Feb 132011

Epiphany 6, Year A           February 13, 2011

Wow, no easy readings here this morning.  That passage from Deuteronomy lays it out in black and white- Today I lay before life and prosperity or death and adversity!  And the Psalmist speaks of keeping God’s commandments perfectly, and we wonder “how on earth?” and then we get to our Gospel, which really gets our attention!

Last week we heard Jesus say in the Gospel passage that precedes this one, that he comes “not abolish but fulfill the law” (verse 17).  And here today he gives us the challenging details of what that means for those who follow in his way. He starts out by saying that no longer do the teachings on murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, they become doorways into the examination of the internal dynamics of our lives as well. The common theme threading its way throughout this gospel passage is, as Biblical commentator Fred Craddock puts it, the primary importance of personal relationships.”

Musing on this passage, one colleague online this week wrote,

I believe Jesus is trying to teach us that our greater value comes from within ourselves.  There is something deep in us that wants something deep to answer it.  It really is like Jesus is telling us to turn ourselves inside out. (Lindy Black at  http://web.me.com/lindyblack/Sermon_Fodder/Lectionary/Entries/2011/2/13_EPIPHANY_6A.html)

That idea of Jesus bidding us to turn ourselves inside out reminds me of how I feel each time I pray the collect for purity at the outset of our service. In that prayer we address God as the One, “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid,” and we ask that God, “cleanse our heart by the inspiration”- literally the breathing in – “of the Holy Spirit”, so that we might give glory back to God. I take a certain solace in that prayer, because it keeps me humble, at the same time it makes me feel secure. This prayer reminds me that no matter what I do, or who I can trick myself into thinking I am, God knows me better. God knows that I am no better or worse at heart than anyone else, and that due to the complexities of myself and the world I live in, I need to return time and again to God to repent and to rejoice alongside my sisters and brothers in faith. That is why that prayer never seems to wear out.

Likewise through this Gospel passage Jesus calls his followers to turn themselves inside out and to seek to behold themselves as God beholds them, with all their desires and secrets fully seen, so that they might realize the grace they need to remain connected to each other and to God in the midst of the complexities of who they are and what the world is.

And then into the midst of this passage comes a verse that has been controversial in Christian communities. As is the case with any text that is lifted out of context, the verse of this Gospel dealing with divorce is painful to many if not seen in the context of the rest of the passage, and the realities world it was first spoken into.  It helps to know that elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells the Pharisees who ask him about right to divorce that Moses gave them – the rule that a man could divorce his wife – was a rule given only on account of their hardness of heart.  And what Jesus was speaking against was a system in which one marriage partner, the husband, held all the power to end or continue the relationship.  And if the husband chose to divorce his wife, he basically left her economically and socially bereft. For her own survival it would be necessary for her to remarry.  So what Jesus is shining light on here is an oppressive approach to divorce that left women vulnerable and powerless over their lot in life.

Then it seems to me a far stretch to read this or similar gospel passages about divorce as Jesus condemnation of divorced people. Just as in this passage Jesus is not condemning people who have murdered, or lusted, or stolen, he is not condemning people who divorce. And let’s be honest.  Any who have been in long term relationships know about brokenness.  Even in the best of relationships there are places of brokenness, where the broken edges of partners rub against each other.  Even in the best of marriages, people can feel divorced from each other at times, and sometimes that becomes a permanent situation and divorce results because the relationship dies.  I suspect Jesus knew all about this too.  Yet, I believe that the resurrection power of Christ is open to all of us, even when – and maybe even especially when- these most important of human bonds break.  So, in this passage, Jesus is noting that divorce is just one of the painful realities that results from our brokenness in relationship – brokenness of relationship among people that ultimately stems from our inner brokenness of relationship with God.

In this passage Jesus uses hyperbole “tearing out your eye; cutting off your hand” to get our attention and focus us in on how serious this brokenness we all live with is,  and how it is not just manifest in outward actions and behaviors, but also in inward attitudes and postures.  I think his point here is not to single anyone out, but to draw all of us in so that we can see ourselves and our inward brokenness more clearly, and to realize how much we need his grace.

