I Can Be Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2017 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20

It’s week five of our sermon series where we’re imagining our way into God’s point of view. Today we were going to talk about God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as enlightened. I’m still going to get to the content of what I planned to say in a bit, but I need to start from a different place today.

You see, like many of you the two weeks since the inauguration have set my head spinning. I sat down on Monday afternoon to try to find some clarity in the turmoil, and I accidentally wrote this sermon. I didn’t mean to. I was writing a list of recent events to help clarify for myself what’s been going on. After writing the list and reading it over again, this sermon started pouring out. The list was a distillation of recent tactics employed to centralize governmental authority in a small cadre of like-minded men. As I reviewed what I had written, I found the feeling that has been creeping around inside me since the end of election season suddenly no longer creeping, but strutting. That feeling is fear. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

I Can Be Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2017 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20

It’s week five of our sermon series where we’re imagining our way into God’s point of view. Today we were going to talk about God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as enlightened. I’m still going to get to the content of what I planned to say in a bit, but I need to start from a different place today.

You see, like many of you the two weeks since the inauguration have set my head spinning. I sat down on Monday afternoon to try to find some clarity in the turmoil, and I accidentally wrote this sermon. I didn’t mean to. I was writing a list of recent events to help clarify for myself what’s been going on. After writing the list and reading it over again, this sermon started pouring out. The list was a distillation of recent tactics employed to centralize governmental authority in a small cadre of like-minded men.*  As I reviewed what I had written, I found the feeling that has been creeping around inside me since the end of election season suddenly no longer creeping, but strutting. That feeling is fear. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

True Purpose

Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2014 || Epiphany 7A || Matthew 5:38-48

dolphin“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? Sounds like naïve idealism at worst and hopeless hyperbole at best. Sounds like one more command of Jesus that we could never live up to. I mean, it’s hard enough turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile and loving our enemies, but now he wants us to be perfect on top of all of that? Doesn’t he understand that to be perfect there could never have been a time when one wasn’t already perfect? Doesn’t he understand that one cannot become perfect? Either you are or you’re not…and we’re…not.

I don’t mean to be sound discouraging right off the bat, but I bet that many of you were thinking something along those lines after I finished reading the Gospel. Like dutiful Episcopalians, you still said, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” in response to my, “The Gospel of the Lord.” But I’m sure some of you were thinking instead: “What in the world do you mean, Lord Christ?”

Let’s face it. Sometimes Jesus says things that we don’t understand. Sometimes he says things that make us uncomfortable. And sometimes he says exactly the thing we need to hear, the words our hearts have been longing for. Every so often, he scores a hat trick – he’ll say something we don’t understand that makes us feel uncomfortable, and yet those same words end up being precisely what we need to hear.

Such is the case, I think, with these words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let’s stick with these words for the rest of this sermon, despite our possible discomfort, and perhaps in the end we will hear them with new ears.

English translations of the Bible going back to the King James Version in the early 1600s have used the word “perfect” to render the original Greek. The trouble is the Greek word is better translated, not as “perfection,” but as “maturation” or “culmination” or “completeness” or “fulfillment.”

Try this translation on for size: “Be complete, find wholeness, therefore, as your heavenly Father is the source of all wholeness.” Sounds a little more doable, doesn’t it?

Or how about this one: “Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes.”

When we render Jesus words like this, we hear not a command, but a desire, a deep yearning of our Lord for us. Jesus isn’t commanding us to “be perfect” like you might command a dog to roll over. No. Jesus is offering us a vision of the life he invites us to take part in.

“Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes.”

This vision – this invitation, really – is Jesus’ dream of bringing humanity back into full communion with God. Somewhere along the path, humanity forgot its true purpose. Humanity forgot what God designed it to do and be. Humanity forgot, and we are the legacy of this forgetting. All that is wrong with civilization – from the global (environmental degradation, war, poverty, hunger) to the personal (domestic strife, substance abuse, body images issues) – all that is wrong with civilization can trace its roots back to people deliberately or unintentionally failing to fulfill the purpose God gave us.

This purpose is simple: love God and love each other. The other includes the person in the next booth at the restaurant, the person on the street with the cardboard sign, the person across the ocean in the refugee camp, not to mention the earth we walk on and everything else that calls this earth home. And the love I’m talking about here is not simply emotional fondness. Here love is multifaceted: love is the catalyst for service, love is the connection between the server and the served, and love is the affection generated in the act of serving, which perpetuates a virtuous cycle. When we look on the other as a subject to be loved, and not as an object to be possessed, we take a step toward the true purpose that God instilled in us along with God’s image and likeness.

