Sunday, February 27, 2011

Generous and Gracious

The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Epiphany 7, Year A
Church of the Ascension
February 20, 2011

We have been talking for several Sundays about Christ’s call to us in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ’s call to us to do the impossible, as Fr. Brett pointed out last week. And now we get this from Jesus. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, that seems simple.

“Be perfect." Except the Greek doesn’t actually mean “without imperfection” or “without flaw.” Perfect, in that sense, is not what Jesus is asking here. God does not expect flawlessness of any of us. Perfect here means whole, or complete. Eugene Peterson, in his artful paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, says it like this: “In a word, what I’m saying is: Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Generously and graciously.

So, that’s a relief, isn’t it? Generous, and gracious. We can do that - we’re Southern. So much easier than that ideal of perfection. So, that must be true for this whole passage...we only need to look at it differently, to understand it, to make it more palatable to our daily lives. We just need a more accurate translation. Right?

Because when Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” he doesn’t actually mean “Love your enemies,” right? He wouldn’t ask us to do something so impossible, would he? What kind of people does he think we are?

Well, he thinks we are God’s people. And yes, Jesus does mean every word of that sentence. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

As I was preparing for this sermon, I thought of the people I really loathed the most. So I’m going to give you a moment to do the same. I want you to think of someone who sent you right around the bend. Someone for whom you had nothing but bad feeling. Take a minute, and think of that person, or that group of people.

Okay - have them in mind? Hold on to them - I’m not going to make you reveal it to anyone else, but hold on to the image of that person for a minute.

I’ll tell you the first group of people that came to mind for me - the first group of people I was conscious of hating. When I was in first grade, I rode the school bus for the first time. I was the youngest kid on my route, and when I was growing up, everyone rode the bus together - first graders on up to high school. For whatever reason, I became the target of abuse from several kids on that bus - all of them much bigger kids than me. One morning, I got on the bus only to find it totally empty. It was the best day ever - my own bus! No one there to push me, or tease me for being quiet, or make fun of my clothes. I was elated. I began walking toward a seat, when suddenly the whole bus erupted. They all popped out at once and shouted “Boo!” in their loudest voices. They had all - every single one of them - hidden behind their seats, waiting to scare the pants off me. Well, it worked. I was six years old, and I can still taste in the back of my throat how terrified I was in that moment. That terror turned into anger, and that anger to hatred. I remember hoping that someone else made them feel as bad as they had me. I think I spent the whole ride to school praying to God that they would all get run over by the bus the next day.

Now, to my adult eyes, that seems like a silly grievance to remember so vividly, more than thirty years later. I long ago stopped hoping that those people - whose names I don’t even remember - would die, preferably in a messy and embarrassing ways. I don’t actively wish them ill. I don’t even hope that someday they really get what’s coming to them. I can tell that story now, with adult eyes, and know it was about power. Those kids had power because they were bigger, and stronger, and older. They chose to use that power to intimidate and bully me. In doing so, they wounded all of us. In making me feel like less than a full person, they wounded me, but they also wounded themselves, by perpetuating something ugly and dark.

So where are your wounds? We all carry them. Where is the place where someone has hurt you, perhaps the person you thought of before? Let me tell you a secret - that wound can be one of your places of greatest strength, if it isn’t poisoned by hatred. Because what Jesus is saying here, above all else, is that love is more powerful than hate. Not passive acceptance, not avoidance, but love. Jesus doesn’t say, “when someone strikes you on the cheek, then turn and run away.” This is not the “Doormat Gospel,” wherein we accept whatever treatment we are given in weakness. This is “Don’t fall into another person’s hatred and respond in kind.” We are called to the strength of love, and not the weakness of hatred.

We, the people of God, created in God’s image, are called to love that which is unlovable. And that, friends, is one of the most impossible things to comprehend. Because we know from our own lives, and from history how very unlovable the people in the world can be.

Last year, Dave and I traveled to Germany, to Munich. While there, we visited Dachau. If you don’t know that name, it’s the place of the first concentration camp developed by the Nazis. It opened in 1933 to house political prisoners, and became the prototype for all the camps to come. Auschwitz, Birgen-Belsen, Birkenau...all made possible by the research and work done at Dachau.

Dachau itself is a suburb of Munich, now. And it’s a fairly well-off one. If you visit there, you drive down tree-lined streets full of comfortable houses. It’s a little disconcerting, because it’s a little like someone dropped a concentration camp into the middle of Farragut.

