Saturday, July 24, 2021

What News?

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on July 18, 2021, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11B):  2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Ephesians 2:11-22

You can listen to the sermon here.

Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has . . . broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. . . . He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near [with the result that whoever you are] you are no longer strangers.

          What news do we have for the world?  More to the point:  What good news do we have for the world?

          What is the message of our church to the world?  I mean both the world at large and the world just outside these doors.

          These are urgent questions.  Our very survival as a church is at stake.  I’m glad that we are taking action to renew our building.  But we need also to renew our message, which means first for ourselves and then for the world, because if our message to the world is not grounded in our own experience, it will be good news to no one.

          Pauls’ letter to the Ephesians helps us answer these questions, and gain the personal experience of the good news we need, in order to tell good news to the world.

          If you read the whole letter, you will find the word “church” used frequently, beginning with a major announcement at the end of chapter 1.

God has made Jesus head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (1:22-23)

          I wish sometimes we could erase the English word “church” from our minds. It has become encrusted with all kinds of junk over the centuries, so that when we hear the phrase “Jesus is head of the church,” we immediately think of things like church buildings and church institutions and hierarchies and rituals, none of which Paul had in mind.

          King David wanted to build God a special house.  Even the prophet Nathan thought it was a great idea.  God, however, said “no.”  Then God hedges and says that he will allow David’s son Solomon to build a house for God.  I’ve often wondered if God regretted that decision.  When Solomon does build the Temple, in an eloquent prayer of dedication, he reminds the people that God cannot be contained in a building.  But it was too late.  The notion that God was at least more present in temples and churches than in the rest of the world was off and running.

          When we read Paul talking about the “church,” he’s taking about a gathering, a meeting of people, an assembly.  The Greek word is ekklesia; it is an ordinary word meaning any gathering of people, especially people called together for some purpose.  In New Testament terms the ekklesia is the gathering called by God, in Christ, held together by the Holy Spirit.  It matters not what it is as much as what its purpose is.

          In Ephesians Paul sets forth the purpose for the gathering of God.  First it is for people to grow in faith. Paul calls it “maturity” or “growing up” in Christ. He will say in chapter four, that gifts are given in the ekkelsia:

That all might come to unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity . . . we must grow up in every way into Christ. (4:13, 15)

          It is the first step:  the personal experience of good news before we can authentically proclaim it to the world.  This experience is about unity and peace:  peace within each one of us and peace among us as we gather.

          This peace does not happen just because we walk in the door, no matter how often we do that.  Peace is work.  I can only be at peace with myself and with all of you if I am tending to my own maturity in Christ, in faith, in hope, and in love.

          What does that mean?  I think it means knowing our own story as a story of God, and a story that can connect with others. I ran across a stray quote this week and said, “Yes, that’s it.”

Humans understand the world through narratives. However much we flatter ourselves about our individual rationality, a good story, no matter how analytically deficient, lingers in the mind, resonates emotionally, and persuades more than the most dispositive facts or data.[1]

          And it’s not even the need of a good plot that is important, this writer says.  “What makes [a good story] work is not their plot but their promise:  Here is an answer to the problem of how to live.

          How is my story, how is your story, a story about the promise of God?  How is your story or mine a story of hope?

          Paul gives us a clue as to what to look for.  How is your story a story of overcoming barriers, of having hope because of your experience of the peace that relationship with Jesus brings.  What story do you or I have that could end with what Paul offers.

Jesus is my peace.  Whenever I feel at odds with myself or with someone else, when I feel a wall being built, when I feel a stranger in this world and sometimes to my own self, Jesus helps me break it down and start again.

           None of us likes to feel like a stranger, or even just plain strange, not fitting in.  And none of us likes the uncertainty that comes with dependence on self alone.  “I can take care of myself” only goes so far.  It cannot, ultimately take me to hope.

          Harvey Milk said it best way back in 1978 as he blazed a new trail as the first openly gay person elected to anything.  And it came out of his story.

 I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.  Hope is never silent.  You have to give people hope.[2]

          Tom Hayes, who was rector of this parish for a short time in the early 1980’s, and who presented me for confirmation as a young man, told me that there is always a fifth gospel, a fifth story of good news. It is our own story of good news.

