Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pentecost 20, 2014: Incarnate Love

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

Our gospel lesson today offers us a very simple lesson: We are to love. Jesus tells us that we are commanded to love with our whole selves… but the command to love God and neighbor as you love yourself carries a presumption of privilege.
Jesus is talking to the Pharisees – a wealthy, educated, powerful group of men who operate from within a patriarchal society. Love God and love others as you love yourself, Jesus says to them. This would include: decisions that put the success of God’s plan ahead of your own, a difficult task for the rules makers; and actions that favor the other, not yourself, giving them the better portion, the better deal, the place of honor at the table.

Imagine how hard this command must have sounded to a person who is used to dismissing someone who is a slave, a female, a child, a non-Jew - and getting cultural affirmation for it.

Current events tell us it’s still that hard to hear.

Love radically. Move beyond tradition and let your love be far-reaching and thorough. That’s the command.

Jesus is using the word ‘love’ here as a verb. It’s active. It’s relational. And it’s real. This kind of love can be seen, felt, and shared.

Love, Jesus said. Sadly, I don’t think the Pharisees heard him. The religious leadership were bent on stopping Jesus and his movement in order to preserve their small understanding of God, themselves and God’s plan of salvation. Jesus’ radical message of love was threatening to disrupt their religious system; and as an occupied people, about all they had holding them together was their religious system.

The guardians of that system were nervous. They kept trying to trip Jesus up – to catch him breaking Jewish law or show him misunderstanding the scripture. But every time they tried this, they ended up being the ones tripped up. As we saw in the gospel last week and this, they get tripped up by their small, divisive, earthbound perspective.

Granted, the world had taught them to be divisive in their thinking. Their survival as a people with a particular identity depended on them segregating themselves and protecting their language, traditions, and worship in the face of constant attack. But over time, the walls they had built to protect and fortify themselves, had become the boundaries of a prison that held them bound, made them blind, and led them away from God, and God’s plan of salvation for the whole world.

They had come to believe that being religious was the same thing as having a relationship with God. It isn’t. And they seem to have forgotten that salvation would come to the world through them. At some point, they were going to have to bring down those walls and let the world in.

Jesus was letting them know that that time had come. The promise of salvation for the whole world was being fulfilled - now.

To give them opportunity to open their minds and hearts to this, and to invite them back into right relationship with God and neighbor, Jesus asks them about the Messiah: “Whose son is he?” They reply correctly: “The Son of David”

This isn’t a hard question. Scripture is pretty clear on this. It also isn’t a trick question, like their questions were for Jesus.

Then Jesus quotes Psalm 110 to them. Having confirmed that the Messiah is the son of David, Jesus then asks these learned religious leaders: how then he can call him Lord AND be his son? The answer is: it’s impossible… No one can be God and the son of a human at the same time… Right…?

Yet standing right there before them is Jesus, who is the Christ (which means Messiah). But they were blind, imprisoned in their expectations so they didn’t have eyes to see or ears to hear.

Jesus is the living answer to this question, the manifest reality of the mystery of the Incarnation, fully human and fully divine proving once and for all time that it’s not only possible, but accomplished.

I feel kind of bad for the Pharisees who had this sprung on them. In a way, it was the ultimate trick question. It took the church over 600 years to find its way through this and the bottom line is – it’s still a mystery. No wonder they dared not ask Jesus any more questions.

We can’t comprehend it because it isn’t comprehensible - at least not while we’re incarnated ourselves. The best thing we can do is live in the mystery and let it live in us. To do otherwise would lead us to fall into the same trap as the religious leadership of Jesus’ time.

There are many things we can know and more is yet to be revealed to us. That’s the promise: continual revelation to us of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But the wholeness of it, the full revelation of it, has already been given to us in Jesus Christ who is God Incarnate.

We are the love of God incarnate in the world today. We know that loving like Jesus commands us to do requires more from than we have in ourselves. It isn’t in us to love our enemies, to trust God in the throes of a dark night of the soul or some earthly crisis, or to surrender to God’s plan when ours seems so right.

While it’s true that it may not be in us, it is in God who, our faith assures us, lives in us; and not just in us, but in all people - in all times. And so, by the power of the presence of God in us, we can forgive all people, all things, past or present.

As our psalmist says, “Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another...” God is our refuge. Whenever our earthly journey leads us to feel lost or attacked or unloved or unworthy, God is our refuge. When our earthly journey traps us or imprisons us, blinds or deafens us, cutting us off from God and one another, God is our refuge.

By the mystery of the incarnation, we are reconciled to God; and made one body, one spirit in Christ, with God and with one another, and all we can do in response is surrender to the love and rejoice.

I love how medieval mystic Meister Eckhart describes this in his poem called, “But He Wanted Me”

I could not bear to touch God with my own hand
when He came within
my reach,

but He wanted me
to hold

How God solved my blessed agony,
who can understand?

