Epiphany VII Year A: Like Father, Like Son

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
I Corinthians 3:10-11.16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

People have always been trying to live up to the scripture that Jesus quotes at the end of our gospel story this morning – “Be perfect…”. The ways they have done that have changed with time and place. In our society, people don’t worry much about ritual purity, but we still try to be perfect either by doing things or by not doing things. A contemporary example of trying to be perfect by doing things would be ‘recycling, driving a Prius, and being welcoming and affirming of others with different lifestyles’. A contemporary example of trying to be perfect by not doing things would be ‘not drinking, not smoking, not fornicating’. Both of those ways can and do produce some very cruel and self-absorbed people. The reason that happens is because we so often forget the second part of that quotation about being perfect – “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, be fully you, as God is fully God. Since God is love, and we are made in God’s image, it follows that to be fully us means to also be love.

The problem is, we all know that none of us ever is fully love. That is because we are so full of ourselves. We are not created that way, but we all choose to be that way, and we do it from the first time we are able to choose anything. And so we have rules to live by that help us curb our self-absorption and steer us toward loving actions. That is what our Old Testament reading was all about this morning. We often think of the Old Testament as being full of arbitrary rules mandated by a capricious God, and some of it is, but many of those rules were simply attempts to get people to do the right things toward others. There is a lot of love in the Old Testament if we are patient enough to look for it. We need to not be smug about our own ideas of morality, because two thousand years from now they will seem as barbaric to people as a lot of the Bible seems to us now. Instead of smugness, we need to take great care to make sure that all of our rules are geared toward loving ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. If we define love as the action of helping all to grow into the unique, beautiful individuals we are all created to be, then we need to make sure all our rules help us with those actions, not hinder us by causing us to be judgmental toward those not following our rules or interpreting them differently.

Aristotle gives the good advice that to become a virtuous person, one must do virtuous things. That mangled semi-quotation is only partly right, because to become truly virtuous action must be a follow up to desire – we must first ask God to heal us of our self-absorption so that we can be the loving persons that God made us to be. Desire and action can also be called faith and works, and there has been a debate about which of the two is more important for as long as the church has existed. Of course faith is the more important, because it needs to come first, but works are just as important, because they need to follow. Only God makes us perfect and holy, but only we can act perfect and holy. God makes us who we are, but we have the responsibility to live who we are.

Our second reading this morning talks about this in terms of our status as living temples of God. Jesus is the only foundation for our lives as temples, but we must be careful what we build on top of it. Faith and works go together. Even people who say they have no faith in God and yet live loving lives really do have faith in God – they just think they don’t. On the other hand, people who say they have faith in God and yet live unloving lives really have faith in something other than God – usually rules or Bible knowledge or doctrinal minutia. That last sentence should not make us worry every time we fail at loving – it doesn’t mean we have lost our faith or we are hypocrites, it just means that we have a lot of growing to do. We are not perfect without God. We cannot act perfect without God. God makes us perfect, but it takes a long time for that perfection to become apparent. Constancy and perseverance are both major constituents of both faith and works. If we have Jesus as the foundation of our lives, then no matter how often we fail in love, we can always try again. We can recycle, drive Priuses, welcome and affirm others, not smoke, not drink, and not fornicate, and all of those things can be instruments of love toward ourselves, our neighbors, and our God, if we do them in the spirit of Jesus. As our heavenly Father is perfect, so will we be. We are already now in God’s eyes, and we will be ever more so in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. We will be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.   AMEN

Not What They Were Expecting: The Presentation of Jesus In The Temple 2011

Malachi 3:1-4
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

The book of Malachi and the letter to the Hebrews from which we heard our first two readings today seem to have a few things in common. They are both anonymous and they are both messages of encouragement to people who might be frustrated and disappointed. Malachi is speaking to the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and are discouraged because the return has not lived up to its expectations: economic conditions were bad, moral values were lax,the temple was in disrepair, the priests were offering impure sacrifices, and the political situation was a pale and sad reminder of the former kingdoms. The good old days were not returning, and better new days were not coming. To these despairing pioneers who were trying to rebuild their nation, Malachi tells of one who is coming to purify the temple and set things right. The letter to the Hebrews is speaking to people whose frustration is not as obvious, but can be guessed at from the various exhortations to “hold fast”, “do not become sluggish”, “rouse one another”, and “encourage one another”. The reason the people are told to throw off their frustration is because the purifier has already come – Jesus, a “merciful and
faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” But once again, things did not turn out they way they were expecting. The temple had been rebuilt, but it was by a king they did not like or trust; Jerusalem had been rebuilt and the economy was not too bad, but they were under occupation from a foreign power and political unrest was abundant, and anyway, pretty soon all of that would be destroyed. Things weren’t turning out as they had hoped – the good old days had not returned, and better new days were not coming. The purifier had not done the job they were expecting.