          I thought that was a nice thought at the time he said it, but a bit later on in life, when my world came unglued, it saved my life.  Despite what a complete mess I thought my life was, that was not God’s last word with me.  God’s story in me goes on.

          I won’t extend this sermon beyond your patience by giving you the gory details, although if you want to hear them I am happy to tell them.

          My point is—and I think Paul’s point is—that good news, that barriers broken, strangeness overcome, of being gathered in a new household of God, and a new possibility of hope embraced, is the good news we have to tell.

          We don’t have to tell someone else’s story, not even Jesus’ story. We don’t have to witness to another person about how they can get right with God and be assured they’ll get into heaven.

          We just have to tell them our story.  And that as part of our story Jesus is the one who brings us to peace in the present and hope for the future, our earthly future not just our heavenly one.

          What good news do we have for the world?  What story do we have to tell about the struggle to embrace the peace that is a gift and the hope that carries us from day to day?


[1] William J. Bernstein, from “The Delusions of Crowds” in Atlantic Monthly, quoted in Zoe Heller, “Beyond Belief: What Makes a Cult a Cult?” The New Yorker (July 12 & 19, 2021), p. 91.

[2] This is a mash-up of several Harvey Milk quotes available on-line.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

"My Religion is My Politics"

 Sermon preached on July 4, 2021 at St. Thomas Church, Bath, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9): Mark 6:1-13

You can listen to the sermon here.

          One spring day in 1993, I left my office at St. George’s Church in Glenn Dale, Maryland, where I was the Vicar, and walked a block to my favorite place for lunch. It was at the end of a strip mall, Lamberts Seafood Restaurant, and my mouth was watering for some of the best crab cakes in the world.

 [An aside:  crab cakes should not be made outside of the state of Maryland].

           I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a bumper sticker on a car.  It was shiny brand new.  “He’s not my president” it said, referring to Bill Clinton, who had just been inaugurated.

           I was dumbfounded. I stopped. I stared. Then I slowly made my way to the restaurant but did not get inside before I saw the owner return to the bumper-stickered car. I was doubly dumfounded. It was the pastor of the Baptist Church in town. We were not friends. I’d been introduced to him, but he had also denounced me from his pulpit when I had first arrived in Glenn Dale two and a half years earlier because I was known to be gay.

           “He’s not my president.”  To be perfectly honest, I was not a great fan either of Presidents Reagan or Bush (the first), but it would have never occurred to me that they were not my president.  And even if I had held that sentiment I would never as a priest put in on a bumper sticker on my car.

           It shows the path that we have taken as a country in that such a bumper sticker today would seem mild.

           Now you may suppose that I have told a cautionary tale about the intersection of religion and politics. And you would be right about the cautionary part, but I did not then, nor have I ever, thought that religion and politics should be completely separated.

           Here is why in a quote from the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church:

 [It is] of the utmost importance . . . that we should know that when we separate the Christian faith from life, we are cutting ourselves off from God the Father, and Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit.  For God so loved the world—the world—that he gave his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.  “The world” here means everything that goes on in our lives, around us, and in the uttermost parts of the earth. We cannot keep our Christian convictions in one pocket and our thoughts and actions about business and politics and the social order in another pocket quite apart.  As a Japanese theologian has put it, the mission of the Church is not removing fish from a dirty river called the world and placing them in a clean pool called the Church. The mission of the Church . . . is to work by God’s grace for the life of the world to come here and now, in every circumstance and in every event of our lives.[i]

           I misled you a bit when I said the quote was from the presiding bishop.  It is not, as you probably supposed, from the current presiding bishop, Michael Curry. No, the quote was from Presiding Bishop Arthur Lichtenberger in 1964.

           I know many Episcopalians—and some of you—have felt that politics should stay out of the pulpit, if not the entire Church, but much of both the leadership and the membership of the Church have been saying differently for several generations now.

           When Bishop Barbara Harris was interviewed by one of the national TV networks before her consecration in 1989, she was asked about religion and politics.  She quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  “My religion is my politics.”

