Sunday, February 12, 2017

Epiphany 6 sermon: Commanded to love

I totally enjoyed supplying at St. James, Lenoir, NC. Such a wonderful community of faith! I preached extemporaneously, so below please find the audio file and sermons notes.

Collect: we ask God: “give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments, we may please you both in will and deed.”

So let’s begin with this: What are we commanded to do? Jesus gave us several commands.
1. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (Mt 22:37)… Mk adds: and with all your strength… (12:30) Lk adds: and your neighbor as yourself. (10:27)
a. Note: This is taken from The Great Commandment in Deut 6:5
b. Loving neighbor as self from Leviticus 19:9-18
2. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12)
3. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you… (Mt 28:19-20)

It’s all about LOVE. We are commanded to LOVE.

Quote from Bp. Steven Charleston, Native American, Retired Bp. of Alaska:

Love will not lose. Even if the evidence of the daily news seems to suggest that it will, even if we despair of the values we thought we shared, even if we imagine the divisions between us have grown too wide to bridge: love will not lose. Love cannot be constrained by legal walls, political pieties, or institutional fear. Love is the subversion of power by mercy. It is the uncontrolled spirit of hope that erodes the authority of oppression. Love is the human soul made visible. Once we see it in one another’s eyes, no force on earth can compel us to deny its reality. Those who cling to what was will not win, for what is now will never cease to be. No matter what it takes, no matter how long it takes, love will not lose.

WORD STUDY: LOVE agapao – agape love:
• to be full of good will
• deliberate – It’s a choice to pay attention to someone else and have regard for and respect them (sounds JUST like our Baptismal vow, doesn’t it: to regard the dignity of every human being)
• not affection (that’s eros) – we aren’t required to like the person
• is self-denying and compassionate

This is exactly what Jesus is teaching us in the continuing sermon on the mount from the Gospel of Matthew: a new way of loving.

But let’s start with Moses in Deuteronomy:
• Love of God = life and prosperity (things going well)
• But if we turn our hearts away = we are led to idolatry, which leads to death.
• CHOOSE LIFE, Moses proclaims. Obey God and cling to God so that you may live.
• (NOTE: I wrote a blog this week on the grace of obedience)

Then in the gospel reading, Jesus shows us a new way to understand these commandments:

You have heard it said… you shall not murder
But I say to you… if you are angry you will be liable to judgment

ANOTHER QUICK WORD STUDY: JUDGMENT = separation, sundering (as in: what God has joined together, let no one put asunder). This is the OPPOSITE of what our mission as found in our catechism: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. (BCP 855)

But I say to you… if you insult a brother or sister, or call them “fool” which means empty (as in empty of the breath of life, therefore of no value), you will be liable to eternal torment (Gehenna, the garbage dump that stayed on fire)

The new way to love: be reconciled.
If you are separated from a brother or sister, reconcile first, then come to offer your life to God in worship.
This is a STRICT interpretation and in our present social and political circumstances, it’s important to hear that being reconciled doesn’t require that we agree or even like our sisters and brothers. It does require that we regard them with respect and approach them full of good will.

Do you hate someone? Do you hate a group of someones?
• Pray for them. Pray God’s lavish blessings all over them.
• Then watch what happens - prayer changes YOU and realigns your will with God’s – which as we heard in our Collect, is pleasing to God.

About Adultery, Jesus says, But I say to you… looking at a woman with lust counts as adultery.
(Jimmy Carter confession)

Adultery is a favorite sin to accuse people of – then and now.

Then that teaching that seems uncomfortably brutal and at odds with respecting our bodies – a command we’re to follow. But remember, this is Bible-talk, which like prayer, is interpreted as such.
• In Bible-talk, the EYE represents how you see, how you perceive
• the HAND represents what you do, your action in the world

If how you see/perceive the world, that person, that circumstance… causes you to sin (to separate, to sunder), then stop looking. It’s better to be unable to understand a thing, no matter how people judge you for that, than to sin.

If what you do causes you to sin (to separate, to sunder), then don’t do it, no matter how inconvenient that is or how others may tease or criticize you about it… just don’t do it.

Don’t separate. Don’t sunder. Be reconciled.

Then two even tougher examples: divorce and swearing oaths or vows.

DIVORCE: only men could do it. Jesus says, if you do that, YOU are the one who makes your ex-wife AND your new wife adulterers. This was a radical teaching in that time, forcing men to regard their wives with respect and raising women up from property to beloved of God.

SWEARING AN OATH: Jesus says simply – don’t do it. It isn’t needed. Be a person of your word. Tell the truth and keep your promises – just as God does for you.
• Anything else is a distraction.

