Sunday, February 19, 2017

Be Like God

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

Do you remember how, a few years ago, it suddenly became trendy to wear bracelets – or occasionally t-shirts or other items – emblazoned with the letters “WWJD”?
It was a clever spiritual tool – a constant reminder to ask oneself, in any situation, “What Would Jesus Do?” – and a bonus evangelism opportunity, if someone asked about your coded bracelet, pencil, or coffee mug.

It’s an excellent guiding question for everyday spirituality. But if you prefer answers to questions, you are in luck today. It turns out we know how Jesus would answer this one, and we’ve known for thousands of years. Because he told the disciples:
Be Like God.

Be perfect, he says, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be generous, loving, indiscriminate, fair - like your Father in heaven.

That’s an idea that’s been around since long before Jesus taught it to his disciples.
We heard it again today:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, [Tell all the Israelites]: you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
God is holy. So God’s people shall be (not ought to be – will be) holy.
Be like God.
It’s that simple.

Simple doesn’t equal easy, of course.
And since being holy, perfect, like God is a tall order, for flawed human beings like us, and since we might not know exactly how to do it when we ask ourselves what Jesus would do,
God spells it out to Moses, and Jesus spells it out to the disciples in specific, practical terms, using examples from their daily lives.

Do not reap to the edges of your field,” God tells the Israelites. In other words: Do not keep for yourself all that you have, or all that you can get. Make sure to make some of your harvest available to those who are poor, or strangers.
Pay immediately what someone has earned.
Do not lie, steal, cheat, or use God’s name for false assurance.
Do not mock or obstruct those who are in some way disabled. 
Don’t suck up to either rich or poor.
Do not slander, do not profit from another’s loss. Do not hate. 
Keep your fellow people of God accountable. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

That’s holiness, as the Lord your God is holy: Generosity. Honesty. Respect.
It’s what your parents taught you. But holiness as God is holy cannot be passive about these things, but is emphatically proactive.

Jesus tells his disciples how to do that.  Don’t just love your neighbor and be fair. Complete the circle. Love your enemies and those who persecute you. Put aside the kind of fairness that takes “an eye for an eye” and give more than you can be asked. When someone sues you for your cloak, give all the clothing you have to wear. When a soldier of the occupying government conscripts you, go the extra mile. When someone hits you once, turn the other cheek.

While this is not advice that translates to all situations – and it’s advice that should never ever have been used in abusive families – it is a serious approach to being like God for a community, because it can unbalance oppression and transform “fairness” into wholeness.

Nonviolent response to violence and extra miles helped unbalance the oppression of discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws in our country’s recent memory. The hundreds – or more probably thousands – of extra miles walked during the Montgomery Bus Boycott were a vivid lesson in making discrimination both visible and unsustainable. Hundreds of other cheeks were turned on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, making the horror of violent suppression visible and unsustainable. And slowly, mile by mile, our country's “separate but equal” moved a little closer to the wholeness of knowing your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus teaches a holiness made up of actions that transform our own hearts.
When a Roman soldier required you – completely legally – to carry his gear a mile out of your way, going the second mile makes the first mile voluntary by association.
It takes the power to force compliance out of the hands of the powerful, and puts the power to give generously into the hands of the powerless.
 That is how we love our enemies, and why we pray for those who persecute us.

That extra mile is also a profoundly concrete way of being like God – God who bears our burdens for us, much further than we could ask: Generosity regardless of the merits of the one who receives it. 

Jesus insists on that indiscriminate generosity, come to think of it. “Love your enemies,” he says, “Welcome those who genuinely don’t belong. Give to anyone who asks.” 

Oh dear.
There aren’t a lot of Roman soliders around today, to take Jesus’ words literally, but there are a lot of people who ask for money, time, and attention. Giving to all who ask quickly becomes a full time job. And every clergy person and most Christians know that we have been scammed, some time, in our giving to those who ask. 
Can Jesus really mean for us to give to people who might be lying to us?
Who might take that money for their child’s food, and buy cigarettes?
What would Jesus do?
Of course the answer is simple:
Be like God.
 God, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, gives water to the righteous and the unrighteous.