           Notice what she did not say. She did not say, “My politics is my religion.”  That would be contrary to everything the Church has ever taught on the subject. Of course, today there is a new branch of so-called Christianity who call themselves “Nationalist Christians,” who have, in my thinking (in which I am far from alone), done precisely that, made politics their religion, by making Jesus and Paul seem to say everything their political ideology says.

           In making the case for our religion being our politics, let me make just two points.  You may disagree with me. It’s a free country and a free church.

           First, to say that religion is my politics is to say that God always comes first as the Creator of all that is, and Jesus is my chief source of guidance in how he lived in the world and died for the world, and I assume the Holy Spirit is living among us, guiding us into all truth, as Jesus said she would.

           To make God come first in my political thinking, as well as in all my other thinking, does not mean that the world is a simple morality tale:  there is good and there is evil and nothing in-between.  No, we are human beings, and we must make decisions and we don’t always get it right.

           Which leads me to my second point. One of the chief things Christians (and those from other faith traditions, although I do not presume to speak for them) bring to the political table (again, as well as all other tables) is the long view of things.

           The long view is this: we human beings are on a journey.  We do not sit in paradise. We got thrown out of paradise long ago and, try as we may, we have never been able to find our way back.  But we keep trying.  Christianity is an aspirational way of being in the world, a hopeful way of being in the world. It is about our journey toward a promised and longed for, future.

           Mark the Gospel writer does not tell us what Jesus said in his hometown synagogue to make people so upset with him.  Who does this guy think he is?  We know his family, and they’re nothing but average. He’s talking as if he’s coming from a different place, better than us.

           And, of course, whatever he said, we can be sure that he was coming from a different place, pointing toward a kingdom, the vision of God for humankind.  God does not want us to settle for who we are. He always, always, wants us to strive for what we can be.

           We Christians bring that same vision to our political life.  We understand that America itself is an aspiration, a vision, something we keep striving for, if never getting quite right. Of whatever party or persuasion, we are the voices that are always pointing ahead, saying “we’re not done yet.”

           As I see it, a significant part of our great divide these days is between those who think that the American project was and is settled, and those who think we are yet on the journey.

           I’ll close with a third thought.  Another part of the mess we are in these days politically is expressed well by sometime Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. He writes,

 A great deal of our politics, our ecclesiastical life, often our personal life as well, is dominated by the assumption that everything would be all right, if only some people would go away.[ii]

          If Christian people are saying that (if we say that—and it is oh so tempting to do so), they—we—are blaspheming, speaking absolutely contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church which is to restore all people to unity with God and one another[iii] which is the fruit of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

          If our religion is our politics, then love of neighbor is our politics.  It’s a vision. We haven’t yet gotten it right, but we keep our eyes on the prize.

          Let us give thanks for this nation. Let us celebrate Independence Day.  And let us re-commit ourselves to work toward the dream, being honest that we haven’t always gotten it right.  And press on doing what we Christians know what to do: acknowledge our faults and repent of them, and act to change what we need to change to form a more perfect union and make, as we pray, the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.


[i] Arthur Lichtenberger, The Day Is at Hand (New York: Seabury Books, 1964

[ii] Rowan Williams in The Way of St. Benedict, cited by Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE, in “Finding Holiness in the Sanctuary of Difference,” Cowley (the newsletter of the Society of St. John the Evangelist) 47:3 (Summer 2021), p. 9.

[iii] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The Visiting Dawn: Nativity of St. John the Baptist

 Homily at the Eucharist on the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas' Church, Bath,
NY: Luke 1:57-80

 You [child] will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, in order to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins through the merciful compassion of our God.  By his compassion also a dawning from on high will visit us, to shine light on those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet onto the path of peace.

           This translation of the second half of Zechariah’s song is from Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary on Luke (see citation below). It is a more literal translation of the Greek and I find it helpful for a several reasons.

          First of all, his son John’s purpose.  The usual translation is that John is called to prepare the way, singular, which makes us think of Jesus, who in John’s Gospel will call himself the way.  But Zechariah’s vision is bigger:  John will prepare for the ways of God—the purposes of God—to be known through Jesus.  And then he makes a clear statement of these ways of God.

