Sunday, October 14, 2018

21 Pentecost


October 14, 2018

Amos 5.6-7,10-15;  Mark 10.17-31

+ For those of you who might not know, I am in the process of moving out of the rectory and into my late mother’s twin home. Now, most of you would think this would be fairly easy. He’s a priest, you’re no doubt thinking. He lives a simple life. Why is it taking so long for him to move?

Well, I really don’t live that simple of life. I like “things.” I have lots of “things.” Like LOTS of books. LOTS and LOTS of books.  And midcentury furniture And, weirdly, lots of midcentury dishware. That’s weird because I don’t cook or really over use my kitchen. But when I have guests over, let me tell you: they eat and drink from the finest dishware they could make in the 1950s and early 1960s!  And I have a lot of things I accumulated from my parents after their deaths. So I’m sorting and donating and throwing and truly, I hope, simplifying my life.

There’s a word I’ve been using quite a bit lately.

Pare.

 P-A-R-E.

As in shaving away, as in paring down the “things” in my life.

It’s daunting and exhausting and good and frustrating all at once. And I’m making major headway.

And just when I think I’m doing really well, I come across this morning’s Gospel reading?  Were you uncomfortable with it?  I was uncomfortable with it. We should be uncomfortable.  We all should be uncomfortable when we hear it.  Jesus is, quite simply, telling it like it is.  It is a disturbing message—at least, on the surface.

I stress that: on the surface.

He makes three hard-hitting points.

First, he tells the rich man who calls Jesus “good” to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.

Second, he compares wealthy people getting into heaven to a camel going through the eye of a needle—a great image really when you think about it.

Finally, he tells his disciples that only those who give up their families and their possessions will gain heaven, summarizing it in that all-too-famous maxim: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

For those who have—who have possessions, who have “things,” who have loved ones, who have nice cars and houses and safety deposit boxes and bank accounts and investments and stock AND bonds,--these words of Jesus should disturb us and should make us look long and hard at what we have and, more importantly, why we have them.

But…is Jesus really telling us we should give up these things that give us a sense of security? Does it mean that we should rid ourselves of those things?  Should we really sell our cars and our houses, empty out our bank accounts and our safety deposit boxes and our savings and cash in our stocks and bonds give all of that money to the poor?  Should we pare our lives down to nothing?  Does it mean, we should turn our backs on our families, on our spouses and partners, on our children and our parents?  Does it mean that we should go around poor and naked in the world?

Well, we need to look at it a little more rationally. Because, when Jesus talks about “riches” and giving up our loved ones, he’s not really talking what he seems to be talking about.

Do you remember the Gospel from last week, in which he was talking about Moses and the Law and divorce and remarriage? Now, that was a difficult scripture as well. He was saying that if one gets a divorce and remarries, they are committing adultery.

As I said last week, both of my parents had been divorced from their previous spouses before they married each other. Were my parents committing adultery in their marriage? Of course not.

But you can see how people DO have issues with the literal interpretation of this scripture.  In fact, I had an uncle, who was divorced and remarried, who heard that scripture one morning in church in the 1970s. He got up and left the church and never stepped foot in a church again in his life.   I wish I could’ve told him then, what I’m going to say right now. (Though I suppose where he is right now he’s already figured this out)

When Jesus talks of these things, he’s not really talking about what we think he talking about.  He’s not really talking about the securities we have built up for ourselves.  What Jesus is talking in today’s Gospel is about attachments.  Or more specifically, unhealthy attachments.

Having “things” in and of themselves are, for the most part, fine, as long as we are not attached to them in an unhealthy way.   Jesus knew full well that we need certain things to help us live our lives.  But being attached to those “things” is a problem.  It is our attachments in this life that bind us—that tie us down and prevent us from growing, from moving closer to God and to one another.  Unhealthy attachments are what Jesus is getting at here.  And this is why we should be disturbed by this reading.

Let’s face, at times, we’re all attached to some things we have. We are attached to our cars and our homes. We are attached to our televisions and computers and our telephones. Some of us are attached to our books, and to the art that hangs on our walls, and on midcentury furniture.