We have resources to manage – at the church, at home – yes. But to be like God is to remember that the unrighteous need the sunlight, the water, the money, too. Not the way I might prefer they use it, perhaps, but generosity does not require righteousness of the receiver – instead it enables righteousness and love.

Practicing God’s generosity teaches us a new perspective: one without the fear and anxiety and greed that fuel every human system of discrimination or oppression. After all, God’s gifts do not run out. God has no loss to fear, no more to desire. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to give away what we know we have received as gifts from God than what we believe we have earned for ourselves.

And perhaps that’s another way Jesus wants us to be like God – to know that when we give it all away we will never run out, because we are giving from God’s abundance, no matter how little of it is in our own hands.

These high standards that God taught to Moses, these difficult actions that Jesus taught his disciples, are meant, I believe, to release us from the fears of not having enough, from the anxiety of trying to sort out other people’s motives, from the heart-tightening hate or exclusion that comes from our fear of loss, so that our hearts and daily lives can be like God’s: filled with wonder and grace.

Being like God is not easy.
It’s not meant to be.
But it is, I believe, meant to be joyful, and freeing, and utterly glorious, in literal, practical ways, here, and now, and always.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Let It Shine

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine;
This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine;
This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine;
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

You know that song, don’t you?

It’s an old Sunday School song. Maybe you learned it as a child. Maybe you learned it from the news. It became part of the civil rights movement half a century ago, sung by people determined not to let their light be darkened by unjust systems or divided culture.  Or maybe you learned it a minutes ago.
In every case, it’s a song of the disciples. A song that has its roots in Jesus’ own preaching, as we heard today.

“You are the light of the world,’ Jesus said. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
“You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt and light: The good people. The solid people. The brilliant people, glowing with faith and sharing that light.
Light and salt, to have an effect on the world – enhancing and illuminating, so everyone can see God at work.

I love that picture of discipleship – so bright and flavorful. Perhaps Jesus’ first hearers loved it too. It motivates me to get out and do something good. But what, exactly?

It’s not like there aren’t a lot of choices for doing good. We’re spoiled for choice, with many good deeds within easy reach.
But just after Jesus tells us we are salt and light, he says that our righteousness – our generosity, our shaping ourselves to God’s will – must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees – exceed the righteousness of those in our world that we know to be most righteous and holy.

Being more righteous than the saints - that’s a tall order.
But Isaiah has described for us what that could mean – the religious observance that delights God; the prayer God wants from us. It is
 “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…”
And when we do those things, God says, then your light will break forth like the dawn.

Well then. We know what to do.
Sharing your bread with the hungry is easy enough, especially if you generally have enough to eat and are equipped with one of Deacon Leslie’s shopping lists for our food pantry.
If you want to step that up, want to work to make sure there are fewer hungry people period, there are all kinds of local and international actions you can take. Ask me, or members of our outreach team.

Freeing the oppressed, breaking the bonds of injustice is more complicated.
That might involve traveling on mission work; calling your Congressperson and organizing your neighbors; joining a coalition to support victims of sex trafficking and illegal labor; taking whatever risks are entailed in opening the refugee floodgates; careful study and change of our shopping habits…
It’s complicated and time-consuming to free the oppressed and untangle injustice. But there are lots of resources and history to guide you.

Bringing the homeless into your own house… that’s when it gets personal.