So we went, and we visited the exhibits. And we stood in one of the reconstructed barracks in which people were warehoused, stacked on top of one another as if they were animals. On liberation of Dachau in 1945, American troops found more than 32,000 prisoners in a camp built to hold 5000. The death rate at liberation approached 200 people per day, mostly from starvation and typhus. Like all people who visit there, we saw the iron bars, and the gun turrets and the electric fences, and the crematorium and we contemplated how one group of people could treat another group of people like they were like so much dust beneath their feet. I stood in the middle of the camp, listening to the breeze rustle the tall trees that line the main path, and thought, “Holy God, how could you possibly love your children, knowing what we are capable of doing to one another?”

Because that is the true miracle. It is a miracle that God’s love for each of us is stronger than any human hatred. No matter what we have done, God’s love is constant. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. As chair, he listened for weeks to people who had suffered excruciating losses, and to people who had committed heinous and terrible crimes. In later years, he visited Rwanda after the massacre of more than half a million people, and said he could not pray, only stand and weep. He has seen and heard more than most how dark the depths of the human soul can be.

Archbishop Tutu says, “As we (on the commission) listened to accounts of truly monstrous deeds of torture and cruelty, it would’ve been easy to dismiss the perpetrators as monsters because their deeds were truly monstrous. But we are reminded that God’s love is not cut off from anyone. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove from them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility. We cannot condemn anyone to being irredeemable. ...God does not give up on you or on anyone for God loves you now and will always love you. Whether we are good or bad, God’s love is unchanging and unchangeable.”

Well, that goes against everything we think is fair, doesn’t it? Whether we are good or bad, God loves us all just the same. You mean all the good I’ve done doesn’t make me more worthy in God’s eyes? I’m not racking up credits for good deeds in heaven? Well, what kind of faith is that?

That is faith in a God of grace. That is faith in a God who creates each of us in God’s image. Not just some of us...not just the nice people, but the nasty ones too. That is the staggering enormity of God’s grace. God loves that whole busload of people that my six-year-old self loathed and wanted to wipe off the face of the earth just as much as he loves me.

What kind of people are we, that Christ asks us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us? We are the followers of a crucified and resurrected Christ, and we are a people of second chances, of transformation and redemption. We are a people who believe in an incarnated Savior who forgave his tormentors, and who interceded for them even as they tortured and mocked him. We believe in the Savior who spoke to the thief on the cross beside him, who forgave him when he repented, and promised to see him again that day in Paradise. We are called to believe that transformation is possible - in our hearts and in our lives, and in those of all God’s people.

Because we believe in a God of love, who loves us even when we are unlovable, may we respond to others not with hatred that corrupts, not with guilt that paralyzes, but with generosity of spirit, and graciousness of heart. May we be given the strength to respond to hatred with love, out of God’s great love for us. And may we always “live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward” each of us.

Amen.

Strive by not Striving

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
8th Sunday of Epiphany Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am
2/27/2011
Based on Isaiah 49:8-16a, Psalm 131, Matthew 6:24-34

Sermon Text:
When we lived in Orlando,
sometimes Jackie and I would take the kids
to this state park just outside the city,
called Wekiva Springs.
It was truly a paradise,
with towering palm trees,
and vines and lush growth,
flowers and green plants
all surrounding a cool spring,
out of which flowed a meandering stream.

In the hottest days of summer,
those steamy central Florida days,
where the temperature is always 96 degrees,
and the humidity is an oppressive 90%,
this spring would always
be 70 something degrees,
so when all the backyard pools
were like bath water,
and even the ocean had become
to hot to swim in,
the spring would offer some refreshment.

This week when I was praying
with our Centering Prayer Group,
I had an image of that spring
come into my mind.
Specifically, I was sitting by the source,
a little pool where the spring
bubbled up from underground,
before it flowed away in the stream.
Some of my worries were
gathered around me,
in bright yellow innertubes,
they drew my attention
away from the beauty around me
like the people who come to the spring
for recreation.

I realized as soon as I saw them,
that I could just let them
go on down the stream,
and I could stay by the spring,
and be refreshed.
Even that image went away,
going down the stream,
as do all images and thoughts
in centering prayer.