Maybe we are not all that different from those other discouraged people. Sometimes, we despair because things aren’t turning out the way we had hoped. We can be easily disappointed, and in many instances we should be (because we should expect many things to change for the better), and in our frustration, we are sent messengers to tell us about the purifier coming to cleanse the temple and set things right. We heard two of these messengers today: Simeon and Anna.They knew about the purifier because they held him in their arms. But once again, the purifier does not meet many people’s expectations, and that’s a good thing, because he far surpasses anything we could ever hope for. This purifier cleanses the temple and sets the world right by bringing them into direct contact with God. This purifier makes
us his temple and his priests. The letter to the Hebrews tries to explain how this happens, and perhaps the best explanation can be condensed this way: whatever belongs to God is pure and holy. If Jesus (being God) lived a human life, then human life is pure and holy. We heard a little bit of that human life this morning, and one of the interesting things is the fact that the way Luke reports them, the sacrifices and the reason for the sacrifices don’t exactly match up with the Old Testament prescriptions. The purifier was in the temple, and they still got the temple ritual wrong. That could easily disappoint some people, but it did not seem to affect Simeon and Anna. Maybe that’s because they knew the real purification was still to come as Luke repeats in the last verses we heard today: “When they had finished…they returned to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of the LORD was upon him.” In other words,the living God had entered the true living temple, dwelling among the people as one of them.

The living temple of Jesus took an entire lifetime to build, and so do we. As Jesus “grew and became strong”, so must we,and that takes time and effort. Sometimes it seems as if we are merely spinning our wheels – going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. Other times, it seems as if we are being thrown into a furnace, with too much expected from us. We can easily become frustrated and God knows that, because Jesus went through the same slow, difficult process of growth. He went through the same wheel spinning, the same furnace, the same daily disappointments as we do, and in so doing, he made them holy. He comes to us now, if we let him in, as a purifier to make our own lives into a holy temple. It may happen in ways that we don’t expect, but we can’t let that cause us to despair. We may not see what we think are the good old days coming back, or what we think are the good new days appear, but as we slowly grow into living temples, we can bring the presence of God into our own worlds – helping and healing those around us, and setting things right in our own small circles of influence. We can also more easily recognize the temples being built around us, as others grow in their lives,bringing God to us.

Knowing all of this does not automatically free us from our frustration. We are still imperfect people, and we don’t always let the purifier work on us – sometimes we shut him out completely, other times we don’t cooperate with the work he is doing. That is why it is important to listen to the messengers still being sent to us to remind us to open up and let Jesus do his job.The need to listen is daily, and the need to open up is daily. Sometimes the daily listening and opening up seems like drudgery, but as God’s temple, God’s priests, and God’s body, we are worth the lifetime of work it takes to make us complete. Frustration, disappointment, and discouragement will come – we can count on that. But messengers from God will also come. May we never stop listening, and may we never stop being messengers ourselves.   AMEN

Epiphany III Year A: The Means Is Not The End

Isaiah 9:1-4
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

“Jesus came to give us a new life, not a new religion.” That is a good thing to remember. Of course, one of the best definitions of true religion is simply ‘the way that one leads one’s life’, but if we are thinking of religion in the lower sense of a set of prescribed doctrines and rituals to which one must adhere, then the saying is true – Jesus came to give us a new life, not a new religion. We hear in the gospel this morning about Jesus traveling through Galilee teaching and preaching good news and curing diseases. He was busy spreading new life around. In other parts of the gospel, we hear about Jesus sending others out to do the same thing, and at least one time, they come across some people whom they do not know who are also spreading new life around. When they tell Jesus about it, he says to not worry about it – if those others were not working against the apostles, then they were working with them.

Paul confronts a similar situation in our second reading this morning. He mentions the partisan spirit which has sprung up there in the church, and warns them about how silly it is. He reminds them that although different people brought them the news of Jesus, the messenger and the way the message was presented is not important. Jesus is the important thing, and their new life in him is the important thing. We need to be told the same thing. New parties and denominations are being formed all the time, and often the people in the various denominations and organizations forget that the reason for their existence is to proclaim the gospel, not to bolster the public image and membership rolls of their particular group.