Last weekend I ran across an article shared on Facebook.
The author reflected on what it would mean if anti-abortion activists achieved their goals, and there were no more abortions in the United States. Maybe a million more children would be born each year, and they and their parents would need care and support and love and nurture. Not just at birth, but life-long; decade after decade.
She tells the story of how this insight came to her in prayer – and how she and her husband have decided not to wait for their goals to be achieved, for the “end of abortion” before they “turn on the light” of their home for children or mothers who need that love.
 This personally challenges me when I look around at my life, at my house even,” she wrote. “We have an extra bedroom. It was originally intended for guests…. But guess what? If the end of abortion ever comes, then I’d better be ready to have that room permanently filled with a mom in crisis or an adopted child….”
Maybe many moms or children, she reflects. And she challenges her fellow Christians to do the same.
She warns: “Our wallets will be strained, our comfort zones will be obliterated, our racial IQ will have to go up, our schedules wrecked for the better, our lifestyle will be seriously cramped, and our homes will have new children in them who will change our whole view of family.”
And that’s a good thing, she concludes.

Because it’s a gospel thing.

I knew before I opened the article that I don’t agree politically with this author. I’d prefer to be able to think of her – and others whose views differ from mine – as Pharisees, whom Jesus elsewhere accuses of burdening others with their definitions of righteousness.
But instead, she models for me what it’s like to be more righteous than the Pharisees.
To take the convictions of our faith even more seriously when they inconvenience or challenge us than when they are simple. To be turned inside out and upside down by the work of feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, untangling injustice, opening our own homes and comfort zones in radical welcome.

Half a century ago – and again in this century – for some disciples this has meant marching, sitting: risking bodies and livelihood for equality and justice. For some disciples, it means moving across the world. For some disciples, it means opening our own homes; giving more than we can afford; loving at the risk of great loss; risking our careers for what we believe.

This is the light – and the salt, with it’s rough sharpness – that we are to be in the world.
We are to be disciples who free, welcome, nurture, unbind, love, at any cost to ourselves, because we have ourselves been freed, welcomed, fed, loved by God and by the Body of Christ.

Mother Teresa – famous for the self-giving generosity with which she fed, freed, nurtured, and loved – once said:
“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. …
I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”

You – we – are the light of the world.
Jesus said so.

And that old song, that song you know,
is a song of discipleship
and a prayer.

So let’s pray it.Not just in church, but day in and day out. Sing it at home, at work, at play, on your errands.
Sing it, so that this prayer can change us: turn us inside out in generosity and hope and the kind of love that cannot bear to keep still when there is action to be taken and suffering to relieve;
so that we can change the world.

Let’s pray:

Monday, January 30, 2017

Foolishness

1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

How many of you consider yourself to be a fool? 
Or do you generally try to avoid being silly, dumb, idiotic, etc.?

Paul has bad news for those of us who try to avoid being foolish. 
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;” Paul says. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.
God chose the good for nothing, lousy, stupid stuff, so that we have nothing to be proud of. 

Ouch.
I mean, humility is a good thing; a Christian virtue. I know that. 
But foolishness? idiocy? That’s not what I signed up for. I don’t like to look stupid.
But apparently God does.

The “word of the cross,” Paul says, is foolishness. 
And no matter how comfortable you and I have gotten with the cross as a symbol of salvation, Paul is right about how foolish it is. 
The idea that one man’s spectacular failure to get his message of peace and justice and abundance through to the authorities could actually relieve you and me of sin? Brand new Christians in Paul’s day really did look stupid – probably Paul himself looked stupid – telling that to everyone.

In fact, it was pretty stupid to brag about knowing a crucified guy. It could get you in trouble, too. Today, it might be like announcing that you’re good friends with a convicted terrorist because God sent him to reveal the truth to us and save us from ourselves. While a lot of your friends and acquaintances would just block you on Facebook and avoid conversations with you; somebody would call the CIA and bring you to the attention of the authorities.

In our day and place, you and I generally don’t have to worry about getting reported to the CIA for knowing Jesus, but if we are anything like normal Episcopalians or mainline Christians, many of us do feel a bit, well, embarrassed or foolish talking about our personal relationship with Jesus, or explaining just how Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection save me and you from Satan.

We believe it; we may love to talk about it with one another in the church. But I will bet that I am not the only one less inclined, say, to bring it up with strangers.

