Proper 25 Year A: ABC

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18
I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

It sounds so simple: “Love God, Love you neighbor, Love yourself.” Then why don’t we do it, and why are there so many different religions, denominations, books, sermons, and other means of trying to do that simple thing? – Love. Maybe it is because it is not so simple after all, or maybe it is because we turn it from being something simple into something complex and difficult.

We think Love is difficult because Love involves others, and others freak us out. With The Other, we get scared, or infatuated, or obsessed or repulsed (that includes The Other that is ourself). But it is really only the hurting, fearful shell that we have built around our true selves that finds Love difficult. So in order to keep the greatest commandment, we need to either get rid of the shell, or heal it, or at least learn to work around it. That is the difficult part – once we do that, Love is easy, because it is the natural state of our true selves underneath the fearful hurting shell. And since we all have different shells around us (some would call it the ego, or false self, or the flesh, or fallen man, or sin), we all need different ways of breaking through it – hence all the different traditions and methods of Learning to Love God, neighbor, and ourselves. But we all do need to do something to break through the shell, and we need to not negatively judge others for choosing a different method. We need to stick with our method and persevere even with the knowledge and faith in the biggest truth that it is God alone who heals and saves us. God does that because God is Love, and since we are made in the image of God, so are we.

Once we let Love out of our shells, we start seeing that others are Love, and they are also made in the image of God – they are not scary or repulsive or objects to possess or be possessed by. They are beautiful, and so are we.   AMEN

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Pastors And Priests: Peter and Paul 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16
II Timothy 4:1-8
John 21:15-19

Whether we like it or not, we are all pastors. The only choice we have in the matter is whether we will be good pastors, bringing others to God, or bad pastors, leading ourselves and others away from God. Of course, God is our ultimate leader and shepherd, as Ezekiel points out, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but if we say we are the Body of Christ, then we must recognize that some of that pastoral office falls on us. With that office comes authority and duty, both of which can either be burdensome or joyful. The vast majority of the time, our individual pastoral vocation is not expressed intentionally, but rather passively in the words and deeds that those around us hear and see.

We usually don’t know who is looking up to us for leadership, and we may never know. Most likely, the people looking to us as pastoral figures don’t know it, either – it is often unconscious. In the same manner, the people to whom we look for guidance will probably never know that we are following them. However, that doesn’t relieve any of us of our duty or authority. In fact, the knowledge that someone of whom we are unaware is learning from us should cause us to examine our lives to make sure we are setting a good example. That doesn’t mean that we should abandon our own personalities, it means that we should be always be growing into our complete, mature selves – the best unique individuals that God wants us to be. Then maybe the people around us will follow that example and be encouraged to mature in Christ, being filled with the fullness of the Godhead that Jesus brings to us.

We have heard from two good examples of pastoral leadership today: Peter and Paul. They didn’t have much in common beyond their Jewish ancestry and their relationship with Jesus. In other matters, they were often quite different. One was urbane and educated, the other uneducated. One was a citizen of the empire, the other not. They differed on their approach to spreading the gospel. They weren’t pals. However, their bond to Jesus and their desire to share him with others were far more important than their differences, and they seem to have realized that.

There are two themes in these scriptures today about Peter and Paul: perseverance and death. On the one hand, Peter is told repeatedly by Jesus to feed his sheep. On the other hand, Paul is in turn encouraging his young protege to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully…”(II Tim 4:5) “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable”(II Tim 4:2). Those two examples speak to us of perseverance – “feed my sheep in good times and bad, feed my sheep even while you are suffering, feed my sheep to the best of your ability.” We also see a chain forming as experienced pastors hand over their duties to others: from Jesus to Peter and Paul to Timothy, and eventually down to us. That is where the theme of death appears in today’s readings. Jesus mentions Peter’s eventual death and Paul talks about his own, but neither event is seen in a morbid or fearful way. Both deaths seem to be taken for granted (and why not, it’s going to happen no matter what we do), and therefore the need for perseverance is seen in a truer light – work while you can, because one day, you can’t – work while you can, and then let others take up the task. No heroic measures are necessary, simply the need to be the strongest link in the chain that you can be.