But when we opened our eyes,
the refreshment
was still real,
even more real in fact.
I had no idea, when I discussed that image with the group,
that the passage from Isaiah
was so directly related to my image,
since before our silent prayer
we had been focusing on the gospel for today.

But Isaiah does say
in today's reading from the 49th chapter,
God,
“who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.”

On the way home from work the day before,
I was hearing about the turmoil in Libya,
and all around the middle east and north Africa
and the uprising there.
I felt compassion for the people,
striving to deal with their problems of today,
and the past few decades
But then the newscaster said something like,
if this turmoil affects the world oil supply,
this could unsettle the economic recovery
we have been experiencing.

Isn't that always the way it goes these days?
There is always something going on,
and as if that were not enough to be concerned about,
we are encouraged to worry
about what might happen next,
the problems that could result,
are worse than the problem at hand.

And of course, when we have little children,
like little Blake Beale,
who we will baptize today,
we worry about them,
what kind of world are we raising them in?
Will they make it,
what problems will happen during their lifetime?

Jesus is speaking directly against
that kind of thinking,
for it was prevalent in his time as well.
When will we ever learn?

Can we by worrying add a single hour
to our span of life?
Someone mentioned to me,
that studies recently have shown,
that worrying will definitely not add an hour,
but can actually take away from our life span.

For me the worry often expresses itself,
in what I will eat.
But for me even that is not good.
I'm trying to loose weight,
and get healthier again,
but when I think about what I will eat
it's not about hunger,
as would be for most of the people
in the world,
and as Jesus probably meant
for the people he was speaking to...
those people are worried about where
their next meal will come from,
or if they'll have to be hungry.
But my thoughts about what to eat,
is really about stress, boredom,
or emotional eating.
When I worry about what I will eat,
I'm distracted from what is really going on,
distracted from really living.

Other people do similar things with
worrying about what they will wear,
it's not that they're thinking,
“if I don't wear
something warm,
I will die of exposure.”
It's more that they're worried
about looking fashionable,
or wearing something
to express themselves in some way.
But that worry distracts them from life.
It distracts them from living.

What kinds of things do you worry about,
that distract you from life,
distract you from living?
Jesus asks us not to strive
for these things,
because they make us miss out on life.
And he is all about showing us,
the way to abundant life.

He tells us not to worry,
but his statement is not,
like that song that was popular in the 90's,
“Don't worry, be Happy.”
Remember that one?
It was a happy song,
and it was very popular,
some fans could have even
been called followers,
but its message was quickly criticized,
because it is so easy to say,
but not so easy to do.

Jesus gives us much more than simply saying,
don't worry.
He tells us how to keep from worrying about
everything that prevents us
from living abundantly.

He says,
“strive first for the Kingdom of God,
and his righteousness,
and all these things
will be given to you as well.”

The paradoxical thing about that,
is that striving for the Kingdom of God,
is most often about not striving,
or at least, not striving the way the world
teaches us to strive.

Striving for the kingdom,
is done the way that we read
in the psalm today,
and the way we practiced it
in the Centering Prayer group.

The psalmist says,
I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother's breast,
my soul is quieted within me.

While the world blares around us,
we are to still our souls.
As we promise today,
to raise Blake Beale to know Christ,
we might take a lesson from him,
and every baby in our church,
who often cuddle so sweetly and peacefully
on their parents chest
we could learn from them,
about being still in our souls.

This kind of quiet,
where we find the Lord
guiding us by springs of water,
is simple,
but it requires commitment.

Stillness flies in the face of the busy life,
that the rest of the world requires of us.
But stillness requires commitment
to take time everyday
to seek the kingdom of God.

Time to do nothing,
and even to think nothing,
which is so counter to all the stuff
we have to get done.
But it really works,
and it helps our other work be more effective,
and our lives more abundant.

This week make time to be quiet,
and to let those worries,
those thoughts,
those concerns,
flow down the stream,
as you sit beside the spring
of the water of life.
Start with 20 minutes each day.

You can do it with images,
and meditations,
as Mary Lee is so good at leading,
or you can do it without images,
but in silence,
as we practice in Centering Prayer.
But I find that this silent time with the Lord,
is the only way that I can be freed,
from the worries,
that otherwise consume my life.

Taking time each day to still your soul,
and make it quiet,
helps you to be present to the moment,
and to seek the Kingdom of God within.
When you do that,
you will find that all of the things you need,
are given to you as well.

