Sunday, February 24, 2019

Epiphany 7, 2019: Praying into agape love

Lectionary: Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38

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

In our Collect today, we prayed that the Holy Spirit would come to us and pour into our hearts her greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and source of life. As Episcopalians, we believe that God is love and that all life is created, sustained, and maintained by the love of God. Outside of God’s love, there is no life, only death – of body or spirit.

Love requires relationship. God, who is love, is also community. The Trinity of God is a dynamic relationship – a continually active, expressive, complementary way of being. Jesus’ command to us to love God and neighbor as self reflects the very nature of God’s own self.

Love reconciles, that is, restores harmony and wholeness, to whatever or whoever is separated or divided. Where God sees division, God acts to redeem (which means to take possession of). It is God’s own self filling the gap and covering the parts, unifying them into harmony again.

What is so important for us to remember as followers of Christ who embody his spirit, is that we are the current vehicles of this redeeming, reconciling love on earth. God looks through our eyes, responds in our hearts, and acts through our hands.

The word for love used in our gospel reading is Agape – a familiar word, I think for most of us. Agape love is full of goodwill. It is deliberate – a choice to pay attention to someone else and have regard for and respect them. This love is reflected in our Baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being.

Agape love is self-denying and compassionate. It places the other ahead of self and joins us to that person in their suffering (com – passio: to suffer with). It is willing to share someone else’s nightmare, bearing light into their darkness – even when drawing near to them puts our comfort and safety at risk.

Agape love is not being attracted to another. That’s eros. It isn’t even about liking them. That’s philia. And it isn’t about being bonded by empathy. That’s storge.

Agape is a whole other kind of love. Theologian and author Allen Myers defines agape love as: “the divine, selfless love which will go to any length to attain the well-being of its object.” Myers, Allen C., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 26. And we don’t have it unless God gives it, hence our prayer in our Collect today: pour into our hearts your greatest gift, God, which is love.

In this continuation of his beatitudes sermon from last week, Jesus is teaching a new way of being love in the world – one that goes against our natural inclination for self-protection and judgment. Did you know that biologically, humans have a part of the brain specifically designed for judgment? Its role is to create binary images in order to aid us in our survival, enabling us to differentiate between what is safe and what isn’t, who is for us and who is against us. This lives out in our cultural experience as well. We are constantly challenged by our propensity to create “them” and “us.”

We need to remember that in our gospel story Jesus is speaking to a people who are currently oppressed and know what it feels like to be hated, dismissed, ignored, and disrespected. They are the “them” in their culture and they’d already had a long history of being the targets of oppression and genocide. To survive, they separated themselves, marking their separation with circumcision and ritual practice.

It is in this context that Jesus is preaching a new way of being in the world. Jesus is calling them (and us) to reconciliation rather than separation – even when separation has worked to ensure our survival.

Jesus new way of love calls us to trust God for all we need, including our survival. This is kind of love is that was demonstrated by Joseph in our reading from Genesis and it’s what the Psalmist is calling us to – a love that isn’t distracted by what seems like the success of those who don’t love, causing us to abandon our way of love; a love that cooperates with God who desires reconciliation and relationship.

This is also the underlying message in the portion of St. Paul’s letter we read today: we, the created, exist on earth as in heaven since we have been raised with Christ by our Baptism. Therefore, we must love as Jesus loves.

Truly, none of us can do this easily or successfully all of the time. But we know when we aren’t there, don’t we? We know when disdain or indifference or hate infect our hearts.

So what do we do? We pray, drawing closer to God, then watch as God’s redeeming, reconciling love happens. Our prayer opens the pathway and is an important way we cooperate with God in the work of reconciliation.

When we pray God’s lavish blessings all over those we’d rather not love, that prayer changes us, enabling us to open and receive God’s greatest gift into our hearts. This allows us to draw nearer to them rather than move away and has the added benefit of drawing us nearer to God.

When we separate ourselves from anyone or any group it’s easy to forget that God’s spirit dwells in them as much as it does in us. It’s easy to not pay attention, to disregard or disrespect them – the make them, “them.”