And, even in our relationships, we have formed unhealthy attachments as well.  Co-dependence in a relationship is a prime example of that unhealthy kind of attachment that develops between people.  We see co-dependent relationships that are violent or abusive or manipulative. People, in a sense, become attached to each other and simply cannot see what life can be like outside of that relationship.  

And as much as we love our children, we all know that there comes a point when we have to let them go. We have to break whatever attachments we have to them so they can live their lives fully.

The same is true, in a different way, with our parents. You’ve heard me say many times over this past year that, taking care of my mother in these last years meant that my world sort of revolved around her. And when she died, I felt lost and aimless. I still do.

It is seems to be part of our nature to form binding relationships with others and with things at times.  Especially in this day and age, we hear so often of people who are afraid to be alone.

The question we need to ask ourselves in response to this morning’s Gospel is this: if Jesus came to us today and told us to abandon our attachments—whatever it is in our own lives that might separate us from God—what would it be? And could we do it?  Because Jesus is telling us to do that again and again.  

What the Gospel for today hopefully shows us that we need to be aware of our attachments.  We need to be aware of anything in our lives that separates us from God. Jesus today is preparing us for the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot enter the Kingdom of God and still be attached to those unhealthy things in our lives.  Because we can’t take them with us into the Kingdom.

The message is clear—don’t allow your unhealthy attachments to come between God and you.  Don’t allow anything to come between God and you.

If Jesus came to us here and now and asked us to give up those attachments in our lives, most of us couldn’t to do it.  I don’t think I could do it.  And when we realize that, we suddenly realize how hard it is to gain heaven.  It truly is like a camel passing through the eye of the needle.

For us, in this moment, this might be a reason to despair.  But we really don’t need to. We just need to be honest. Honest with ourselves. And honest with God.

Yes, we have attachments. But we need to understand that our attachments are only, in the end, temporary. They will pass away. But our relationship with God is eternal.  This is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel.

So, we can enjoy those “things” we have.  We can take pleasure in them.  But we need to recognize them for what they are.  They are only temporary joys.  They come into in our lives and they will go out of our lives, like clouds. All those things we hold dear, will pass away from us.  


That is driven home to anyone who has to clean out a loved one’s home following their death. One of the true low points in this past year since my mother died was cleaning out her closet. I avoided it. I was tempted to ask someone to do it for me. But finally, one day, I just couldn’t stand seeing all those clothes, still on their hangers and folded neatly on their shelves. I realized that my mother would never wear those clothes again. My mother specifically requested that all her clothes go the New Life Center. And there, all her things, hopefully, are now being used by someone else who can wear them, who needs them. Hopefully several people are warmed on this bitterly cold day by the coats and sweaters my mother once wore. 

One day this will happen to us as well. All our clothes, all our possessions, all the money we worked so hard to save will no longer be ours. They will all be divided and distributed and given to others. It’s important to remind ourselves of this fact, even if it’s depressing. 

But that is essentially what Jesus is telling us today.  He is saying to us, “don’t cling to these ‘things.’” Let us cling instead to God and to the healthy bonds that we’ve formed with God and with our loved ones—with our spouses or partners, our children, our family and our friends.  Let us serve those whom we are called to serve. And let us serve them fully and completely, without hindrance.  Let us make the attempt to see that what we have is temporary.  Let us be prepared to shed every attachment we have if we need to.  And when that day comes when  we are called by name by our God, on that day we can simply not think about these “things” we cling to here, but we can  simply run forward and meet our God face to face.



Sunday, October 7, 2018

20 Pentecost


October 7, 2018

Mark 10.2-16


+ Now, for any of you who think of my as this kind of High Church Anglo-Catholic guy, you might be surprised to hear me say this:

But, I have, for many, many years been very attracted to and inspired by the Quakers, or the Society of Friends.

I know that’s probably a bit shocking to you. You would not think a denomination that is completely and totally non-sacramental and non-liturgical would hold any appeal to someone like me, who loves liturgy and the sacraments! But sometimes even I need an escape from the trappings of high church Anglo-Catholicism.

Even more than that, I love the simplicity of Quakerism.  I love the silence and contemplative aspects. I love their pacifism. I love the fact that, historically, they were on the forefront of so much social change in society. I love how they strive for a truly experiential and relational connection with God—with the Light within, as they call it.  And I love how the Quakers embody in their faith and in their lives a very simple, child-like faith.

