, and reattach them to the body of Christ, reminding them and everyone who might exclude them that God shows no partiality – which means, neither can we.

Jesus Christ is Lord of all – no exceptions. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all.”

As followers of Christ, we are commanded to love one another as he loved us - even our enemies, because the truth is, we have no enemies. We are all children of one family, the family of God.

I had a discussion yesterday with my daughter. She wanted to tell me about an online argument she’d been having on the issue of homosexuality. The argument was with friends who were Christians and mostly opposed to homosexuality.

The friends kept bringing up Bible verses to support their position – the usual ones: Leviticus, 1 Corinthians… You’ve all heard the arguments. We all have.

Here was my daughter’s response, and I share it with you because I can’t make a better point on Easter Day than this: “All those words [in the Bible] are different ways of illustrating one message: lovelovelovelovelove. God is love. Period. You don't have to understand it. You don't have to agree with it. You can try to collect all the rules you want, and I'm sure that's a comfort. It's just not the point. I will say it until I die: God is love.” ~Jessica Sherer

I will say it until I die: God is love.

We gather on this Easter Day to remember the power of that truth: God is love. We gather to remember that in Jesus we have been made into a community of love. We gather to make another Christian, and we commit to be the community of love that forms her so that she can fulfill the purpose for which she was created.

As we gather at the font and baptize Aveleigh Craver, we will renew our own Baptismal vows and proclaim our commitment to them again, remembering that what we’re doing, is making a commitment to love: extravagant, inclusive, subversive love – the kind our Savior gives us, today, everyday, and always.

(Invitation of the family, friends, and children to the Baptismal font)


Great Vigil of Easter, 2013:

At The Eucharist: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector



En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

The night before he was murdered in Memphis, TN, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in Memphis, TN. It turned out to be a prophetic speech as he was assassinated the next day.

Here is the last paragraph of that speech: “Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” (Source: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/ive_been_to_the_mountaintop/)

Like most prophets, Dr. King was a subversive. He challenged the established system and its practices which held African Americans in the bondage of racism. Dr. King’s message was subversive because it was a message of hope, and as theologian Walter Bruggeman says, “Hope is subversive.”

As a prophet, Dr. King gave hope not only to African Americans, but to all Americans. He assured us that despite all appearances and the entrenched practices of the established system, we could live together as one people, in freedom and in unity. He knew this because he had “seen the Promised Land.”

As we continue on this journey of our life together, it is up to us to continually discover where the established system is oppressive and to work to set those captive free. Freedom takes sacrifice; and if it is to be achieved, both the oppressed and the oppressor must work together to break those bonds that deny freedom.

Each age has a Promised Land to reach, a place where the oppressed and the oppressor are reconciled and live together in unity and harmony. In the beginning, Moses led the oppressed people of God out of Egypt into freedom in Canaan. In the 1960’s Dr. King les us all toward racial freedom. Today, gay rights advocates are leading the march to marriage freedom.

It’s a pattern that’s part of our spiritual DNA and one our Savior made eternally true for us. On the day Jesus stood up in the grave, shook loose his burial linens, and left that tomb empty, he made marching to the Promised Land a continual journey for us until his coming again.

It’s been this way from the beginning of our Christian narrative. As the women stood in Jesus’ tomb, trying to understand how it could be empty, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes are standing with them, and they are terrified. But the two men simply ask the women a question, “Why are you here looking for the living among the dead?”

That might be an awfully strange question in most every other circumstance, but not this time, and this is why: “Remember what Jesus told you…” the men said. The women did remember and returned to tell the others – who, of course, didn’t believe them.

They had all heard Jesus say these things, and yet, they still couldn’t really believe it. So Peter runs off to see for himself. Finding it just as the women described it, Peter returned home amazed.

What amazed Peter? That Jesus hadn’t lied to them? That the women hadn’t lied to them? That he, Peter, who had a history of doing so, had missed the point again? After all, this is the disciple who had been to the mountaintop with Jesus.

So what amazed Peter? Everything was just as Jesus said it was going to be.

I think what amazed Peter is that death was no longer what Peter thought it was – neither was life, for that matter. I think what amazed Peter was the power of the love he had witnessed in Jesus, the Messiah, now risen from the dead. The resurrection ushered in a new thing, a new age, a new life - just as Jesus said it would, and it took some time for his followers to let go of what was and live fully into this new thing.

