I was blessed to be asked to preach again at St. John’s Episcopal Church this past weekend. Heres’ the transcript, with a warning that it’s a bit longer than my usual posts. =)
Sermon of June 12, 2016, St. John’s Episcopal Church
Any prepared sermon is going to be undeniably challenged by a tragedy the likes of which we have witnessed in the past 24 hours. So as we begin, we also stop. We’ll take a moment to pray for those who have died and been hurt in Orlando, Florida, and their grieving friends and families.
“God of the Dance, God of Love and God of Life,
Our hearts break at these tragic deaths
and this horrible glimpse into the darkness.
Welcome the souls of all those who have died needlessly
in Orlando this past night, by an act of humanity’s deep
and dreadful love of violence, hatred and division.
For their souls we ask a place at your feast table,
at your home of light and life and love, forever.
For survivors, their families and friends we pray peace and comfort,
that your Spirit and your people will surround them,
hold them, and heal them in their rending grief,
and that they may know joy and healing in the coming days.”
“Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart in this our broken and needful society,
that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed,
we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.” BCP pg. 823
Tonight’s Gospel Reading from Luke 7:36-50…
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[j] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[k] and the other fifty.42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[l] said to him, “You have judged rightly.”44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Maybe you’re not like me and don’t have stories from your childhood which embarrass you. Maybe you matured faster than I did and you avoided the worst of decisions and moments we often experience as forming people, but I had some real doosies.
Tonight I’m thinking of 7th Grade Todd, and a time when I was at my worst. I was in the Art Club, and our much anticipated field trip to the Zoo in Dallas had arrived. We were going on a sketching trip! I was fired up, until we started assigning seats with parents to drive to the Zoo. My closest friends were all in one car, and I was assigned to ride with someone else and his mom. Now, this other guy… he was not a friend. In fact, he was a bully at whose hands I had occasionally suffered some hurt and harassment. He wasn’t smart, either. This is back in the day when they divided our seventh grade class into groups from the most smart to the least smart; our groups were labeled 7:1, being the smartest, all the way down to 7:6, being the least smartest. And this guy was a bit behind me and my friends. I’m also pretty sure his family didn’t go to church anywhere, and we know those things in a small town. I loudly proclaimed my horror at riding with him and his mom, “I don’t want to ride with him! Why is he in Art Club anyway?” I was told to quiet down and get in his mom’s truck, and I’d get to ride home with someone else. It was a tense, joyless ride to the Zoo.
And on days when I read stories like the one from Luke 7, I’m reminded of the lesson so painfully illustrated by 7th Grade Todd. Like Simon, I was the one who would invite Jesus over to supper, not the other person. I was the one who would be most likely to have Jesus over for supper (at least in my way of thinking), not them. I was the one, not them… I’m “the one most” (fill in any other descriptors you want): deserving, good enough, forgiven, allowed, expected, invited. But in a Gospel view of the world they are the one who is welcomed, grateful, forgiven, closest to Jesus.
Oh, Simon. I get it. I really do. Imagine working so hard to be ready for Jesus to come to dinner, making sure the right people are present, the food is perfect and you look your best. And then this sinner crashes the party. That word sinner says it all, huh? This sinner takes center stage. This sinner becomes the focus of discussion and begins to take Jesus’ attention and energy from your dinner party. Why is she here anyway? Wouldn’t a prophet know she doesn’t belong?
It’s easy enough to say that Jesus loves everyone. What takes a little more energy is really digging into Jesus and getting a hand on his way of seeing people, God’s way of seeing people. It differs so dramatically from the way I have so often viewed people. Did you notice in the words of Jesus that this sinner seems to be both responding to forgiveness and also still waiting to receive it? He says that her act of love flows from having much forgiven, and then afterward says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
She seems to be responding to a forgiveness that has yet to be articulated, maybe even yet to be sought after, but that has totally consumed her. She teaches us something of how God sees people: forgiven before even asking. in the story she is returning a love that Jesus has yet to express directly to her. She’s an inspiration. Of course, Simon’s not all that inspired, because he only sees her as needing to be forgiven, while Jesus seems to have forgiven her before the first tear, before the anointing.
