Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, February 20, 2011 Matt 5:38-48 “Perfect Love”

Oh, that Jesus! Such a kidder!

Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.



Perfect, that’s me. Just like…um….God. And my secret husband is Liam Neeson and I’m six feet tall and blonde with high cheekbones and no spider veins or wrinkles. Perfect.

But when Jesus says perfect here, he’s not talking about Hollywood perfect. No, he’s talking about heaven perfect.

But he’s also talking about earthly perfect. And it’s such a relief to know that we can discard the Hollywood perfect part and just focus on the perfect that Jesus worries about – the perfect that is all about loving each other, even when the object of our love is pretty unlovable.

Well, maybe it isn’t so easy after all.

Loving those whom it would be easier to, if not hate, at least dislike.

Jesus jabs us in the ribs when he tells us about it….he says “being nice is easy. Even the tax collectors – the most hated people in society at that time – can be nice to those they love. Aren’t you better than that, having known me?”

No, followers of Christ are expected to up the ante, as it were. No surprise there – we’ve been hearing about Jesus intensifying what the law means in practice for the past several weeks. And that intensity is all about one thing, one word, one practice: love. Loving even when it’s hard. Loving even when it seems counterintuitive. Loving when you want to turn away.

And once again, Jesus jabs us in the ribs. “And don’t only be loving towards your own people, because even people who don’t know me – even Gentiles – can manage that. Aren’t you better than that, having known me?”

No, you have to love even when it’s hard. Even when it seems counterintuitive. Even when you want to turn away.

And it reminds me of that moment, much later in the gospel, when Jesus and the disciples are sitting around the dinner table after a beauty and highly symbolic meal, when he tells them and us to keep having such meals, so that we don’t forget the love shared around the table and the promises shared around the table. And Jesus ends this lovely meal with a word of warning: “One of you is going to betray me.”

They are horrified. Except, of course, for the one who will do the betraying. He has already set the wheels in motion, this betrayer. The disciples all say, “surely not I, Lord?” They say it with that little question mark at the end…until the one who will hand Jesus over says the question. No question mark in his voice. He knows what will happen, and so does Jesus. And softly, Jesus says, “You have said it.”

But then the meal is over, and they sing a hymn, and they go out to the Mount of Olives, and Jesus goes to pray. He tells the disciples that they, too, will betray him, and of course they deny it. He asks the disciples to sit and wait with him, but they fall asleep while he prays. They betray him by their inability to even stay awake, by their running away, so that when the hour comes, only one disciple and the two Marys are with him.

Betrayal…perhaps that is the opposite of love, not hate. The absence of the ability to do what you have promised. The turning against the one you love. And all Jesus asks for is love.

And all Jesus gives is love.

Even when Judas turns away and offers him to the chief priests and scribes, Jesus doesn’t stop loving him. He grieves, but he doesn’t hate.

Even when the disciples fall asleep while he prays, even when they run away and hide, he doesn’t stop loving them. He is disappointed in their weakness, but he doesn’t hate.

No, he does the harder thing. He keeps on loving despite what has happened.

Did he think of those words we heard this morning at those moments? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

It’s easy when we just speak the words. Not so easy in practice. And yet Jesus, betrayed, tortured, facing death, knowing that he would be alone at the hour of his death, still forgives, still loves. Perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. Perfect love.

Not vengeance. Not an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We live in a dangerous world. There are bad people and misguided people and greedy people who want to cause harm. Some would say we are naïve, we Christians, because Jesus, who was not the least bit naïve about evil in this world, said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

No, Jesus is not denying the evil. He is telling us that the way to conquer evil is with something that is ultimately more powerful than guns or bombs or chemical weapons…it is love.

We saw a little of that in action – in imperfect action, to be sure, but in action nonetheless – in the past couple of weeks in Egypt. People turned out into Tahrir Square crying out for freedom. Were they advocating overthrow of a regime that they believed was repressive? Yes, they were. But ultimately, what they were advocating for was a nation that would be loving toward all its people, and their cry was not one from behind the sight of a scope on a rifle, it was arm in arm in a loving community. Their cry for their nation was love – love of each other, love of freedom, love of equality.