It’s this last point that is especially appealing to me. And I also personally find it difficult.

To me, cultivating such a relationship with God without the structure of liturgy and the sacraments seems particularly daunting. 

But there are days when I want that.

I want that simplicity.

I want that silence.

I want that child-like relationship with God.

And it is this child-like relationship with God that Jesus is commending to is in our Gospel reading for today.  Out Gospel reading for today is wonderful. Well, except for that little exchange about divorce at the beginning of it.  

After this debate, which really is all about following the letter of the law, rather than actually being divorce and remarriage, people start bringing children to Jesus. He says,

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

So, what does Jesus mean when he talks about the Kingdom of heaven and children?  Well, he is talking quite bluntly, I believe.  He is making it clear that we need to simplify. We need to simplify our faith. We need to clear away all the muck, all the distractions, all those negative things we have accumulated over the years regarding our relationship with God.

Now, to be fair, the Church and Religion in general have piled many of this negative things on us.  And that is unfortunate.  Too often, as believers, we tend to complicate our faith life and our theology.

We in the Episcopal Church get caught up in things like Dogma and Canon laws and rules and Rubrics and following the letter of the law.

In the Roman Catholic Church, we find these strange “cults” of Mary and the saints that really do not promote a deeper faith, but rather only a shallow, somewhat plastic kind of faith.

In the Protestant church churches,  we find that the Bible itself is held up in such a way that it eclipses the fact that we are called to live out what we learn scripturally and not just impress one another with our scriptural prowess and knowledge.

All the churches get so caught up in doing what we are told is the “right thing,” that we lose sight of this pure and holy relationship with God.  We forget why we are doing the right thing.

For Jesus, he saw what happened when people got too caught up in doing the right thing. He tended to blame two groups of people for this. The scribes and the Pharisees.  The scribes and Pharisees were very caught up in doing the right thing, in following the letter of the Law.  A few weeks ago in one of my sermons I talked about these two groups of people—the scribes and the Pharisees.

They have received a very harsh judgement in the long arc of history. But we need to remind ourselves that, at their core, these were not bad people. They were actually well-intended people, trying in their own way to live out the Law, as they were taught.

It was the job of the scribes to write down and copy the scriptures, a daunting job in those pre-printing press days. As a result of copying scripture again and again, they of course came to see themselves as experts of the scriptures. And they were.

The Pharisees saw their job as interpreting the Law and the scriptures for people. They tried to make sure that the letter of the law was followed and that all those complicated rules we find in the Levitical law were followed to a T. They did this because they thought it was what was supposed to be done. In the course of their trying to do the right thing, they ended up losing sight of the heart of the Law and Scriptures and only concentrated on the letter of the Law and scriptures. But in doing so, they lost sight of God, which is easy to do when you’re so caught up on the dots and dashes of the words, and not on what those words actually mean.   They lost sight of the meaning behind the Law. Hence, the debate about divorce today.

Jesus is telling them—and us—that we need to simplify.  We need to refocus.  We need to become like children in our faith-life.

Now that isn’t demeaning.  It isn’t sweet and sentimental.  Becoming children means taking a good, honest look at what we believe.

As followers of Jesus, it does not have to be complicated.  We just need to remind ourselves that, if we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will show us God.

Following Jesus means knowing that God is a loving, accepting and always-present Parent.  God is our “Abba.” Our job as followers is to connect with this loving Parent, with “Abba,” to worship and pray to God.  Our job is to be an imitator, like Jesus, of this loving, all-accepting God in our relationship with others. When we do that—when we become imitators of our loving God, when we love as God loves us—the Kingdom of God becomes present in a very real and profound way.  

But the fact is, the Kingdom of God is not for people who complicate it.  The Kingdom is one of those things that is very elusive.  If we quantify it and examine it too closely, it just sort of wiggles away from us.  If we try to define what the Kingdom is, or try to explain it in any kind of detail, it loses meaning.  It disappears and become mirage-like.

But if we simply do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus—if we simply follow Jesus, imitate our God and love one another—the Kingdom becomes real.  It becomes a reality in our very midst.  And whatever separations we imagine between ourselves and God and one another, simply disappear.