Paul mentions a crown coming to him from the Lord after all his work. Some people see this as a reward for all his efforts, but it might be better to see it simply as work itself. After all, he doesn’t call it a crown of riches or power, but a crown of righteousness. He has done the best he could, and that knowledge is the best reward he can have at his death. It is the best reward any of us can have: standing before God, knowing that although we are far from perfect, we did our best in our own time and in our own place. Maybe we faltered sometimes, but we got back up. Maybe we strayed and led others along, but we learned our mistake and found the right path again. Maybe we didn’t even find the right path, but were looking for it to the best of our ability. All of that takes perseverance and is not easy, but we must do it anyway. Of course we should never think that it is our good work that makes God love us. God loves us because God is love. We do the right thing because of that love, not the other way around.

We have a good book in our library by a very wise nun who talks about the importance of perseverance. (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Ayya Khema) She says that it is better to live and work with an attitude of constancy than with an attitude of patience, because patience implies that things might get better, while constancy asserts that it is perfectly alright if they don’t. Patience means that we are working hard and biding our time until something better comes along, while constancy means that we are working hard simply because it is the right thing to do, and when we do things simply because it is right to do them, then we can live contentedly in joy and peace, instead of merely waiting for joy and peace to come. It is a little like the difference between making our world heaven or making it purgatory.

Patience, constancy, perseverance – the words we use are not as important as the life we live. The important thing is that we take seriously our roles as pastors and priests to those around us who follow our example. We all know how hard it is to always do the right thing and to live with an attitude of joyful perseverance. That is why it is so important to realize that although we do have to put in a lot of work, the result of that work is not our responsibility. It is God working through and in us who makes the whole thing possible. We merely become channels of God’s love and grace for the world around us, doing our best to open up ever more to accept that grace and pass it on to others, and in the meantime growing in love so that we can then add our own to the mix. Then after a lifetime of growth as vessels of God’s love, we can joyfully pass that job on to others, confident in the knowledge that God can and will work through others just as he does through us.

So let us be thankful for those pastors who have gone before us, and for those who lead us now, and let us set good examples for those who will come after us. For at the same time that we are all part of God’s flock: straying at times, and always needing to be fed and protected, we are also God’s arms: gathering other sheep who have strayed, feeding those who are hungry, and leading them all to safety. May we do so with joy and thanksgiving, with constancy and confidence in the knowledge that the Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want. AMEN

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Proper 12 Year A: Wisdom, Understanding, Trust

I Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Solomon has wisdom and understanding, and the disciples understand what Jesus says – or so our first and third scripture readings just told us. But then we see how badly Solomon managed his own family and allowed idolatry to appear in his kingdom, and we see how much the disciples (including us) really so often don’t understand what Jesus is saying. Our middle scripture reading has Paul telling his Roman readers all about the joys of trusting God. He is right, of course. But we know how often we do not trust God – if ever.

There is nothing wrong with wisdom and understanding (in fact, they are good things), but they won’t help anyone unless they are used. Our scriptures are correct in pointing out that wisdom and understanding come from God: unless we live in the reality that God is the source of everything, we have no wisdom or understanding. But to be truly wise (to live in the reality that everything is about God, not about us) also involves trusting God as the source of everything (everything is about God, not about us). To be truly wise and understanding involves not only knowing that God is the source of all, but also living in God as the source of all.

The two really should go together: the more we understand the sovereignty and love of God, the more we can trust and rest and live in the sovereignty and love of God. The more we trust, rest, and live in the sovereignty and love of God, the more we will recognize it intellectually. Of course, we can never fully comprehend God, because God is infinite and we are not. But, we can grow more fully into our beautiful human nature, and the more we do that, we become not only more our individual unique selves, but we also become more like God (and so we can understand and trust a little bit more all the time).

There are many ways we can grow more in knowledge and trust of God: reading scripture, praying individually and corporately, being around others who are intentionally seeking to grow, giving to and serving other people, and coming to this table to be fed by God’s self. We don’t have to be immediately wise or trusting, and we will fail in those areas over and over (look at Solomon and all the disciples), but we can always grow. The people around us will also fail (even our most trusted role models will fail), so we ought to compassionately give them the same slack to grow that we would want them to give us. We all go up to the table together to get wisdom and understanding. We trust God to give it to us. And then we come back for more, because we all know how much we need it, and how much we need to trust in the only One who can give it.   AMEN

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Proper 8 Year A: Proactive Humility