How many of us would feel uncomfortable talking about Jesus and salvation and conversion to co-workers, neighbors, or acquaintances this week? Especially if you don’t know they’re Christian?
You don’t have to put your hands up, but I’m going to bet it’s more than half of us here this morning.

But do raise your hand – be honest – if you would generally prefer that someone smarter, holier, wiser – in some way better qualified than you – was responsible for proclaiming the gospel to the nations and the neighbors.
Yep. Me too.

A few years ago, I was leading a study group on sharing our faith (in a nice, gentle, Episcopalian way, of course) when one of the strongest leaders in my congregation told me why she couldn’t.
“I just don’t know enough,” she said.
I don’t know enough about the Bible, or theology, or religion, to talk about it. How can I explain it if I don’t know enough?

Does that feel familiar to anyone?
Do you feel like a fool trying to explain something you’re not sure you really understand yourself?

We do know the stories we tell in church. We proclaim – every week – that we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection and await his coming, and that all that has something to do with our salvation. But it can be hard to say exactly how it all works, or why.

I went to seminary, so I know a whole bunch of different theories about how salvation works, and how to critique them.
Paul would call that wisdom: scholarship; an expert understanding and discussion about just how it’s supposed to work.

But Paul says that wisdom is useless.
Paul says it’s better to proclaim the foolishness.  
To proclaim what we don’t really understand - but what we do believe, and have experienced - even if we can’t make sense of it or explain it. Paul says that God chooses foolish proclamation – our inexpert, under-educated, don’t-know-how-it-works stories – to save the nations and our neighbors.

I hate that, because I like to know what I’m talking about.
I like to be right, and smart, and wise.

But Paul made me think, this week, and I realized I actually spend quite a bit of time proclaiming things I don’t know much about.
I’m quite passionate about many things I don’t really understand. And I’ll tell you about them.

I took a couple days of improv comedy class last summer. For months afterward, I told anyone who asked - and most people who didn’t! - about how the one or two truths I picked up at the workshop were going to change the world if we’d all get on board. 
(Not that I was any good at improv comedy, mind, or could really tell you how it worked. But I’d tell you.)

I’m not a Constitutional scholar, but I have some passionate opinions about Supreme Court decisions, and I don’t hesitate to share them - and to share my beliefs about how these things can change lives and transform the world.
So I would bet that every one of us here has been transformatively passionate – even evangelical – about a subject in which you are not well educated, or particularly wise.

It’s that foolishness that God chooses in us.
As a way to save the world, God chooses our willingness to commit ourselves before we can really explain what we’re talking about. God chooses not our pursuit of the perfect argument, but our passion for a discovery or an experience we don’t truly understand. God chooses the risks we take in love, not sensible, cautious study.

To be Christian at all, to be a follower of Jesus, whether two thousand years ago in the Roman Empire, or right now in 2017 in South Jersey, means risking not just being a fool, but letting people see you as foolish or out of your depth.

Jesus preaches this, too, telling his disciples that those who were fools or weak by the standards of his time were the blessed ones. Blessed are the fools who can’t manage cynicism, and are continually shocked by how bad the world can be;
he might be saying today.
Blessed are those who somehow expect the world to be fair;
blessed are those who let their pain show; 
blessed are those who are mocked and bullied as fools for God.
Blessed are all those who are vulnerable and open - who are fools in a society where the wise protect themselves - because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Not bad things now and good things later, but the blessing of being wide open and exposed to heaven right in the middle of the distinctly unheavenly experiences we have every day.

That’s foolishness worth embracing.
Worth proclaiming, even.

The word of the cross is foolish, Paul says. It’s just going to be foolish. 
So you don’t actually need to be able to explain crucifixion. You just need to know – and to proclaim – how God has made a difference in your suffering, or in your failures.
You don’t have to know how resurrection works. You just need to know – and to say out loud, despite how silly it may seem – that God fills you with life – with joy, or health, or energy in the face of death.
You don’t need to understand theology, or explain incarnation. God would ever so much rather use your ability to fall foolishly in love, and let that change your life and the story you tell.

For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

Thanks be to God!