This is what I love about being a follower of Jesus.  I love the fact that despite all the dogmas and structures and rules the Church might bring us, following Jesus is simply that—following Jesus.  It is keeping your eyes on the one we’re following. It means doing what he did and trying to live life like he lived life. It means worshipping like him a God of amazing and unlimited love.

Yes, that sounds very simple. But it can also be very difficult, especially when we still get caught up in all the rules and complications of organized religion and the letter of the law of the Bible. And we do get caught up in those things.

Because following Jesus can be so basic, we find ourselves often frustrated. We want order. We want rules. We want systematic ways of understanding God and religion. Simplicity sometimes scares us.  Becoming childlike means depending on God instead of ourselves.  Becoming childlike means shedding our independence sometimes, and we don’t like doing that. Sometimes complication means busywork.  And sometimes it simply is easier to get caught up in busywork, then to actually go out there and follow Jesus and be imitators of God and love others.  Sometimes it is easier to sit and debate the fine points of religion, then it is to go out and actually live out our faith in our lives, and to worship God as our Abba.

But, as Jesus shows us, when we do such things, when we become cantankerous grown-ups, that’s when the system starts breaking down.  We when get nitpicky and bitter, we have lost sight of what it means to be like Jesus.  That’s when we get distracted.  That’s when we get led astray from following Jesus.  That is when we “grow up” and become cranky, bitter grown-ups rather than loving, wonder-filled children.

It is good to be wonder-filled children.  It is good to look around us at the world and see a place in which God still breaks through to us.  It is good to see that God lives and works through others.

So, let us be wonder-filled children.  Let us truly be awed and amazed at what it means to follow Jesus.  Let God be a source of joy in our lives.  And let us love each other simply, as children love.  Let us love in that wonderfully child-like way, in which our hearts simply fill up to the brim with love.  Let us burn with that love in a young and vibrant way.

Being a Christian—following Jesus—means staying young and child-like always.  Following Jesus is our fountain of youth, so to speak. So let us become children for the sake of the Kingdom.  And when we do, that Kingdom will flower in us like eternal youth.



Sunday, September 30, 2018

19 Pentecost

The relics of "St. Incognito" from the book Heavenly Bodies
September 30, 2018

Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-26; Mark 9:38-50


+ Come, O Holy Spirit, come!
Come as the fire and burn,
Come as the wind and cleanse,
Come as the light and lead.
Increase in us your gifts of grace.
Convict, convert and consecrate us, until we are wholly yours.

Tomorrow is a very momentous day in my life. Ten years ago, on October 1, 2008, I officially became the Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s.  
I am, this morning, very grateful to God for these ten years. They have been wonderful. I’ve said it before. I will say it many times again and again:  I love being the Priest of St. Stephen’s.
But I will say that, on the whole, these past ten years have been difficult years for me personally. In addition to losing both of my parents, I have also had to struggle at times with the larger Church—capital C. And doing so has been unpleasant at times. I’ll get into that in a bit.

First, in this morning’s Gospel, we find one of Jesus’ chosen inner circle coming to him and complaining about someone—an outsider, not one of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers—who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  We don’t know who this person was—we never hear anything more about him. Possibly it was one of those many multitudes of people who were following him around, observing all that he had done. Possibly it was someone who was trying to be like Jesus.  More likely it was a genuine follower of Jesus who simply had not—for whatever reasons—made it into the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.

However, the apostles do not like it. They are threatened by this person—this outsider.  And because he is an outsider, they want it stopped.  So, thinking he will put an end to it, they go to Jesus. You can almost hear them as they whine and complain to him about this supposedly pretentious person.

But Jesus—once again—does not do what they think he will do.  Jesus tells them two things: first

“for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”

And the big one—the most obvious one (you would think)—

Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Now, it’s a great story. And we have some very powerful characters in this story. We have, of course, Jesus, who is, as he should be, the center piece of this story. We have these apostles, who complain and whine.

But, the one I want to draw your attention to is that outsider. For the sake of continuing to call him an outsider, let’s just call him another name. Let’s name him Saint Incognito, the wannabe apostle.