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Our scripture readings this morning talk about the inevitable fall that comes from self-exhaltation and the inevitable rise that comes from humility, or as Paul puts it: our sin leads to death, but God’s gift is eternal life. It is easier for us to see the truth in the first part of that statement because we have examples from history about downfalls caused by selfishness and self-centeredness and sin. It is harder for us to remember examples of humility leading to true exhaltation, because we tend to think of humility in a negative or weak way – as a way of letting people walk over us or as a way of giving up our needs because we don’t think we are worthy of having any sort of happy life. It shouldn’t be that way, because true humility requires strength and brings us a sense of our true self, rather than the common belief that humility is a sign of weakness and a source of self-negation. We are of infinite value, but that value is not of our own making; it is a gift from God. That is good to remember, because it means that our infinite worth can be taken away by nothing – it does not depend on our own opinion or the opinions of anyone else. It also means that others’ infinite worth does not depend on our opinions of them. It is not about us, it is always about God.

Maybe one of the reasons that we so often think of humility as leading to self-negation is because we have a false sense of where our legitimacy and integrity – our true selves – lie. We get caught up in the idea that our worth is based on what others think of us, and so we desperately try to look good in the eyes of others in order to boost our standing – we try to have the perfect family or the biggest business or the nicest stuff, or we try to look cool through sex or drug and alcohol misuse, or wearing the right clothes or hairstyle, or being good-looking. There is nothing wrong with having nice material things or with others having a high opinion of us, but that is not where our worth as a person lies. Our infinite worth comes solely from being a wonderful creation of God. The flip side of worrying about our existence being dependent on others’ opinions of us is just as dangerous – the false view of living only for ourself and our own pleasure, regardless of what anyone else thinks and regardless of how many people we hurt in the attempt to have our own way in every situation. That way is just as unstable as worrying about our standing in the eyes of others because we never know how long we can maintain our grip on things and control them the way we want.

God is the only true and stable reality, so anything not based on God will crumble, while those things based in God (with love as the true foundation, rather than fear of other people’s opinions or self-aggrandizement as false foundations) will flourish and bring joy and peace. By grounding our life in God, rather than in the need to impress people, we can live as our true selves and be happy, instead of living a fake life wasting time and energy building a false image. Living in God’s love rather than in fear of our own or other people’s opinions of us is true humility, but it doesn’t bring us down in a negative sense. It brings us down in a positive sense – rooting us in the sure foundation of love so that we can flourish, growing taller and stronger than we ever could by trying to ride the waves of self-centeredness. Basing our life in God rather than our own needy egos does not stifle our true selves. It allows our true selves to grow and flourish, unhindered by the constant need to worry about our social standing or our domination of others. The humility that comes from living in God’s love is not negative. It is positive – a proactive form of humility that says: “I am a wonderful, beautiful child of God, and so is everyone else, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks.” Once we live in that way of humility, we are free to allow ourselves and others to grow as the unique children of God that we all are without the worry of fitting into anyone else’s mold or trying to force others to fit our mold.

This goes against business as usual, and that is why Jesus describes it as a sword, setting families and everyone else against those who chose to follow his path of humility. It is new to us and so we are frightened by it and fight it, because it threatens our false sense of security based on our own abilities or projected image. It is not unpeaceful because God makes it that way, it is unpeaceful because we make it that way. We want ourselves and our loved ones to be happy and fulfilled, and since we are so used to looking for happiness and fulfillment by the unstable means of self centeredness, we balk when the people we care about abandon that road and look for their fulfillment in the security of God’s loving acceptance of them, regardless of their material wealth or societal status. We fear that they might not be happy, and we ourselves are afraid of following the path of humility because we are afraid that we will not be happy. The truth, however, is that the only way to happiness is by letting go of worrying about ourselves and instead trusting in God, because God is the only stable reality. God is the basis of all existence, and therefore only those things based in God really exist.

All of this is not to say that families and businesses and cultural aspirations are bad, or that having good material things and being popular are wrong, but we must choose to base those things in God and act with love, instead of being driven by the constant need to promote our own over-inflated sense of importance, or worrying about anyone else’s judgment of us. We are important, but our integrity and legitimacy are not based on anyone else’s perceived opinions of us or on our own ability to dominate the world around us. Our infinite worth lies solely in our stature as beautiful, unique creatures of God. That is a good thing, because our ability to dominate the world around us and to look good in the eyes of the people around us will constantly change, while our status as children of God will not. That is why we heard Jesus say in the gospel this morning: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” – it is not about us, it is all about God. That is why we heard Paul say in the Letter to the Romans this morning: “…present yourselves to God…” – it is not about us, it is all about God.