Luke tells us in the first chapter of Acts that the disciples were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” in that upper room. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection isn’t something we can understand without devoting ourselves to continual prayer.

The reason is, resurrection isn’t about bodies, or breathing. It’s about presence. As we heard in Isaiah, God says, “Before they call I will answer.” God is present before, during, and after our understanding of anything. That is the hope we proclaim – living in the eternal presence of God - and it is, as Bruggeman said, subversive.

God, whose mercy endures forever, who is our strength and salvation, is always with us, IN us, redeeming all things before we even recognize the need for it. In fact, that’s how we recognize the need for it. That’s how we know God is sending us on another march to another Promised Land.

As we go, it helps to remember that God shows no partiality. God didn’t pick Peter because he was so astute. Right? Yet look at Peter’s legacy. God created Peter, gifted him, and sent him to live out his purpose. And Peter did that – in all his imperfection.

God chooses each of us too. We were created us for a purpose and that purpose is simple: to do God’s will.

And what is God’s will? According to our catechism, Episcopalians believe that it is the will of God that the whole world be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ by the forgiveness of sins. Reconciled people live in harmony and unity with one another and with God. The final destination of every march to every Promised Land is always reconciliation.

Sin is what separates us from God and one another. New life in Christ restores us to right relationship with God and one another. All we have to do is remember.

And by remember, I mean “re-member” as we discussed on Maundy Thursday. The word comes from the Greek work “anamnesis” which means to bring into present reality. It can also be understood like this: to re-member is to reattach, the way a surgeon reattaches a severed body part. The re-attachment has to be whole – from the inside out or it won’t work. All the tissue, all the nerves, all the blood vessels have to be connected so that the blood of life can flow into that new part.

Our purpose as Christians is to ‘re-member.’ To find the one who is oppressed or exiled or lost, and reattach them to the body of Christ, reminding them and everyone who would exclude them that God shows no partiality - which means, neither can we.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of all – no exceptions. It isn’t, Jesus Christ is Lord of all, except for the atheists… or the gays… or the unchurched. Jesus is Lord of all – and that includes you, and it includes me, and it includes everyone we meet. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all.”

As followers of Christ, we re-member, Jesus’ commanded to us to love one another as he loved us. In other words, we make that our present reality.

We remember to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors - even our enemies. Dr. King was good at that and gave us a wonderful modern example of how that looks in the midst of real conflict - in real life.

I had a discussion earlier today with my daughter. She wanted to tell me about an online argument she’d been having with on the issue of homosexuality. The argument was with friends who were Christians and opposed to homosexuality. The friends kept bringing up Bible verses to support their position – the usual ones: Leviticus, 1 Corinthians…

Here was my daughter’s response (I can’t make a better point on Easter Eve than this): “All those words [in the Bible] are different ways of illustrating one message: lovelovelovelovelove. God is love. Period. You don't have to understand it. You don't have to agree with it. You can try to collect all the rules you want, and I'm sure that's a comfort. It's just not the point. I will say it until I die: God is love.”

We gather on this Easter Eve to re-member the power of that truth: God is love. We gather to remember that in Jesus we have been made a community of love and we have seen the Promised Land.

We have just renewed the our Baptismal vows together and proclaimed our commitment to them again, remembering that what we did, what we do, is make a commitment to love: extravagant, inclusive, subversive love - the kind our Savior gives us, today and always.

Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday 2013 sermon: Remember


Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector



(Extemporaneous sermon preached from notes below)

The 4 cups: the 4 ways God has acted to save:

1. The cup of SANCTIFICATION:

(setting apart as holy). I will be your God and you will be my people.

2. The cup of DELIVERANCE:

From our bondage to sin. Only God can save. We cannot save ourselves. Freedom from our bondage to sin and death comes from God alone. We don’t earn it, it is a gift from God.

This is a hard truth b/c the temptation is to spend time and energy trying to do the right thing, live the right way, and earn their salvation. But that is impossible. Redemption is from God alone, and it is a gift we can’t and don’t earn.

Our behaviors simply reflect our relationship with God. If we are in right relationship with God, our behaviors will show it – except when they don’t. We are human and we will sin. Which leads us to the next cup.