Now, I will be honest this morning. It is certainly St. Incognito I feel the closest to in this Gospel story. I relate to him.

Why?

Because I am him.

Yes, I know: I am a uniform wearing ordained minister of the Church. But never once in all of these years I’ve been ordained, have I ever once felt like I’m some part of the inner circle of the Church. I have always felt sort of like St. Incognito, out there on the fringes, following Jesus from afar, trying to be a faithful disciple, but never feeling like I’m one of the “chosen few.” And I know several of you have felt this way too in your journey of following Jesus.

Now, I’ve shared this illustration with you before. But when I was in graduate school the first time, getting my Master of Fine Arts Degree, I wrote my thesis on the two perspectives of literature, in my opinion. All writers have either one of two perspectives to their writing, I argued (and still argue).

Those who are on the “inside” looking “out.”

And those on the “outside” looking “in.”

Perspective is everything in literature. And certainly also in life.

Many of us feel like we’re either on the outside or the inside of life or society or the Church (capital C).  And for me, I have always seen myself on the outside, looking in. St. Incognito is the patron saint of all those outsiders.
Now the apostles say to Jesus, “…we tried to stop him because he does not follow us.”

That may be true. He is not following these apostles. But…he is, it seems, following Jesus in some way. He is aware of Jesus. He is casting out demons in Jesus’ name (and the demons,  very importantly, are actually being cast out, if you notice). He is following Jesus in what he has observed and what he does.
But…he is not following in the way these apostles think he should be following.  He is following from afar.

And as a follower of Jesus, it’s not always a pleasant place to be.  It’s actually a very hard place to be.  It’s hard to follow Jesus under any circumstances. But it is especially hard to follow Jesus when one is not part of the “inner group.” It is hard to follow Jesus from afar. And it’s hard to be one who is shunned by those inner few.

Luckily the one who doesn’t shun St. Incognito in our reading for today is, of course, Jesus. Now, you would think that we—the Church—would have learned from this story. You think we would have been able to have heard this story and realized that, if we are all working together for the same goal—for the furthering of the Kingdom of God in our midst—then, we are all working together in Jesus’ name.

But the fact is, we have not quite “got it.” There are still Christians—ordained and not ordained—who still strut around, proud of the fact that they figured it all out.

We’re right, they say.

We’re orthodox—we’re right thinking.

And everyone else who isn’t…well…here’s the shoulder.

Here’s the backside.

Here’s the shun.

Let’s face it, the Church—capital C—is an imperfect structure.  It has the same faults and failings of all human-run organizations—no matter how blessed it claims to be by God. I will admit one thing to you—and for those of you who have come to know me in these last 10 years at St. Stephen’s, this comes as no great surprise—but, I have a love-hate relationship with the organized Church.

Now, I want to be clear: I truly love the Church. I love serving God’s people within the structure of the Episcopal Church and I definitely love serving here at St. Stephen’s. I love the Church’s traditions.  I love its liturgy.  As I’ve mentioned many times here before you, I love being a priest.

And, on really good days, I am so keenly aware that the Church truly is a family. We are a family that might not always get along with each other, but when it comes right down to it, my hope is we still  do love each other .

And I have never seen that more keenly than here at St. Stephen’s. Certainly, we here, at St. Stephen’s, are very much a  family.

Now I know St. Stephen’s has a reputation. It has a reputation of being an upstart congregation, a congregation that protests, that stands up and says no to injustice and hypocrisy.  It has a reputation of being a thorn in the side of some people.

But even so, I will be just as honest that there are many days in which I find being a member of the Church—capital C— a burden. And being a member of the Church who is often viewed as an outsider of that Church is definitely a burden sometimes.  The Church—as most of us know—can be a fickle place to be at times. It can be a place where people are more interested in rules and dogmas and a right interpretation of scripture and of church law than a place that furthers the love of God and of each other.  It can be a place where people are so caught up in being orthodox, so caught up in being right, in being smart and clever, that they run rough-shod over people who truly need the Church and who truly long for and truly serve God.

Sometimes people are shocked to hear that I—an ordained priest—would even dare profess the hate side of my love-hate relationship with the Church.  And it definitely boggles their minds that I—a collar-wearing priest—would be one of those outside the “inner circle” of the Church.  But not being honest about it only helps perpetuate the hypocrisy the Church so often is accused of.