Sometimes new Christian groups are formed because the founders see a specific need that is not being addressed by existing groups. Sadly, more often new groups are formed because of disagreements and bitterness within existing groups. It does not matter how or why the denomination was formed – if its members are open to God’s will, then good will come of it. People will be healed, good news will be spread, and new life will be given to people. That is what matters – not total conformity in every detail of doctrine and practice. But we must remember that no matter what good comes from any organization, the group is merely a channel of grace, not the source of grace. All life comes from God, and the new life being spread by any group comes solely from God, not from the organization, so we must be careful never to cling blindly to any denomination – they are all merely tools that God can use or dispose of as different needs arise. We should remember that our gospel story this morning begins with the arrest of John the Baptist; John did not claim loyalty to himself or his followers.
Instead, he pointed to Jesus and faded away after his task was done.
We need to have the same willingness to fade away after we and our particular parties have pointed to Jesus in their various ways. Church organizations and denominations are means to an end, not the end itself.

The goal is spreading the gospel – the good news that Jesus brings new life. The gospel story this morning says that where Jesus went, a prophecy was fulfilled: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,”. We always need to check the goals and accomplishments of our parties against that standard. If people have light brought to them because of what we are doing, good. If not, we need to do what we can to change the course of our group in order to align with that goal. No organization, no matter how great its history, is exempt from the danger of forgetting its purpose, and that forgetfulness will eventually bring about its downfall.

Our purpose is to spread the good news of Jesus to a world that needs good news. That news can be spread in many different ways, as we have seen throughout history. There is no need for competition between the various groups spreading the news. Instead, we should be ready and willing to support each other, and be joyful at the successes of others as well as mournful at their losses. Our criteria should be whether or not people are being healed and hearing good news, not the details of internal organization and discipline, and certainly not whether or not other groups offend our sense of style. Of course, there are times when harmful things are preached in the guise of Christian doctrine. Most of these negate either the full humanity of the full divinity of Jesus, and therefore water down the good news that God really is with us. We do have the responsibility of refuting those groups and their message, but we must always do so with love, compassion, and kindness.

However, having said that about bad news in a Christian veneer, we must always remember that there have always been and always will be non-Christians of good will who do a wonderful job of spreading the kingdom of God in our hurting world. In fact, some of the most Christlike people I know would not call themselves Christians. That is quite alright. Every person is unique and therefor has a unique relationship with God that no one else can judge.

So we need to be careful about judging people with different opinions about how best to spread the gospel. We can be proud of our own denominations and parties in a good sense – acknowledging past accomplishments and carrying visions for the future – but we should never let that good sense of pride twist into an attitude of superiority toward other groups. There is one Gospel: God is with us. There is one Jesus: God with us. There is one goal: sharing God with others. Jesus came to give us new life. May we all work together to spread that life around.   AMEN

Advent I Year A: Up the Mountain, Be the Mountain

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Isaiah was right about a lot of things, and we heard about some of those things this morning. He tells us that God’s house will be the place where everyone wants to go (and by the way, by the term “God’s house”, he doesn’t mean the church building – people still won’t want to go to church, but that is a subject for another sermon). Everyone will want to go there because God will solve all our disputes and teach us all to be peaceful. That sounds great – who would not want that?
Unfortunately, another thing Isaiah tells us this morning is that Gods house will be on the highest mountain. We can look at that as a logistical problem, because high mountains are difficult to scale. Or we can look at it as a source of hope, because God is in us and we are God’s house, so we will be big and majestic. Both ways of looking at it show us the grace of God, because only God can get us up that mountain, and only God can grow us into that mountain.
We can’t make it up the mountain by ourselves, but God won’t force us to go, either. We are the ones who need to show God that we want his help by taking the first step. We will fall on the way, of course. And then we need to get up and take another step so that God can help us go further. One of the ways we take the steps up the mountain is by avoiding potholes in the road. That is what Paul is talking about in our second reading this morning when he says: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That doesn’t mean we treat all the fun things in the world as bad – it means we treat them as good gifts of God by not abusing them by making everything about us and our wants. It means we share and do things in moderation and not try to substitute things and experiences for God.
We don’t always live like that, though. Maybe it is more true to say that we rarely live like that. That is why we can make it up the mountain and become that mountain only by the grace of God. God makes the way; we fall off the path. We admit we need help; God helps us back up. God shows us the way; we fall off the path. We admit we need help; God shows us the way. It goes on and on at least until we die, and who knows how much longer after that.
All of that takes perseverance, faith ,and constancy, but it is worth it, because the closer we are to that mountaintop, the more our disputes will be solved, and the more we learn peace. The more we grow into that mountain, the more we can teach people how to beat their spears into pruning hooks, because we will be doing it ourselves.
Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord. We have made one step by being here, another step by listening to the scriptures, another step by praying, and we will soon take another one by being fed by God at God’s table. We will fall later – count on it. God will pick us up and take us further – count on it. But right now, let’s keep going a little further. We will learn peace, we will grow.   AMEN