3. The cup of REDEMPTION:

It is this cup that Jesus takes, and he tells his followers “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood…” as often as you drink it, do this to remember me.


In the Jewish tradition is that this redemption is about family. This word also means “avenger of blood” and it is, by definition, a family member. This family member acts to set their kin free from slavery, paying a ransom, or great price for that freedom.

The traditional image is of a father sacrificing his firstborn son for the freedom of his entire family. Sound familiar?

This cup makes clear that we are children of God. As he is closing his time at dinner with his friends, Jesus said, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

In this moment, Jesus is speaking a divine truth. In him is the unity of humanity and divinity. This is one of the most important aspects of what we believe – that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and THAT is why he is the Savior. It is one of only two dogmas (things you have to believe) that we hold.

Who knows the other? (God is Trinity in Unity)

Jesus is the Father who pays the price, the Son who is the price, and the family for whom that price is paid. At supper with his friends, Jesus said, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Jewish theologian Tim Hegg says, “ The redemption of Israel from Egypt is no less an act of sovereign power than is the creation of the universe. Redemption is… the greatest display of God’s omnipotence… [it is the ultimate] victory of good over evil… of righteousness over unrighteousness.”

4. The cup of HOPE:

The Jews understood this to be the cup of Elijah, for whom an empty seat is kept at the seder table. The filling of that seat would signal the coming of the Messiah.

Tim Hegg says that, for the Jews, “redemption guarantees the final destination, but the journey is still necessary.”

That’s how we understand it too. We are in the journey now. The Messiah has come and our final destination is guaranteed. And by that I don’t mean where we go when we die. In Jesus the whole world is reconciled to God. All of creation, not just us. So the Messiah has come and we continue on this journey, doing our part in this partnership of redemption, until he comes again.

And what is our part?

Jesus said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

We must, like Jesus, get on our knees and serve humbly. It isn’t easy. (Story of the person who avoids Maundy Thursday b/c she hates feet)

In case we weren’t listening as we mulled over what doing that would really be like, Jesus repeats the command, the mandate (the source of the word ‘Maundy’):

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Now we get to put our lives where our beliefs are and make manifest our commitment to be followers of Christ.

Intro to the foot washing.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lent 5, 2013: Extravagant love

Lectionary: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector



En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo y Espiritu Santo. Amen. (I would say it in Gaelic, but I don’t know how :)

13th century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg was a prolific writer of poems and hymns that vividly describe the nature of an intimate relationship with God. Mechthild wrote:

“Great is the overflow of Divine Love which is never still but ever ceaselessly and tirelessly pours forth, so that our little vessel is filled to the brim and overflows. If we do not choke the channel with self-will, God’s gifts continue to flow and overflow. Lord! Thou art full, and fillest us also with Thy gifts. Thou art great and we are small, how then shall we become like Thee?” (69)

How shall we? Judging from our readings today, we might imitate Mary of Bethany and St. Paul of Tarsus.

The story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet is found in 3 of the 4 gospels, though it is only in the Gospel of John that the woman is identified as Mary of Bethany. By identifying her in that way, John brings the issue of intimate friendship into the story. Jesus and Mary of Bethany were friends… dear friends.

John also makes an important point about the way Mary anoints Jesus. Anyone who knows anything about Jesus knows that he was not interested in personal glory. And Mary does know Jesus, so she anoints his feet, which is a sign of repentance, not his head, which is how a King is anointed. Mary anointed the Messiah, not the next king of Israel.

The timing of this story is important too. Jesus, his disciples and some friends are gathered at the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus has recently raised from the dead, is also there.

Meanwhile, Caiaphas and the other religious leaders, upon hearing that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, have decided that Jesus must die and they begin to plot how to make that happen. They also plan to kill Lazarus, to ensure that the story of his resurrection from the dead by Jesus should also die.

For the sake of the many, this one must die, they say. They also proclaim an edict that anyone who knows where Jesus is must tell them so that he can be arrested.

It is in this context that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus Jesus and the others have gathered for dinner. The gathering itself is risky and subversive.

After dinner, Mary loosens her hair (which in that cultural is the symbol of her feminine sexuality), takes out a jar of expensive perfumed nard (which would be worth about $15,000 per pound today) and anoints Jesus feet.

Mary loved Jesus deeply, honestly, completely. And she was unafraid to demonstrate that love and devotion, even when it meant violating the cultural conventions of her time… even when it meant bearing the public disapproval of others.