We are good and of infinite value, but we need to make sure we base our good and precious lives on the truth of God’s love, rather than on our own wavering emotions and desires. Only then we will be free to be our true, wonderful, beautiful selves because only then can we do what’s right instead of worrying about doing what looks good; only then can we love ourselves instead of worrying about getting more stuff to love; only then can we love others instead of worrying about how others make us feel. Only then can we be free to grow into the fullness of joy and peace that is our birthright as God’s children. God is love. If we live in love, we live in God, and our lives will have no end, because every moment will be an eternity of joy and fulfillment.   AMEN

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Easter VII Year A: Staring Into The Sky

Acts 1:6-14
I Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11
John 17:1-11

One of the few things that Jesus told us to not do is to try to figure out when he was coming back. And so, one of the things that Christians have done most (at least in America back in the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st), is to try to figure out when he was coming back. It is a waste of time, and has always ended in embarrassment or worse.

One of the things that Jesus does want us to do is to be one as he and the Father are one. And so, one of the things that Christians have done most is to split apart from each other (at least organizationally). What is wrong with us?

Well, maybe we are not all that bad. There have been some notable mergings of Christian denominations in the past century: Evangelical Lutheran Church In America, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, Church of South India, and the closer ties between the Episcopal Church and the ELCA. Nonvisible, unofficial church unity is not doing too bad in some spots: the guest ministry, Confraternity, and Oblate program here at St. Gregory’s are examples of that, as are the many “emerging church” activities around the world. But even with all that, those denominations just mentioned are constantly having members leave to form new churches in reaction to things going on in those denominations.

It is usually the case that denominations that tend toward openness to other denominations are much less prone to spend a lot of time trying to figure out when Jesus is coming back. Some might say that is because those denominations are wishy-washy in their beliefs about Jesus. I do not think that is the case. I think that more likely, it is because they are actually doing what the disciples did after Jesus physically left them: praying and waiting for power from the Holy Spirit.

Maybe we wait too much, or are timid to use the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit that has already been given us. We can use it for so many things other than figuring out when Jesus will come back – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead. We can all do it together, and when we do, we are united in a far deeper way than denominational record books can show.

All we have to do is stop staring into the sky, go home and pray, and then act in the power we have been given. We are one because Jesus is one.   AMEN

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Easter III Year A: Two (Or More) Sides To Every Story

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
I Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

One of the interesting things about testimonies at court trials is the fact that even when people are telling the truth, almost every witness has a slightly different version of the events under investigation. That doesn’t mean that one person is right and all others are wrong; it means that all the witnesses are human and therefore have grasped only part of the truth about the situation. The gospel story today is an example of this: the two Emmaus-bound travelers tell their version of the story, and then Jesus tells his. The two travelers had the facts down fairly well; Jesus supplied them with the meaning and reasons behind the facts.

We are like the travelers – we can report what we perceive to be facts about the world, but without Jesus, the facts don’t always make sense. Sometimes we don’t even get the facts right, because our perception is skewed by our psychological makeup, physical condition, personal history, and cultural bias. Then we take what we perceive to be that empirical evidence of the world around us and try to make sense of it all, but then again our ability to construct a world out of those facts is tempered by those same conditions just mentioned. That is why we must see the world through the lens of Jesus, and also that is why Jesus must be the basis of our world. Only through and with and in Jesus can we hope to experience reality. Of course, sometimes, even with Jesus as the basis of and operating system of our lives, the world around us doesn’t make much sense. That is ok – things might make sense to us in the future, or they might not, but at least with Jesus we are grounded in reality and we can be at peace with our confusion, because we know that things don’t depend on us; they depend on God.

So we need to always have Jesus as our lens through which we perceive the world, and we must have Jesus as the logic by which we understand the world. But even our understanding of Jesus is affected by our personal and cultural history. That is why it is so important to always grow in our knowledge of Jesus –not just knowledge about Jesus (although that is helpful), but even more importantly in our personal relationship with the living Jesus who is not only Lord and Master of the Universe, but is also a frail human being just like us. We can grow our friendship with Jesus by hanging around him through prayer, scripture reading, serving him by serving others, and letting him serve us through others. Of course, our personal relationship with Jesus must always be measured against the community’s relationship with him to make sure we are not falling into a fantasy relationship with a fantasy lord.