God Makes Us Saints: All Saints Day 2010

Job 19: 23-27a
II Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
Luke 20:27-38

Our scripture readings from Job and the Second Letter to the Thessalonians are both about trusting God. Paul talks about God a lot, but his words all boil down to two phrases near the end of the reading this morning: “the Lord is faithful” and “the steadfastness of Christ”. Job is a different character than Paul. In fact, Job leaves all the talk about God up to his friends, and instead, chooses to talk to and with God. Because of his relationship with God, Job is able to say that even with all his troubles and arguments with God, he knows that God lives and will hold him in life. The Sadducees in the gospel story (along with the Pharisees in most other gospel stories) have gotten an undeserved bad reputation. They did not mean or want to be stupid and evil, and the vast majority of them were not stupid and evil the vast majority of the time. They just wanted to understand God and live the way they understood God wanted them to live. Maybe the reason they got such a bad reputation in the gospel stories is because they spent so much time trying to analyze their relationship with God that they didn’t have any time left for an actual relationship.

We can so easily be like Job’s friends or the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Paul at his wordiest, spending so much time talking about God that we never get around talking to and with God. Of course, talk about God can and should be helpful – it is called theology, and there is nothing at all wrong with it. We just need to steer clear of substituting theology for relationship with God. In fact, Paul, most Sadducees and Pharisees, and probably Job’s friends, all had wonderful relationships with God, and those relationships were most likely helped and fueled by their theologizing. However, the Book of Job, the Gospels, and The Acts of The Apostles all show us how theology can never be a substitute for trust in God.

Jesus talked about God a lot, too, like the example in our gospel story this morning. But we must always remember that he also spent a lot of time talking with God. We need to follow his example, and discern the proper times for theology and the proper times for prayer. We need to be like Job, and know when it is more helpful to talk to God than to talk about God. We need to be like Paul and know when our words are getting in the way of our lives. And we need to be like all those good Sadducees and Pharisees, and allow our religion to help us and others around us.

God is the God of the living – living words and living relationships. Both are good, and both can help the other. May God help us to know which to turn to and when, and may we be open to God’s directions. AMEN

Proper 26 Year C: Poke And Prod

Isaiah 1:10-18
II Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12
Luke19:1-10

Our scripture readings this morning include a wide spectrum of motivational tools, from threats at one end to pleas and rewards in the middle, to modeling of behavior at the other end. The middle reading from Paul’s letter to Thessalonica is threatening, both to the righteous and the unrighteous. We only get the beginning and the end of the threats this morning, but what lies in the middle goes like this: the righteous are told they are in the midst of persecution in order to make them worthy of the kingdom of God. The persecution was seen as an opportunity to build character, and so what at first looks like a threat is actually a means of reward. The real threat in this reading comes from Paul’s words about those persons who were the persecutors – they are going to get into all kinds of trouble when Jesus comes back with his angels. Maybe Paul was hoping the threat of eternal destruction might turn some of the persecutors from their ways, or maybe he thought they had already gone beyond the point of repentance and redemption.

The first reading from Isaiah is also full of threats, as well as pleas. In this instance, the ones who are being threatened and pleaded with have not gone beyond the point of no return, and God is desperately trying to get them to turn around to come back to him. God is telling them that he is tired of their hypocrisy; doing all the right religious things while the rest of their actions were cruel and merciless. God says he won’t even look at them or listen to their prayers – two serious threats. But he also begs them to change, and even offers to discuss the situation with them. He pleads for them to seek justice and in so doing prosper, instead of continuing on their wicked course which leads to death.

The gospel story from Luke is basically a story of modeling correct behavior: Jesus comes to town, Zacchaeus  the crook sees him and is so drawn to him that he changes his ways. It would seem that we would all strive to need only the modeling form of motivation. We should all have our attention so fixed on Jesus that we automatically base all our actions on his life.

But that is not how we really live. Our actions and attitudes don’t reach the goal of selfless love all the time. So even though it sounds barbaric and makes God seem mean, maybe threats are actually an act of kindness. Maybe even though the pleas and rewards make God sound like a frustrated parent, they merely reflect the reality that we act like spoiled children. The ultimate reality is that we have been taken into God’s eternal life, but the immediate reality is that we are not there yet. So no matter how true the ultimate reality is, we must deal with daily life as it is now. We all sometimes need the threats, pleas, and rewards, as well as the model of Jesus – who took on our human nature so that we might take on his divine nature.

