Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Loving enemies . . .

I confess that I looked forward to this week’s sermon with some significance. When I told the Vestry earlier this month that I planned to catch up on one of my 2010 week’s vacation this past week, I was asked if I was sure that I did not want to take Sunday off as well. I told them absolutely not, I would get to do “formal” sermon preparation for a change, and I was excited to have the time. I have been reminded recently, how little time I get to spend on formal sermon prep. Other clergy in the QCA get to spend as much as 20 hours a week composing their sermon. As you all know, there are weeks where I am lucky to get an hour or two of formal preparation. That is not to say, of course, that God does not do lots of prep work in our ministries. So, I attacked this week’s reading with some enthusiasm. By Tuesday, I had the much of the skeleton and a good bit of the meat on those bones of a 45-minute to one hour sermon done. I was linking our readings from Leviticus to Matthew and to 1 Corinthians. It was a masterpiece! And then the phone rang. . .

Father Bryan was on the other end bursting with excitement. I know, those of you who now know him wonder if he is ever a bit down or depressed. Occasionally he gets down; usually, however, it is just a question of how excited or how geeked he is to be serving God. But there was all kinds of excitement in his voice as he was going through the formalities of the call. “So, what’s up with you?” I asked.

Now, I need to set the stage a bit for those who do not know him. Bryan serves an Anglican church plant in CT. New Hope Anglican is its name. And New Hope is unique in its area in that it does not have a building. New Hope meets wherever it can find space. Now, while they may lack a discernable focal point as a place of worship, they are being taught by God to worship God wherever they are. Most often, they meet and worship in a school auditorium where they use these new fangled things called a sound system and power point. They don’t have pews; rather they have high backed chairs in stadium seating with arm rests. At other times, they gather or worship in members’ homes, though that is getting more difficult as more people find them and join them in the quest to love others as themselves. Sometimes, gentlemen, they get together at this thing they call a pizza joint. Mostly the men, a couple times a month, get together to eat a food known as pizza, drink this liquid called beer, talk about blessings and needs in their lives, and simply encourage and teach one another how to be better disciples and more effective ambassadors of God. Sometimes as a church, they even gather at places like a nursing/assisted living facility and serve breakfast to residents and then hold church services. If people cannot get to their church, they get church to them. It was this last service that had Bryan so fired up.

Her name was “Donna.” In God’s plan of salvation, she had first encountered Bryan maybe as much as a couple years ago. Bryan likes to hang out at Starbucks, restaurant/pub type establishments, and other places where people like to gather. And he met Donna. And, over time, he began to learn her story. Almost thirty-five years ago, she had been the first in her town in CT to get divorced. The response had been typical for New England. She was labeled a witch. She was kicked out of all her clubs, her church, and pretty much any place you can think of. She and the kids had been ostracized. “Good people don’t get divorced”—was a repeated refrain in her ears. As the months went by, she shared the stories with Bryan. And Bryan would listen patiently and understandingly, apologize for how she was treated by her church, and invite her to attend his church. This pattern repeated itself over and over.

You see, going to New Hope requires an extraordinary bit of determination. Not only do you have to figure out the time for services, but you have to figure out the where. And if your idea of church does not jibe with auditoriums, houses, taverns, and nursing homes, you just know you are going to be disappointed and able to worship with its members. Fortunately for her, she had encountered one of God’s black holes. For those of you who do not know Bryan, that description might seem like a slam. But it is really accurate. Once you are in his orbit, you will eventually get sucked in. And, if some astrophysics theorists are correct and the black holes actually jettison light and matter, the analogy is even better. Everything about Bryan, everything he does, tries to point others to The Light, to Christ. Bryan knows and teaches that God can take all the garbage, all the riffraff, all the stuff of life and redeem it for His glory. As it turns out, He can take even Donna’s pain and use it for our edification, for building up our faith, and for teachig us about our call.

