Sunday, April 28, 2013

Easter 5, 2013: The dream

Lectionary: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

I’ve heard it said that loving our enemies is easy because we often don’t have to see them up close. When we think about it like that, there are kind of a lot of people we might call “enemies up close” – people who have hurt us, lied about us, cheated on us. People whose very presence sucks the life out of us. People who challenge our Christian virtue and cause our protective walls to shoot up around us.

Theologian Roberta Bondi reminds us that, “real love that sees [others] as human beings, beloved of God, and yet flawed, just as [we ourselves are flawed; and] we are to love, not just at a distance, but up close…in concrete ways, …as the Gospel requires.” That is what ministry is. It’s the love of God acting through us.

It’s food given to Lisa who is hungry due to her chronic poverty. It’s limits offered to Steven whose propensity for violence invades our safety. It’s a patient and listening ear for Sheila who has every physical ailment known to humankind and talks about them constantly. It’s hope offered to Richard who believes the lie told him long ago, that even God doesn’t love him. 

As Christians, we have to stay alert to the temptation to make categories out of people because once we depersonalize them, we tend to distinguish ourselves from them. Then we can blame them, or hate them, or distance ourselves from them.

Peter understood this. He witnessed how Jesus loved first-hand, but when it came time for him to do it, he was stuck, mired down by what he had learned was right belief and right practice. In order to serve God as was he was being called to do Peter needed to be set free from all that hindered him from loving the way Jesus had loved.

And how did God set Peter free? Through a dream, a vision. God’s frequent use of dreams and visions has an honored place in our tradition. And considering the four conversations I had with members just this week about their dreams, it seems to me that God is still at it.

In his dream, Peter sees a variety of creatures being brought before him and hears a command: “kill and eat.” Oh no! Peter says. I never eat that stuff – it’s against the rules! Eat it, the voice says – and Peter recognizes that the voice is from heaven. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” the voice said, and it wasn’t just talking about food.

Immediately, three men arrived to escort Peter to the house of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and Peter went with them, ready to break the rules and be one with this Gentile community. He went not as a person of superior faith who would fix their beliefs and their practices, but as someone willing to give of his time and his gifts for their sake, so that they could come into a closer relationship with God.

Peter had no assurance that these people would receive what he had to offer, and even being there with them was a bit of a safety risk for him. But he went anyway, and gave what he had – his testimony.

Then Peter watched in amazement as the Holy Spirit filled them just as the Jews had been filled. Not only was the whole household converted, but Peter and his ministry were also converted. Peter had been set free from that within him which hindered the reconciling work of God.

I’ll bet, in this freed state of mind, Jesus’ words at their Last Supper suddenly made sense to Peter
in a whole new way: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Love one another… not just those we know up close, but those we don’t know yet - those to whom we will be led. Love one another… including those we categorize and hold safely at a distance from ourselves.

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It’s a harder teaching than it seems
because Jesus gave away his life for our sake, so that we could be reconciled to God.

For whose salvation would you give away your life?

I had to confront that very question in 1996. I was laid up with double-pneumonia and there were no antibiotics I could safely take at that time, so I endured six long weeks of terrible pain as I healed.

During that time, I had a recurring dream, a vision. It involved two men who seriously challenged my Christian virtue. One was my ex-husband (whom I’ll call “S”) who horribly abused my daughter and me, then stalked us for a decade. The dream happened during the stalking phase of our lives. The other was a local pedophile (whom I’ll call “B”) whose victims from the previous 20 years were in my support groups. Practically no one in town believed that “B” was an abuser and he delighted in that.

I’ll read the first and last of the dream to you from my journal. “I had been praying for S’s redemption and B’s redemption. I begged the Holy Spirit to simply breathe His love over them, knowing that God’s love is irresistible. Just one taste and they’ll turn to you, I prayed. How could they not?

Then I was standing in a white space, no environment, just white, and I was wearing a white gown. Jesus was standing before me also wearing a white gown. How sweet and loving was his presence!

Suddenly I began to experience great pain. Each pain was the experience of my small offenses, my sins – the ones too small to confess. For each pain, each sin, I was handed a stick of wood, like kindling, the for the purpose of building a fire. My life, my sins went before me, one by one, each adding a stick to the pile in my arms. The sticks themselves were dirty, sticky, sooty, and cut my arms which held them. The pain was crushing me and I fell to my knees. I tuned all around looking for someplace to put the sticks down, but there was no place – all was white nothingness. I turned back to face Jesus, still standing there full of love for me.