Hopefully, as we grow in Christ, we will need less of the other forms of motivation as we more readily model our life on him. But as we grow, we will occasionally fall and  need some of the threats and pleas and rewards. One might wonder if we will ever get to the point of complete trust in God so that we don’t need the lower forms of motivation to help us grow more into him. Our life in God is eternal, so who knows – maybe we do eventually come to complete union with his will, or maybe we just keep getting closer and closer for eternity, like an asymptote in math class. The one sure thing is that all of our growth in Christ comes solely from him. We can only take the growth he gives us and put it to work. Of course, we also have the option of throwing that growth away.

Tomorrow we celebrate all those who have gone before us in their growth in Christ. Maybe some of them are completely there, maybe they are just always getting closer, but it is good to know that there are others on the way to God with us. And of course, we are all surrounded by each other, on the way to God. So may we gather with each other, as well as all those who have gone before us and come to the table up here to be guests as God feed us with everything we need, because all we really need is God. We might need threats later on in the day, or a plea or promise of reward tomorrow, but right now what we are offered is God giving himself to us and for us. May we imitate the model and give ourselves to God and to those around us.   AMEN

Proper 19 Year C: Run Away

Exodus 32:1,7-14
I Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Our scripture readings today are about God’s acceptance of people who run away from him, or turn away from him, or reject him, or however else it might be described. The stories, of course, are about us – we don’t trust God, so we make other gods out of our own supposed abilities and possessions (like the Hebrews in the first reading from Exodus); we think others who are different from us are sinners repugnant in the eyes of God, so we persecute them in our own petty ways, doing so in God’s name, thereby smearing his name and reputation (like Paul’s remembrance of his past in our second reading from his letter to Timothy); we wander away from God because wee don’t trust his judgement about the best place for us, or we separate ourselves from everyone else because we think we are either too good or not good enough to be counted among them, like the sheep and the coin in our gospel reading from Luke.

But even though we so often reject God’s efforts to bring us to fulfillment, God doesn’t give up. God still leads us through dangerous places to our promised land flowing with milk and honey, like the Hebrews in the first story. God shows us our mistakes and puts us on the right path, like Paul in the second reading. God finds us wherever we try to hide, like the shepherd and the woman in the gospel story. If we look at our lives, we can see how often this happens, and besides making us grateful, it might cause us to stop and wonder if God ever finally lets us have our way and follow our own delusions as we take ourselves to the hell we have created.
Some very holy people have said yes: God respects our decision to do that, if that is what we choose. Some other very holy people have said no: God realizes that when we choose to turn away from him and follow our own dangerous path, we are doing so only out of ignorance, and so God will save us from our mistake.

Who knows the answer? God knows – only God knows what is best for us, so the best thing for us is to admit that, and stop wandering off to rely on the false gods that we make – whether they are of money, or personal abilities, or religious denominations, or political parties. All those things are good, but they are not God, and when we rely on them instead of God, they can’t substitute. Everything we do must be built upon the foundation of God, and the other things are merely decorative or functional depending on their foundation on God. Everything we build upon anything other than God will eventually collapse on top of us and everyone around us. How much easier it is to trust God in the first place, rather than always be waiting for him to dig us out of the rubble. How much easier and safer it is to stay in God’s care than to run away or separate ourselves from the others in his care, shivering in the dark and cold as God once again picks us up and brings us back to his heart full of joy at our return. How much easier it is to take care of our own relationship with God, than becoming so obsessed about others relationships with God that we neglect ours and it falls apart.

Life is short. It is too short to waste so much time bringing misery upon ourselves and those around us by rejecting the fulfillment that God has in store for us and instead trying to create and control a fake world of our own. But we do just that over and over, and God rescues us over and over. Maybe the goal for us  is to do it do it a little less each time – tho trust God a little more each time we are rescued and to spend a little more time in God’s care between each successive episode of going astray. One way to learn to trust in God is to do what we are doing right here, right now: praying for guidance for ourselves and others, listening to Bible stories of others like us whom God repeatedly rescued from their dangerous paths, and joining together for a meal in which God feeds us with his own self. In addition to the time spent here together, we also have opportunities to spend time alone listening to God as we pray and read scripture by ourselves, and by simply enjoying the world God has made by finding joy in our work and leisure activities. All those things can be tools to keep us from wandering away from the abundance of God, and they all work together, but they must be honestly done with good intention in order to be of any use.