Was it perfect? No. There were some acts of violence. A woman reporter was terribly assaulted, a horrific thing. Some groups of people with specific agendas fomented some fighting. But it was an imperfect step toward something more perfect.

A reporter watched amazed at the aftermath of the demonstrations. Over a hundred thousand people stood in the square until Mubarak stepped down. The next day after it was over, people came and meticulously cleaned up the square until it was, as the reporter noted, as sparkling clean as Zurich, in the incredibly obsessively clean nation of Switzerland.

Perhaps perfect love, like perfect nationhood, is more of a process than a fixed state. Perhaps what Jesus is telling us is not that we flip a switch and suddenly let go of all anger and resentment and discomfort and just love everybody.

So we enter today into that process. What steps move us along the path to perfect love. We stop sniping at the person who makes us feel small. We smile at them instead. We stop complaining to our friends about the teller at the bank who asks for four pieces of identification when we want to cash a check. We say to that teller, “It must be hard to have to keep asking people for all this stuff.” We don’t say to our children that our spouse is just being silly or stupid, undermining parenting. No, we love our spouse for trying, and we share concerns or disagreements with respect rather than manipulating the children.

We co-opt difficult people at work with love.

We don’t become doormats – that’s not what I’m saying here at all – but we don’t respond to bad behavior but doing the same or even upping the ante.

Because, you know, if God worked that way with us, God would be smiting us all the time, wouldn’t he?

But God doesn’t. Why? Because we are God’s beloved creations, and beloved means all the time, not just when we’re doing it right.

If God can love us perfectly, it seems we might be able to love a little better, a little more perfectly, even if we don’t make it all the way to “as perfect as our heavenly Father.” One act of love at a time. One step away from all those things like revenge and just desserts and he’s got it coming and eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.

If Jesus could love his disciples that even after they dropped him at Gethsemane and let him die on the cross, he still came back for a visit, well, we have some work to do, don’t we?

Live with love at the center, imperfect but moving toward perfect. Live as the 13th Century mystic and poet Hafiz described:

Plant so that your own heart will grow.

Love so God will think, "Ahhhhhh, I got kin in that body! I should start inviting that soul over for coffee and rolls.”

Sing, because this is a food our starving world needs.

Laugh, because that is the purest sound.

Yes, love. Even when it’s hard. It isn’t as hard as the alternative. Ask Jesus, and trust the process.


Friday, February 18, 2011

A Poem/Gift from my Clergy Group, by Hafiz

I Got Kin


So that your own heart

Will grow.


So God will think,


I got kin in that body!

I should start inviting that soul over

For coffee and



Because this is a food

Our starving world



Because that is the purest


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Uphill Marathon

As I said on FB a little while ago, sometimes walking with the Lord is an uphill marathon without the Gatorade. Today was such a day.

The adult daughter/sister of one of my dear parishioner families passed today after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She had just moved back home a week ago and we didn't think it would happen this quickly. She took a bad turn yesterday and it went downhill from there.

It is such a horrible and wonderful thing to walk with people at this time. The pain is enormous. The fear and the shock and the grief are unbearable. And yet there are moments of great grace that get us through.

  • The doctor who understood completely that the family was ready to end heroic measures, consistent with the wishes of the patient. When the family conveyed these wishes, the doctor said, "That is a very selfless decision, and I understand it and agree with you."
  • The nurse who tenderly cared for the dying woman through some very nasty things today, and who kept the family informed as to what was happening as if she were a hospice nurse (this was in the CICU). After K passed, we found out her own father had died just three weeks earlier. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, she was utterly and gracefully present to the family as well as the patient.
  • The church family, who prayed for God's will and for comfort for the whole family, and who wanted to know what was needed or what they could do. The day before, one parishioner ran into a member of the family and said, "I'm offering you body parts. I will be your shoulder to cry on, your ears to listen, your hands and feet to help."
  • In the midst of this today, I had to go to another hospital a few miles away to visit another critically ill patient - yes, this week has been like that - and when I told the woman about what was happening in the other place, she wanted to know what she (sitting in another ICU) could do to help the family.
I am grateful to be home now, getting ready to prepare the memorial service as well as the women's retreat I am leading on Friday and Saturday, the sermon on Sunday, and the things I need to do (like the monthly newsletter) before I leave for continuing ed on the 26th. No Gatorade for this marathon, to be sure, but another kind of aid, and that will be sufficient, I think.

