Sunday, February 23, 2014

Epiphany 7, 2014: Be holy. Be perfect.

Lectionary: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

Our readings today present us with a pretty tall order: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Lev 19:2) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt 5:48) Piece of cake, right?

Most modern-day hearers of this would walk (no, run!) away from God, religion, and the church, certain that they can’t, and really don’t want to, live up to that kind of unreachable, impossible standard. It’s certain failure.

Or is it?

To be holy is to be set apart for God's purposes. This isn’t something we become by being rigorously obedient or super-pious. It’s something we already are. We are holy because God is holy and we are one with God whose spirit lives in us through our baptism.

When Episcopalians baptize a person, we pour water over them, symbolizing God’s bestowal of forgiveness and grace on them. The one who is baptized is dying to sin and rising to a new life of grace.

Please turn to BCP, 308 and let’s say this prayer together: “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.

Living a new life of grace requires us to ask from God what we should know, where we should go, and how we should bring the light of God’s love that we bear into the world. It means giving up our judgments and connecting instead with divine discernment so that we can come to understand who and what we see, and respond as God would have us respond.

That often means not responding as the world would have us do. And this is what Jesus is teaching in the gospel lesson from Matthew. The four examples Jesus uses illustrate the triggers that set off our retaliatory responses: humiliation, vulnerability, subjugation, and fairness.

The first example: turn the other cheek.

In that culture to strike someone on the right cheek was to humiliate and denigrate them because it meant using your left hand (the one used for bathroom purposes. The assault in this case was nothing compared with the insult.

Jesus is teaching the holy ones of God to ignore our impulse to defend ourselves and our honor and respond instead with divine humility, as Jesus did on the cross, trusting that the redeeming love of God is at work in a divine plan which includes reconciling the one who struck us and remembering that God’s love and care for us is sufficient in the face of any earthly assault.

The second example: if a person takes your coat, give them your cloak as well.

In Jesus’ day a person could be forced to surrender their coat as collateral on a debt. “Coat” refers to the inner garment, a lightweight robe worn under the cloak. In order to give up their coat, a person would first have to remove their cloak, then their coat, leaving them standing there naked – the universal image of vulnerability and humiliation.

Jesus’ teaching reminds us that it is in our weakness that the almighty power of God is revealed. Being stripped of his cloak and his coat at his crucifixion, Jesus stood naked before the world. Looking back on it now, we can see that in that humiliating and vulnerable moment, God was glorified and God’s plan of salvation was being fulfilled in Jesus’ faithfulness and perseverance.

The third example: going the second mile.

Roman occupation of Israel enabled soldiers to go up to anyone at any time and force them to carry a burden for a distance of about a mile, but no more. A person could be on their way to a meeting, or to church, or maybe they just picked up food at the market, and suddenly they’re forced to drop everything and carry a 20 pound load for a mile. The indignity suffered here is the lack of freedom and subjugation to another’s will.

Jesus is teaching the holy ones of God that true freedom is found in our relationship with God who is almighty. Our response therefore, must reflect divine generosity.

For example, at the end of that mile, two things could happen. The soldier could give your burden to someone else to carry, or… another soldier could come up and force you to carry the burden for another mile (a technicality in the law that allowed the oppression to become cruelty).

Offering to go the second mile could be a gift to the next person who would have carried the load. It could also be a shocking display of humanity that connects you, if only for a moment, to the one who had depersonalized you in order to oppress you. The seed of compassion would have been planted, however, and left to God for watering and blooming.

The fourth example: to give or not to give to the beggar.

The current cultural climate is one in which the poor are consistently being blamed and demonized for their poverty. Doing this relieves those who ‘have’ from the responsibility of tending to those who ‘have not.’

But Jesus’ teaching is clear: ‘give to the one who asks you and don’t turn away the one who desires to borrow from you.’ This pushes our “it isn’t fair” button. ‘It’s mine. I worked for it. They’re just lazy… or stupid… or bad. If they want good things they should work for them like I do. Why should they get what’s mine?’

In this teaching Jesus is showing the holy ones what the love of God really looks like. To love as God loves is to be concerned about the welfare of the other. Jesus gave his life so that we could live eternally in him. What if Jesus had said, ‘Why should they get what’s mine?’ We’d all be sunk, wouldn’t we?

The love that Jesus is teaching us about, is called agape love. This is the Greek word used in our Scripture. Agape is the kind of love God has for us, the love Jesus demonstrated by his own life, death, and resurrection.

One commentator says that agape “is more an action word than a feeling word” [And agape love is] "the divine, selfless love which will go to any length to attain the well-being of its object." (Source: re: Myers, 26)

Agape love knows that when someone attacks us, or tries to strip us, or oppress us, or exclude us it is their own wounding being revealed to us who have eyes to see. God’s holy ones must have inquiring and discerning hearts or we will miss seeing that and revert to protecting ourselves.