That's what Jesus wants us to know,
today, and everyday.
As you think about the water of baptism,
the water we will pour
over Blake Beale today,
remember your baptism,
and make a commitment to meet God,
by that spring of water,
the fountain of living water,
flowing within you
and every baptized Christian.
Make your own commitment to strive
first for the Kingdom of God,
and to strive by not striving,
but by commitment to spend time in quiet,
each day with God.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Salt of the Earth, Light of the World

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
5th Sunday of Epiphany Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am
Based on Isaiah 58:1-9a, Matthew 5:13-20

Sermon Text:
Last week Fr. Howard talked to us
about the beatitudes from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount
and he rightly identified many here as being
among those who mourn, and are comforted,
and among those who are merciful, who will receive mercy.
Sometimes when we hear these Gospel passages,
out of the greater context in which they sit,
we can miss who Jesus is talking to.
So it was great that Fr. Howard,
pointed out that Jesus is talking to us, His followers,
in the beatitudes.

And he continues today, continuing, if you will
the same sermon.
But like many sermons,
we have a part in which we are comforted,
and a part in which we are challenged to do something.
Somehow, the way this worked out,
Howard got to express the comforting part,
But I get to speak about the hard, challenging part.

Thank God, that Jesus often put his
challenging words in uplifting ways.
I'm not inclined to do that,
while I like to think of myself as a positive,
optimistic person, when I read things
I tend to focus on the negative side of things.

So when I read Jesus telling us,
you are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste
how can it's saltiness be restored?
It is no longer good for anything. . .
well I tend to see myself in that last part.

That particular metaphor has been
challenging to me ever since I first noticed it.
I think I was in college,
when I called my dad as I was reading that passage,
and said, “what does that mean, you are salt?”
He was kind of surprised,
because I guess he thought it was easy to understand.
Maybe you're with him,
but in case there are some of you who are confused as I was,
let me explain a little.

Salt is of course used for flavoring,
but in the world before refrigeration, it was used
for a lot more than that.
They were not concerned with melting snow
on the roads, so that's not what I mean.
Salt was used to preserve meats, fish and other things,
salt kept things from going bad.
I don't know if salt can really lose it's taste,
but I imagine, that when a salty mixture has lost it's taste,
that means there really isn't salt in there anymore,
and it is no longer good for preserving.
It can't keep things from going bad.
Recently I have heard Christians,
especially young Adult Christians,
taking this passage and saying,
Be salt to the world around you!
But when they say it, they are often talking
about bringing flavor, spice,
to the world around you. It's kind of a hip
way of saying, be different and flavor things around you.
But here, salt is much more important than that,
and it's a lot harder to accomplish.

You are the salt of the earth,
the way it seems Jesus is saying it here,
is really about saying,
you are the ones who keep the earth from going bad.
These days,
after the financial meltdown we've experienced,
and the struggles apparent in the uprisings
around the world,
It's very clear to me that the forces of corruption,
the people who are not concerned with being salt,
the people perhaps who have lost their saltiness,
if they ever had it at all,
are powerful.
It can feel like a futile battle,
to keep trying to preserve things,
when so many around us would rather
have their own way, and let things be destroyed for their
short term profit.
But our role as salt is significant.
Perhaps it is more significant than ever.
And yet, I can see where Jesus is coming from
in his message,
because working from inside the church,
sometimes I feel kind of insulated from those corrupting
forces.
We have the luxury of working mostly with people,
who are trying to do good,
who are striving to pursue ministry in Jesus' name.

But you all, working in the world,
and facing pressure from those above you,
or from clients to do things wrong,
raising families in the midst of so many bad influences,
you are the salt of the earth.
You are not being thrown out and trampled,
but mixed into the world,
as a few grains of powerful preserving salt,
in the midst of a very bland mixture.

How does that work in your daily life?
Well let me tell you about a way I discovered
the importance of Christians in the business world.
One of the biggest ways that you exercise your saltiness,
is by telling the truth.