When we participate in Jesus’ vision “to be perfect,” we rediscover this true purpose and we find fulfillment in the love we share and the actions such love spurs. And I promise you God delights in this fulfillment in the same way God delights in the dolphin that soars out of the water or the tree that grows straight and tall and bears radiant, delicious fruit. God delights in us always, but we reflect that delight when we live into the true purpose for which God created us.

Here’s what I mean. Have you ever had a moment when you realized you were exactly where you were supposed to be? You took a step outside your body and a thought struck you like a bolt of lightning that your whole life was preparing you for this one, singular moment.

Perhaps you were in the delivery room breathing along with your wife. Her hand squeezed yours so hard that you thought every bone in your fingers was crushed. Finally, at long last, the baby arrived and you gathered the tiny life into your arms and he opened his eyes. They were brown flecked with gold just like yours. And in that moment, you realized your whole life was hurtling forward to that day, to that room, to that new heart beating next to yours. The love you felt in that moment was the fulfillment of your true purpose. It was your perfection.

Perhaps you were deployed to Afghanistan, to one of the forward posts, just you and a dozen other troops in a small fort on a hill in the middle of nowhere. One day you were out on patrol and without warning the wind was full of enemy fire. The staff sergeant next to you took a bullet to the leg in the first wave. It sliced through his artery and the blood flowed too fast. You were pinned down behind a crumbling wall, but still you fashioned a tourniquet from your backpack strap. You flung him over your shoulder, and disregarding the rounds whizzing by, you hiked back to base. He lost the leg but kept his life. And during that hike, you realized your whole life was hurtling forward to that day, to that service, to that comrade-in-arms who needed your help. The service you gave in that moment was the fulfillment of your true purpose. It was your perfection.

Perhaps you can think of a moment like that in your own life. Perhaps you can remember a moment when you realized your whole life was hurtling to that day, to that place, to that person, to that love and service bursting to be fulfilled.

Now wouldn’t it be extraordinary if those moments were the norm and not the exception? When we recognize and step into Jesus’ vision for us, we discover more and more how God is charting the trajectory of our lives, how God is creating opportunities for us to fulfill our true purpose – to love God and love each other.

So be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes. Love God. Love each other. And start to notice how God is preparing you for each moment of your life – each moment in which we have the opportunity to love, to serve, to be true to the purpose for which we were designed.

*Art Credit: Lomvi2, commons.wikimedia.org

What Kind of Life?

Sermon for Sunday, February, 16, 2014 || Epiphany 6A || Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

whatkindoflifesquareWhen I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Well, a fireman and a garbage man. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, and a baseball player. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, a baseball player, and a paleontologist. I wanted to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. And you know what? That didn’t happen. Something even better happened. I got to be someone whose job it is to walk with people during the most important moments of their lives and point out God’s movement in those moments. I got to be a priest. And I got to be your priest.

But getting back to my childhood’s occupational dreams, I can tell you one absolutely essential thing about them, which is this: My parents never quashed them. They never told me to stop dreaming. They never told me I was being silly or that I couldn’t, in fact, be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Instead, they encouraged me to reach for the stars and to fuel my dreams with all the fodder of my boundless imagination. When so-called “reality” set in years later, I didn’t feel betrayed by this encouragement, as one might expect; rather, the early training in dreaming big helped me retain the capacity to imagine more and better possibilities than so-called “reality” presented.

Such a capacity involves consciously making choices about what kind of life you want to live. Do you want to live a small life boxed in by the scarcity inherent in subscribing only to the notion of the currently possible? Or do you want to live a full life unbounded due to the abundance inherent in trusting in the creativity of our God? What kind of life do you want to live?

This is the question that both Moses and Jesus address today in our readings from the book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel according to Matthew. And this is the question they challenge us with today. What kind of life do you want to live?

Moses has stood on the mountaintop and looked on the vista of the Promised Land. But he knows he himself will never get there. He’s about to die, but before he does, he has a few more words to say to the people of Israel who have been walking with him through the desert for forty years. These words make up the book of Deuteronomy: Moses’ last speech, the last piece of the law, the restatement of the Ten Commandments and more, and these words today, in which Moses gives the people a choice:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” he says. “…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses…” And then Moses, with all the fervor of someone who knows his time is short and his words precious, implores the people, saying: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

Well, we know those people and their descendants had a, shall we say, checkered history with this choice. Sometimes they listened to Moses’ final invitation, but more often than not, they didn’t. The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures trace the trajectory of this choice and of God’s constant and persistent calls through the prophets to renew it and once again “choose life.”