I think the point John is making is that Mary’s love and devotion, somehow she was led to know that Jesus needed this anointing now. She many not have even understood why herself, but she obeyed that inner prompting.

Imagine the faith and courage it took Mary to do that. How did she know Jesus wouldn’t respond like a typical Jewish man and rebuff for her touching him? How did she know that Jesus wouldn’t agree with Judas and be disappointed by her extravagance? How did she know that Jesus needed to be prepared for his burial the day before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem?

She knew. She knew because she knew Jesus… not just the man who was her friend and rabbi, but the one who was the Messiah, the Christ. Mary had integrated and been empowered by Jesus’ message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world, and so she could reflect that extravagance in her own life.

Mary knew Christ, and it is this kind of knowing that St. Paul is talking about when he writes, “I want to know Christ. I want to know the power of his resurrection.” Having already established Christian churches throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and Macedonia, Paul was now in prison and he knew his death was imminent.

With all of his credentials: a faithful Jew… a Pharisee, blameless under the law, Paul still says, “I want to know Christ” because what Paul is talking about is a deeply integrated, transforming way of knowing – the way Mary of Bethany knew him.

The lives of Mary and Paul make clear that living the reality of new life in Christ takes courage. As the world continues to be transformed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, some people, some groups will cling to long-held customs out of fear: fear of change, fear of losing power, fortune, or importance, fear of being wrong or cast out from the group that matters to them.

Like Mary of Bethany, however, we are called to listen then act as the Spirit leads us. If we know Jesus like Mary did… deeply, honestly, and completely, then we will be unafraid to demonstrate our love and devotion to him, even when it means violating the cultural conventions of our time… knowing that it might bring disapproval.

To know Christ as Mary of Bethany did is to be empowered by Christ’s message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world. It is to live our relationship with Christ into the world, knowing that it might mean bring disapproval. To know Christ like St. Paul desired to is to participate with him, to become like him, to reflect the extravagance of God’s love by our lives and our service.

We are the Episcopal presence in this part of NC. That means our message will be out of step with other churches, friends, and business associates in our area because we are unafraid to include everyone just as God made them. That may be a bit uncomfortable for some of us at times, but it is comforting to those who are being judged, excluded, and dismissed. By our life together as a community of faith in the Episcopal tradition, we will demonstrate to them that they matter to us and to God, that they are beloved of God and welcome to be members of our family.

We will demonstrate the extravagant love of God, by showing them that God is waiting to shower that love on them if they will draw near one more time because, unfortunately, too often their experience of drawing near to church hasn’t been a healing one. That is what our worship, our website, our Shepherd’s Table, our Easter baskets, our Rosaries, our gardens, and all of our other ministries communicate to the world.

We care about those who suffer from any lack whether it’s food, friendship, or spiritual vitality. And we do our best to provide at least some of that and to help them find their way to the Source of all of it.

Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a perfumed nard as a sign of her repentance and dependence on her Savior. The gospel writer said the fragrance of it filled the room. I hope it will do the same for us today.

(Instructions to the ushers, acolytes, etc.)

I have made up a similar ointment for us today and we’re going to pass it out now. The ointment is made from pure coconut oil and essential oil of myrrh – the scent likely used by Mary that day. I invite everyone to scrape some of this ointment into their hands and rub it in. The coconut oil will liquefy when it meets the warmth of your hands and you will smell the myrrh.

(Pause while the community receives the ointment…)

This fragrance that’s on our hands will be an outward sign to remind us of our inner call. It will follow us from this worship into the world, where we will carry the extravagant love of God in Christ to all we meet.

(Note: If you decide you want more afterwards, just let me know… An outward sign of our inward call…)

Let us pray…

Fill us, O Lord, until your love overflows from us and nourishes the souls of all you draw near to us. Help us to recognize them as treasures of your kingdom, that we may give to them as freely as you give to us. Grant us the courage to know you as Mary of Bethany did, to participate in you as St. Paul did, and to serve you, doing your will as you reveal it to us each day. Bless each one in our family as we discern the gifts you have given us, individually and as your community of love. Show us how to nurture those gifts, and motivate us to use them extravagantly for your glory and the welfare of your people. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lent 4, 2013: All we can do is rejoice. Laetare!