For a ridiculous number of months, Bryan had been listening to her stories an inviting her to church. Finally, after running into Bryan all over town month after month, Donna decided to have it out with God. If He wanted her to go worship with Bryan and the others of New Hope, God needed to give her a sign. Otherwise, she was just going to continue living her life as she had for the last thirty years. She got her sign.

So she called Bryan and asked him where and when the next service was. It turned out it was at a nursing home in town. Last Thursday, they were gathering at a local nursing home, making breakfast, feeding the residents, and holding church services. Donna showed up at New Hope for the very first time. Now, being new and all, she wanted to work behind the scenes. Cooking, dishes duty, and things like that were where she wanted and expected to serve. God, as He so often does, had other ideas. When she arrived, she sought Bryan and asked which would be better for her to do. Bryan told her those things were covered, but would she mind taking care of those ladies at that table over there. After she finished her first table, she went back to Bryan and asked if she could no was dishes or cook. Bryan said she could best help by cutting the food and feeding this other lady waiting patiently on him to get to her. Once again, Donna did what was asked. When she finished that task, she asked once again if she could clean up, carry out the trash, do anything else. Bryan told her the best thing she could do would be to wait on another table of ladies who had not yet gotten their food. When she returned from that task, she was in tears.

Bryan took her aside and asked her what was wrong. Between the cries and the sobs, there was also a bit of humor. “You have no idea, do you” she said. Bryan, a bit confused, asked what she meant. Every lady that she had served that morning, she went on to explain, every single lady had been someone in her past who had wronged her. The president of the PTA, the leader of her circle group, the team mother for Little League—all of those ladies had had a role in banishing and ostracizing her more than three decades ago. And, not only did she find herself serving them, feeding them, and cleaning up after them, but she found herself in conversation with them. As older ladies usually do, they asked her name to thank her. Many of us fight getting old; we often hate the fact that we cannot do simple things for ourselves. But these old ladies felt compelled to thank their “serving girl” for giving them a great meal, some conversation, and simply another human being with whom they could share a bit of time.

As she shared her name, some remembered right away who she was. Others knew the name, but could not place it. “Have we met before, sweetheart?” You can imagine the uncomfortable silences that followed. Eventually, the ladies broke the silences. Only this time, what flowed from their mouths were not the curses and condemnations. Instead, they offered stories. Each apologized to Donna for the pain they had caused in her life. Some went so far as to tell her that their treatment of her and the kids had been one of those big regrets in their lives. And each remarked how they could never have imagined her serving them after all the pain they had caused. Some even shared how close friends had years or decades later experienced failed marriages. Watching them walk with the guilt of a failed marriage only pointed out to them how they had wronged Donna in the past. “We did not need to be piling on your sorrows. God knows you had enough without us.”

Donna continued to share conversations with Bryan. She could never quite get the water works to quit flowing. You see, Donna recognized this moment for what it was. She had asked for a sign from God. Boy, had her prayer been answered! For reasons she cannot explain, she had agreed to go to a church that, in her eyes, wasn’t really a church. She had finally agreed to come the very day they were serving at the nursing home where, unknown to her, many of her personal enemies now lived. And, while she wanted to wash dishes, carry out the trash, cook and do other menial tasks behind the scenes, Bryan had placed her front and center as a waitress of sorts, as a server. She was not called to be a generic waitress; rather, Bryan had asked her to serve the very ladies who most had wronged her in her past. And, to top it all off, she had been given the opportunity to reject their apology and cause them, in turn, some small measure of the pain they had given her more than three decades ago. Or, she could accept their apology and be that daughter of God who incarnated the forgiveness first offered her by Christ. Donna was at a spiritual crossroads in her life, and the signs to that effect were all around her.