           It’s a three-part progression in the next sentence.  These are the ways of God:  God’s merciful compassion leads to the forgiveness of all the ways humankind falls short, and in the experience of mercifully compassionate forgiveness we know salvation.  Notice God is the actor here, and his action is merciful compassion.

           One might ask if there is any kind of compassion other than merciful.  I think there is a form of compassion that is condescending, bestowed by a superior upon an inferior.  Luke wants us to know this is not among the ways of God.  God’s compassion is extravagant, it overflows into forgiveness, acceptance, and love, that can only be experienced as salvation, liberation.

           Then Zechariah uses the word “compassion” again, just in case we’ve missed the extravagance. Unfortunately translations tend to leave this second “compassion” out as redundant.  That’s unfortunate because the next thing of which Zechariah speaks is directly tied to God’s merciful compassion.  This is what that overflowing compassion looks like:  it looks like the visit of a dawning from on high.

           The experience of forgiveness, salvation, liberation, is like an unexpected dawn, as if you were staring at a bleak horizon that suddenly bursts with color.  The experience of God’s merciful compassion is the transformation of our flat, black and white world into vibrant, textured life.  It is

 To shine light on those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.

           That’s all of us at one time or another, probably more often than we care to admit.  We need color, we need dawn, we need forgiveness, radical acceptance, to bring light and life.

           And then God’s ways become our ways.

 To guide our feet upon the path of peace.

           Peace is not something we can simply will into being, even in our own inner life, much less in the world around us.  It can only come from the gift of the experience of the merciful compassion of God, the forgiveness, acceptance, that this compassion brings us, such that our darkness is enlightened and our living toward death changed to living in life.

           Zechariah got it.  I hope we get it too.  One last thing:  Zechariah sang this amazing song after being unable to speak for nine months.  We’ll probably need to shut up and listen for a significant amount of time before the dawn can visit us too.

  

Above text from Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 45.


Monday, May 17, 2021

Being with God with One Another on our Hearts

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, the Seventh Sunday of Easter:  John 17:6-19.

In the Name of the One to whom we pray, the One who prays for us, and the One who prays in us. Amen.

I am asking on their behalf . . . because they are yours. All mine are yours and yours are mine. And I have been glorified in them.

              We hear Jesus pray for his disciples this morning.  The text is more poetry than prose, as the language of prayer often is.  I want to use this occasion to jump off from this reading to talk about prayer:  Jesus’ prayer, and our prayer.

              The text I began with from John 17 emphasizes union with God, both Jesus’ union with God and our union with Jesus.  “All mine are yours and yours are mine,” Jesus says.  In verse 21 of this chapter, Jesus says something similar. There Jesus prays

That they may all be one. As you, the Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.

              Richard Rohr says of this chapter of John’s Gospel that it is fundamentally about connectedness. And I think that this says something vital about prayer.

              As a brief aside, isn’t it odd how little we talk, and especially teach, about prayer?  We tend to assume everyone knows what it is and everyone knows how to do it.  I’ve considered myself a Christian for a little over forty years now, and I’m still working on answers to those questions.  I imagine most of you are in the same boat.

              So what is prayer?  The word “connectedness” is suggestive.  And it is helpful to know that the Greek word usually translated “intercede” or “intercession” does not mean “to ask,” or any number of other verbs we might use for prayer:  plea, beg, petition.  It doesn’t even have the connotation of “speak.”  The Greek word literally means “to meet with, encounter, or be with.”

              The other place in the New Testament that speaks a great deal about the prayer of Jesus is the Letter to the Hebrews, where in chapter 7 we are told that Jesus “always lives to make intercession for [the people]” (Heb 7:23-25).

              Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey says this means that Jesus is forever with God with us and the world on his heart.  He suggests that this is the actual heart of prayer, which does not imply using words at all.  Our own prayer, he says is primarily being aware of God, being with God without the pressure of words or specific petitions.

              It is similar to a well-known direction he once gave on a pre-ordination retreat.  He said to those about to be ordained:  Your prayer is first and foremost “to be with God with the people on your heart.”  And that works for all of us really.