There’s a really good old theological term for this: prevenient grace. This is an term that states, in various ways in differing Christian traditions, that God’s grace and forgiveness pre-exists our seeking it and in fact enables us to seek it and understand it. This concept doesn’t in way lessen our turning to God and experiencing grace in repentance, but it does help us with taking what scripture teaches about forgiveness and form a daily Way of living with that understanding. So scripture teaches that Christ died while we were still sinners, that God predestined us, elected us, chose us before… these statements are familiar to biblical students, and they point us to way God sees us, viewing us in our intended beauty, in our intended state of grateful love, in our very best and deepest place of love and dignity. I especially like this as a counterpoint to the idea of Original Sin, that instead we are born into a state of Original Forgiveness. Perhaps, we are born into a state of Indelible Grace.
Wouldn’t that bring us to the feet of Christ, too? Do you think that maybe just hearing Jesus teach in the marketplaces and streets, maybe preaching on a mountainside, this woman got it, she understood, and that grace brought her to her tears? The story reminded me of times when scriptures instructs against partiality, judgement…
“1 My child, do not cheat the poor of their living, and do not keep needy eyes waiting. 2 Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. 3 Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. 4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. 5 Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you; 6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer… 22 Do not show partiality, to your own harm, or deference, to your downfall.” (Sirach 1:6 & 22)
“2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors… 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:1-9, 12-13)
And Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
I don’t think these passages are only good teachings in times of economic disparity, but must be applied to a broader sense of partiality which threatens to divide us, blind us and to honestly make fools of us. Simon seems to have had some justification for knowing that the woman was sinful. But Simon is intimately shown that he doesn’t understand forgiveness and his own love-debt to God’s grace. This sinner does. Simon is ultimately shown a new definition for “sinner,” which he may think means “undesirable” or unforgiven, but in actuality means deeply beloved and sought after.
After our trip to the Zoo I was relieved to be informed that I would get to ride home with my two closest friends. I crammed happily into the back seat with them, and then began one the of longest hour and half rides of my life. My friend’s mom figured that I didn’t go to the right kind of church, wasn’t good enough. So for the next hour and a half she illumined me on my impending damnation and sinfulness. To top it off, after I was dropped off at the school, she later called our home to accuse me of stealing a class ring from their car, a ring later found to have slipped between cushions and into the trunk of the car. Oh, Simon. You and me, brother. Some of us must learn the hardest lessons of life in the hardest ways to sink them through our hardest of skulls and into our hardest of hearts.
I will probably continue to fail at this, but I hope that every time I am confronted with someone I imagine to be the least forgiven, the least lovable, the least worthy, Christ might help me see them in their prevenient beauty and grace. I pray that the next time I feel so unworthy and believe the worst of myself, I will hear that call of grace, and my tears will be a thank offering for all the love and forgiveness God has already intended to lavish on me. 7th Grade Todd was not prepared to understand Martin Luther’s poignant exclamation, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” 7th Grade Todd wasn’t ready to get it, and I can only hope I am before I’m 70.
Once more little gem from the Book of Common Prayer, one more cry to heaven…
“O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle
and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth;
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you
in harmony around your heavenly throne;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” BCP pg. 815
Colossians 3:13-15, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”
Bear with each other. What a great twist of language that the word bear gets to be an expression of gracefully putting up with each other and a 400 pound mammal that might pull your head off. Maybe civility can feel that way sometimes, like trying to smile in the face of a raging beast? Maybe.
One of the hardest things about the teaching on forgiveness in scripture is that we are so often told to forgive without any mention of waiting for an apology. It seems that when incivility is done to us, our forgiveness is supposed to kick in without even waiting on that other person’s recognition that they need it. Honestly, that’s tough for me. I’ve managed to rationalize this away at times with arguments about not wanting to “enable” their continued naughtiness, but that wears thin after a while.
Someone might be a real bear towards me, and make it hard for me to bear with them through it, but I have to dig deep and find that needed strength to carry my own responsibility to restoring peace. Let’s be clear, I don’t always want to do that! Sometimes I would much rather respond in kind, making it just as unpleasant for them as it is for me. For a Christian it comes down to relating to Jesus and the way he modeled forgiveness in the biblical narrative. His words “forgive them” from the cross didn’t wait on an apology.