This new way to practice love (agape) for God and one another, leads us to go deeper
• to move beyond following rules out of duty or fear of punishment toward acting in ways that regard the other in our midst with respect and kindness
This new way to practice love (agape) for God and one another
• challenges us to let go our judgments (whatever separates us from one another)
This new way to practice love (agape) for God and one another
• forces us to grow up spiritually - as St. Paul calls us to do in his letter to the Corinthians – and live into our common purpose which, I repeat, is:
to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Close with quote from Bp Charleston:

Kindness is not just an act, but a blessing. When someone treats you with kindness the impact of that blessing stays with you. It seeps into your spirit. It changes your self-perception and alters your outlook toward the world around you. This blessing is so enduring we can remember a single act of kindness for a lifetime. We can look back and count the people whose kindness shaped our lives. Kindness is one of the most powerful spiritual tools we possess. We should use it with intention and we should use it often. How do we change the world? One kindness at a time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The grace of obedience

I’m grateful for the story of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Like them, I often succumb to disobedience by attending to my own voice or the voice of a tempter, shutting out the voice of God who, as Isaiah says, calls to me, saying: “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” (Is 55:3)

Raised Roman Catholic, I went to Catholic school for 8 years, during which time, and by the example of my nuns and mentors, I built a strong spiritual muscle for obedience. I’m not talking about the systematic dismantling of free will or coerced compliance with church doctrine. I’m talking about learning to trust in the experience of the mentor and/or the tradition of the Church and allowing that to support me regarding something I needed to work out for myself spiritually, theologically, etc., giving myself time and space to do that.

In my experience, a healthy relationship with obedience will include a bit of faithful disobedience. I had the advantage of having a Latina mother, the daughter of immigrants from Puerto Rico and Spain. My mother converted to Roman Catholicism during the time I was being prepared for First Holy Communion. As a result, we studied the Baltimore Catechism together, memorizing the answers to a litany of questions, e.g., Q: Who made you? A: God made me. Q: Why did God make you? A: God made me to show forth His goodness and to share His everlasting happiness in heaven.

As my mother and I memorized the answers to what seemed to me, as a 6 year old child, a million questions, we would come upon questions which had answers to which we weren’t inclined to assent. In true Latina fashion, my mother’s faith was more concerned with redemption than doctrine, so regarding those questions and answers, my mother would say, “You don’t have to believe that. Just memorize the answer in case the bishop calls on you.”

Early on, therefore, I learned to approach the institutional church with a measure of faithful disobedience. My mother allowed me space to grow into my spiritual maturity over time, in prayerful conversation with God. I was free to prayerfully ponder and explore, rather than simply accept, church doctrines.

Five decades later, and having the benefit of a seminary education (Yea, Sewanee’s right!), I now know that the word we translate as “obey” derives from words in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin that mean “to listen” – but more than that, “obey” in these ancient languages, seeks that we listen AND respond to what we hear. If we are listening for the word or the will of God, then, our obedience calls for our attention followed by some kind response.

This is affirmed for me in my prayer life which has been rich and conversational since my childhood. God has been accessible to me as have the saints, my friends in heaven. As a result, I’ve given great importance to prayer time as part of my every day, even as life got busier and time got shorter. I don’t pray out of duty or fear, though, but from inner divine prompting. God calls to me first. When I call out to God it isn’t so that God might wave a divine wand and fix what I say is broken or wrong (in the way I want it fixed); it’s for God to show me how to be in the will of God as I enter the moment facing me – or the day, or the season. It’s because I’m scared, or I don’t know how to proceed, or I know the voice of my will is drowning out God’s voice. Prayer is one gateway for me to the grace of obedience: hearing and responding to God.

I know that in the frailty of my humanity, I simply can’t see the big picture of my life, my place in the world and in human history – but God can. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isa 55:8) Still, at times, I choose not to obey.

Does my disobedience make God mad? I don’t know. What I do know is this: “God is not wroth” as Julian of Norwich said.* Wrath is a human response to helplessness, disappointment, shame, or humiliation. Each time I set out on a path not of God’s choosing, God gently and very clearly re-routes me. I can repent and be re-routed, or be stubborn and resist. The choice is always mine.

I have noticed, however, that my body responds according to my choice. A felt lack of peace, expressed in my body as tension in my throat or chest, or tightness in my stomach, is present each time I set out in disobedience. Peace and wellbeing are restored in my body each time I relent and trust. This has taught me that my disobedience is: a) known to me; b) not good for me; and c) does not separate me from the love of God for me, just as St. Paul promised. (Ro 8:39)

In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve learned that there were real consequences from their choice to disobey. In the very next verse, however, God sewed clothing for Adam and Eve, covering their shame and humiliation. Then God sent them into the world “knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:22) We know good and evil, and we know when we are choosing to disobey, no matter how well we’ve justified or defended our choice. We know.

We also know that forgiveness is ours for the asking. As the prophet Isaiah says, “let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isa 55:7) In case anyone doubts that could be true – and many of us do doubt the lavishness of God’s love for us – Jesus made clear that his sacrifice was for our forgiveness: “Then, he took a cup, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:27)

As long as we live, we will have to reckon with the voice of the tempter, but the steadfast love of God will gently, clearly, and always guide us back to the path of life. Our choice and our challenge is to obey.

*John Skinner, Editor and translator, Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich (Doubleday, NY, 1996), 96.