That is why one of the most important ways of getting to know Jesus is mentioned in the gospel story this morning, and that is why it is the very thing we are preparing to do here and now – breaking bread together with Jesus and each other. It is an act which is both communal and individual. We as individuals gather together, we pray together and individually, we receive the meal as a group and consume it into our individual bodies. We come to the altar as a group and receive Jesus as our personal savior without the need to doubt our acceptance of him or his acceptance of us, because we hold the evidence and guarantee of it in our hands as bread and cup. That might not make sense to us, but it does not have to, because it doesn’t depend on us; it depends on God.

The world is a strange place, full of frightening events and dubious futures, just like it was to those travelers in the gospel story. But by walking with Jesus and letting him feed us, we can know that all will be well. That doesn’t change the facts of the world around us, but it will help us to perceive them more accurately and to understand the reason behind them. Of course, knowing the facts and understanding the reason behind them does not always make them less frightening, but the more we know Jesus, the more we realize that he goes through the frightening situations with us and is able to heal them and give them meaning if we allow him to. The road to Emmaus is a long one for some of us, but Jesus is on the same road, just waiting for us to ask directions. The first steps are the ones to this altar. Let us break bread together with Jesus and each other, so that our eyes may be opened, and let us not stop at this first step, but rather make it only one of many as our lives progress toward our final destination in God. AMEN

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Lent III Year A: Water From The Rock

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-26,39-42

Here we have yet another story about Jesus breaking foolish taboos and customs by asking the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Of course, not all customs are foolish. Rules help us live together. But there are some customs and rules that should be broken, and they should be broken in the name of love – customs such as racism, sexism, nationalism, tribalism, religious intolerance, homophobia, and xenophobia. Many of those things are often woven into the fabric of societies and are blindly followed by even the most loving, best-intentioned members of the society. We all have our bigotries and prejudices, and we always will – it is not good, but it is true. The mark of a mature person is one who knows her or his own bigotry and yet lives beyond it, breaking free from the harmful rules. For instance, getting a drink of water is more important than dying of thirst because of our need to cling to old opinions and beliefs. We all know that, but it takes this story from the gospel to remind us of the fact.

If we really mean it when we say that Jesus is fully human, then we should be open to the fact that he carried around emotional baggage from his own culture. Any thing other than that would be less than human. But we must also realize from the gospel stories that he viewed and treated people as the holy beings that he knew them to be, regardless of what the social and religious customs dictated. Any thing other than that would be less than human, also. He had his culturally inbred prejudices, just like all of us, but he did not let them get in the way of love and compassion, just like all of us are trying to do (and will one day accomplish). He did not need the woman at the well to inform him that she was a Samaritan and therefore he ought not to be asking her to share anything. He knew it, but he also knew that getting a drink of water, as well as offering the living water of the Holy Spirit to her, was more important than caving in to any social pressure he was feeling. And in the act of sharing both types of water, the cultural prejudices of both Jesus and the woman lost some of the control over their lives.

Even while they were sharing water they had a religious and cultural argument. The same thing might happen to us as we share with people different from us, It does not matter if we consider ourselves to be liberal or conservative, open-minded or firmly-anchored, on the left or on the right. All parties have legitimate questions, and all parties might never come to an agreement, but we can still share the water of life and love that we all need in order to live. We should always ask ourselves if protecting our opinions and beliefs is worth dying of thirst or letting others die. The water is the important thing – our opinions and perceptions of it are secondary.

We live in a desperately thirsty world. Withholding life and love for any reason is wrong. God freely offers us the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit, so that we can in turn offer it to others. This living water has many names and forms, but they are all simply aspects of God’s love and life, from which our love and life spring. Living water is evident in every simple act of kindness, in every word of praise, in every refusal to spread gossip, in every negation of self-indulgence at the expense of others, and in every tear of sorrow and joy. The living water of God’s love and life is shared every time we are joyful at another’s good fortune, as opposed to being jealous. It is shared every time we risk our social standing by defending a less popular person’s rights. It is shared every time we admit to others and to ourselves that we might be wrong about something, or that other opinions might be just as valid as ours, as opposed to desperately clinging to our political, religious, or academic beliefs and loyalties. The living water of love can dwell in us only when our over-inflated and fearful egos are brought under control and denied their desperate attempts to control everything so that they can nestle in their beds of false security. We must be empty enough to let the water in, but strong enough to ask for it and accept it out of love, rather than out of fear.