When I look at the Church at its worse right now I can honestly and clearly hear the voices of those disciples of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel.  I can hear their statement as one of anger and one of frustration and one of jealousy. 

On the other hand, I see people in the Church, at times, as making a real solid effort to be what Jesus wanted it to be.  If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in the Church.

One aspect of the Church that I have always loved is the belief—and the fact— that there is room here for everyone in the Church—no matter who they are. I feel there is room for people who have differing views in the Church. Not everyone has to agree.  But we all do have to make room for each other here.  
The Church however doesn’t always see itself in such a way.

Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, the government of the Church likes to claim that only it knows who can and who cannot do God’s work in the world. When an upstart—when a person marginalized by society—comes along and tries to do God’s work in Jesus’ name, the Church very often tries to put an end to it.

Look at our recent history in the church.  Forty, fifty years ago, the issue was women. Can women be priests?  A lot of people said, “absolutely not.” And people were mean and petty in their opposition.

Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, it was ordaining Gay and Lesbian priests.

“This will be the end of the Church,” we heard proclaimed. Like Henny Penny crying out in the children’s story, the sky will. Well, guess what? The sky didn’t fall.  And  the Church hasn’t fallen apart.

We’re still here and, I personally can’t help but believe we’re a much better place for allowing women and LGBTQ people to serve us as priests and deacons and bishops.

As Anglicans, I have loved the fact that there has always been room for everyone. There is room for people who challenge us and provoke us and jar us out of what can very easily devolve into self-righteous complacency and moral pettiness.  

As Scot McNight says in his delightful book, Embraced by Grace:

“In God’s equality, difference is maintained and loved.”

I have said it before and I will say it again:  Who are we to judge who God calls to serve? God decides these things.

Our job as Christians is simply this: we must love each other and do what we can as Christians as followers of Jesus. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel,

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

This Church that I love is a wonderful place to be at times. And I think it is a place from which everyone can benefit. Like those disciples, none of us is perfect. All of us are fractured, sinful people at times.  Because we are fractured sinful people, isn’t it wonderful that we have a place to come to even when we’re fractured and sinful, a place where we are not judged, a place from which we are not shunned or excluded or left feeling like an outsider.  A place where we are welcomed for who and what we are. A place in which there are no more “outsiders” looking “in.” This is the ideal of the Church.

This is the place God intended it be.  It is place in which the Spirit of God rests on its people, just as the Spirit of God rested on those elders in our reading from the Book of Numbers today.  That resting of the Spirit of God is important for us to take note of.  And to be open to right now in our own day.

That Spirit of God puts all of us on common ground.

That Spirit of God makes us all equal.

That Spirit of God eliminates those fringes of society, those marginalized places and makes us all part of the inner circle.

That Spirit of God reminds us that there are no “outsiders” among those on whom that Spirit rests!

We—all of us—are followers of Jesus and Spirit-infused children of a loving, accepting God, no matter who we are.

So remember, the Church is not an exclusive club.  It is not a club for everyone who believes exactly the same thing, doing the same exact thing.  The Church is a place on which God’s loving Spirit rests.

Following Jesus means making room for the person we might not agree with.
Following Jesus means walking alongside someone whom no one else loves or cares for.  Following Jesus means making sure no one is left outside our “inner circle.” Following Jesus means making sure we don’t lose our saltiness, as Jesus tells us today.

We must, as followers of Jesus, be salt of the earth. This is what, I think we are doing here at St. Stephen’s.

All of us, in our own ways, are attempting to follow Jesus here.  The same Spirit which rested on those elders in the desert in the days of Moses rests upon us this morning.  We should rejoice in that fact.

See why I am so grateful on this Sunday. See why I am so grateful on this tenth anniversary of my time with you as your priest.  Together, here, we are doing what we care called to do.

So, let us, together, continue to do just that together.  When we do, it is that we make a real difference in the Church and in this world.  Amen.




Sunday, September 23, 2018

18 Pentecost


September 23, 2018 

Jeremiah 11.18-20; Psalm 54; James 3.13-4,7-8a;

+ I’ve shared this before with you. And I want to preface what I am going to say with a hope that you will not see me as a kind of progressive, Episcopal priest version of  Richard Nixon.