Note: SAFETY TIP about turning the other cheek. This assumes privilege. It is not an invitation to let people abuse you.

In one sense, all of us who follow Christ are privileged in that we know we are loved, and from that eternal well of love there is endless refreshment. We are the carriers, the cupbearers, of that refreshing, redeeming, reconciling love into the world.

I mentioned once that whenever we are called upon by heaven to bear the love of God into the world, God always sends these words ahead of it to us: “fear not.” This is one of those times because being this kind of love means trusting our very survival to God.

So fear not, Julian of Norwich says, because “In [God’s] love [God} clothes us, enfolds us and embraces us; that tender love completely surrounds us, never to leave us.” (Feast of Anglican Spirituality, 137) Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Epiphany 6-C, 2019: It's about choice - the privilege of plenty

Lectionary: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

Today's sermon was extemporaneous, so no written text.

Technical note: the app I use to create the audio player is having "issues" so please click the link below which takes you to the sermon on my website. I'll try this app again later today.

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Epiphany 5-C, 2019: Continually called by God

Lectionary: Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

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

We talk a lot in the church about being called, and most of the time we share an understanding of what we mean by that. Through our prayer, through one another, through contemplative insight, through dreams, through repeated patterns in our experience – we feel God tapping on our shoulder or nudging us from within to act on God’s behalf, as the ambassadors of Christ we are through our Baptism.

The choice is always ours whether or not to acknowledge that tap on the shoulder or inner nudging, and whether or not to act on it. God never forces us, but God does keep on tapping or nudging us - mostly gently, though sometimes we hear folks talk about being clobbered by a spiritual 2 x 4.

The key for us is to learn the language of God for us. How does God call to us? Then, we practice learning to notice it and soon, we consent to respond to it.

This is much of the work we do in spiritual direction. One of my favorite experiences as a spiritual director is when a directee talks about having finally learned the language of God for them, that is, how God calls to them, then takes the risk of responding. This story generally ends with their surprise and amazement at the outcome.

For example, one of my directees spoke of a difficult discussion he needed to have with his priest. He loved this priest, but also feared an anticipated angry response – something he had experienced before. Prior to the meeting, the directee and I prepared prayerfully, opening a path of grace and trusting God to guide the meeting.

At the meeting, the directee had a plan for what he was going to say, but in the moment, he noticed what had become a familiar “tap on the shoulder” from God (those are his words). Having practiced paying attention to those taps, the directee recognized this as a call from God and words came from his mouth he hadn’t planned or even thought about; words that surprised him even as he spoke them.

These words changed the entire tenor of the meeting and the outcome was one of deeper friendship, grace, and a new openness to the presenting problem by both the directee and the priest. The directee was so amazed by this, he called me after the meeting to tell me about how powerfully God had acted – and that God had acted through him - both of which amazed and excited him.

As Bother Andrew once said, “God does not choose people because of their ability, but because of their availability.”

All three of our stories from Scripture today offer us insight into how God calls us and how we humans respond to being called. In Isaiah and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we learn that the one called often feels unworthy of the call at first and even suggests to God that maybe they aren’t the right choice.

But it’s the gospel story that illumines us so much about being called, and it does so through the naked humanity of our forbear, Simon (who is Peter – a nickname Jesus will give him before long). The setting is the north part of the Sea of Galilee near the region of Genessaret. Jesus is teaching by the lake and the crowd starts pressing in, drawing closer to hear the word of God.

Jesus notices that there are two boats nearby. The fishermen had come in from an overnight fishing expedition that brought them nothing. Exhausted and frustrated, the fishermen were cleaning their nets, ready to let this work shift come to an end.

Then Jesus climbs into to Simon Peter’s boat and asks him to put out from shore. You can almost hear Peter sighing: Aw man! I am so ready to go home and just sleep. But, Peter does as Jesus asks, and once they are a little bit away from the shore, the rabbi sits to continue his teaching.

Now Peter is up close, watching Jesus preach and engage the crowds. He’s listening to Jesus as the word of God issues forth from this man who has already had such a strange effect on him. Something is happening in Peter, but what it is isn’t clear yet. So he watches, and listens, and waits.