Agape love knows that we possess the abundance of God from which to give to any who ask. That same love will remind us, however, that one cannot restore a person’s soul to wholeness while their stomach is empty or their feet are cold. The reality is, food and clothing are needed as well and when we are set free from hoarding what is “mine” we discover there’s more than enough to go around.

Living in and sharing agape love is what leads us to our perfection. The Greek word being used here is teleios, which means being whole, complete, mature, fulfilled.

We are whole when we live as temples of God’s Holy Spirit, which we are, instead of as human bodies who have spiritual moments. We are complete when we remember how connected we are to God, to one another and to creation. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Each of us is like a piece in God’s big picture puzzle and we are complete when we fit our unique and wonderful piece into the whole, beautiful puzzle.

We are mature when we seek, discover and nurture our gifts, then share them with divine generosity, recognizing that ‘I am not OK’ until everyone else is OK too. We are fulfilled when every gift God has given us is being used for the purpose for which it was given – at least sometimes, and hopefully more and more as we grow in our continuing formation.

Jesus’ call to perfection isn’t about what we do, it’s about how we live – faithfully, as Michele said last Sunday. It’s about owning our identity as temples of God’s Holy Spirit. We are holy because God is holy and God’s Holy Spirit lives in us. Jesus is calling us to come to full awareness of that so we can live fully in the truth of it and fulfill our God-given purpose.

Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart says it like this: “It is your destiny to see as God sees, to know as God knows, to feel as God feels… Divine love will be eternally true to its own being, and its being is giving all it can…” (Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass, 120)

Be holy. Be perfect – for God who is holy and perfect – is in you. Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Epiphany 5: Endlessly treasured

Lectionary: Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer

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

This past weekend your vestry and clergy met in retreat. It was an inspiring time together and you’ll be hearing more about it as time goes on. I
begin today with a prayer we shared at our retreat. The prayer is by St. Julian of Norwich: “For our soul is so deeply grounded in God and so endlessly treasured that we cannot come to knowledge of it, until we first have knowledge of God, who is the creator to whom it is united. For our soul sits in God in true rest, and our soul stands in God in sure strength, and our soul is naturally rooted in God's endless love. And all this notwithstanding, we can never come to full knowledge of God until we first clearly know our own soul.”

Knowing our own soul and our relationship to God and one another is what St. Paul is talking about when he says “we have the mind of Christ.” Priest and theologian Jim Marion says it like this: “For the Christian… the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven (higher consciousness) is Jesus Christ himself. (Jn 14:6) More specifically, it is ‘to allow God to transform us inwardly by the complete renewing of our minds’ (Ro 12:2) so that… we can honestly say, ‘We have the mind of Christ (1Cor 2:16)… that is, the Christ Consciousness… which is the goal of the Christian path.” (xiii)

In Jesus we witness a beloved life lived in the world. No matter how the world reacted to him or treated him Jesus maintained a consciousness of love and mercy even forgiving his executors from the cross on which they hanged him.

Jesus showed us that Christ consciousness takes us beyond obedience to the letter of the law to fulfillment of the law of love which forgives, restores, and reconciles all the world to God. This is what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel from Matthew using the images of salt and light.

Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. There was no refrigeration back then, so in addition to its unique ability to enhance the flavor of food, salt was also used to preserve food, which often meant preserving life.

Jesus said to his followers: You are the salt of the earth… What a powerful statement that was for them to hear. You are a commodity of great value. You are a preserver of life. And he followed it up with an equally powerful statement: You are the light of the world – something he said about himself…

When we hear this today, do we hear the power of these statements? Jesus says we are, not we will be, not we could become… but we are a commodity of great value, “endlessly treasured” by God, as Julian of Norwich said, and the truth of this should radiate from us like beams of light – bright, and warm, dispelling darkness wherever it is present.

The sad reality is that many people don’t know or experience the truth that we are all endlessly treasured by God. The world is far too ready to make us believe that we are valued only if we are successful (as defined by world) which means we have money, beautiful homes, bodies, or spouses; we have hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers; we’re the first ones picked to be on the team; or we get to walk a red carpet bathed in the admiration of others.

It seems true, but it isn’t. It’s an earthly trap, a temptation that leads us to a prison of finger-pointing and speaking evil against one another, as the prophet Isaiah described it.

Priest and theologian, Henri Nouwen once said: “…When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." ... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

And that’s why we who follow Christ must let our lights shine. We must radiate with the light of our Christ consciousness and the truth of our existence: that we are endlessly treasured and beloved of God.