Lectionary: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
(Note: "Laetare" means "Rejoice". This Sunday is also known as "Mothering Sunday" or "Refreshment Sunday" The liturgical color is Rose or Pink.)



En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

When I was in seminary, the joke we constantly heard and repeated was: If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans. Just when we think we have it all figured out, when we think we know who we are, where we’re going, and how to get there… God moves in a way we didn’t see coming and we have to rethink, redirect, and repent, that is, turn around and go another way – the way God is showing us.

As the Israelites wandered in the desert, the traditions that guided who they were and how they lived had to be suspended as they let go of what was and walked on in faith toward the future God had prepared for them. At times, I think, it was hard for them to tell if they were actually heading somewhere or if they were just wandering around lost.

And it seemed like it took forever to get there. The generation who began the journey was now dead and gone and a new generation was arriving at their God-given destination.

Their identity hadn’t changed. They remained God’s people, but their understanding of themselves and their tradition was changed. Their exile in the desert had made it impossible to keep some of the traditions so important to the Israelites: circumcision, food laws, etc. As a people traditionally tied to the land, this wandering people also had no laws to govern their ways as wanderers. They had to figure it out as they went along.

Now, however, they have arrived at the Promised Land. Honoring their forebears, they began re-instituting the traditions that proclaimed their identity and belief. But they did this as a new generation in a new place, with a new understanding.

Yet as much as they had grown, there was more still to learn. There always is.

The Israelites time in the desert had revealed only part of the big picture of the will of God for God’s people. The rest of the story (as Paul Harvey would say) is found in the words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.

The parable of the Lost Son (fka: the Prodigal Son) is the third of three parables Jesus uses to teach about reconciliation. Remembering that it is in Jesus that the whole world is reconciled to God, Rabbi Jesus tells a wild story, filled with things that would make his listeners cringe. For example, a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance would be akin to a death wish; (Source: C. Hasalm, montreal.anglican.org); the image of a Jewish man, even a desperate one, wishing he could eat the slop of swine would be horror upon horror for a kosher people; and no older self-respecting Jew would ever run to greet his son. (Source: C. Hasalm, montreal.anglican.org)

In addition, I think there are a few reactions Jesus counted on from his listeners (then and now). For example, it was the son’s own choice that led him to his desperate situation. He was selfish, disrespectful, and disobedient. He made his bed… (as they say). The father’s welcoming of the lost son fails to hold him accountable. To use the language of A.A. -the father is acting like an enabler – denying the very real problems the son has and creating an atmosphere where those destructive behaviors will continue and continue to do harm. And finally, the older brother’s resentment is justified. He’s been good and faithful all along, and hasn’t asked for reward. But now his father kills the fatted calf for his low-life brother, and he’s (understandably) upset. Fair is fair… and this is not fair!

Looking at this parable from a “human point of view” as St. Paul says it, these reactions make sense. But we who are followers of Christ must no longer look at things that way. We are a new generation, in a new place, with a new understanding. We are ambassadors for Christ, and we have been entrusted with bearing the message of reconciliation to the world because that is the rest of the story: that in Jesus the whole world has been reconciled to God by the forgiveness of sin.

Jesus teaches us that like the father in this parable, God does not count our trespasses against us. God in Christ also welcomes sinners, and still eats with us, every Sunday, right here, at this Eucharistic feast.

The beginning of the Gospel reading clarifies for us that the world doesn’t love hearing about that kind of extravagance of mercy and love. We’re good with that, of course, when it’s our own sin that needs forgiving, but we’re often less happy about it when it’s someone else’s sin. Then we, like the older brother in the parable, feel justified in our resentment. Some of us even feel justified in being violent toward the sinners we particularly hate – something we see way too often on the news.

As you know, the clergy of DWNC was on retreat last week at Valle Crucis. Our retreat leader was Brother Curtis Almquist from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastery in MA. At one point, Br. Curtis said: “If you don’t have mercy for someone, you don’t know enough about them.”

God does know – and God never fails to seek the lost and bring them home with a joyous welcome. And God has called and prepared us to be partners in this work.

That’s why, as we consider this parable of the Lost Son, we have to remember that we don’t know what led him to ask for his inheritance. We don’t know how he came to disrespect himself so much that he would live a life of such self-destruction. We don’t know what inner demons convinced him of the lie that he wasn’t worthy.