              We do come to God with desires, asking on our own behalf or on behalf of others.  Think of what you are doing, Ramsey says, as bringing your desires into union with God’s compassion.  And this has the added effect, he says, of strengthening our own compassion and care for others.

              I love what Ramsey has to say about prayer because it is so simple and realistic.  Among other things, he says,

Put yourself with [God], just as you are, in the feebleness of your concentration, in your lack of warmth and desire, not trying to manufacture pious thoughts or phrases. You put yourself with God, empty perhaps, but hungry and thirsty for him; and if in sincerity you cannot say that you want God you can perhaps tell him that you want to want him; and if you cannot say even that perhaps you can say that you want to want to want him!

              Ramsey is being funny, but he knows we have all been there, and he wants to encourage each one of us to take the occasional time to be still, just as we are.

              If we do this, and do it with some patience and persistence a couple things will happen.  First, as St. Paul says, we will find that the Spirit prays in us.  And again, it is not about words. The Spirit reminds as that we are God’s children. “Likewise,” he says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

              The second thing that will happen over time is our hearts will soften and enlarge and our sight will be transformed.  In Richard Rhor’s words, we will become able to see greater and greater connectedness, the wholeness of the world. “Faith,” he says,

 is not simply seeing things at their visible, surface level, but recognizing their deepest meaning.  To be a person of faith means we see things—people, animals, plants, the earth, as inherently connected to God, connected to ourselves, and, therefore, worthy of love and dignity.

              Ironically, I have found that we in the church don’t pray very much, and I am including myself in that critique.  I’m not talking about the liturgy, which is a vitally important part of our communal and individual prayer. We do that form of prayer a great deal. Nor am I talking about those little perfunctory prayers we use to start the occasional meeting, also all well and good.

              I’m talking about being with God, holding one another in our hearts, and doing so especially before we make the criticism or express the frustration we have over this or that in our life together.  The goal is not to make differences of opinion or anxiety or unhappiness go way. It is to give God the opportunity to weave compassion into that unhappiness or focusing our sight so that we can distinguish between our reasonable desires and the destructive emotion that often gets attached to them.

              Be with God just as you are. Think of prayer as a meeting, an encounter. Without the need for words, but using them if they come to us, be with God with one another and the world on our hearts.

 

Sources:

Richard Rohr, “Living in Heaven Now,” essay from his listserv.

Michael Ramsey, Be Still and Know (Glasgow: Collins, 1982).

Michael Ramsay, The Christian Priest Today (London: SPCK, 1972).

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Longing for Belonging

 Sermon reached on Maundy Thursday for St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

          It is ironic, if not cruel, for Maundy Thursday to fall on April Fool’s Day this year. This is our second Maundy Thursday in a row when we are not able to celebrate the Eucharist—the very gift—the precious gift—that Jesus gave us this night.  I pray fervently that the anticipation of us soon being able to come back together and obey the command to “Do this in remembrance of me” is no cruel joke.

          Some have called this a fast, although I confess on a personal level to having trouble with that characterization.  If it has worked for you, by all means hold on to it.  But I’ll confess it hasn’t worked for me.  What I have felt is more akin to sacramental starvation that has kept my spiritual life in a profound disorientation.

          Why is this so? I have been grappling with that question for a year now. Why can’t I get past it? Why has not participating in the Eucharist been so difficult for me?

          I can only tell my story to explain it. Three short vignettes. Think of them as scenes in a play.

Scene 1

          A 16-year-old boy who has had almost no experience of the church is drafted to take a part in the musical Godspell. It profoundly affects him—he’s heard the Gospel for the first time.  He has been a sad and sometimes angry young man for the previous six years, ever since his beloved grandmother died of cancer at a very young age. He’s also been carrying around a troubling sense of difference that he is sure threatens everything he holds dear. The message he has heard in the musical has something to do with his experience of loss and fear, but he can’t quite fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

          His great Aunt Ann, a member of St. Thomas’, invites him to church. He goes and is captivated, and when it comes time to receive Communion his Aunt invites him to go to the Altar with her. Even today he remembers the smell of the wine. He doesn’t leave with any answers to the questions he has been carrying around.  But that trip to the Altar rail and his being given Communion even though these people didn’t know him at all leaves him sure that the answers are there. He felt like he belonged even though he didn’t belong.