But what do we do when we don’t feel like we’re endlessly treasured or beloved? What about those times when the world beats us down and we can’t hardly stand up much less radiate our belovedness?

We come to church where someone will be radiating that light and that truth. Standing near their light is enough to dispel our darkness and open our eyes and hearts again to the Christ consciousness.

We come to church and worship, because even when we can’t utter the words ourselves, even when we aren’t sure we believe a single bit of it, the prayers of the community uphold us like a life raft on the river of life.

When Jesus spoke this teaching of salt and light, he was speaking to a community – the “you” was plural: “Y’all are the salt of the earth… Y’all are the light of the world…” (He should have been a southerner!)

Recognizing the truth of our belovedness as individuals is only the first step, but it leads to the second step – recognizing everyone else’s belovedness too. When that happens, we are set free from the prison of earthly blindness and we can look at ourselves and others with the eyes of God. Then we’re set free from the bondage of earthly judgment and we are free to respond to ourselves and others with the heart of God. Then we are living in Christ consciousness and it is as Nowen says, “Every time we encounter one another we are offered an occasion to encounter the sacred.”

The church, our church, is a place where the truth of everyone’s belovedness is intentionally and even counter-culturally lived out. When the world blames and excludes someone for being poor and hungry, we welcome them into our midst and feed them: food and friendship. When the world derides someone for whom they love, we celebrate that God is the author of all love.

Our church’s mission is to shine the light of the truth of everyone’s belovedness until everyone believes it… and lives it… and glorifies God for it. Then we shall be called repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets we live in.

It isn’t our light we shine, it’s the light of Christ. So we don’t need a lot of members or money or programs to do our work. We only need the will to shine the light that is in us, the light of Christ, knowing the world will not always welcome it.

In fact, often the world will disagree with us as it did with Jesus, and work to cover or douse our light with condemnation. Our communion of saints is replete with martyrs whose light was doused. But the light of Christ lives on and now it lives in us.

When Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works…” his Jewish listeners understood that he was talking about works of mercy and reconciliation, service to others, which glorify God.

No matter how you feel about the Catholic faith or institutional churches of all kinds, it’s hard not to be inspired by the faithful witness of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. She and the community she founded shined the light of Christ on the most despised, wretchedly poor and outcast – and successfully dispelled their darkness enabling them to die knowing they were treasured by the members of her order: the Missionaries of Charity, and by God.

Her light will continue to illumine the world for generations to come. I pray ours will too.

The movement of the Holy Spirit among us and within us here at Redeemer is exciting in this moment of our common life. Your vestry and clergy are ready to lead our congregation in answering the present call of God to us - to place our collective lamp on the lampstand and let our light shine. Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Feast of the Presentation sermon by Dcn Pam Bright: Eyes to see

Lectionary: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Preacher: The Rev Dcn Pam Bright

I have been excited about preaching today, even when I was praying about and studying the WRONG Gospel...

Yes, there is a story, one I’ll briefly share. You may find it amusing, and since I learned some things, perhaps you will as well.

See, there is this app, available to those with smart phones and tablets and the like, called simply “Lectionary.” It’s a very handy little app; it gives you the Sunday readings for the Revised Common Lectionary, the one we use, and also the readings for the Daily Office.

Two or three weeks ago, I looked, via this app, at the readings for today, for February 2nd, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. The Gospel reading for Epiphany 4 is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, from the fifth chapter of Matthew.

In 8 years of ordained ministry, I have never preached on the Sermon on the Mount; in the great preaching rota roulette game, I’ve never landed there. I know, I know- it’s terribly nerdy or geeky or whatever one might call me, but I was excited!

For several days, I had been happily considering sermon illustrations for and quotes about the Sermon on the Mount, when I noticed a priest friend’s Facebook post. It read, “Clergy friends: next week are you telling the story of the Presentation or Epiphany 4?”

I won’t say exactly what words went through my mind at that moment...I’m betting, however, you can imagine. I immediately went on line to Redeemer’s calendar to February 2nd and saw “Presentation of Jesus” and noted that the lessons did NOT include Matthew 5.

While I still consider “Lectionary” a great little app, I have made a big note to self that it does not include special feast days and to always, always check the calendar of the church year before beginning sermon prep!

“The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ” or simply “The Presentation” is a fixed date Feast Day. That means, like some other days in our liturgical calendar, such as Christmas and Epiphany, it is always on the same date; it doesn’t have a movable date, like Easter and Pentecost. So February 2nd is always the Presentation.

When one of these Feast Days falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over the regular Sunday lectionary. If you want to read more about that, look in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 15.

Going ‘back to the drawing board’ so to speak did not, however, diminish my excitement. I don’t recall, my time as an Episcopalian, the Presentation falling on a Sunday, so learning about this feast, also called Candlemas or the Feast of the Purification, has been great fun.