And there's always chocolate. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, February 13, 2011 Matt 5:21-37 “A Higher Standard of Love”

Tomorrow will be Valentine’s Day, that wonderful day when we celebrate our love. Cards will be given, flowers delivered, chocolates shared. A secular holiday in our culture to be sure, a Hallmark moment. But it is a good thing to honor and celebrate love in all its variety, even if it means a last minute trip to CVS to get a box of Russell Stovers’ chocolates, a red Snuggie, and a funny card.

Funny thing, though. St Valentine, after whom this holiday is named, wasn’t a particularly romantic saint. He was a martyr, a priest who opposed Claudius II in the third century. There are some who say he married young Christian couples against Claudius’ wishes, but the only thing we know for certain that he was a priest and a martyr. Not quite so romantic, but still a tale of the love of one man for Christ. The expression of that great love was his willingness to put himself at risk by living out his faith during a time when being a Christian meant you would be killed if you were caught. Not quite so romantic as the marrying story, but it is in fact a representation of a higher standard of love than a simple warm story of a priest presiding at the secret marriages of sweet young lovers.

A higher standard of love….it is a common practice on this holiday to tell stories of extraordinary love, love stories that meet a higher standard of some kind, and because I, too, am a romantic, I’m going to share one with you today, one that I first heard a few months ago on the radio[i].

Mark was one of four children of an Irish-American family – his was the first generation here in America. He was a good boy, the one who never got into any trouble, who was virtually invisible in a boisterous family. When he graduated from high school, there was no money for college. Shortly, he immediately enlisted in the Air Force. When he completed his basic training, he shipped out to Korea, serving as a Military Policeman. He had only been there a short while when he met a beautiful Korean girl named Ha. They started to date. He was head-over-heels in love with this beautiful young woman. As the term of his assignment in Korea was coming up, he knew that he wanted to marry her. Being a good Irish boy, he wrote his mother. “Mom, I have fallen in love with Ha and I want to bring her home.”

Well, he was quite young and his mother thought this was precipitous, so she wrote back and said, “You’re way too young and this is way too soon.” So Mark listened to his mother and did not propose to Ha, although they continued to date.

And then he was shipped back to the US. He didn’t want to leave – he asked to be reassigned back to Korea – but he was rotated stateside. He wrote to Ha for a while, but then family problems required his help, so he left the Air Force and became a police officer in their little town. He was working all sorts of overtime to help the family, and he stopped writing to Ha. She was heartbroken, but thought that this meant that he didn’t want her, so she moved and began her own business. After a couple of years, Mark realized that he missed Ha terribly and started writing again, but Ha had moved, not once, but twice. She was making a new life for herself, without Mark. But Mark kept trying to find her, taking out ads in Korean newspapers, sending letters everywhere he could think of, trying to reconnect with the woman he missed so deeply.

His family knew nothing of this. They thought that the interlude with Ha was long over. Mark said nothing to them. He just worked and helped and privately continued his search. He continued his search for years.

And finally, some dozen years after they had parted, one of his letters was answered by Ha. He could hardly believe it after all this time. In fact, her reply came a full year and a half after he had sent that particular letter. She had wanted to mull over whether she could open up her heart again.

She told him that she was now a very successful business woman in Korea, with several fitness centers. She helped train the Korean Olympic teams. She had locked away her heart after Mark had broken it. To say that she was suspicious of him coming back to her after all this time would be an understatement. But he then proposed a meeting, in neutral territory. They would meet for a week in Hawaii. Finally he told his family what was going on, much to their shock and amazement. This was not the quiet solid Mark they knew. This was a wild romantic.

Ha had agreed to this meeting. When they met in Hawaii, it was as if they had never been apart. The young love had changed, of course – they were no longer in their early twenties – but the intensity, the connection was there, like a hot ember still glowing. So he asked her to marry him.