Having the living water of love in us is no good unless we also let it out. Giving it away is the only way we can receive it. We become channels of love; receiving it from God and giving it to others. But Jesus tells us in this story that we shouldn’t stop at being merely channels. We are to become sources of love and life ourselves – “springs of water gushing up to eternal life,” We are to fulfill our destiny as God’s children, and add our own infinite spring of love to God’s. If we are all honest, none of us could say that we are completely fulfilling that destiny right here and now, We are God’s children, but we are children nonetheless. We all have a lot of growing to do. Sometimes, we throw tantrums and refuse to accept the water of life offered to us by God and the other people around us. Sometimes, we are fearful or greedy and won’t give any of our love and life away. But there are those times when we do open ourselves enough to let God’s Holy Spirit flow through us, and we all know how good and right that feels, because it is in fact our true mode of life. Unfortunately, after that happens, we tend to once again shrink back in fear and close up. Doing that doesn’t mean we are evil. It means that we are human and we just forget how truly holy we are. We simply need to grow. Every time we open up and let the water flow, we grow a little more. What we need to do is keep reminding ourselves of our need for growth.

There are many ways we can use to remind ourselves to grow: prayer, scripture study, service to others, and giving money and time to good causes are all things that can bring us into a state of mindfulness. All of these are good disciplines on the road to maturity. They might seem difficult and inconvenient at times, but those are the times when growth has its biggest potential.

We can choose to dry up and shrink away, rather than overcome our fears and prejudices in order to accept the water of love from a dubious source, and we can choose to let others go thirsty because we are uncomfortable with their opinions and beliefs, rather than simply offering them water and a place to sit in the shade. Or we can remember that the important thing is the water. Our opinions of it and the person offering it are secondary and changing. There is a story from the Egyptian desert monks about a young monk walking with his elder by the seashore. The younger monk is thirsty, so the older monk prays over the sea water and it becomes fresh. After the monks have drunk their fill, the younger one begins to fill his water bottle. The older monk asks why he is doing that, and the younger monk explains that they will likely be thirsty again before their journey is over. The older monk tells him that is not necessary, as he says: “God is here, God is everywhere.”

God is here, God is everywhere. Just take the water as it is given to us. If we are worried about impurities, at least take the water and leave the impurities behind. The very fact that the water is offered to us in love makes it holy. And lest we start feeling all magnanimous and benevolent because of our acceptance of gifts from those deemed less acceptable, we need to remember that it just might be that in the eyes of the person offering it to us, we are the unclean Samaritans.

Getting a drink of water – sharing life and love, growing into our full potential as children of God and helping others grow – is much more important than our perceptions and opinions about the water. God is here, God is everywhere. May we share our love and life freely, and may we freely accept it from all of God’s children.    AMEN

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Epiphany V Year A: Particle Or Wave?

Isaiah 58:1-12
I Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20

Our gospel reading this morning is kind of a pep talk from Jesus; he wants his hearers to make the world a better place for other people. But then he turns the pep talk into a warning; if we don’t keep rules and laws even better than religious freaks do, then we won’t go to heaven. Maybe the pep talk and the warning are really the same thing – maybe we make the world a better place by keeping laws and rules, and maybe entering heaven is another way of saying “make the world a better place”.

Saying all that does not contradict the truth that we are saved by the grace of God. – we exist by the grace of God. But God is gracious and has given all of us free will and allows us to choose whether or not we will either join God in making heaven, or obsess on ourselves and make hell. We all know that we choose a little bit of both everyday (that is why the grace of God is so necessary to free us from those hell-bound choices). We also now that almost always, those choices are about tiny things: using or not using turn signals and letting or not letting people in our lane on the highway, cleaning up or not cleaning up our messes, repeating or not repeating gossip. We have the choice to turn all those situations into tiny bricks to build either heaven or hell. Maybe that is why Jesus says we are salt, because salt is usually not even noticed until it is missing, and you don’t need a lot to bring out the flavor of everything else in the recipe. But then again, sometimes those seemingly small choices have consequences that are bigger than we will ever know. Maybe that is why Jesus also says we are light, because we never know when our good actions will enlighten the path and show others the way to heaven, or our bad actions will darken our world and cause others to stumble into hell.