True life is in God, not away from God, like the sheep and the coin in the gospel story. True life comes from trusting God, not in making false gods of our gold, like Aaron and the Hebrews in the Exodus story. True life comes from working on our own relationship with God, rather than trying to destroy others’ relationships with God, like Paul in the letter to Timothy. True life is offered to us over and over, even after we repeatedly reject it. May we accept it, hold on to it, and offer it to others. Life is short, but if lived in God, it is eternal, it is good, and it is real.   AMEN

Proper 15 Year C: Holy, Holy, Holy

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

The Bible readings we heard today are about holiness. The prophet Jeremiah, whom we heard first, reminds us of the holiness of all creation when he reports God saying: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off…Do I not fill heaven and earth?” God’s presence makes the entire universe a holy temple. We all know people who say they never go to church because God is everywhere and they can worship God anywhere, such as the great outdoors or a neighborhood bar. They are right. We also know people who go to church all the time, yet treat the rest of the world around them like a trash heap. I would much rather be around the first kind of person than the second kind. Of course, since God is everywhere, it is perfectly acceptable to worship God in church as well as in the surrounding countryside or neighborhood bar. In fact, the two concepts can and should reinforce each other. As Jeremiah tells us: “Who can hide in secret places so that I can not see them? Says the Lord.” The care with which we treat the holy things in church should be matched by the way we treat every other good gift of God. We need to be careful not to defile the temple of God, which includes everything that ever was or will be.
The Letter to the Hebrews (our second reading) reminds us of the holiness of the people around us. We are told that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”. The author is talking about all the holy people of former times, but we don’t have to think of saints as people in the past.

After all, the same Holy Spirit who was in Moses and Mother Teresa is in each of us, as well as every person sitting around us. One way we can become more saintly is to treat the people around us as the saints they are. We know we do not do that, and that is why the Letter to the Hebrews goes on to stress the importance of discipline in our lives. Discipline helps us grow. If we really take seriously our status as Children of God, then we will do what it takes to grow and become more Godlike. There are various disciplines that can help us in our growth, and no two people are going to need or benefit from the exact same set of disciplines. The important thing is that we don’t lie to ourselves and pretend that we don’t need to grow or don’t need discipline in order to grow. Every time we pass judgment on someone else, every time we allow anger to simmer in us, every time we whine about something is a reminder that we still have a lot of growing to do. We must grow until we see the holiness of the universe around us and the holiness of the people around us, and we need to remember they are growing too, so we should give them as much slack as we give ourselves.

Finally, our gospel story reminds us of the holiness of time. Jesus rebukes his listeners for being so adept at interpreting the signs of future weather, while never bothering to interpret the present time. He might as well have been rebuking me, because I am not sure what he means by the phrase: “interpret the present time.” Maybe what he means is that we worry so much about the future or either yearn for or regret the past so much that we never really live in and enjoy the present. His listeners were worrying about the weather that is not here yet, just as we worry about the future that is not here yet. Of course it is not wrong to plan for things and have a vision for the future, but to have the future consuming our present with worry is not right. It is also good to remember, honor, and learn from the past, but to hold on to the past so strongly that we do not live in the present does no one any good. After all, we heard Jesus himself  say that he is bringing fire and division to the world, so the one thing we know is that the future will be just as unstable and insecure as the past and present. With that in mind, one might as well enjoy the present moment that God has given us. Since it comes from God, it is infinite, eternal, holy, and completely full of love.

The present time is all we have, and we can use what it offers to help us grow in love, or we can be afraid of what it offers and shrink in upon ourselves with worry, greed, and pettiness. We can look upon the fire that Jesus brings as something that will destroy us, or something that will purify us. We can look upon the division that Jesus brings as something that makes us bitter and angry at those on the other side from us, or as something that can make us sweet and open us up to those on the other side. That’s where the discipline that the Letter to the Hebrews talks about comes into play. The time to grow is now. We can’t wait for the weather to change, as Jesus tells his listeners. Instead, we must interpret the present as the time to act. The entirety of creation is filled with God. Everyone around us is an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Every moment is an eternity of love streaming from the heart of God. We are surrounded by holiness. It is up to us to constantly grow in order to be able to see the holiness surrounding us. It is up to us to use the present in order to redeem the past and plant seeds for the future. God gives as all we need in order for us  to do this, because God gives us God’s self. May we give ourselves to God. AMEN

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: Independence Day 2010

Deuteronomy 10:17-21
Hebrews 11:8-16
Matthew 5:43-48

Jesus tells us that we should not believe everything we hear. He quotes a familiar saying: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The first part of that saying (“You shall love your neighbor.”) is from scripture (Leviticus 19:18), but the second part (“hate your enemy”) was simply added on to the scriptural part, and it might have been popular at the time because of the political unrest in the area. However, Jesus makes it clear that hating anyone, even enemies, is not acceptable. Jesus tells his listeners that God cares for those people whom they do not like just as much as God cares for those people they do like, and if they expect to be thought of as Children of God, they must do the same.