But her life was in Korea, and she had become a very independent strong woman with a business to run. She had to go home and think about it. He was disappointed, but it goes without saying that he was a patient man. They continued to communicate, and he waited.

But a couple of years after the Hawaiian trip, she became terribly ill. Her illness would require surgery and after care. The doctors told her she would have to give up the business – too much stress. And Mark kicked into action. She had to come to the US for the surgery. While she was winding down the business, he would call her every day, often twice a day. He was caring, solicitous. And her fears about the depth of his love, whether he would abandon her again, slowly faded away. She said “every day, he showed me how much was his love. He showed me. He called every day. He was always arranging things to help me.” He showed her a higher standard of love than mere romance. Ha came to the US. The surgery was successful. He cared for her in recovery. And then, seventeen years after they had first met, they married.

If they had married in the first flush of young love when Mark was first in Korea, who knows if the marriage would have been successful? The one thing I do know is that he showed her something beyond mere romance in his search for her, his patience with her decision-making, his care for her during her illness.

That’s what true, deep love is really about.

And that is actually what our Gospel reading today is about.

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem that way. Jesus is talking about the law. What you just heard in the gospel comes right after Jesus says, “I come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”

All the Pharisees were trying to paint him as a heretic who was trying to overthrow the law, but Jesus said, “No, I’m not getting rid of the law in my teaching. I am taking it to a new level of understanding. And it is a new level that starts with the premise of love. God’s love, our love for each other.”

You see, the old law, the old covenant, was a list of rules. Like filling out your tax returns…you’d go down the list and make sure you checked off each box, did each thing on the list. With tax returns, that’s a good thing, making sure you simply follow the rules. It’s mechanical, legalistic. But it doesn’t make you think about how you relate with the source of those rules. Just like the tax return doesn’t cause you to reflect on the relationship between the individual and the government (except to grumble), a religious system based on memorized rules – a checklist or recipe book of what you need to do – does little to make you understand your relationship to your God, or how that would shape your relationship with each other.

No, Jesus is arguing for a higher standard of the law, one based on love. Jesus says, “You have heard it said ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, you not only shouldn’t murder, you should find a way to reconcile with those with whom you are angry.” He says that it is not enough simply to follow the rule that is easy for you to check off the list – not many of us want to murder anyone at this moment, I hope – he says you’ve got to think about your relationship with others. If the relationship is broken (the sort of thing that, at its worst, might lead you to want to kill them) then you have to look into your own heart and sort it out. You have got to love, as God loves us, as Jesus demonstrated his love. Jesus demands a higher standard of love – the insistence that we work to repair broken relationships – not just the demand that we don’t kill each other.

Jesus says, “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you that if you even think about it, it’s just as bad as if you had done the deed.” I doubt many of us in this room have committed adultery, but I’d bet if you searched your hearts you would remember moments when you thought, “Wow, that person is gorgeous. I wonder what it would be like to be with her/him?” Jesus says that if you love God, if you love your partner with whom you have a committed relationship, you love them enough to not only avoid cheating on them with your body, you don’t cheat on them in your imagination. Our promise of love and respect is a higher standard than the mere physical. Jesus demands a higher standard of love – the insistence that we do not take our partner and our relationship for granted by having a wandering heart, not just the demand that we don’t have physical intimacy with someone other than our partner.

Jesus says, “You have heard it said, “do not make vows falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to God,’ but I say to you do not make vows at all. Only God makes vows. You should just do what you say you are going to do and don’t make a big show of swearing about it.” It is not good to make it seem more certain that you are going to do something by saying “I swear I’ll do it.” Just be honest. Don’t feel like you need to make the show. Jesus demands a higher standard of love – if we love and respect those with whom we have a relationship, we don’t need to make a grand declaration to put some sort of seal on it. We need to do what we way we’re going to do, because we love and/or respect them, not because there is a checklist that says “okay, swear to it now.”

Jesus is not talking about laws in the Gospel today. He is talking about love. A higher standard of love. Not merely doing things because we want to check off a list that keeps us out of trouble, but doing things because we have engaged our hearts and minds and souls and have determined what is the right path, the Godly path.