When Moses issued the original invitation before his death, he was speaking about all the fullness of life with God and one another that the Law was designed to promote. But over the centuries, people interpreted and reinterpreted the Law into smaller and smaller boxes. By the time of Jesus, the Law of Moses had been parsed to within an inch of its life. The people, against whom Jesus spoke, had gotten lost in the minute details of the Law and forgotten its original intent to promote the fullness of life, the dream that God always had for God’s people.

And so we watch Jesus ascend the mountain, sit down, and begin a long sermon. He speaks of blessings for people not normally considered blessed (what we call the “Beatitudes”). He speaks of the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And then he says something curious, which we read last week. He says this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

To fulfill the law. To complete it. To make it what it was always designed to be. In his fulfillment of the law, Jesus takes one step past Moses’ original choice. For Jesus, the choice isn’t simply between life and death because he has already chosen life for each of us. His choice is what kind of life.

And now we hear Jesus offer examples of the kinds of life we might lead. In each one, he takes a piece of the law and expands it, deepens it. Not just “do not murder,” but also, be reconciled to those you are estranged from. Not just “do not commit adultery,” but also, act with virtue and fidelity in all things. Remain in relationship rather than looking for easy outs. Speak truthfully always rather than trying to convince people through deceptive oaths.

In each example, Jesus offers two paths to choose: division or reconciliation? Depravity or virtue? Isolation or relationship? Dishonesty or truth? Each choice builds the kind of life we lead. Our lives can be small – empty of meaningful relationships, bursting with regret, littered with the collateral damage of strife, envy, and enmity. Or our lives can be full of all the good things God yearns to share with us – the abundance of lives lived with and for others, the joy of trusting and being trustworthy, the simple grace of acting virtuously.

Just a quick aside—I know Jesus’ language seems awfully harsh, and, in reality, it is. But we have to remember that he lived in a world where punishments included actually having body parts chopped off and where divorces could be handed out for baking mishaps. While some of his words might be hard for us to digest, the seriousness of his tone and the weight of the message can still sink in.

This message offers us the expansive dream that God invites us to be a part of – the kind of dream where someone might actually grow up to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Or more to the point, the kind of dream where someone might actually choose the abundance of reconciliation, virtue, positive relationship, and trust.

If we are to take a step today to not only choose life, but choose the abundant life that Christ offers us, what might we do? Let’s start with a baby step. A mentor of mine, the Rev. Dr. David Lose, suggests this: think of two relationships you currently have. One should be the most wonderful, fruitful, mutual, and loving relationship of your life. The other should be one that’s on the brink of failure because of neglect or hurt feelings or betrayal. Take both of these relationships to God in prayer. Ask God to help you see what sustains and strengthens the first one. Why is that relationship important to you? What about it do you have to thank God? For the second relationship, don’t try to place blame, but instead hold the other person up in prayer to God. Offer God the brokenness of the relationship as something that can’t be mended without God’s help. What actions and choices can you make to move that second relationship to better health?

As you pray about these two relationships, remember the choice that Jesus puts before us today. What kind of life do you want to lead? A life full of reconciliation, virtue, uplifting relationships, and trust? A life of abundance? Yes, all that and more. A life of dreams that are so big that only God can contain them.

God’s Glass

Sermon for Sunday, February 9, 2014 || Epiphany 5A || Isaiah 58:1-9a

Before I became a rector, I rarely had the opportunity to preach two sermons in a row. At my last church, my rector and I alternated, and we only got two in a row if the other was on vacation. So I’ve never really had much of a chance to preach a sequel to a sermon. But today, that’s exactly what I plan to do. So, just in case you weren’t here last week, let’s recap.

Previously on The Sermon at St. Mark’s, we listened in to Simeon’s lullaby as he held the infant Christ and named him the “light to enlighten the nations.” I invited you to join me in a mission: to bear witness to the light of Christ and to be vessels of that same light. To see the light and to be the light. We finished the sermon with three words to help us remember this mission: Christof’s command to “cue the sun” from the film The Truman Show.

We also went through a few small examples of what being the light might look like: being friendly in the grocery line, standing up for a victim of bullying, welcoming someone to church. Of course, I didn’t mean to diminish what it means to be the light of Christ by offering such small examples; rather, by the accumulation of small actions, we discover the light shining brighter around us and forth from us.

And here’s where, if this sermon were a television show, the screen would go black for a moment and we’d be in new territory. Is everyone with me? Great.