Brothers and sisters, we have spent a great deal of our time during the season of Epiphany dealing with difficult matters. I have laughed more than once that while Paul has been feeding gruel to the church in Corinth, we have been struggling with the meat from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. As “grist for the mil” this week, we get this instruction about loving our enemies. And, my little treatise that I had been working on for this week that I told you about would have been fine, in theory. We should pray for the bin Ladens, the Talibans, Premier Kims, and the other overt enemies that we have. Similarly, we ought to pay for others on the opposing political spectrum of ours. But, as Bryan’s story of Donna so readily reminds us, our real enemies are not the “in theory” kind of people whom few of us are likely to meet. Our real enemies are the ones who have hurt us most in life. Our real enemies are those people who, when we were down, took that extra time to push our face into the mud of our failings rather than to offer us a hand to lift us out of the muck. Who in your life, brothers and sisters, do you hate for what they have done to you? Who is it in your past that has given you unspeakable pain that you feel justified to hate?

There’s a scene in the fifth Star trek movie, you know the one jokingly referred to as the quest for God. It’s a terrible movie. Do not waste any money on it if you hve not seen it. But in the movie there is an interesting scene. Spock’s half brother has the ability to take away the pain and suffering of those who let him. When he offers this release to Kirk and Bones, they decline. “Our pain,” Kirk spits at him, “defines us. It makes us who we are.” Can there be a more true statement about the falsity of the so-called human condition. Our pain and anger and hurt sometimes does get to be like a warm blanket. We get used to it. We use it to motivate ourselves and others around us. Yet Jesus stands there with hands outreached saying “no, that is a lie. What truly defines you is your love of or your rejection of Me.”

You see, brothers and sisters, if we stop to think about it, each of us here gathered has pushed someone when they were down. Rather than lifting them up, rather than reminding them of the image in which they were created and providing them with hope, we have offered the weight of condemnation. And we are the ones sent into the world with hope! And still we treat people like garbage. We who have been taught better, we who know better, still fail.

Yet each one of us, just like each person that we encounter is given a choice. Will I or won’t I serve Him? The answer to that question has amazing repercussions for how we see life and how we will live it. Donna had every right to kick those old ladies when they were down. Justice, we could easily argue, would allow her to reject their apology. Yet, as Donna reflected, she always thought herself a Christian. What better way to live her than to emulate what her Lord had done for her. When she first accepted His saving grace in her life, He promised her that her sin was as far as East is from the West. When she later rejected Him for nearly thirty years, because her church (His body), rejected her, still He remained faithful. And when she found herself face to face with the choice of whether to forgive or not, His words from the cross rang out in her head. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” When she ran away from Him for thirty years, she now understood that those words had been spoken for her benefit. Faced with the choice of forgiving or condemning, her choice was easy. And, like Jews who lived under the torah we read a piece of this day, what now defines her is her Lord.

Brothers. Sisters. Who or what will you let define you? Will you keep the comfortable blanket of hurt and pain wrapped like a mantle around your shoulders? Or will you let His love, His forgiveness, and His grace recreate you in His image? Twice this season we have renewed our baptismal vows. Twice, each one of us here gathered has declared that we are dead to selves and raised to new life in Him. How better can we express that truth, how better can we incarnate our faith, how better can we show that we are different from those lost in this world, than to seek the forgiveness of those whom we have wronged and accept the repentance of those who have wronged us in our past? What might those actions, forgiving our enemies and seeking the forgiveness of our enemies, cause to happen in the lives of those around us? Maybe, just maybe, they will recognize that you are not of this world and ask for an accounting of what makes you so different, so joyful, so at peace.

Jesus reminds us this day, brothers and sisters, that we are not of this world. To be sure, we live in it and we are impacted by th garbage in it. But this world is not our home, and the behavior of those in the world around us is not the behavior He demands of His followers. No, indeed. He demands that those who profess to having been raised to new life in Him live as if that proclamation, that statement, were true. You see, He died even for our enemies, that it might be possible for them to become our brothers and sisters in Him. He died so that you and I, who are enemies of others, might be recreated in His image. He died that all could be saved. And He sends you as His feet, His voice, His hands, and His ambassador of that offer of reconclliation He makes possible with God. Who better to send than those of us who were once His enemies? Who better to model His pattern of life, than those who know the true peace and true joy that comes with that reconciliation?