Scene 2

          A young man goes off to college. Of all things to do when you taste the first freedom of being on your own, he decides to start attending church.  He goes to the Episcopal Church in downtown Plattsburgh—Trinity is its name. Again, there is that mysterious sense of belonging and he keeps going, even starts singing in the choir. His first Lent in college he goes every day to the Eucharist, sometimes being the only person there beside the priest.

          At the same time, he has become involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship on campus. He makes some friends there and enjoys it. The group has an evangelical outlook that increasingly becomes fundamentalist.  The old fear rises in his heart again. He becomes part of the leadership, but soon discovers his sacramental experience and his evangelical experience come into conflict. He is open about it and stunned when he receives no consolation, but a judgment. You must choose one or the other. The Episcopal Church and the “real truth” of Christianity cannot be reconciled. He chooses The Episcopal Church, primarily because he cannot imagine worshipping God and being a Christian in the world without the Eucharist.

Scene 3

          At 29 years old the man is now an Episcopal priest.  He came out as gay long ago, throwing off that fear, or, at least most of it.  In a few more years he will become the national president of Integrity, the fellowship and advocacy group for LGBT Episcopalians. He will travel a lot in this ministry, giving witness to the call to the church for the full inclusion of folk like him. He will often come home bone-tired and weary, sometimes, as well, discouraged. Coming back from one particularly disastrous occasion, thinking all was lost and perhaps he could not continue in this church, he was saved by the Altar he came home to, the comfort and promise of the Eucharist and the people with whom he celebrated. There he belonged, despite the fact that some didn’t want him to belong.

          Those are little glimpses of my story. They help me understand the devastation I have felt at being separated from the Altar—what we do around it, who we are around it, and what it feeds us to do in the world.

          I hope my stories stirred up your own stories, my longings, your longings.  The day is coming when we can renew the love that is formed over and over again around the Table of Jesus’ feast. Until then, I ask you to join me in this lament for the Eucharist, an expression of our longing.


Monday, March 22, 2021

A Broken Heart Leads to Newness

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Jeremiah 31:31-24, Psalm 119:9-19. John 12:20-33.

You can listen to this sermon here.

          Of all the biblical prophets, Jeremiah is described universally as “the gloomy” one.  Jeremiah the Gloomy.  There is reason for his gloominess, of course.  Jeremiah’s time was a time of political and spiritual crisis.  The Babylonian Empire to the north and west was in the process of destroying what was left of Israel, the people killed, deported, or left behind in a land bereft of resources. Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple destroyed.  The kingdom of Judah wiped off the map.

           And where was Israel’s God?  Absent?  Vengeful?  Defeated?

Jeremiah finds those questions about God to be a deflection. He constantly brings the people back to the overwhelming problem:  themselves.  You have done this. You have brought this upon yourselves.  For thirty long chapters, Jeremiah has sounded this message, and the word “gloomy” may not be strong enough.  Here he is in chapter 30:

 Thus says the Lord:

Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous.

There is no one to uphold your case,

          no medicine for your wound, no healing for you.

All your lovers have forgotten you;

          they care nothing for you.

Why do you cry out over your hurt?

Your pain is incurable.

Because your guilt is great,

          because your sin is so numerous,

          I have done these things to you.

           And then comes the dreaded word “therefore,” which in the prophets means the worst judgment is about to come.

           And then it doesn’t.

 Therefore.

Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured.

Those who plunder you shall be plundered.

For I will restore health to you,

          and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord,

          because they have called you an outcast:

          [they have said]

          “It is Zion; no one cares for her.”

           It is biblical whiplash.

           What has changed?  Certainly not Israel.  No, it is rather Israel’s God who has changed.

           The absent one will now intervene.

          The vengeful one will now be the compassionate one.

          The defeated one will pull his last weapon out of the divine armory:  the covenant.