When Jesus finishes his teaching, he asks Peter to head out to deep water and let down his nets again… the nets they’d just finished cleaning and stowing. Peter, the experienced fisherman in this conversation, reminds Jesus that they been out there all night; there were no fish out there.

Despite that, Peter obeys (which you’ll remember means to hear and respond). Peter hears the call from Jesus and chooses to respond, acknowledging it and obeying. The outcome was surprising and exciting: their nets captured so many fish that the other boat had to be called out to help them haul it all in.

Peter’s response to all of this was to fall to his knees aware of and confessing his sinfulness. Given our current use of this word, it’s important to point out that the meaning of the Greek word here translated as “sin” is: to miss the mark, to be wrong, to transgress from the divine will.

Peter recognized this about himself and it drove him to his knees in humble surrender. That’s what a call does. It leads us to humble surrender.

Jesus comforts Peter saying those words that always come from heaven right before a call is issued: “Do not be afraid.” Then Jesus overtly issues Peter his divine call: “from now on,” Jesus says, “you will be catching people.”

Notice that a call from God is a proclamation of a divine truth. Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, Peter, want to catch people with me?” He said, this is who you are now – a catcher of people. Then through the course of his relationship with Jesus, Peter was formed and empowered to answer this call, which he did following Jesus’ ascension. And it was amazing.

Scripture teaches us that there is a process that happens when a divine call is issued and it goes like this: God taps us on the shoulder or nudges us from within and we hear the call issued. We respectfully decline, believing we are not worthy or able to answer. God comforts us, empowers us, and sends us anyway. We obey and are amazed.

Discerning a call from God takes practice, like any other spiritual discipline. For a few of us, like Moses or Mary, God speaks plainly, powerfully, unmistakably. For most of us, however, it will be a still, small voice, a nudging, a tap on the shoulder.

The noise of the world tends to drown out that still small voice. We must also acknowledge the earthly judgment about people who hear God’s voice. For some it truly is a diagnosable event requiring psychiatric treatment. But for most of us, it’s a traditional means of conversation between the Creator and the created.

Thankfully, as Episcopalians, we approach discernment from two fronts: individually and in community. When a person discerns a call from God, for example, a call to ordained ministry, that call must be affirmed by the person’s parish and later, their diocesan community. We do this because the church is a body of which we are individual members; and we believe that if the Holy Spirit is calling, we will all hear it if we listen together.

That is our continual calling as church: to listen for God’s proclamation of divine truth for us - who we are and what our divine purpose is in this moment of our history. Like Peter, we are catchers of people. If we choose to acknowledge God’s call to us and obey it, God will form us, empower us, and send us out to answer our call. And it will be amazing.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Epiphany 4-C, 2019: The unifying love of God

Lectionary: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

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

Yesterday Steve and I attended the wedding of Paul Ulrich and Cayla DeLuca in Asheville. Y’all know Paul as a one-time baby Jesus in a Christmas pageant long, long ago. I had the privilege of providing Paul and Cayla the premarital counseling required by the Episcopal Church prior to the sacramental rite of marriage. In our discussions, we went deeply into the difference between how the world views and lives out love and marriage and how we, as Christians, do that – and it’s a big difference.

The bottom line for us is that in this sacramental rite, two lives become one, united together by the grace of God for the mutual joy of the couple and to witness God’s love to the world by their relationship. A marriage demonstrates how this union in God works. Two distinct people, who remain distinct in the relationship, choose to live as one for the rest of their lives in the unifying love of God, by the grace of God.

This is the difference between unity and uniformity. The love of God doesn’t obliterate difference, it celebrates it, completes it by joining one to another in a synergistic union where both are greater together than either is alone.

This is why marriage is a commonly used metaphor in Scripture: because it demonstrates how the path of redemption works, a path where two are made one in the love of God: two people, two nations, two ideologies, two anything.

As Jesus’ disciples in the world today, we are witnesses of God’s unifying love. We do this by the way we live our lives and by our witness, that is, the words we use in response to the world, especially when it fails to love.