And imbedded in this passage is also some advice he has for us as to how move toward healing our brokenness.  He says,

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

The message here seems to be that you cannot fully offer your gifts to God and be connected fully to God unless you are willing to work on the broken parts of your relationships.  Interestingly, this advice of his has become embodied in our liturgy – in the form of the peace, where we reach out to each other and say “The Peace of the Lord be always with you”.  Often those can be words of love and greeting to people around us in the congregation who we may be on good terms with.  But at their depths, these are an opportunity for us to make amends, or at least the beginning of amends, with each other when there is some sort of unhappy division. What a grace to be able to do so before coming to the altar to offer our gifts and hearts to God, and to receive the food that weaves us into one body.  It can be an amazing moment of reconciliation by the grace of God.  And we are given the chance each week so that we might have every opportunity to heal the wounds that would otherwise divide the body of Christ.  And practicing this peace, here among us, also puts us in a better position to spread that same restorative peace outside these walls during the other 6 days of our week which is our call also.

In his 1660 treatise titled “The Worthy Communicant”, Anglican Divine, Jeremy Taylor wrote this about the unity we find in the bread and wine:

“As this Sacrament is a means of uniting us to our Lord by Faith, so likewise of uniting us to our Brethren by Love.  It knits us not only to our Head, but all the Members also thereby are more endeared unto each other.  We enter here into a strict League of Friendship with them as well as into a Covenant with God.

For all true Christians are not only of the Family of God but his Children and nearest Relations, so that we cannot profess any Love to the Father of them all but we must at the same time embrace his whole Progeny as bearing his Character and having in them those very things which we love in him. (Prayer Book Spirituality, edited by J.R. Wright, p. 285)

This Valentine’s Day Eve, as we celebrate those we love most, may we also remember the call to love even – and perhaps especially- in the brokenness of our lives and relationships.  And here together may we find the nourishment to strengthen us to answer that call.  By the grace and mercy of Christ. Amen+

 February 13, 2011. The Peace of the Lord  Posted by on Sun, 13-Feb-11 Sermons Comments Off on February 13, 2011. The Peace of the Lord
Feb 062011

February 20, 2011 – Visit St, Anna’s Chapel

Bring your coffee and hear the history and times of St. Anna’s Chapel, consecrated in 1863 during the Civil War. Meet with your guide Bronson de Stadler who will reveal: Who was St. Anna? What is the history of the stained Glass? What does the Chapel have in common with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City? Why is Jesus wearing a hat in the Good Shephard window? What secret spaces exist in the Chapel? Half our time will be spent talking and half visiting the Chapel.

 300th Anniversary Adult Forum  Posted by on Sun, 6-Feb-11 History, News Comments Off on 300th Anniversary Adult Forum
Feb 062011

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, and Matthew 5:13-20

This sermon was offered on the day the 2011 Super Bowl football game was played in the US, and the second Sunday of the event in Egypt that’s come to be known as “January 25th.”

Bismillahi a-rahman a-rahim.  In the name of the one God, the merciful, the compassionate.

No, I haven’t converted to Islam! The truth of the triune God, holy Creator, incarnate Redeemer, and sustaining Spirit has far too firm a grip on me for that to happen.   But it’s fitting to start with an Arabic invocation this week, considering what’s going on in the world. It’s just as fitting to hear Jesus say “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Have you seen the news from Cairo in Egypt?  It’s been amazing to hear about families, doctors, street-cleaners, students, shopkeepers – everybody – camping out in Tahrir Square.  They’re hoping for an end to the current regime, and they’re putting their hope into insistent words.

It’s especially amazing to see what happens when the time for prayers comes around.  Have you seen those images? Demonstrators, soldiers, bystanders, and even some of the hoodlums, pray together. They kneel in the presence of the God of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They bow their heads to the ground saying “Glory be to my Lord, the Most High.”  What a witness!

If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we have to admit to some skepticism. It may be hard for you and me to see past some of our stereotypes of Islam to see the times of prayer in Tahrir Square as pure and holy communal acts of faith.  There’s great power in the rows of people praying together in public.  Is that power the power of God? Or is it power from some other source?  Is there a threat to us implied by that power?

Is it a threat to the life of the world?  It’s certainly possible: we all know the power of religion is misused by groups of people, and by nations, to threaten and subdue each other.  This has been going on for as long as humanity has been human.  We can say it’s been going on since the first man and woman were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. We could be forgiven if we’re suspicious and fear some danger in this huge upheaval in Egypt.

We search our own spirits, as St. Paul wrote, and find human suspicion within us.  Is that same not-so-holy spirit driving events in Egypt?  It’s hard to know. We’re not standing in that square. We’re at a distance from the events, and they’re being interpreted for us by reporters and politicians who have their own points of view.  Maybe things are going to go terribly wrong, as they have over and over throughout history. Maybe we’ll get hurt.

On the other hand, God’s word spoken through Isaiah long ago is echoing in Egypt.  “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?   Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?”   Those demonstrators are defending each other, caring for each other, feeding each other, and calling for the end of injustice.  They stood firm last Wednesday and Thursday in the face of discouraging violence.