Moses is saying something similar in Deuteronomy when he describes God as a king who is not partial, takes no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers. He also reminds the people that they were oppressed in Egypt, and that should serve as a reminder to not oppress others in their new home. Our society is a little different from Moses’ listeners, but we still have the equivalent of the orphan, widow, and stranger among us. We still have people who need extra help, and we still have people who do not fit into the prevailing culture. Such people are not problems to be solved or groups to be shunned. Instead, they are pert of our world and as much beloved Children of God as we are. In many ways, when we look at a person whom we regard as different or unpleasant or dangerous, we are actually looking in a mirror and seeing aspects of ourselves – as Moses says: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Moses is instructing the people as they prepare to cross the Jordan to always remember that God is their king – the king who is not partial, takes no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger. That is an important thing for all of us to remember. However, if we also believe that God is one of us through the incarnation of Jesus, and shares our human life, then we are led to believe that God is not only our king – God is also our relative, and therefore we are all members of a royal family with duties and responsibilities toward each other, as well as rights and privileges.

Because of creation, we all bear the image of God. Because of the incarnation, God bears our image. The question we must ask ourselves is: “do we accept the duties and privileges that this relationship lays upon us?” Do we act our part as members of the family of a king who is not partial, accepts no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger? We are free to refuse those responsibilities, but if we do so, we must also refuse our relationship with God. If we do accept that relationship, not only as children but also as siblings and cousins of God (remember the incarnation), we must remember that we are worth far too much to waste time and effort on anything other than love. As Jesus reminds us: “You shall love your neighbor…”

Jesus also reminds us that we are not to believe everything that we hear. We sometimes hear people expressing a desire to return to the values upon which this country was founded. Many are quick to agree with that desire without carefully considering what it really means. That is dangerous, because although many of our nation’s founders were good people, our country was founded at a time when some of the moral values included slavery, violence toward women, drunkenness, breaking treaties with Indian nations, and slaughter of those Indian nations. We do not need to return to those values. We need to be like Abraham’s family that we heard about in our second reading today, and “desire a better country”. As the Letter to the Hebrews says: “If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind , they would have had opportunity to return.” Like Abraham, we should long to see the new homeland – a place of justice and peace. We are not there yet, but we should be looking to it and traveling toward it, so that like Abraham, we can “see it and greet it” from a distance. We also need to be careful to not be smug about our own most cherished ideas of justice and freedom – just as we are shocked at how many of our founding fathers could support slavery and genocide, we do not know which of our own values will seem barbaric to people two hundred years from now.

Abraham’s goal is mentioned as a “heavenly country”, and at times people have thought of that in terms of desiring to be taken away to a better place. Such an attitude has sometimes led people to allow the world around them to sink into despair as they wait patiently to be transported to paradise. That might be an easy way to live, but it is not an honest way to live as God’s family. We recite a psalm at the end of matins every Thursday that talks about God being in our midst so that: “Justice shall march in the forefront and peace shall follow the way.” That is a wonderful way to speak of God, but can it be said of us? If not, it should. Our vocation as Children of God is not to wait for heaven, our vocation is to bring heaven to our homes and nations.

We have been truly blessed here with local and national governments that are usually good. Of course this country is far from perfect, but we know we have the right and ability to work for its betterment. We should do that without pride or conceit, for in another gospel story, in the same breath that Jesus exalts his listeners as the light of the world and a city on a hill, he also reminds them that they are the salt of the earth – something so common that it is easily forgotten in recipes and is not noticed until it is missed. Sometimes some of us are called to be heroes and prophets like Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman – lights of the world and cities on the hill, but usually, most of us are called to be common people spreading love and compassion as the salt of the world. We are called to live our dull lives in such a way that, like the psalm says: “Justice shall march in the forefront, and peace shall follow the way.