Our actions are important, because even though we exist only by the grace of God, God does not put us in a universe populated solely by God and ourselves. We have to live amongst other things and people, and the way we live has consequences for ourselves and those other things and people. If we act in a selfish way (in other words, if we sin), then everyone including us is hurt. Only the grace of God can undo that sin and hurt, and the grace of God does undo that sin and hurt, but if we would only listen to and obey Jesus and choose actions that do not cause the hurt (in other words, refrain from sinning), there would be less hurt in the world, and who would not want that? We do all try to live in a less sinful way, but we all know we fail a lot of the time. Even though the grace of God is growing us into less sinful people, none of us in this room are there yet. So we need to spend a lot of time and effort training ourselves to be obedient to Jesus and sin less. We need to spend a lot of time with Jesus in the scriptures, at the communion table, in prayer, and in communion with each other so that we do grow into full maturity as images of Jesus. But until we get to that full maturity, we need to work hard to ensure that our choices are ones that build up heaven around us, and spread the light of Jesus to our world, and spread the salt of goodness around us.

The prophet Isaiah whom we heard this morning is telling his listeners that they need to change their actions from sinful ones to righteous ones. Part of the sinful actions he describes are religious observances that don’t do anything to help the practitioners or the people around them. Some readers have taken those and similar descriptions as a decree that all religious observances are fake and the people who practice them are fakers, but that conclusion is not correct. Religious observances can be a very helpful part of one’s growth into the salvation that God’s grace has provided for us, but we do need to be mindful of the reason we do them: their purpose is to glorify God, not ourselves. The more we do things that glorify God, the less we are apt to do harmful actions. The more we do things to glorify ourselves, the more apt we are to do harmful actions.

And so we get back to the warning form Jesus in our gospel story: if we aren’t more righteous than religious freaks, then we don’t go to heaven. If our actions glorify ourselves, that means we are hiding the light of Jesus and souring everything and building hell for ourselves. If our actions glorify God, then the light of Jesus can shine through us, and the things we touch will have a good flavor, and we are making our small part of the world into heaven. Fostering growth by turning attention away from ourselves and toward God might not make sense in our consumer society that advocates self-fulfillment through material gain, but that might be just what Paul is talking about in our second reading when he mentions the wisdom of God and how much it differs from our conventional wisdom. It is not all about us, and as soon as we start living in that truth, life really becomes much better for us and for those around us. We won’t succeed living that way all the time, but we have tools to help us get better at it, and the grace of God will bring us to heaven eventually. We don’t have to understand it all, we just need to try to trust.   AMEN

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Christmas II Year A: Happy Jeremiad

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

The first reading that we heard  this morning proves that Jeremiah has an undeserved reputation as a prophet of doom and gloom. There is even a type of literature named after him — a jeremiad — that is given to writings that emphasize the wrongs in society and forecast doom. But the passage we heard is anything but frightening; it is an announcement of good news and an assurance that even though bad things were happening, God was going to use those events for good. Jeremiah was not a prophet of doom and gloom, he was just honest about what was really going on around him. Jeremiah was just telling the truth, and it is to our advantage to listen to him, just as it would have been to the advantage of his listeners at the time.

We really can’t blame his audience for branding him as a man of woe and putting him into prison. We don’t like to listen to the truth of how hard life is, just as they didn’t. Their country was falling apart and being invaded by foreign powers. The popular prophets of the time were the ones who were pronouncing victory for Judah and defeat for everyone else. They were popular, but they were wrong. Jeremiah knew that Judah was no match for the empires competing for their land, and he knew that part of the reason for that was the fault of the people of Judah. They had turned away from trusting in God to trusting in the false gods of wealth, politics, and military might. They were soon to be conquered and sent into exile, but God was going to use that tragedy to make them stronger in the end. That horrible experience as a conquered and exiled nation turned them away from the misunderstanding that their status as God’s chosen people meant that they were God’s favorite people, and taught them the truth that God had chosen them not to be superior to everyone else, but instead had chosen them to bring the good news to the surrounding nations that all people are God’s favorites as his adopted children. If the tragedy of defeat and exile had not happened, the true understanding of their mission would not have occurred, and the entire world would be a worse place.