The spirit of God must be there.   At any rate, it would be presumptuous for you and I to deny, in the face of the visible evidence, that God is with them.  Abraham Lincoln famously said, “God is my witness  that it is my constant anxiety and prayer   that both myself and this nation   should be on the Lord’s side.”  Let us hope and pray that we, and our nation, should be on the Lord’s side.  And, let us pray confidently that the people of Egypt are asking for that same divine blessing as they bow in prayer five times each day.

Communal prayer is a basic human need.  We yearn for the community of other people hoping the same hopes, dreaming the same dreams, and wanting the same things.  Here’s something to think about:  professional sports meet part of that human need.  What would life on earth be like if we all rooted for the compassion and mercy of God with the same fervor that we root for our favorite football teams?  Could it change the world?

It fact, it HAS changed the world.  One of my teachers, Dirk Lange, was a brother with the Taizé community in France for a couple of decades.  Many of us know Taizé for their contemplative worship music: ” Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

Dr. Lange told us seminary students about a lesser-known work of Taizé.  In the 1970s and 1980s they supported groups of believers in Eastern Europe by visiting them.  Starting in 1980 Brother Dirk used to visit the east.  He got a tourist visa, went to East Berlin (via Checkpoint Charlie) and met with small groups of Christians.  Many of these tiny congregations were part of the Confessing Church movement that Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped lead.  These are the churches who refused to abandon hope to the Third Reich.

They were meeting secretly to worship together. Brother Dirk had to memorize the names and addresses of the people he was to visit: heaven help the ones whose names were found on a piece of paper in a visitor’s luggage. Arriving alone at a house, he would find a dozen or so people there. They’d sing and pray together, quietly.  They’d read the Gospel.   They lit candles, the ancient symbol of hope, and shared communion. These meetings came to be called the Friedensgebete – the prayers for peace.

And then somebody would quietly take Brother Dirk to the next Friedensgebeit meeting.  They’d avoid being seen by anyone, because people in that place were always looking at each other and saying “what are you doing?  Who do you think you are? How can you change anything anyhow?”  But these believers weren’t thinking of themselves, and they weren’t thinking politically.

Somehow, the light of Christ had come to them.   The power of the SS and the Stasi, the East German secret police, failed to put out that light.  The light came to them one by one, two by two, and they gathered to celebrate it and put it on the tallest lampstand they dared use.

As the 1980s wore on, these peace-prayer meetings became more numerous, bigger and bolder. In 1989 they started spilling out of the houses. In the German city of Leipzig in March, 8,000 people gathered at the Nikolaikirche (one of the churches where J. S. Bach played).  In June, it was 20,000 people.  In August, 70,000 people.  These people prayerfully and fearlessly walked in the streets in the ancient procession ritual of Christian worship, and confronted the Stasi with little candles.

Carrying a tiny candle outdoors is a symbol of vulnerability and peaceful intent – it’s very practical — how can you throw a rock with a candle in hand?  For that matter, how can you throw a rock when you’re kneeling and touching your forehead to the ground?

In October, 300,000 people carried candles in Leipzig, and the Prime Minister of East Germany resigned. On November 9th, the Berlin Wall fell.   Those people set the light of Christ on a tall lampstand and the world changed!  (light the paschal candle.)  God hears those who call out in humility and faith.

Protesters holding candles encircle a tank in Tahrir Square on February 9, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press)

Today too, we know that God will hear those who call out in prayer. We trust God will hear the faithful prayers for justice and righteousness that come from Tahrir Square.   You and I also are called to pray, with our hearts, our minds, our souls, and our strength, for justice and righteousness.

The yoke of oppression isn’t confined to Egypt – it’s right here too.  Our American sin is to sacrifice justice on the altar of efficiency. I have a friend who was evicted from her foreclosed house the same week she got a letter saying her mortgage was modified. She said “it’s OK, even banks make mistakes.”  Sorry. It’s not OK!   We all know people who don’t have enough to eat or to wear.  We all are afraid of strangers; we all are self-righteous sometimes. Unfairness and corruption aren’t just Egypt’s problem.  (Of course, we do act against these problems in our own ways, at Among Friends and in our other ministries. But it doesn’t seem like we can do enough.)