After college I worked for a man named Michael
at a marketing research company in New York.
He was a member of my church,
and owned his small company.
He told me regularly how individuals at companies
who would contract work with him
would ask him to change the results of his research
before he presented it to their bosses.
That of course went against his ethics as a Christian.
If the person asked him to change the numbers he would say, “I'm sorry I can't do that.”
And when he sent them charts
he would send them in such a way
that the numbers could not be changed.
Sometimes his clients would call him and be absolutely furious, because the numbers weren't what they wanted
to present to their superiors.
But Michael would say to them,
`Look, if I can lie for you, I can lie to you. And I never will.’
Thankfully, as long as I was aware of it,
that integrity, brought Michael repeat business,
because companies knew they could trust his work.

Michael was like a little bit of salt in his industry,
keeping the whole thing from going bad.
I imagine in your business you face similar decisions,
remember that you are salt,
and that the earth depends on you to keep it from going bad.
We could have used a little more salt,
in our financial industry a couple of years ago,
and we can certainly use it everywhere today.
The other thing Jesus tells us,
is even a little more shocking.
He said, “you are the light of the world.”
Wait a second here,
I thought Jesus is the light of the world!?!
Isn't that what epiphany is all about.
Well yes, it is,
but as we follow Him, and invite Him into our lives,
we take on His Light,
we come enlightened by Him.
You are the light of the world.

And of course, we know that
being enlightened with His light,
is not so we can hide it, as if under a basket.
We are supposed to brighten the darkness around us.
But how?
Well one of the best ways to interpret scripture,
is to let scripture interpret other scripture.
And that's what I see in Isaiah today.

That prophecy puts it in stark terms,
it brightens the contrast to black and white.
The bad news for me,
is that most of what is being criticized is
the practice of religion.
You could put in in today's terms, by
replacing fasting, which is not as prevalent as it used to be,
with going to church.
I'm sure you know people to whom this could be addressed.
“You serve your own interests, even when you go to church on Sunday, and then during the week
you oppress all your workers.”

“The fast” that God chooses,
the way God wants us to go to His Church,
is “to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.”
He says through his prophet,
“share your bread with the hungry,”
(not questioning whether they'll misuse it)
“bring the homeless person into your house,”
(not complain when they might live in your neighborhood),
give clothes to people who need them,
and don't hide yourself from your own kin.
That last one is tough,
because how often do we find ourselves,
trying to avoid those in our families, who really need help,
worried that we might get taken advantage of.
He's not saying we have to fix everything,
but not hide from it when we are confronted by the need.

Isaiah says,
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,”
The dawn is a much more powerful light,
than a lamp on a lampstand.
So in a way, Jesus is making it a little easier on us.
If we do all those things,
we will shine as brightly as the dawn,
but if we are faithful with what we are given,
we will at least be like a lamp on a stand.

And you know, the darker it is around you,
the less light is needed to make a difference.
When I've been exploring a cave,
the light of my little head lamp, scatters the darkness.
So if you're in an industry, or a family,
where it's close to pitch black, with all the disfunction,
with all the sin,
perhaps you can make a huge difference,
by doing something little and true, with love.
If you work in a bright place, like a school
where there are a lot of people doing good work,
maybe your lamp will seem like it doesn't add a lot,
to the brightness of the place,
but that does not make your importance any less.
In fact, in working with the neediest among us,
a lot more brightness is needed by a lot more people,
to overcome the pressure of the darkness.

But notice that all of that Isaiah talked about was not new,
all of those expectations are in the Law
that God gave to Moses.
And Jesus is saying, while he sets us free from punishment,
he does not abolish the law,
but fulfills it.
He requires our participation in the same
work that God has called his people to from the beginning.

So when there is injustice,
we are to correct it,
when people are oppressed,
we are to come to their aid,
when people need food and clothing,
we are to provide it.
Nowhere does God say,
first find out if they are worthy of your help,
and then help them if it's not too inconvenient.

If you are comfortable,
and they are not,
your light is to bring them comfort.
It's pretty clear,
but it's hard to do.

It would be so much easier to simply say,
well, I come to church,
and I am a good person.
And I don't hurt anyone, as long as they don't get in my way.
But that is putting your light under a basket.
And you know that when a light is under a basket,
it is eventually extinguished.

The way to let your light shine before others,
even better,
the way to shine like the sunrise after a dark night,
is to do seek out ways to make the world around you better,
and not shy away when the opportunity
to stand up for what's right comes your way.
Be honest and truthful in all your dealings,
and don't let deceit creep in,
for by doing that, you help preserve
the whole society.

And support one another in doing these things.
One bad apple may spoil a bunch,
but a little salt goes a long way.