But…I have enemies. There’s just no getting around that fact. There are people in this world who just do not like me. I know that’s hard to believe. Lol.  There are people who point-blank dislike me. Or maybe even hate me.

Sometimes…when one makes stands, who stand firm, or makes comments or takes positions that differ from others, you’re gonna have enemies. Sometimes, just for standing up and saying “no” to people, you are going to have people dislike you. Or sometimes, you just are not able to do for others what they need you to do for them.  And, as a result, they despise you for not being who they need you to be for them.

It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s extremely painful. And sometimes, when those people are people you care for or who were close friends or family, it is even more painful.

But, let me tell you this: we don’t make it through this life without a few enemies, without a few people who just not going to like us.

Now, like Richard Nixon, I actually write their names down. But unlike Nixon I do so not to keep up on them and persecute. I keep a list of my “enemies” so I can pray for them on a regular basis.

Now when I say “pray for them” I sometimes honestly can’t do more than that. Sometimes those people have hurt me enough that I can’t say I pray for really great things to happen to them.

But, I also don’t pray for bad things to happen to those people who I view as my enemy. Do I kind of secretly wish that bad things would happen to them?

Well…


…ok…

…maybe…

…secretly…

 But…more than anything, I just wish they would see the error of their ways, as I perceive it. Which is arrogant of me, I know.   But it’s honest.

Ok, yes, for one or two, maybe I did kind of wish bad things for them. You know, like a canker sore or a stubbed toe or something like that. I don’t wish for illness or death or really bad things to happen to them.  

Enemies in the Bible were dealt with differently, as we no doubt have discovered.  And often times, some harsh language was directed at those people who were considered enemies.

On those occasions, we do sometimes come across language in the Bible that we might find a bit—how shall we say—uncomfortable.  The language is often violent.  It is not the language good Christian people normally use. We get a peek at this language in our scriptures readings for today.

Our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah is a bit harsh, shall we say?

“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
so that his name will no longer be remembered.”

For many us, as we hear it, it might give us pause. This is not the kind of behavior we have been taught as followers of Jesus.  After all, as followers of Jesus, we’re taught to love and love fully and completely.  We certainly weren’t taught to pray for God to destroy our enemies, to “cut them off from the land of the living.” And not just destroy our enemies, but our enemy’s children (that whole reference to the fruit of the tree).

We have been taught to pray for our enemies, not pray against them.  None of us would ever even think of praying to God to destroy anyone. I hope!

But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually think and feel this way.  Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly wish the worse for those people who have wronged us in whatever way. I like to think that, rather than this being completely negative or wrong, that we should, in fact, be honest about it.  

We sometimes get angry at people.  We sometimes don’t like people.  And sometimes WE are the enemy to other people.

And let’s truly be honest, there are sometimes when we might actually just hate people.  It’s a fact of life—not one we want to readily admit to, but it is there.

Sometimes it is very, very hard to love our enemies.  Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us.

So, what do we do in those moments when we can’t pray for our enemies—when we can’t forgive?  Well, most of us just simply close up.  We turn that anger inward. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us.  Especially those of us who come from good Scandinavian stock.

We simply aren’t the kind of people who wail and complain about our anger or our losses.  We aren’t ones usually who say, like Jeremiah, “let us cut [that person] off from the land of the living!”

I think we may tend to deny it. And I think we even avoid and deny where the cause of that anger comes from.

Certainly, St. James, in his letter this morning, tries to touch on this when talks about these violent “cravings” which are “at war within us.” It’s not pleasant to think that there is warfare within us. For me, as a somewhat reluctant pacifist sometimes, I do not like admitting that there is often warfare raging within me. But it is sometimes.

So, what about that anger in our relationship to God?  What about that anger when it comes to following Jesus?

Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger before God nor do we bring it before God.  We, I think, look at our anger as something outside our following of Jesus. And that is where scriptures of this sort come in.  It is in those moments when we don’t bring our anger and our frustrations before God, that we need those verses like the ones we encounter in today’s readings.