Everyone has a story that plays out within the silence of their hearts. For some it’s an interior battle. God knows our stories. God knows our interior battles. God know us enough to have mercy on us.

And here’s the best news: God’s mercy is always available to us. All we have to do is repent. All we have to do is turn back and claim it.

In the parable, the lost son “comes to himself.” He wakes up, shakes off the fog in his head that clouds his thinking and realizes that he can go back home where he once knew love. He utters the words of repentance: “…I have sinned…” and look at the response he gets - there is rejoicing!

When we wake up and realize that it isn’t God who fails to love us, but we who fail to love ourselves, heaven rejoices! Laetare! Because once we do that, we can be led the rest of the way. Once we truly realize the unfathomable love that God love us with, then we truly are a new people in a new place with a new understanding. As St. Paul says it: we are a new creation.

Then we see with the eyes of God and we notice that everyone is beloved. We respond with the heart of God, which breaks over anyone’s suffering - no matter how we think it came about. We respond with the heart of God that rejoices whenever someone returns to themselves, returns to love, and feasts on the food of life.

It’s always been so for the people of God. As the psalmist says: “Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.” Rejoice! Laetare! for we are loved by an extravagant God.

A final word about the older brother in the parable, who represents us: the church. Like the brother, we try to live faithfully, and we’re tempted to be judgmental about someone who seems to ‘get away with’ not “being-hāve” as my kids would say. (I should explain… I’d say: ‘Behave!’ They’d say: ‘I am being-hāve!)

Did you hear the father’s response to the older brother? Hearing this as the voice of God, the reply was: My child, I am with you always. “All that is mine is yours.”

Think about that for a minute – it’s overwhelming in its reality. What if we believed it when God says to us, My child, I am always with you and all that is mine is yours”?

There God goes again with that extravagance of love… and all we can do is rejoice! Laetare!


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lent 3, 2013 sermon by Deacon Pam: Good News


Lectionary: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9



When people learn that I am preaching on an upcoming Sunday, they typically ask two questions: what’s the Gospel lesson, and what are you going to say about it.

When I have told people about this week’s Gospel, about Pilate mixing the blood of Galileans with sacrifices offered to Roman gods, and the tower of Siloam falling and killing eighteen people, I have gotten: laughter, eye rolls and head shakes; comments like “Better you than me” and “Good luck with that one”, and some suggestions like “Can’t you pick a different lesson?” or “Call in sick Sunday, make Valori do this one!”

My friend and fellow deacon Jerry Beschta likes to say, when confronted with more difficult lessons such as this one, that “The Gospel is always good, but it isn’t always easy.” His saying applies well to this lesson, which, I promise, once we unpack it a bit, is indeed very good news.

If we back up some, to set the lesson in context, Jesus has been teaching a large crowd of people gathered around him. Some in the crowd tell Jesus about Pilate mixing the blood of Galileans with sacrifices to be offered to Roman gods. Their deeper thoughts and concerns about this incident are unspoken, but certainly picked up on by Jesus, and so he asks them - do you think this happened to them because of the degree of their sinfulness?
No, he tells them, then he shares another example that might beg the same question; the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, were they worse sinners than anyone else living in Jerusalem?

No -that’s not why it happened. It was not a divine punishment, exacted upon them because of their sinfulness.

In saying that, Jesus directly confronts a commonly held belief - then as well as now, if we are honest about it - that bad things happen to people as punishment for their actions. There are other passages in the Gospels where Jesus confronts this same belief, challenging the thought that calamity, disaster, illness and tragedy are the God’s punishment, God’s consequences for our sins.

We still tend to believe that way, to greater and lesser degrees. There are religious leaders who are quick to publicly declare, after most tragedies, the sinners who brought this punishment upon both the innocent and the guilty. Katrina - all those sexual deviants in New Orleans; 9/11 - the ACLU, the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians; New Town - the atheists forcing God out of public schools. We tend to dismiss these folks and their theology, usually with a mixture of anger, humor and hopefully compassion for what their world must be like, but we can fail to see how often we do the same thing on a smaller scale.

I am asked, and I suspect most ministers are, on a fairly regular basis - “Why did this happen to me? I’m a good person. I try to do what God wants me to do. I’m not nearly as bad as some other people are and nothing like this happens to them. Why is God punishing me?”