We’ll get back to those three small examples from last week in a bit, but first here’s the opening action sequence of the new episode to get everyone hooked.

GlassSo – did you know you are made of glass? It’s true! Now, of course, I don’t mean that you’re made of glass in the idiomatic way; it’s not that you’re easily offended or that your baseball career was cut short because you have a “glass arm.” Nor do I mean made from actual glass that once was sand.

Those caveats aside, you and I are made of glass. God spun the molten glass onto that hollow rod and blew, shaped, and molded each us into being. If somehow you were to scour clean all the layers of accumulated grime – all our misplaced priorities, all our missed chances, all our grubbing and selfishness – then you would uncover God’s glass. Indeed, each of us is transparent beneath the grime of everything that separates us from God (which, by the way, is another way to say “sin”).

With God’s help, we can scour clean some of that grime to come closer to being the transparent people God always envisioned, people who are windows through which the light of God shines. First, we need to celebrate the beautiful truth that we are, in fact, God’s glass; that we are, in fact, the vessels of God’s light we mentioned last week; that we are, in fact, the light of the world, as Jesus claims in today’s Gospel reading.

Second, we acknowledge that our glass is covered in grime. It has lost much of its transparency. The light is shining, but the window is obstructed. We cause some of this grime through our actions and inactions. Some of the grime accumulates simply because we are mindlessly complicit in the big and little sins of the world. The rest happens due to apathy, lethargy, and complacency; we haven’t cleaned in a while, so the window gets dirty.

So first we celebrate that we are God’s glass and then we confess that we do not emit nearly as much light as we are designed to do. Third, we participate with God in the act of scouring. This calls for attention, dedication, and practice – not to mention elbow grease. But I assure you there is no greater goal in this life than to be a window through which God’s glory shines. Truth, reconciliation, love, blessing – all the good things in this life and the next spring from this goal.

The prophet Isaiah knew this. He saw in today’s first reading an accumulation of grime due to a willful misinterpretation of the meaning of fasting. First he accuses his generation of going through the motions of fasting – the outward appearance that seems all well and good but is really covering up the light. His accusation comes in the form of several rhetorical questions, for which the silent answer is a resounding “NO!”

“Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Notice that this certainly sounds like a textbook fast. I’m sure people in Isaiah’s day felt like they were on the right track with such outward signs. But Isaiah sees this as more grime accumulating, rather than more light shining. A fast, he says, should be a way to uncover the window beneath the grime. A fast, he says should look like this:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free…
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them…

When we participate with God in this kind of life-affirming service, the grime wipes away and the window is revealed again. And, as Isaiah’s next words say:
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

We are God’s glass. We are covered with grime. But we have every opportunity to partner with God to scour away the grime and shine as God always intended us to do. Recall those three small examples we talked about last week: the grocery line, gym class, and church. Three small examples of partnering with God to shine as light in this dark world.

Let’s look at them again and give them a little more weight. The first was: “In the line at the grocery store when you choose not to be annoyed that the person ahead of you is taking too long.” It’s really just a minor inconvenience after all. Most of the things that send us towards negativity and broken relationships start as minor inconveniences. But by choosing not to be annoyed, by choosing instead to shine with God’s light and let the oh-so-tempting anger pass, we can allow God to turn inconvenience into blessing.

The second has happened every year since the invention of P.E.: “In gym class when you stand up for the kid who’s being laughed at because he can’t climb the rope.” Is this not a child’s first attempt at standing against oppression and injustice? Is this not an elementary school version of Isaiah’s true fast?

And the third, appropriate for this morning: “At church when you see a new face in your pew and you exchange a kind word of welcome.” I can’t think of a better way to be a window of God’s light than to cultivate a welcoming spirit, both here in the safety of our church home and out in the wilds of the world.

Turning inconvenience into blessing. Standing against oppression and injustice. Cultivating a welcoming spirit. These are merely three ways that we partner with God in scouring away the accumulated grime that keeps us from shining. And in so doing we help God’s kingdom shine even brighter here on earth. We can accomplish each of these ways and so many, many more in the small actions of the day and in the big events of our lives if we apply our attention, dedication, and elbow grease to the practice of being God’s glass.

So celebrate that we are, each of us, windows that God has designed to shine God’s light through. Confess that we do not emit nearly as much light as we are designed to do. And participate with God in the act of scouring, in the daily call to return to transparency. “Then,” as the prophet Isaiah says, “your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

*Art Credit: Kelly Cookson, commons.wikimedia.org