We celebrate this holiday in praise of love, and if we take it seriously, we take Jesus’ words seriously. We do the hard work of going beyond the checklist kind of doing what’s right, of doing what is expected. We do the hard work of assessing what deep and lasting love requires, that higher standard.

Mark understood that, and worked for years to achieve it.

Jesus taught that, and demonstrated it by giving his very life on the Cross to save us, out of love for us.

It’s more than a card or a nice dinner out. It’s deep, and it’s difficult sometimes, and it’s lasting.

You have heard it said that love is simple, but truly I say to you, if you do it right, it’s deep and difficult and a continual challenge and the greatest joy you will ever experience.

May God bless your love, and those you love, and may you set a high standard for your living into that love, higher every day.


[i] NPR, “This American Life,” “Slow to React” Jan 23, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011


It was a busy week. A difficult pastoral case which required many calls to many social service agencies. Other pastoral emergencies. Some extra work for other activities. Vestry work, a blessing but hard nonetheless. Planning. Preparing to go on my Continuing Education cruise.

Yesterday was supposed to be a day off. I worked twelve hours, almost all in response to emergencies that only I could attend to.

Today was a hospital visit - another emergency, then training our lay readers. Although only one showed up for the training, there was a pastoral conversation that ensued that was a Spirit-filled moment. I came home and finished the sermon. It's a bit on the long side, but I think it works in some ways. In any case, it is finished, which is a good feeling.

I thought I was okay with the stress of this week.

Then I took the car to the car wash. Three minutes in the softly humming car, with only the sound of the rushing water. No visibility with the soap on the car windows. Of course, no cell phone.

It was a blissful three minute retreat from the chaotic week into a tightly circumscribed space of white noise, flowing water, and nothing else. And I sighed, and it all melted away.

I think taking the car through the car wash is my new spiritual discipline.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, February 6, 2011 Matt 5:13-20 “In Good Measure”

You are the salt of the earth!

In recent weeks I’ve become addicted to the new program on PBS called “Downton Abbey.” It’s the story of a noble family who live in a grand manor house in England, at the beginning of World War I. They are in financial difficulties, and yet they live with dozens of servants in great splendor. The tale is told from the perspective of the family and the servants…a version of “Upstairs, Downstairs” for the present time.

In one scene, the assistant in the kitchen, a timid creature, puts salt in one of the desserts rather than sugar. She doesn’t do it by accident. It is quite deliberate. She wants to make the temporary cook look bad so that the regular cook, on medical leave, will be restored to her position once she is well. The staff, having their meal downstairs, take a big bit of the dessert and immediately spit it out, and the scene is mirrored at the upstairs table as well. The salt makes it inedible. Too much salt! An awful thing! Remarkably, the kitchen girl isn’t sacked for her deed…some grace even in that difficult world. But I can’t help but think about how that elegant looking dessert must have tasted. To be expecting a sweet delight, and then getting a mouthful of that sharp salty discordant flavor!

So when I hear Jesus say “You are the salt of the earth,” I wonder about salt, and about whether it is a bane or a blessing. He is certainly making the case for salt as blessing. It brings savor. It is a good preservative: think of salt cod, or corned beef. It enhances the flavors of so many foods…except perhaps that dessert at Downton Abbey. Those who have to cut back on their salt for health reasons really miss it. But if salt is used incorrectly, or in too great a quantity, it is no blessing.

Jesus uses this image of salt to encourage the disciples to step out boldly to do their work, to inject some sharpness, some intensity to how we as human beings relate to each other. They are expected to challenge the world in a salty way! If disciples don’t do this, they are in danger of becoming bland, of not pressing those to whom they preach toward a sharper and deeper understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God and with other members of the body of Christ. If they don’t make us more piquant, they’re not doing their job! If disciples are salt, the salt of the earth, and if they aren’t being salty, they are useless. They have no flavor. They don’t bring out the best in others.

Strong imagery, but Jesus isn’t done yet.

His second image of what disciples are to be is so very different. You are the light of the world!