There is some argument as to whether or not God allows or even makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons or to test our faith and make us stronger. I sure don’t know about that. What does seem more certain is that God uses the bad things that occur to our eventual advantage, even though sometimes we are so involved in the tragedy that we can’t see that fact. Knowing that God uses everything, even the pain and grief in life, for our good does not make the pain and grief go away, or dismiss it as a passing phase or as an illusion. Bad things really do happen, and evil really does exist, unless you are a philosopher and want to argue about what the word “exist” means. We know that bad things happen to all, because bad things even happened to Jesus — God in our midst. The gospel story this morning tells about the time he was left by his family in Jerusalem as they traveled back home from a festival. To a twelve year old boy, being lost and abandoned in the city is a truly frightening thing, even though it was an accident, and even though he put up a brave front to his parents when they found him. That wasn’t the only bad thing that happened to Jesus, as we know from his later years; he was betrayed by friends, tortured, and executed. Just because those things happened to God in the flesh does not make them any less real or bad, in fact, it would seem to make them more real and painful, because God is the most real thing in the universe —everything else exists through God’s existence.

None of those painful things that happened to Jesus were good, but they were all necessary for his life and for ours. God turned them into a resurrection that gives hope and meaning for our lives. We can be assured that God knows our pain and grief, and suffers along with us, since Jesus was not spared any of it. We can also be assured that God will use those tragedies to help us in ways we could never imagine, such as resurrection. We tend to think of the birth of a baby this time of year, but we need to remember that the birth was only the beginning of a process of resurrection. That resurrection is the goal of all of us, and there will be pain and grief on the road there, but God has gone before us, in order to be with us on the way. We don’t need to either pretend that the road is not difficult, or that it is impossible to travel. We need to be like Jeremiah, acknowledging the trouble ahead, while also announcing that God will bring us through it better than we were before.

We are all chosen by God, just like Judah in Jeremiah’s day. But that adoption as God’s children does not mean that we are better than anyone else, it means that we are chosen to bring God’s message of love and forgiveness to all of God’s other children. Our second scripture reading from the letter to the Ephesians mentions a few things that are our destiny as children of God: wisdom, enlightenment, hope, and glory. Those things grow in us even as we go through the pain and grief of life. No one will be spared difficulties, but it is up to us to choose how we will react to them: either allowing them to make us bitter and closing ourselves off from God and our neighbors, or offering them to God to use as tools to change us into more open and loving people. It is not easy to choose the path of resurrection, but it is certainly better than choosing the path of ultimate death. May we follow the baby whose birth and growth we have been celebrating these last few weeks, and who has opened the path of glory for us. May we not pretend that all will be well on the way, but may we also never forget that all will be well in the end. Our God has gone before us and is with us on the way. AMEN

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Advent IV Year A: Are We There Yet?

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The scriptures we just heard from Isaiah and Matthew are about waiting for a baby to be born, so that makes them perfect for today’s reading. It has always been hard to wait for Jesus to be born and Christmas to arrive. It was hard as a kid, because we wanted to be out of school and at our grandparents house so we could open our gifts. It is hard as a monk because we want all the extra work to be over so we can go to bed.

But Christmas takes time to get here because babies take time to be born. Life takes time – an entire lifetime. And we don’t know how things will turn out, either for babies being born or for our own life. We just have to wait, and unless we want the waiting to be torture, we have to trust – as Isaiah tells Ahaz and the angel tells Joseph. Everything is in God’s hands, so even though we might not like some of the short-term things that happen, we can be sure that in the big picture, everything will be ok. No need to worry about anything, ever.

Jesus will come – again and again, to ourselves and everyone else – and Christmas will break into our worlds, ready or not. And like the presents under the tree, sometimes we are in for big surprises when Jesus comes to us. Surprises are always full of tension and can make us happy as well as fearful. We never know what kind of surprise it will be when Jesus breaks into our lives, but since it comes from the all-good giver of gifts, we can always be thankful and know that in the long run, each surprise is in our best interest – so no need to worry about anything, ever. We just have to wait, trust, and work.   AMEN

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