I called to him, ‘Lord, the weight of my sins is crushing me! I know I shouldn’t ask, but please! Can you take this load from me? I can’t bear it.’

Without a word, Jesus took the load of sticks form my arms and stepped back from me, smiling. I looked down and my arms were healed and my robe was white and unstained. With gratitude, I accepted my absolution.

The vision repeated over the three days… Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In asking for the redemption of these souls, S and B, the Lord asked me if I would give up my life for the redemption of their souls. ‘Yes’ I exclaimed, and I lept up into His embrace. ‘I love you, Lord, and I trust you.’

Without saying anything I knew I should prepare. When I came back to myself, I regretted my promise… I grieved the loss of the joys and blessings I had been graciously given in this life. I grieved at the thought of my children’s grief – would Patrick even remember me when he was grown? I grieved over Steve’s grief. I love this life. I love God! What have I done?

…On Saturday, when I was asked if I would give up my life for the redemption of these souls, I replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I would. But Lord, what if they refuse your love and salvation? Should I sacrifice so much and ask the same of my family if they refuse to accept your love? Still, Lord, if you wish it, I will do it…’

The last repetition of the vision was Sunday morning. When I was asked if I would give up my life I said, ‘Yes, Lord’, with my head down, ready to die.

Jesus reached toward me and I raised my eyes somewhat where I could see his outstretched arms and his white robe, and he said with joy, ‘Child, don’t come now. You have been purified. I can use you now. I will make you strong.’

I responded with tears of joy and a deep sigh of relief –which caused me to cough again, whereupon I returned to myself. I continued to cry for 30 minutes, thought I don’t know why. I felt very overwhelmed by love.”

Most of us aren’t asked to actually die for the salvation of someone else’s soul. We are all, however, asked to give away our lives, that is, our time, our money, our attention, our gifts, our comfort, and our compassion for that very purpose.

God is working a real awakening at Redeemer. The spiritual lives of so many of us are breaking open and coming alive in a whole new way. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

We are dreaming dreams, having visions, learning to hear the voice of God in the many ways God speaks to us - the same ways God has always spoken to God’s people. We are being asked to give our lives away to bring comfort to the suffering, welcome to the exiled, and healing the sin-sick soul.

Have you discerned the gifts you currently have? Have you listened for how God is seeking to use you to do the work of reconciliation right now – up close – here in the ministries at Redeemer?

What if you, like Peter, have to break the rules as you understand them now in order to answer God’s call to serve? Don’t worry – it’s been done before – and with pretty good results.

How do we do it? We listen prayerfully, trust God totally, and act lovingly. By this we will be known as Jesus’ disciples, if we love one another as Jesus loved us. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Easter 4 2013: Eternally One in Christ

Lectionary: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

What a week it’s been!

There was a bombing in Boston, an explosion in a fertilizer plant in Texas, an earthquake in China, the Hubble telescope captured an image of the Horsehead Nebula 1500 light years from earth in the constellation Orion, and my former diocese, WMI announced its slate of candidates for bishop which includes two women and two men: one is African American and two are gay.

Fullness of life. What a week it’s been!

As the events of the week unfolded, I found myself invited into many pastoral conversations – most of them having to do with people trying to find peace or hope as they watched the news about Boston and Texas. In general, I was proud to witness so much true Christianity being expressed – especially by Redeemer folks online and at special services and vigils that were held at the church. This mattered to me because as news came in about the Boston bombing-brothers, many self-proclaimed Christians began to spew judgment and hate and seemed to forget our basic beliefs.

I saw a remark on Twitter made a remark that hurt my stomach and broke my heart, so I responded. I don’t know this man (who is a priest, by the way) personally, but he is much loved – even a celebrity. I have to assume he meant to be pastoral and maybe I misinterpreted his words – so few words are used on Twitter that it can happen.

Here’s what he said: “…How do young people become terrorists and harbor the hate it takes to commit such a horrible crime? Wasted life”

His question is a good one – how does anyone, but especially a young person, become so filled with hate and we don’t notice or intervene until it’s too late? But what hurt my stomach, what broke my heart, was that last comment: “Wasted life”

I’m sorry – but there is no such thing as a wasted life. All life is sacred – created by God, beloved of God, and part of the plan of God’s redemption of the whole world.