There are, in general, two hearers, two groups to whom our testimony as witnesses of God’s love must be given: those being excluded and those doing the excluding. In today’s gospel story from Luke, Jesus is speaking to those doing the excluding.

Today’s gospel story picks up just after Jesus has gone to the synagogue, picked up the scroll of Isaiah and read from it. As his hometown people heard him read and teach, they found his words to be full of grace.

But then they began to think about that. You can almost hear them… Wait a minute! That’s Mary and Joseph’s son! How does he teach so wonderfully? How did he do those amazing things we heard about him doing in Capernaum? Do those things here too, Jesus. Amaze us too! But Jesus knew he could do no healings there because of their unbelief.

Instead, Jesus shared the truth that the salvation of God was for the whole world, that the two groups they had traditionally known – Israelites and the Gentiles - would be made one in God’s unifying love. He also knew this truth would make them mad – and in fact, Luke tells us they were enraged by it.

Why? What made them so mad?

Jesus says to his homies in the synagogue: “…the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when … there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."

Both the widow (notice she has no name) and Naaman were outsiders, Gentiles, and unclean in some of the most obvious ways. The widow was from Phoenicia, the center of pagan worship at the time. Jesus is referring to the time when Jews and Gentiles alike were dying in droves due to famine. In fact, the widow’s only son had just died leaving her a poor beggar who would probably die soon after her son’s funeral. It was this outsider - this pagan, Gentile, homeless woman, whom God chose to save.

And Naaman was a Syrian, a Gentile, who had leprosy which Jews believed was a curse due to some sin in them or in their family. There were Jewish and Gentile lepers suffering all over Israel, but the one whom God chose to heal and restore to fullness of life, was the Gentile.

Jesus words shocked his listeners. Here they were feeling so proud of their hometown boy-made-good. His reputation was grand, his words so gracious.

But now, instead of dazzling them with amazing works of power, Jesus insults them and calls them to bring down a wall that had separated them from others for generations. St. Luke says they were so “filled them with rage” that they tried to “hurl” Jesus off a cliff!

We live in a time when God’s own people, as so many groups define themselves, are full of rage over the notion that God might unify us to outsiders, and I wonder… where is the love?

When I’m on social media listening to “Christians” respond to events in the world or in the church I’m often not seeing love that is patient and kind or words that aren’t arrogant or rude. The love I’m seeing witnessed by “Christians” is often not willing to bear or endure much of anything at all, especially challenges to what they believe or what they’ve always done. And if I’m not seeing it, then neither is the one who is outside of us looking in: the unbeliever, the unchurched, the ‘none.’

The modern reality of social media makes prophets of all of us who use it, like it or not. So, what is our witness on social media?

Our churches are meant to be communities in which a person can learn and practice love so that they can be sent forth as witnesses of the unifying love of God to the world – by their words but also by the way they live their lives. Our churches are places where we can piece ourselves back together when the world gets mad at us for witnessing this unifying divine love – because it will get mad at us. There will be times people will want to hurl us off a cliff.

We might lose the affection of friends or family when we welcome the outsider or point out a division they prefer not to see. We will definitely feel insecure about ourselves and our ability to speak the truth of God’s unifying love, especially when the world is raging at us about it, trying to enforce the divisions it prefers; divisions that serve them or are comfortable for them.

Our comfort, however, is found in each other and in our Scripture. When God called Jeremiah to speak the truth to the people he begged off saying, I can’t do that. I’m only a boy (in other words, I’m not educated or experienced in this).

But God’s words to Jeremiah are for us also: ‘…you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I give you authority to say. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.’

Notice God doesn’t promise that all will go wonderfully but that God will be with us to deliver us just as Jesus was delivered when he faced the rage of his homies at the synagogue, passing through the midst of them and going on his way.

This gives us hope for our time. Wherever there are people divided within the church or in the world, whether by expectations, power, ideology, race, gender or sexual identity, belief, politics (pick a category), we are called to witness the unifying love of God – even knowing they may want to throw us off a cliff in response. Despite that, we continue undaunted for we are journeying with Jesus on the path of redemption as witnesses of the unifying love of God by the grace of God.