Monday, February 14, 2011

The antithesis . . .

Ironically, at a time in the lectionary when Paul is talking about feeding his listeners gruel, Matthew gives us some words of Jesus that can be best described as a plate of ribs. There's some meat in His words, and we could be chewing on those bones for some time. In theological speak, this passage of Matthew is often called the antitheses. By that, theologians mean that Jesus is making some significant changes. One of the unfortunate consequences is that some people, upon hearing the term and how the section is described, assume that Jesus is somehow the antithesis of the torah, as if grace and torah were somehow standing in opposition to one another. To be sure, Jesus is making some changes, and the changes are not without significance. Jesus' changes and the authority with which He speaks them serves as the beginning of some of the opposition which will be raised against His ministry. So, what is happening? Essentially, Jesus is pointing out just how perverted we have become, when it comes to keeping God's instruction.

The key to Jesus' instructions, lies in the “you have heard it said in ages past.” One of the problems Jesus has with the religious authorities of their day is the burdens which they place upon the very ones they are called to tend. In many ways, the people of Israel were very much like us, or at least like the children in our midst. They were always looking for ways to get around what God had instructed, or at least get by with the minimum effort required. And, far too often, the religious elite were willing to oblige. Their willingness, however, often left the people misled. Jesus' teaching, by contrast, are given to place His disciples and us back upon the path directed by God. For example, in dealing with oaths, the Pharisees and religious elite had given the people of Israel permission to trick the Gentiles with whom they had dealings. In the ANE, one was expected to keep oaths. If one swore an oath “by (fill in your god here),” one had to keep the oath. Failure to keep the oath was to run the risk of dishonoring the named God and incurring his or her wrath. In that sense, Yahweh's instructions in the torah were typical. If one of His people swore an oath by Him, that oath had to be kept. As His people and tied to His honor, Yahweh simply did not allow His people to dishonor Him by being oathbreakers. The way around this religious prohibition for the religious elite was to change the object by which one made oaths. While one could not trick a gentile by swearing an oath by Yahweh, there was, they declared, nothing wrong with swearing an oath by heaven, or by the crown, or their mother's grave and not keeping that oath. The breaking of an oath sworn by something other than Yahweh did not carry the moral weight of the oath sworn by God. All these other oaths could be broken with impunity.

Jesus, of course, reminds them of the point of oaths and of how they should be seen by those around them. One of the requirements of God's people in the torah was that they would be truth tellers. Other peoples might lie and mislead, but God's people were always to remember whom it was that they served. Yahweh, the creator of the heavens and the earth, was their God; and they were His people. Just as He was righteous, they were called to be righteous. That meant, among other things, that they were not supposed to lie nor break any oaths. Might not people take advantage of their seeming naivete? Of course. But the expectation was that God would bless them for telling the truth and representing Him well in all things. Jesus' remarks on oathbreaking reminds us and them of that simple truth. Our yesses should mean yes, and our nos should mean no. It is that simple. Instead, we find ourselves so misled, so perverted from His teaching, that we accept and expect all kinds of games. Who here does not check the fine print? Who here does not think that way to determine whether a politician is lying is simply watch and see if his or her lips are moving? And who here thinks that the truth is even mostly told in the courthouse, though every witness takes an oath? And let's not get started on religion. Well, maybe one question: Who here thinks that televangelists are always telling the truth when they get “words from the Lord?” Yes, when left to our own devices and abilities, we begin to accept and expect any number of lies. Considering that we serve a God who demands righteousness, could we be any more misled?