He turned my
body into

(Source: “Love Poems from God” translated by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass Press, 2002, 106.)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pentecost 18 and Baptism of Ava Sheridan: Showing up

Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector
En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Virginia Avonne Sheridan (whom we lovingly know as Ava). For Episcopalians, Baptism is full initiation into the body of Christ, the Church. It is an invitation into an identity, a way of living in relationship with God, self, and neighbor.

At our baptism, we mark the beginning of a life-long journey of becoming who we already are, who God made us to be. We do this in the safety of a community devoted to loving us, and helping us to discover, nurture, and practice our gifts.

When we baptize a baby, we are reminded that God’s grace is offered to us ahead of our ability to respond. That grace also follows us and guides us through each moment of our lives.

One day, Ava, like all of us, will have the opportunity to confirm the vows being made on her behalf today. Until then, we will steep her in the love of God in Christ made manifest in this community of faith.

Some people answer the invitation extended at Baptism with a “Yes,” but it’s a yes in concept only. ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ,’ but when the time comes to live like a Christian they don’t show up.

This is what Jesus is teaching us in the parables from our gospel reading. When we answer our invitation with a ‘yes in concept only’ we are making light of the invitation and the one extending it.

Jesus talks about one who, instead of going to the king’s banquet, went to work on his farm. He was distracted by the busy-ness of life which took priority of his time. By not showing up, this one denied himself the opportunity to go deeply into a relationship with God and his faith could grow no roots.

Another one went to his business – the place where he was the boss, where he made his own decisions. Rather than answering the invitation from God to be transformed, this one chose to remain in his comfortable habit of believing he was the authority, he knew best for himself. As a result, he never developed the humility needed to take up his cross and die on it – without which there could be no resurrection life for him.

The ones in the parable who seized the slaves, mistreated and killed them, are those who disrupt the work of the true followers of Christ. We can identify these pretty easily in our own time. Their attacks against those who are working to build the kingdom of heaven on earth are personal, destructive, even fatal at times… to their reputation, their self-esteem, their health and well-being.

The good news, though, is that God will not be stopped. When the invited guests (the chosen ones) don’t show up, God simply reaches past them and invites others to the banquet. In fact, everyone is invited, good and bad, because that’s the nature of God – generous beyond reason.

But then there’s that one in the parable who refuses to put on the wedding robe (an allegorical reference we understand to mean to “put on Christ”). This is the one who answers the invitation in concept only, showing up but not really participating, only to discover that his choice has led him into darkness.

Thankfully, the invitation from God is eternal. It is extended by God again and again because, as the Psalmist says, God’s “mercy endures forever.” (v 1). When we disobey or lose our way, which we all do, God does not abandon us but waits patiently, lovingly for us to repent and return.

This is why we live together as a community of faith. When we lose our way, God extends a hand through someone in the church to help us find our way back. During our inevitable moments of doubt, the prayers of our community uphold us while God transforms our doubt into faith. When we descend into darkness, which every mature Christian will at some point, the light of Christ shines in our community of faith and all we have to do is draw near it and we’re bathed in the warmth and comfort it provides.

But being a Christian isn’t only about us. It’s also about being committed to loving and serving others in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s about “showing up” and working to change systems that fail to respect the dignity of every human being, no matter how unpopular that work is judged to be “out there” …or even “in here.”

The community of faith, therefore, must strive to live in harmony, as St. Paul calls the church in Philippi to do. There are enough assaults on us from the world. We don’t need to be assaulting ourselves as well.

St. Paul says, “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:5-7)

Becoming a Christian is a life-long endeavor and it takes a community. As theologian N.T. Wright says, there are no individual Christians. We are by definition a body: the body of Christ.

And into this body we now bring our sweet Ava. God grant that her experience of us may always be that we are a place of love, friendship, peace, and justice; a place where we can all grow into the fullness of our true selves.


I now invite the parents and God-mother to bring Ava to the Baptismal font where she will begin this amazing, life-long journey in faith.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Pentecost 17, 2014: Divine connection

Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

On Friday, I attended our bishop’s teaching on “The Wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi” at Valle Crucis. Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis with a traditional blessing of the animals – traditional, because Francis’ connection with creation was unique, mystical, and still inspires the world who remember and re-enact his ways.

Hear Francis’ own words on this connection:

“I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments –
he got so excited

and ran into a hollow in his tree and came
back holding some acorns, an owl feather,
and a ribbon he had found.

And I just smiled and said, ‘Yes, dear,
you understand:

everything imparts
[God’s] grace.’” (“Love Poems from God,” by Daniel Ladinski, 53)

Francis experienced that all things, all people, all of creation provided an opportunity to connect with God whose grace flowed through these connections, and Francis was passionate about making them. Francis taught that we must learn to identify what he called our “false self” and strive to live only from our “true self,” which we learn from these divine connections.

+Porter said our false self is what’s on our resume: the things we’ve done, the degrees, titles, and positions we hold, and any categories we conceive, like liberal or conservative, rich or poor, orthodox or progressive. For e.g., +Porter said, ‘You watch a certain TV news show – which means you must think like this, and vote like that.’