The celebration of this feast dates back to the fourth century in Jerusalem and the seventh century in Rome. In Rome it included a procession with candles and the singing of the Nunc dimittis, the Song of Simeon. It was also on this feast day that the candles to be used in procession during the year and by the faithful in their homes were blessed.

It is a wonderful Epiphany feast, proclaiming Jesus as the light of God, come into the world.

And, as I’ve told you before, I love the Gospel of Luke, so anytime I get to preach from Luke, I am excited. What a beautiful story to consider!

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke merges two different Jewish rituals into one event: the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary. Scholar Juan Oliver describes this passage as “Luke weaving his very own Epiphany.”

As observant Jews, Joseph and Mary travel to the temple to offer the necessary sacrifice for Mary following childbirth. By Jewish law, childbirth made women ritually unclean, and until the necessary offering was made, she could not touch anything considered holy or enter the temple. They bring two turtledoves-the offering of a poor family that cannot afford to offer a lamb - one for a burnt offering, the other for a sin offering.

They have also came to the temple to present Jesus, as a first born son, in accordance with the law, as an offering to the Lord. When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple to present him, a man named Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and begins praising God.

Simeon was a devout, holy man; we are told the Holy Spirit rested upon him. He had been told by the Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and he had been guided by the Spirit to come to the temple.

What a glorious moment that must have been, cradling the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Son of God, in his arms. As I’ve thought about this meeting, I’ve tried to imagine what it might have been like.

I wonder if Simeon cried, or laughed, or both, as he looked into the face, into the very eyes, of God, if he held him close and tightly or if he lifted him up, if he was able to stand, or if he had to sit down because he was so overcome, so filled with joy and wonder.

“I can go in peace now Lord,” Simeon says, ‘because I have seen your salvation, the light that has come for all.”

As Simeon is blessing Mary and Joseph, and telling Mary some of the things that will happen as a result of Jesus‘ coming, Anna comes in.

Anna is described as a prophet, a woman of advanced age, who has devoted most of her life to prayer and fasting. Anna also begins praising God and talking about this child, this child who will redeem, who will set the people free.

I love that in this story, both a man and a woman recognize Jesus, and as is often God’s way, they are a man and a woman without particular importance, as the world judges importance.

Simeon was a righteous, prayerful man, but he wasn’t a priest or a scribe or a leader. He was just a Godly man. Anna was a prophet who spent most of her time in prayer, but she was also an old woman in a culture that didn’t value women, especially a woman without a husband or a son.

Once again, God uses the unexpected, the different, the other. It’s a quality of God’s we talk about often. We talk about Mary and Joseph-who but God would have picked the two of them? Would we have used lowly shepherds and wise ones from another culture and religion, to declare that God has come among us? Probably not.

And now, a holy but ordinary man and an old female prophet are the ones who recognize, in this baby, the Messiah of God, the Savior, the Word made flesh.

They weren’t told by angels, and they didn’t have a star to show them but they knew. So how did they know? How did they recognize Jesus when they saw him?

Because of their connection to God, because of their relationship with God-through prayer and fasting, time spent listening to God, dwelling in God’s presence, allowing God’s spirit to work in and through them, they knew God.

Simeon and Anna had come to know God, and because they knew God, they were able to see God in Jesus.

If you heard Bishop Taylor’s sermon last week, you heard him say we can’t give away what we don’t have. The same principle applies here - we can’t see if we don’t know what we are looking for - within ourselves, in those we meet, in what happens around us and in our world.

If we don’t have a relationship with God, if we don’t know God, then it’s unlikely we will recognize God’s presence and God’s spirit at work in and through us and others. Through prayer, through relationship with God and others, we begin to see-our physical as well as our spiritual eyes are opened and we are able to see God’s redeeming love at work in us and in others.

I wondered about Simeon’s reaction to looking into the face, into the eyes of God, and yet we do that everyday. We look into the face of God, into the eyes of God with every human encounter we have. But I seriously doubt we see God in every one we meet.

Do we have the eyes to see, the heart to love, and the will, as we promised, just last Sunday, to seek and serve Christ in every human being? I know it can be hard to do; I feel somedays I repent about every minute on this one, when I find myself labeling and judging someone, particularly when it is based on only what little I really know and not the totality of the person that God knows and loves.

This transformation into the people we are created and called to be, to be God with skin on, to see and hear and love as God does, is a process. So, in closing, I offer this prayer by Michael Perry for myself and for all of us.

Jesus, Son of God
let your love shine through our eyes,
your Spirit inspire our words,
your wisdom fill our minds,
your mercy control our hands,
your will capture our hearts,
your joy pervade our being,
until we are changed into your likeness
from glory to glory.