I suppose what I want to say today is that it’s ok to struggle with civility, but not to give up. I wouldn’t want this whole month of blogging to just be a “pie in the sky” dream of what things could be if we were all perfect. Sometimes I’m the bear, and sometimes I’m doing the bearing. Sometimes I fail in the civility realm and move from being a victim of incivility to a co-combatant in a contest of incivility. But I’m trying, and if anything I’ll try harder next time.
I’m going to meditate today what I might call cruciform timing, living a forgiveness that doesn’t wait. If I can do that better, civility has a chance to grow in me. If a peace and thankfulness can be rooted in me, and be bounded by love, as the passage today images for us, then maybe a little more bearishness can be tolerated and forgiven. I’m going to splurge and have two graphics today because I think the passage makes a cool illustration. It’s that mentioned peace and love that can make all this possible. That peace and love are layers that help protect the true me when bears attack.
Easier said than done? Yes it is, but so is everything worth working hard to obtain. It’s the same love and peace that protects me that will be extended to one who attacks me. It’s a hope of mutual assured survival.
Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” (Matthew 5:43-48) What does it mean to love my enemy? I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. It seems appropriate to talk about as our culture continues it’s “war” and daily divides along a myriad of lines, political, religious, racial and economic. And it’s not just the “culture,” it’s often me. I seem to have enemies. Some are pretty up front about it and tell me clearly of their disdain for me, but others seem to have more of a guerrilla tactic of sniping quietly from the trees and hills, little hits and nicks here and there that seem minor at the time, but become a real issue for me.
And of course there’s the third angle… there’s the people I don’t like. I figure that most of us know we all have people in our lives we don’t like. We may hope that we able to rise above such a thing, and we may exert a lot of energy to rise above viewing all people with anything over than love, but we fail. I fail.
That’s when the words of Jesus then come ringing in and oppress me. He commanded love for enemies. A part of my gut reaction to that is to feel as if “I am told to lose.” Most of our enemies are not just in conflict with us, but also in competition with us. I also feel a reaction deep inside that says, “He doesn’t know my enemy.” Surely, if Jesus knew how much hurt I was feeling from the malice of another, he’d be as peeved off as I am! And finally, I have to admit that often at my core, I’d rather beat my enemies. You know, I’d prefer to get a little Psalmy and smite the skulls of those who would encircle me, right on?
So……….. I’m trying to find some things that “love your enemies” might mean in my life. What does it really mean to love an enemy? For me? Can I do this? Do I want to do this? Will I do this? Each question just surfaces another one, or three, or fifty questions.
I have to start with myself. After all, the command to love enemies is mine to own. It’s not a command that necessarily alters the enemy, it changes me. Here’s where I’m starting:
Love Your Enemy = I Am Not A Victim (even if I was victimized)
I need to step off the stage every time I start to feel like singing my woes. I am not a victim and my enemies do not control me. Victimization is too often an experience that becomes an identity. Of course, there are victims among us every day, and we are victimized. I would never try to lessen the pain or impact of anyone who is a victim of a violent or horrible crime or hurt. In my own life some things have been more painful and less painful at times, but my response needs to be consistent that I am not defined by the hurt.
The recent theatrical incarnation of Les Misérables gets some pretty mixed reviews, but I totally enjoyed it. One of the most haunting lines for me is in Fantine’s song “I Dreamed A Dream” when she sings, “…but there are dreams that cannot be / and there are storms we cannot weather…” The sentiment is echoed again in the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” when Marius sings, “…there’s a grief that can’t be spoken / there’s a pain goes on and on…” I can’t speak for anyone but myself here: I know what they mean. But even as these lines resonate with me in deep ways, I also recognize that I must turn away from darker, hopeless view, even when justified by my own pain.
I cannot be a victim, defined by the injury done by my enemy, if it I am to love her/him. Love is not denial. Love is going to require that I find my way out of the identity formed by my injury. If someone abuses or attacks me in a way that devalues me, I must re-find my value. If the attack cause me pain, I need to heal. If the attack demoralizes me, I need to regain strength and courage. I will do these things so that I can return to the task of loving. I cannot do this alone. If Jesus commands it, I need Jesus to help me do it, and I’ll probably need you, too.