           And so we hear this morning: 

 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

           Covenant?  Now there’s a word that quite possibly had not been heard in Israel for a very long time.  Why?  Because you broke it, God says, “even though I was your husband.”  You let go of me, God says, even though I did not—could not—let go of you. But I am going to put that behind me, God says, I am willing to try something new.

          And just what will be new?  New laws?  No, still “my laws,” says God, but given in a new way.  Laws written on the heart.  And perhaps it is critical that the heart of Israel on which the law will be written is Israel’s broken heart.  Remember words from Ash Wednesday, from Psalm 51:

 The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;

          a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

          I can work with a broken heart, God says.  My heart, too, has been broken.  You broke it.  But our broken hearts, softened with grief, can be a place in which we can start over again.

          This will be a place of equality.  We will start over again from broken religion, where self-appointed experts throw their weight around, saying you do not know the Lord.  I will decide, they have kept telling you, I will tell you when and how you will know the Lord.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

What's Love Got to Do with It?

 It’s Valentine’s Day and I am wondering about the future of love.

 At the grocery store yesterday, one might say the future of love was on display. Dozens and dozens of roses and other flowers, to be bought to express love.  I bought some myself.  Perhaps it is true, those flowers say, that love between individuals is as strong as it has ever been.

 But that is not the kind of love I am wondering about this afternoon.

 I’m not saying anything is wrong with that kind of love—the love that exists between individuals, within families and across friendships.  I know that kind of love, and I can say without being overly sentimental that love has in the past formed who I am and even saved me.  It, in truth, continues to do so.

 But, again, that is not the kind of love I am wondering about today.  Although my wondering also includes Tina Turner’s immortal question, “What’s love got to do with it?”

 I am wondering about love that will save, but the kind of love that will not only save me but will save us.

 We seem stuck in our country, fellow citizens not only unable to agree on much, but also unable to talk to each other or respect one another.  It seems that we cannot even agree on just who is worthy of being called a fellow citizen, who, even, gets to decide just who a citizen is and who is not.

 “Friending” and “unfriending” on Facebook seems to express the dynamics of our relationship to one another, especially when it is a choice, as it often is, of who I will listen to and who I will not listen to.

 I am wondering about the kind of love that is strong enough to break through that “life as choosing up sides” model.  There is nothing easy about this kind of love.  I myself have said in the past, “It is not worth my time even trying to talk to those people.”  As a Christian I know that saying such a thing is simply sin, even though it might feel entirely justified at the time.  I am a follower of Jesus whose most basic teaching was to love God with everything I have and my neighbor as myself. And I know, try as I might, I cannot finesse “neighbor” to mean anything other than the next person who crosses my path.

 I think the fundamental building block for this kind of love is respect, although even this word has come to mean “agree with.”  So there is something deeper, and it is a kind of bottom-line belief, without which society cannot be stable, much less functional.  That is the belief in the dignity of every person, regardless of who they are or what they have done.

 The love that will save us starts there:  your dignity and mine on the same level without reservation.

 There is nothing easy about this belief.  I think that has always been true; it certainly is true in our day.  The love that is required for me to live out this belief is sacrificial in nature.  To respect your dignity above all other things means I must sacrifice my natural tendency to judge you, to make decisions about your worth.  I know for myself that it can be painful to make this sacrifice, so painful that I often choose not to do it.

 To respect your dignity, to love you in this way, does not mean to agree with you.  It is not some utopian vision of social uniformity.  That we will disagree—and sometimes strongly so—is a given.

 The question is can I disagree with you without cutting you out of my life, refusing to listen to you, resort to my most base instincts to call you stupid, or a fool, or, in citizenship terms, unpatriotic or even traitorous.  Can I hold some very strong beliefs about what is best for the world and still be willing to listen to your equally held strong beliefs.  Of course, listening must always be a two-way street.

 A lot of rhetoric gets thrown around these days about whether if we follow any given path we will have a country or not.

 I’m wondering about love today—the belief in universal human dignity—and I’m thinking without it all our dire predictions will come true.

 What’s love got to do with it?  Everything or nothing.  It’s our choice.