So may we be like Abraham – willing to leave the gods that our fathers served beyond the river and travel to a new home where God is not only our king, but also part of our family. May we see the city that God has prepared for our home, and do all that we can to bring it to the people around us. May we live our lives in such a way that: “Justice shall march in the
forefront, and peace shall follow the way.”   AMEN

Proper 6 Year C: Taken For Granted

II Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Getting used to things can be dangerous. A lot of accidents happen because of carelessness caused by a false sense of security: we are used to our car tires having enough air in them, so we never think about checking them until they blowout; we are used to our oven lighting when we turn it on, so we never think of checking it until one day it doesn’t light and fills the whole house with gas. We take things for granted, and while it is not good to be constantly and neurotically assessing every situation for problems, the complacency that our lives create can in itself be a danger. The gospel story this morning is a good example.

The pharisee in the story was used to thinking of himself as a righteous person, acceptable to God. In fact, although pharisees have a bad reputation, they don’t really deserve it. Most of them were just like us – good, kind people trying to do the best they could with what they had. Their main problem seems to be their habit of taking God’s love and acceptance for granted. They were so used to hearing they were acceptable to God, and that God loved them, that they were in danger of forgetting how good it is to be loved, and that others were also acceptable to and loved by God. The woman in the story apparently does not have that problem. She was used to being told that she was a sinner: unacceptable to God. We don’t have the full background of the story, but it seems that in spite of the way she has been treated by religious people in the past, something she has heard about Jesus tells her that he won’t mind being in her presence, and that he won’t recoil in fear or disgust at her touch. Somehow, she knows she is accepted and loved by him, and so she responds in a way that is puzzling to the pharisee, who is equally loved and accepted by Jesus.

In the eyes of God, the woman and the pharisee were equally sinful, equally forgiven, and equally loved. That goes for everyone. God knows us best, yet loves us most. God knows us better than anyone (including ourselves) ever could. God knows every dark secret, including the ones we think we have hidden even from ourselves, and yet God loves us more than anyone else (including ourselves) ever could. Most of us already know that. We know how wonderful it is to be completely and totally loved by God. Unfortunately, we get so used to being loved that we start acting like the pharisee in the story; we stop returning the love because we take it for granted. Not that God could ever not love us – God is love, and God could never not love.

The danger of not loving is on our part, not God’s. When we forget how wonderful God’s love is, and how our existence is dependent upon it, we start living a life that is indeed loveless. We stop loving others, ourselves, and God. We don’t do it on purpose, and we don’t do it because we are evil. We do it simply because we are human, and we get so busy with the details of life that we forget the reason for living: love

Like the pharisee in the gospel – he was so busy following all the good rules of his denomination that he forgot to show love to his houseguests. Like David in our Old Testament story – he was so used to getting what he wanted as king that he did not fully realize the horror of the crime he had committed. Like some of  the Galatians in our second reading this morning – they were so used to treating gentiles as inferior to themselves that they forgot Jesus had changed all that.

So it is with us. We get so used to hearing that God loves us and that our sins are forgiven and that we are acceptable to God that we forget how good it is to be loved, and how horrible our sins are, and what an honor it is to be accepted as God’s Children. We grow cold in our love and we forget that everyone else is also fully loved as Children of God. We start to feel superior to others because we follow certain rules that they don’t, or they follow certain rules that we don’t – forgetting the only reason for those rules is to help us grow in love. We carelessly hurt others by our actions and attitudes, and we don’t even realize it. All of these things are completely unintentional, because like David and the Galatians and the pharisee that we have heard about today, we are good people. We are good people who have simply gotten used to being good and being loved, and getting used to things can be dangerous.

That is why it is so important to take time every once in a while to look closely at our lives and see how much we need God’s love and acceptance, and be grateful that it is there for us. We need to not be like David, so smug in our secret sins of pride and greed that we readily condemn others while it our own selves who are to blame for certain problems. We need to remember that although God knows us so well, God loves us so much, and the same is true for people whom we find difficult to love.

We also need to let those people who are not used to hearing it know how much they are loved and accepted by God. Our world is full of people who are used to hearing they are sinner condemned by God. They are used to hearing it, because so many people who are loved by God are used to saying it. That is a shame. They desperately need to hear that they are just as much Children of God as anyone else, and we who are used to being in God’s love desperately need to think of them as such and treat them accordingly, lest we run the risk of growing cold in our love and so become like the pharisee or some of the Galatians in our readings this morning.
Of course, we also need to make sure that our understanding of love is not simply one of being emotionally stroked by the way some people sometimes make us feel. We must learn to actively love – to desire and work for the best for every individual, even if and when what is best for some individuals is not what is best for us, and might even make us quite uncomfortable. We must learn to love people, not just the way some people sometimes make us feel.

Love is too important to take for granted. Other people are too important to disregard. We are all loved far too much to treat each other as anything but the very image of God, showing respect and honor to all whom we encounter, including ourselves.   AMEN