And our deep belief in some kind of divine retribution is reflected not just in asking why unfortunate things happens -unjustly in our opinion - to us or to someone we love; we show it in our validation of, and sometimes glee at what we perceive to be punishment for those we feel deserve it. “They got what was coming to them, didn’t they? What goes around, comes around. I knew they’d end up paying and paying dearly for what they’ve done.”

But Jesus makes it very clear that it was not the sinfulness of the victims that caused their suffering. They were no better - or worse - than anyone else; all are sinners. What happened to them was not God’s punishment, God’s wrath, some divine accounting for misdeeds. Don’t blame - or thank God. That’s just not how God works.

The rest of Jesus’ answer makes it clear from where these tragedies originate. Note what he says, both times: ‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Now, at first reading, sounds like Jesus is contradicting himself. They weren’t being punished for their sins, but, unless you repent, you will perish in the same way - still sounds like punishment for sins, doesn’t it?

To get to clarity on Jesus’ answer, we need to take a minute and consider the stories themselves, and the definition of the word repent.
While these exact stories-the mixing the blood of Galileans with the sacrifices and those killed by a falling tower at Siloam-aren’t recorded in accounts of the region during that time period, historians consistently state it it likely they were actual events because they are consistent with other events during that same time.

It was common for Pilate to torture those who were perceived in any way to be a threat to Roman authority, and offering the blood of his victims to the Roman gods was a common form of torture. The tower at Siloam is thought to be associated with the aqua duct the Romans were building at the time, and because the duct was being constructed very close to the Jewish temple, Zionists carried out acts of terrorism, attempting to disrupt construction, kill Romans and their labor force and destroy the structure. Both stories involve humans harming and killing other humans. Both could also be taken from our news today - acts of torture and terrorism are no less common now, perhaps more so. We haven’t really changed much-our methods have just improved, growing steadily more powerful and deadly.

And that speaks to why Jesus tells us to repent, or we will die in the same way. Repent means to change one’s mind, to change one’s heart, to amend how one lives one’s life. We tend to hear it as being sorry for something we have done that is not in line with God’s plans, and there is an element of that, but to repent means “I am going to do things differently from here on, I am going to be different, I am not going to act in the same ways. I am going to change my life.”

Jesus is saying unless we change how we act and think and behave, how we see the world, how we treat others, unless we change our hearts and our minds, unless and until we allow God to live in and through us, then we are going to continue to do bad things to one another. We are going to continue to suffer the consequences of our actions toward one another. We will continue to wound one another, withhold blessing from each other, actively seek to harm others and succeed in doing so, unless we repent, unless we have the change of heart and mind and action that can only come through relationship with God.

God does not cause the bad things that happen to us. They are not God’s punishment for our sinfulness. But they are the results of our unrepentant lives, of our hard hearts, our fears, our hatreds, our prejudices, our judgment, our pride, our ego.

Jesus then tells them a parable that reiterates his teaching and points clearly to the nature of God and God’s unfailing desire for us to repent, to change and God’s willingness to help us do so. Jesus tells the story of a land owner who wants to cut down a fig tree because it has not produced fruit for three years. The gardner intervenes, begging the owner to let him work on the tree, to fertilize it and aerate its roots before cutting it down.

We tend to think the owner is God, in our mixed up way of seeing God - you better hurry up and do something, you better act right, or God is going to get you!

But the owner isn’t God: the owner is culture, the world, society. Cut it down! It’s not behaving like it’s supposed to behave, it’s not productive, it’s not doing what I want, so get rid of it! How like our world! How like us! Quick to destroy, to do away with, to dismiss, anything we don’t see as important or useful or consistent with our wants or needs or ideas.

No, the owner isn’t God; the gardner is God. It is God who asks for more time, who wants the tree to have a chance to grow and be what it was created to be; it is God who offers to continue to work with the tree and to tenderly tend it, it is God who desires to give it every opportunity. Our God just isn’t the God of a second chance; it’s a second and a third and a fourth...our God is the God of infinite chances. And that is exactly how God is, with each and every one of us.

As we enter the last few weeks of Lent, may we allow God to tend our soil, to help us grow, to change our hearts and our minds and actions, bringing forth amazing new life in us, so that we in turn can help God bring about amazing change in our world.

Amen