Love Your Enemy = Forgiveness
Just as love is not denial, neither is forgiveness. Forgiveness begins as my own way of releasing the need to punish, to avenge, to hurt another, to attack, to rationalize my own violent needs. Forgiveness is hard because when I choose to forgive I am choosing to shoulder the burden of paying for another’s crime. At least if Jesus wanted to command something he was willing to demonstrate it. On the cross, he spoke what I think might be some of the most awesome words uttered in the gospel narrative, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
What? Yes, they did! They knew what they were doing! Can I accidentally crucify someone? Could they have tortured and murdered so cruelly without intent and premeditation? What is Jesus saying? Is this the blindness and denial I fear that my own forgiveness might represent? Or is it a conscious decision on the part of Jesus to remake the world around him? Those words are a one-sentence-wake-up-call and alarm that something is happening here that breaks the ordinary into sharp little pieces.
Forgiveness is re-creation. When I can actively forgive I am re-creating things and myself. This is not a simple switch I throw or a decision I make. It’s a set of reflexes and intentional actions I take to make forgiveness real. And I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the best at it. Forgiveness will look and feel a little different for each person, reflecting our intrinsic variety as individuals, but it will always need to have the hallmarks of active, authentic forgiveness. Jesus forgave, and still hung on the cross. He still died. I think the reality of his forgiveness is in the narrative of his resurrection. He didn’t come busting from the grave like one of our contemporary action heroes might, kicking butts and slapping bad guys. He came forth and said, “Everything I taught you is still in force, my own pain and hurt doesn’t change a thing… go love, love God, love one another, love enemies… go do it, go teach it, go live it… everywhere… every when… with everyone.” (Yes, that’s my paraphrase and interpretation of Jesus after his resurrection. I personally don’t want the “great commission” in my life and experience of it to ever be divorced from the power of Jesus’ humble, courageous grace.)
Love Your Enemy = I Don’t Have Enemies
Unfortunately, I am me enough to get sidetracked by the statement Paul makes about enemies, that seems so close to what Jesus says, but adds that in doing so I will be “heaping hot coals on the heads” of my enemies by my love. I am bent and base enough to chuckle that Paul seems to offer me such a slick way to get revenge on an enemy, simply by loving. Is that not a bonus and a half? I really can kill him/her with love!
One of favorite authors and speakers is Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have heard him a couple of times mention what he calls “a low reading of scripture” and “a high reading of scripture.” I think it’s Fr Rohr’s very polite way of telling me how childish I am sometimes, lol. Whenever I read scripture in a way that gives me license to hate or attack or be mean/vengeful/negative, or in any way move against the actual fruits of God’s Spirit in my life… love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… in those moments I have misread scripture. So, for Paul and the Proverb he seems to be quoting, I will choose to focus on the summation of “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”
Whether my love for an enemy is a purifying fire or a painful fire for my enemy, or more accurately feels like hot coals on my own head… it’s still love and not my need to punish or avenge myself. And for my part, if I love someone, it’s hard to call them an enemy at all. We may still disagree on things, we might still need to work on the consequences of their actions, or mine… but in the act of loving I am re-creating their role and place in my life. One who is loved is the antithesis of an enemy… she/he is precious, cared for, sheltered, redeemed.
I wish that writing a blog post about love made me love better. The only thing a blog post might actually signify is that somewhere along the way I have recently realized a deficit of love in myself. It’s too easy to blame my “enemies” for that lack of love… they are either too unlovable or too deserving of hate. It’s too easy to make some quick excuses for myself… I drank too much, I’m too tired… or I didn’t really mean it, I just knew it would get a lot of shares and likes from people on Facebook who are angry or biased like me!
And that’s the reality. I recently find myself withholding posts and shares because I know they don’t stem from love, but from the hate I’m harboring deep inside. I find myself sitting in the corner of the room rubbing my hands together and evilly chucking “bwahahahahah” over the attack posts I could launch if I wanted to… and then, baby, they’d know how stupid they really are! Quite an image, huh?
Withholding the attack posts is only part of the equation for me… facing the reality of my own anger and lack of love is the other half. Dang it, having enemies can really enliven me! And just as my cat would love to shred my favorite couch, it would feel too good to sharpen my claws on the idiocy of another.
“They don’t know what they are doing” is not denial, it is re-creating myself. It is the reality that whether they know anything or not about what they do, I am still to know myself, and I am to carry the responsibility to make myself. No one’s action or ignorance is license for me to abandon that call.