When we operate out of our false self we end up only encountering the categories we hold,
not the people we meet.

Our true self, according to Francis, is simple: we are beloved of God. All of us. Our true, he says, self is rooted in Christ and, therefore, can’t be taken away by any person or any circumstance.

Living from our true self, as uniquely gifted by and beloved of God – no greater or lesser than anyone else on the earth – upsets the status quo which holds that earthly wealth is earned and the privilege it affords is an entitlement, a reward for hard work and a life well lived.

The false self believes there are “right people” and “wrong people.” The true self sees the divine presence in all people and is, therefore, moved to love and serve them.

Francis, who was born into privilege, angered his father by taking his monthly allowance and giving it away to the poor; something his father considered wasteful. Francis refused to take over his father’s lucrative cloth business choosing instead to devote himself to God. In response, Francis’s father went to court to remove Francis’ claim on his fortune so that Francid couldn’t waste it on the poor.

Francis responded by stripping himself of his fine clothes and laying them at his father’s feet in the town square. Disowning himself, Francis said, “I have no father, but God the father.”

To be fair, it wasn’t that Francis despised money or reputation or power. What concerned him was the power those things tend to have over us. For Francis it was about freedom: do we own the money or does it own us?

Francis also was not interested in “playing church.” He actively avoided institutionalization. When Franciscan brothers would build buildings to facilitate their ministries, Francis would go and literally tear them down.

Don’t misunderstand: church buildings are fine, but the church is not its building, and having a beautiful church doesn’t guarantee that the fruits of the kingdom can be found there. And Jesus warns us what will happen if that’s the case.

Our church building, this building, is a place where we encounter God, where we’re nourished by Word and Sacrament, and part of a community where we can safely discover our true selves and how God is calling us to serve.

Francis’ father never forgave him for deserting his fortune and the future laid out for him. In fact, every time Francis came into the town square, his father would curse him, spit on him, and berate him, calling him worthless, a fool, a failure.

Francis knew in heart that he had to answer God’s call to him, but his father’s words reached his heart and touched his place of self-doubt, a place we all share. It got to where Francis took a companion named Alberto with him every time he went into town. When Francis’ father would begin his destructive tirade, Alberto would tell Francis, “That isn’t true.”

+Porter said the lesson here is: we all need someone to help us follow our calling. That’s the church.

The world, and that includes Christians with a worldly view, will resist and even thwart the work of faithful followers of Christ, because it doesn’t make sense to them that the last will be first and the first will be last (Mt 20:16), or that we should give to everyone who begs from us (Lk 6:30), or that we must love our enemies and pray for those who abuse us (Lk 6:27-28), or that the stone rejected by earthly builders would become God’s own cornerstone (Mt 21:42).

Jesus turned the world and our expectations of the reign of God upside down, and that continues to unsettle us. As a result, even faithful people seek peace and security from things that can’t really offer them, like membership rolls, annual budgets, and endowments. They get trapped by the trappings of money, power, and a vision that is familiar, comfortable, and under their control.

According to St. Francis, these people have lost their way and it is up to us, the community of Christ, to help them find their way again. We do that by being channels of God’s grace in the world.

As Francis said, we have been “called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” This is our heavenly calling, the one St. Paul talks about in his letter to the Philippians.

Notice that the prize isn’t heaven. It’s the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus – a call to encounter and connect with God, with one another, and with the world from a place of truth, free from the things of earth that trap, bind, and constrict us.

This kind of divine encounter can be difficult because it brings us to “those things of which our conscience is afraid” as our Collect says, things like: ‘I could be wrong... or, I might have done wrong… or, I might have been betrayed by someone I trusted…’

A divine connection leads us to confront our well-fortified earthly and church systems, systems which categorize, judge, and divide us; systems over which we think we have control but which actually steal our freedom. These are systems of the false self, as Francis would say, and they lead to death, because they are not of God in whom alone is all life, all freedom, and all truth.

Finally, a divine connection leads us to follow the example of our Savior who showed us how to love and forgive even those who abuse and harm us, and called us to live together in unity and love, even as we trust God to provide us what we need to accomplish our work in the world.

“Give us this day our daily bread…”

The church, our church, is where we learn and practice love - God’s love – which is always bigger, wilder, more generous, and less containable than we might like it to be.

The church is the womb of God on earth where we are continually born into new life. In this womb we can safely confront any nightmare, any betrayal, any fear, and discover our true selves: our gifts and God’s purpose for our use of them during our time on earth.

The church enables us to take this journey into love together, knowing all of us are all imperfect
and all of us need to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. We journey together trusting in the redeeming love of God to guide us, heal us, nourish us, unite us, and ultimately, prepare us to go out and connect, heal, and unite others into this love.

I close with this poem from St. Francis:

“God came to my house and asked for charity.

And I fell on my knees and
cried, ‘Beloved,

what may I give?’

‘Just love,’ [God] said.
‘Just love.’
(“He Asked for Charity,” in “Love Poems from God,” Ladinsky, 33)