When we look at those poets and writers who wrote these scriptures—when we recognize her or him as a Jew in a time of war or famine—we realize that for them, it was natural to bring everything before God.  

Everything.

Not just the good stuff.  Not just the nice stuff.

But that bad stuff too.

And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from these readings than anything else.

We all have a “shadow side,” shall we say.  I preach about this all the time.  We all have a dark side.  We have a war raging within us at times.  And we need to remember that we cannot hide that “shadow side” of ourselves from God.  Let me tell you, if you have war raging inside you, you definitely cannot hide that from God.

Sometimes this dark self, this war, is something no else has ever seen—not even our spouse or partner.  Maybe it is a side of ourselves we might have not even acknowledged to ourselves.  

It is this part of ourselves that fosters anger and pride and lust.  It is this side of ourselves that may be secretly violent or mean or unduly confrontational and  gossipy.  Sometimes it will never make an appearance.  It stays in the shadows and lingers there.

But sometimes it actually does make itself known.  Sometimes it comes plowing into our lives when we neither expect it nor want it.  And with it comes chaos

As much we try to deny it or ignore it or hide it, the fact is; we can’t hide this dark side from God. It’s incredible really when you think about it: that God, who knows even that shadow side of us—that side of us we might not even fully know ourselves—God who knows us even that completely still loves us and is with us.

Few of us lay that shadow self before God.  But the authors and poets of our scriptures this morning do, in fact bring it ALL out before God.  These poets wail and complain to God and lay bare that shadow side of him or herself.  The poet is blatantly honest before God. Or as St. James advises,

“submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.”

When these ugly things crop up in our lives, bring them before God. Let us deal with them in humility before God.

The fact is: sometimes we do secretly wish bad things on our enemies.  Sometimes we do wish God would render evil on those who are evil to us.  Sometimes we do hope that God will completely wipe away those people who hurt us from our lives.

It is in those moments, that it is all right to pray to God in such a way.  Because the fact is—as I hope we’ve all learned by now—just because we pray for it doesn’t mean God is going to grant it.  I say this over and over again: God grants all prayer, correct?

But there are three possible answers to prayer.

Yes.

No.

And not yet.

And if you pray for bad things to happen to your enemies, God is probably gonna answer with a big fat “NO.”

But that doesn’t invalidate the prayer.  God knows what to grant in prayer.  And why.

The important thing here is not what we are praying for.  It is not important that in this Psalm we are praying for God to destroy our enemies.

What is important is that, even in our anger, even in our frustration and our pain, we have submitted to God.  We have come before God as this imperfect person.  We have come to God with a long dark shadow trailing us.

I have heard people say that we shouldn’t read these difficult on Sunday morning because they are “bad theology” or “bad psychology.”  They are neither.  They are actually very good and honest theology and very good and honest psychology.  Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it.  Let it out before God.  Be honest with God about these bad things.  Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God.  Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger if you have to.  Trust me, God can take it.

But, these scriptures teach us as well that once we have done that—once we have opened ourselves completely to God—once we have revealed our shadows to God—then we must turn to God and turn away from that shadow self.

We must, as St. James says, “resist the Devil.”

This past week, I came across this incredible quote:

“Forgive anyone who has caused you pain or harm. Keep in mind that forgiving is not for others. It is for you. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is remembering without anger. It frees up your power, heals your body, mind and spirit. Forgiveness opens up a pathway to a new place of peace where you can persist despite what has happened to you.”

The key for me in that quote was, “Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is remembering without anger.”

Hatred and anger and pain are things that, in the long run, hurt us and destroy us.  They make us bitter.  And they hinder our relationship with God and with others.

At some point, as we all know, we must grow beyond whatever anger we might have.  We must not get caught in that self-destructive cycle anger can cause.  We must not allow those negative feelings to make us bitter.

So, when we are faced with these difficult scriptures and we come across those verses that might take by alarm, let us recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God Let these scriptures—these lamenting and angry, as well as the joyful, exultant scriptures—be our voice expressing itself before God.  And in the echo of those words, let us hear God speaking to us in turn.

When we do, we will find ourselves in a holy conversation with God.  And, in that holy conversation, we will find that, even despite that shadow side of ourselves, God, who is Light, who is love, accepts us fully and completely for just who we are.