If this life can’t be redeemed, then where is our hope? If we can’t gather into collective prayer for the redemption of this life, then what is our purpose?

Justice belongs to God and may not be what we have in mind. We are, of course, at liberty to execute justice as belongs to our land, but Christians live in two worlds at once – heaven and earth.

Our gifts are meant to work together to bring the will of God as it is in heaven also on the earth. Each of us who is breathing has been created by God for a purpose, and gifted specifically for that purpose. Then we are led by the Holy Spirit of God into the company of one another and God waits while we discover by prayer, that is, by divine inspiration of ourselves and our community, how our gifts fit together for the purpose God had in mind when God brought us together.

This past week as our choir met to practice, I watched this very phenomenon happen. I watched as the gifts of our choir director, our accompanist, and our members came together in the anthem. What happened was so beautiful, it gave me the chills: heaven happened in our choir practice.

It’s happened before here too… in many ways and in many times. We often touch and taste the Divine here when we worship together.

This is not bragging – it’s owning and appreciating the process God uses of creating us, gifting us, then leading us together to use those gifts to manifest the kingdom of heaven on earth. Redeemer has many examples of this: our Holy Eucharist, The Shepherd’s Table, the Community Garden, Adult Christian Formation, The No-Judgment Zone discussion group, The Rosary team, the Altar Guild, Stewardship, the reverent ministry of our acolytes… to name just a few.

N.T. Wright, Bp. of Durham, says, “there are no individual Christians.” We are as Christians, by definition, a body – the body of Christ in the world. What we do and how we do it has an impact in heaven and on earth.

Why? Because, as Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.” This was the statement that got Jesus accused of blasphemy. This was the statement that got Jesus killed. “The Father and I are one.”

It is also a basic tenet of our faith: that God is Trinity in Unity. God is not just one in substance or person, but one in activity. What Jesus is doing is what God is doing is what the Holy Spirit is doing.

It is also our Easter reality: by his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus reconciled us to God -- eternally. That means we and God are one in Jesus, the Christ.

Think about that for a minute. It’s a powerful truth with powerful consequences for us and for the world…. we and God are one in Jesus, the Christ.

What Jesus is doing is what God is doing is what the Holy Spirit is doing – in and through us. And this comes with a pledge of security. Jesus says: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” No one, no thing, no event can separate us from the love of God in Christ. That is our hope and our truth.

We are eternally in the presence of God. Heaven is here on earth – in us!

No, there is no such thing as a wasted life. The life of this surviving bomber is already being used by God for the redeeming of others and for the waking up of the body of Christ. Can’t you hear God reminding us to pray and work for the redemption of this and other lost souls?

There can be wasted potential – but only if we waste it. What if someone has been so criticized or so abused that they can’t see their gifts anymore? We, who are the body of Christ, must find them, have the will to meet them where they are, and the willingness to walk with them from that darkness into the light of truth.

What if someone sees themselves so useless, so ugly, so unimportant that they believe they have no purpose? We, who are the body of Christ, must find them, have the will to meet them where they are, and the willingness to walk with them from that darkness into the light of truth.

What if someone becomes so filled with darkness and hate that they can no longer see any hope, any light? We, who are the body of Christ, must find them, have the will to meet them where they are, and the willingness to walk with them from that darkness into the light of truth.

It’s a hard thing to do – enter someone else’s nightmare. And it’s scary at first – until you witness the power of God’s redeeming love – then nothing is ever scary or impossible again. Isn’t that what Peter showed us when he raised Tabitha (Dorcas) from the dead?

When we live like we believe in the power of God’s redeeming love, then we are those who have come out of the great ordeal, washed in the blood of the Lamb, and every nightmare, every darkness becomes a place where the Light and the Truth that lives in us can shine. We are the place where heaven illumines the earth!

We can fear no evil because Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” God KNOWS us and calls us to go where our gifts and God’s purpose for us will be fulfilled. When the path gets rough (and it will get rough), we trust that God will supply us all we need to keep going: peace, safety, the company of our community of faith, and the prayers of the whole communion of saints to uphold us.

When the voice of our Lord calls to us, our faithful response is to listen prayerfully. And as Episcopalians we do that in two ways: in private prayer (at home) and in corporate prayer (at church).

Then, having listened, we go wherever God leads us, knowing God will be there with us, guiding us, loving us, and blessing us all the days of our lives. Amen.