Or consider Jesus' teaching about divorce. This antithesis will make lots of us squirm here. I remember one of my first sermons here being on Ephesians and all that goes with God's teaching on marriage. Here, Jesus reminds us that we have been told one thing but that God meant for something else. Marriages are meant to be lifetime commitments. Are they hard? You bet. Are there lots of difficulties? You all know that there are. And yet, except for unfaithfulness, Jesus reminds us that we should not divorce. What's worse, the Son of God declares that anyone who marries someone who is divorced commits adultery, a clear violation of one of the Ten Commandments. How perverted are we? How misled are we from God's righteousness? How many of us have remarried here claiming to love the other, claiming to be in a good relationship, arguing to others and ourselves that this is true love, claiming to want what is best for our partners and yet acted the very opposite. By ignoring God, by doing what we want anyway, we have endangered the eternal prospect of the very ones we profess to love. God's teaching on adultery is easy to understand, and still we go ahead and remarry because we love them.

And society, in this instance, is even more misled. For the last week, I have noticed a commercial for a movie that is to be released later. The premise is that the wives give the husbands the opportunity to act on their lust. The money scene in the previews is the husband's response to being caught “totally checking her out” by his wife. Rather than reacting sheepishly for having been caught and apologizing to his wife, he asks his wife if she thinks the girl in question noticed. Think of that. He is worried about the other girl's feelings rather than the feelings of his wife. And we are expected to laugh at the situation; we are expected to find it amusing that he would be more concerned about the feelings of the one he checked out rather than the wife he betrayed.

Of course, the simple antithesis for us to keep in Jesus' teachings in this section is the prohibition against murder. Thankfully, as far as I know, none of us here have committed murder. Yes, we have a few who have served in war and either killed or contributed to the death of enemy soldiers, but those are not covered under the torah prohibition of rasah . Jesus refers to the deliberate, willful, plotting to take the life of another human being. We can all wipe our foreheads and let out a big sigh of relief. We might be oathbreakers and liars, we might even be adulterers, but at least we are not like those murderers. Then He shows us once again how far we have gone astray.

The prohibition against murder, according to Jesus, was rooted in the fact that everyone was created in the image and likeness of God. And the fact of that likeness has other implications, He informs us. Ever call someone else an idiot or moron? That counts me out as I have to go through that four way stop out front multiple times a day each and every day of the year and face the wonderful signs of universal respect (the finger) or hear the words of love expressed (cursing) by those in too much of a hurry to obey the law let alone avoid hurting other. Ever get angry with someone and then work to take away their dignity? As a country, we are great at this sin. Ask any descendants of any enemy we have ever had. Talk to a Muslim about our reactions to them in the aftermath of 9/11. Maybe, in this day in age, in light of what happened in Arizona, we should talk to politicians. Or better still, how many jokes do we tell at the expense of lawyers? The fact is, we are far better at insulting and dishonoring those created in the image and likeness of God than we would like to believe.

I commented at the beginning that it was a tough reading. While Paul was using gruel as the image of his offering to the Corinthians, Jesus was giving us something akin to ribs. There is all kinds of meat on these bones. The more we turn them over and look, the more there is about which for us to think. The more we look at ourselves the way God sees us before we accept His offer of salvation, the more we probably do not like what we see. And, were this all that was in Jesus' teaching, we would go away more than a bit sad. Jesus has just taught us that we curse Him and make fun of Him when we curse and make fun of others. Jesus has just taught us that we are being very selfish and risking the souls of those we claim to love when we insist upon remarrying. Jesus has just explained to us that we are sometimes liars and oathbreakers. He has just explained to us that things we find funny and amusing are things which are simply cruel to others and dishonor Him. Can you imagine how disfigured we would be were we required to cut off hands, gouge out eyes, or cut off other offending members such as our tongue?

But, as always, Jesus never leaves us condemned. Though He certainly could leave us to our own devices, to wallow in the sins to which we are blind, He comes to save. But, like those who meet here a dozen times a week to deal with their addiction to alcohol, He first has to let us hit rock bottom and recognize our own need. Buried in today's lesson is a quick reference to the fire of hell. The word which is translated as such is genna . It is the word from which we get Gehenna, but it comes from the Hebrew ge ben-hinnom which means valley of the son of Hinnom. It probably means nothing to most of us gathered together here this day, but you might remember its significance were you to study the books of Kings and Chronicles.