Let me turn once again to Downton Abbey. Some of the most beautiful images of the place are those filmed at night. A glittering dinner party, the women dressed in silks and laces and jewels, the men in their tuxes, servants at the ready. Crystal glistening on the table. And you can see the lights and the celebration through the windows, of course. The new electric lights that have been installed, much to the dismay of the Dowager Countess, shine brightly. And yet only those on the grounds of the estate see the light…it is far from the village, up on a hill, and those lights are not visible down in the village. Only this small group of privileged people and their servants get to see this light. All that magnificence, and it is invisible to most of those in the area! Jesus would call this a waste of good light…hiding it from those who should see it.

And so it is with disciples. If you are the light of the world, you are intended to shine, just like salt is intended to flavor. You are supposed to carry God’s light through your own light. And you do it not for your own good, but for the good of the larger community, visible to all. You are not a private estate, with only others just like you to witness the glow…you are a city on a hill, visible to all, sharing the light.

You’ve got to be a visible light, sharing with others what is fueling your glow.

You’ve got to be flavorful salt, sharpening and enhancing others’ understandings of what relationship with God really means.

And yet, excess in either image is not necessarily a blessing.

Too much salt causes us to spit out the food, like the people in Downton Abbey. It is too much for us to swallow, too harsh, and we cannot taste past the saltiness to the underlying flavors the salt is meant to enhance. And I wonder if sometimes in our desire to be salt of the earth, to be as salty as Jesus asks us to be, we overshoot the mark by sharing our message in a way that is too harsh. Do we ever insist that our way is the only right way, as if God has only one flavor? Do we demean other denominations, calling them backward or anti-intellectual or spiritless? Who made us the arbiters of such things? In our desire to be salty, to add flavor to our message of God’s love, are we sometimes pouring too much salt in, so that our message is inedible?

What about too much light? It can be blinding, can’t it?

I’ve got a lamp by our sofa that is wonderful – it’s one of those Ott-Lites. As my eyes get a little bit older, it helps me to read the small print and do my knitting. But when we have guests over, the light is too bright for comfortable conversation. When a guest is sitting across from me on a chair, the light hurts their eyes. I can see it in their grimacing faces, so I usually either turn off the lamp, or turn the shade toward the wall to dampen the brightness a bit. Too much brightness makes it nearly impossible to see, like sitting on the beach on a very sunny day, so bright that your head starts to hurt and you see sparkles around the edge of your vision.

Sometimes, turning down the brightness helps people see.

You may know someone who has quit smoking. It’s a good thing, good for your health, even if you have been smoking for decades. We’re usually pretty glad when someone we love has quit smoking…but there is something that often happens as part of that phenomenon. The person who has quit becomes an anti-smoking zealot. “I should have done this years ago! I feel so much better. And now, every time I see some guy lighting up one of those cancer sticks, I go over and snatch it out of his sorry mouth and grind it under my shoe, and tell him if I can quit so can he!”

I wonder how many people have been convinced to quit smoking when someone came on so strong. Yes, their light is shining with the glow of the newly converted, but it’s shining so brightly that it hurts your eyes. Hard to understand what you’re seeing when you’re squinting so hard.

I suspect there is a lesson there for us as we share our faith with others. Yes, we are required, as disciples of the living Christ, to share our love and the joy we feel as Christians. Jesus asks us to live our discipleship every day. He tells us we have to be salty, flavorful. He tells us to shine brightly, not to hide our light under a bushel basket.

He does not tell us to throw so much salt in that everyone starts retaining water.

He does not tell us to shine so brightly that everyone around us gets a headache.

For most Episcopalians, sharing their faith is something uncomfortable. We cringe at the word “evangelism.” We think it may be about being so salty that our tongues shrivel up, or so bright that we blind folks.

But being a disciple, and sharing the message of Jesus Christ, is about the right amount of salt, not overly seasoning the dish. It is about shining enough light to warm and brighten and attract, not to give folks a sunstroke.

It is about invitation, about the warm and flavorful love that Christians know, about the taste and the glow in the place we keep coming back to, the Lord who guides our hands and our hearts and our mouths.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Go and live it and preach it, with gentleness and grace and love.