What would happen if the whole world prayed together for justice with the same fervor that we root for sports teams?  We’re about to find out.  We’re going to gather in a few minutes at Jesus’s table.  At that table we will find the community of the faithful from all around the world and through the ages. We will join our voices with the unending hymn of the angels. We’ll bow our heads and pray the prayer Jesus taught us. We will take the nourishment he offers us.  Imagine: billions of people praying “thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” Some say “glory be to my Lord the most High.”  More people say these words than watch the World Cup, never mind the Super Bowl.  Billions, through the ages and around the world, are united in submission to God’s glory, and united in yearning for God’s realm of compassion and mercy.

So as we bow our heads in prayer, let us remember that it’s a big deal. It’s a very tall lampstand. We pray for nothing less than the life of the whole world.  Let us draw strength from God through our prayers to act for the life of the world.


 Sermon, Feb 6, 2011, Tall Lampstands  Posted by on Sun, 6-Feb-11 Sermons Comments Off on Sermon, Feb 6, 2011, Tall Lampstands
Feb 032011

Reflections on Bread, Peace &Love from Christian Tradition

Offered at the 8th Annual Interfaith Prayer Service

Merrimack College Center for Jewish, Christian, Muslim Relations

Feb. 3, 2011

I am so grateful to have been invited to be part of this prayer service tonight, and to have the opportunity to reflect on the themes of the evening from the perspective of my tradition.  It is good to step outside the usual context of my preaching, and have my comfort zone broadened! I want to speak about four of them in pairs of two that stood out for me as I prepared.

The first pair is bread and welcoming the stranger. Bread plays a particularly important part in the Christian tradition as all Christians in one way or another harken back to the evening before Jesus’ death when he took bread and wine and said to his disciples, this is my body, this is my blood poured out for you – do this in remembrance of me.

This powerfully pivotal moment of his life is re-enacted every time two or three gather in his name for what we call Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.  Over my years as a Christian, first as a child then as a lay person, now as a priest, I have been struck time and again by the layers of meaning that I have discovered in this simple and enduring ritual.  This bread of angels given to us to nourish us in ways no other food can is, in times of grief, a comfort; in times of plenty a reminder to share; in times of complacency, a challenge to engage in justice on behalf of others.

But most recently I have been struck by the idea that we who reach out our hands to take the holy bread, week after week are fed so that we might be more fully people of God in the world – so that we might become bread for the world in Christ’s name.  So at the communion rail each Sunday, as I press the communion bread into outstretched hands and say “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven”, I am speaking as much about the bread I am giving as I am about the person who is receiving it. As one of my parishioners once put it, “We take Jesus in, so that we might go out to spend him in the world.” Then she asked us, “How are you going to spend your Jesus this week?” (Words from a sermon preached at St. Paul’s by Terry Rooney) What a wonderful and awesome responsibility, to spend what God has given us in the service of others, whom we might not even know, but whose servants we become because we have shared a holy meal. Sadly in our frailty and brokenness, we have often not understood this responsibility clearly or lived up to faithfully.  So often we would rather ask, “What does this communion offer me?”, rather than “How does the communion equip me to be an offering for others?”

And so the second pair of themes I want to reflect on is peace and love, for peace and love are the result when we let the bread of communion transform us more and more into people for God in this world.  Recently our Sunday adult forum group at St. Paul’s Church watched a video on the life of Dietrich Bonhoffer, a German Christian who stood and spoke out against Hitler’s Third Reich, and who lost his life doing so.  One of the things that I learned about Bonhoffer that I had not known before was that while he was attending Union Theological Seminary in New York City for one year in the late 1920’s, he became friends with a fellow African American student who took Bonhoffer with him to church each Sunday.  It was in that church in Harlem that Bonhoffer learned many of the African American spirituals that spoke so deeply to his heart about faith in the midst of extreme challenge.  I like to think about Bonhoffer and another great non-violent resister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., both being fed on those songs, and then finding the strength to love those who considered themselves their enemies.  It’s interesting to note that both Bonhoffer and Dr. King had an interest in the work of Mahatma Gandi and his methods of non-violent resistance in India.

All of this gives me hope because despite the crises that face us in our  world today, where so much is made about how diverse people cannot seem to get along, there is a continuous stream of people, spiraling back over generations, who have refused the way of violence and have put their lives on the line to find another better, peaceful way.

In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

The first service that one owes to others… consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.”

We come here this evening to listen to one another and to pray together.  By so doing we enter into and become part of God’s Peace, passing all understanding, that has been flowing like a river for generations!  May God draw us further in together and bless us through the bread of our companionship! In the power of the Divine Name I offer these words. Amen+

 Merrimack College Interfaith Prayer Service  Posted by on Thu, 3-Feb-11 Sermons Comments Off on Merrimack College Interfaith Prayer Service