Back during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, Israel had fallen so far from their calling as God's people that they had turned to the worship of Molech. The worship of Molech, a pagan god of sun and heat, was particularly loathsome to God. You see, to end cold spells, worshippers would sacrifice their children to Molech. Now, sacrificing your child would be horrific enough, but the manner in which a child was sacrificed to Molech was gruesome. The children had to pass through fire to get the warmth and sun for the parents. Can you imagine burning your child alive to get the sun to shine or to end a cold snap? No wonder God found it to be an abomination. So misled, so perverted was Israel that her kings even began to worship Molech. Think of that for just a second. It was bad enough that the Scribes and Pharisees had twisted God's word in the Talmud, a kind of Hebrew cliff notes, to justify the practice God declared abominable, but even the king, the one charged with following God and teaching Israel to follow as well, had decided to sacrifice his children to change the weather. Can you imagine?

Now you can probably piece together the story. Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed their children in the valley of Hinnom (ge ben-hinnom) to change the weather and get the blessing of Molech. Once Josiah, perhaps the best king ever in Israel, ascended to the throne and read the torah, he began to tear down the altars and other signs of worship of false gods. In particular, Scripture notes that he defiled the valley of Hinnom. Although we are making an educated guess, it is thought by many that Josiah killed all the false priests, gathered up all their trappings, and burned them all in the valley, reducing everything to ash. Such a misuse of fire would obviously have offended Molech, were he real, and frightened his followers who would have assumed Yahweh was reasserting power in the heavens given the events on earth. Fortunately, this valley was fairly close to Jerusalem. The valley became so synonymous with defilement that Jerusalem began to use it as a dump. Eventually, over time, the valley began to fill in with trash and offal and everything else tossed out. So, fires were started to burn what was thrown away and reduce it to ash. Now you know the image chosen by Jesus to describe Hell. It is like the worst burning, stinky, nasty dump you could ever imagine, with a touch of cultural disgust tossed in for good measure.

To us, however, the story that Jesus brings to mind as well as the seasons which we are in ought to drive us to our knees in thankful praise. You see, we are not unlike those who have come before us. The Bible is full of stories of people who have become so perverted, so consumed by the own desires, so twisted in their logic that they began to do things which God forbid. Even kings, the ones charged with leading His people in righteousness, forgot who they were and who it was they were called to serve. And often, when we try to save ourselves and improve our situation, we simply make things far worse than they were to begin with. But, having reflected a few moments about what He has taught this day, how would you ever go about making yourself righteous before God? What could you do to atone for just the things He brought to mind this day? What could you possibly do to make yourself worthy to be in a right relationship with God? And we really only talked about a few things. Imagine how our view of ourselves would change were we to see everything that He sees? Now you know why some people might be driven to abominable acts and to redefine them as God’s will.

And yet, the solution to our problem is to be found in a baby. Our restoration begins to become possible again with the birth of a very special baby, with the birth of God becoming fully human, with the birth of that baby that when He grows to adulthood chooses to save rather than to condemn. All He asks of us, all He demands of us, is that we accept His offer and work on our behalf. The rest, the salvation and the sanctification of each one of us, is up to Him.

We gather this day in celebration of a baptism. We gather as a community giving thanks for the work that God is about to begin in Joshua. But we gather as well as a people with a memory. During that baptism, each one of us will be reminded of our own pledge to accept Him as Lord and to follow where He leads. We will gather and give thanks that we have died to ourselves and been raised to new life in Him and with one another. Most especially, brothers and sisters, we gather as a community of faith in joyful celebration of the fact that the one who knew us best, our Father in heaven, still found us worth the terrible cost of the cross. We gather knowing that we worship all kinds of Molechs in our lives, and still He chose to save us rather than condemn us. We gather to fortify ourselves and to remind ourselves of who we were by ourselves and of how others feel about themselves when they do not know His love. And we gather to remember that we, too, are a sent people, a people sent out into the world to proclaim His love and salvation to all who serve Molechs today, but would accept His invitation if they only knew His story and truth!