The Easter Gift of Authentic Peace

SERMON Easter 2 A John 20 19 31

It’s Easter evening, Mary Magdalene has proclaimed the story of the resurrection -that Christ has risen from the dead, just as he said he would!

But none of the disciples believed her story. Instead, it’s evening on that first Easter Sunday, and they’re all still paralyzed by their fear of the outside world. Everyone except for Thomas is huddled together behind locked doors. Instead of going out and sharing Mary Magdalene’s story, the disciples have placed themselves in seclusion –shuttering out all threats to their safety and wellbeing.

How quickly they’ve forgotten Jesus’ final and most important teachings! In his farewell discourse, gathered around the table with these same disciples on the night before he died, Jesus promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live…. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The world says that peace comes when everything around us is perfect, when there are no longer any problems or struggles or threats. A lot of TV preachers will promote this concept -that the role of a life of faith is to achieve perfection. But anyone who’s truly lived life knows that this is a falsehood. There’s no such thing as a perfect life, every person you know has known struggle in one form or another! Reality is that the world is broken and will remain broken until Christ almighty comes again!

Real peace, the peace we all need, the peace that Christ promises, comes to us in the midst of our fears and struggles.

While paralyzed by fear, Jesus came and stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. The peace that Jesus gives to the disciples is a visible reminder that there is new life on the other side of the struggle. Jesus promised to his disciples on his last night with them that they would experience the same persecution and suffering that he experienced. No wonder they were all terrified! But, Jesus also promised, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

Jesus could have come back from the dead with his body perfectly whole, but God left the marks of the nails on his wrists and feet and the mark of the spear in his side as a reminder of what he has conquered! Our Lord came back from the dead still bearing the marks of the evil and brokenness of the world! And that matters, because we sure still experience the suffering and brokenness of the world –even as we trust in the promise of life on the other side. We’ve each been through some stuff in our lives, and we are the people we are today because of the scars and marks we bear through our lived experiences of suffering. Christ came back from the dead still bearing his wounds so that he could be the Messiah we need when life gets hard. Christ came back as a visible reminder of the new life on the other side of that which tries to break us. And as we trust in the reality that Christ has conquered all the forces of this world which cause our pain, we receive the gift of Christ’s authentic peace –a peace which persists in response to and in the midst of this world. Theologian Frances Taylor Gench says, “Christ’s peace is thus the fruit of the decisive victory over the powers of evil that his cross represents. Indeed, it is as the disciples behold the wounds of the cross in his hands and side- wounds made by Roman nails and a Roman spear- that their fear is transformed into joy and gladness. In view of these wounds, they can rest assured that whatever the world inflicts upon them, it will not ultimately undo them. The peace that Jesus gives is clearly the gift of his enduring presence with his disciples and the church.” (Encounters With Jesus)

The peace that Jesus gives is not the absence of suffering and it’s not even necessarily an inner calm (I’m sure the disciples were still scared of the promised persecution that would come). But Christ’s peace is the strength and comfort and courage that comes with the awareness of Christ’s presence with us always –even and especially in the midst of struggle.

 

Christ gave his disciples his promised gift of peace, and then sent them out to share that gift with the world. From Easter evening to the present day, the church has been called and commissioned to share the strength and comfort of Christ’s peace with all who need it. Jesus said to his disciples in that locked room, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathed his Spirit –the Holy Spirit- on them, raising them up and inspiring them to go out and be Christ’s liberating presence for one another and the world!

And we’re still about this work today. As we gather together for worship, we practice this holy work of embodying Christ’s peace for each other. The “Sharing of the Peace” is not a liturgical 7th inning stretch, but is rather the time we carve out each and every Sunday to share Christ’s peace with one another so that we can leave our sanctuary and share Christ’s peace –true peace in the midst of pain- with others in our lives who need this good news embodied for them. Perhaps you know someone who feels like it’s all their fault that their life isn’t perfect, or who feels like they’re not worthy of God’s love or peace because they’re still a little broken. Our mission as the church is to share peace –not the peace that world proclaims that says you need to have your life together to feel that inner calm- but the authentic gospel peace of Jesus Christ! Our privilege as Christ’s disciples is to be Christ’s presence for our friends and neighbors, and to proclaim that Christ loves everyone and promises to be our source of strength and courage and comfort even in the midst of our brokenness and struggle.

 

We worship a God who still bears the wounds of a world which tried to break him. But, our risen Christ has ultimately conquered all of those forces which still try hard to break us too. The peace of Christ is the strength to endure until we find the new life that awaits us on the other side of our present struggles. Alleluia, Amen.

Easter 2019: A Crazy Story -the Cornerstone of our Faith!

SERMON Easter C Luke 24: 1-12 2019

What’s the CRAZIEST story you’ve ever heard? Did it shock you? Did it make you laugh or inspire you? Did you see it on TV or were you sitting around the barbeque with friends? Were you so amazed by what you heard that you just had to tell that story to others?

As Christians we are a people of crazy, impossible stories, which God makes true through the work of the Spirit. When Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames this past week, Paris and the whole world watched in horror. Eight hundred years of religious, art, and architectural history went up in flames, and we feared it would all be reduced to ashes, leaving a permanent hole in the treasured archives of our faith. As the inferno raged, as the steeple toppled, it seemed that there would be nothing left of this once mighty edifice. The fire was shocking, but that is not the crazy part of this story. The miracle is that since Notre Dame was closed for renovations, while it normally sees millions of visitors a year, no one was killed or even injured in such a catastrophic fire! And, while the fire still raged, Father Fournier –chaplain of the Paris Fire Department- and many other onlookers immediately formed a human chain to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and many of the cathedral’s priceless artifacts, including the cathedral’s most famous relic, what Catholics believe to be Jesus’ the crown of thorns. Even the 200,000 honey bees that make their home on the roof of Notre Dame’s sacristy were entirely unharmed by the blaze! When the dust settled, it became clear that while much of the roof and ceiling of the cathedral was destroyed, the iconic rose windows –which have told the story of our faith in stained glass from one generation to another before much of the world could read- those iconic rose windows of Notre Dame were spared, and the cross still stood in the chancel, rising up from the ashes and rubble all around it, promising God’s future and hope for the Church.

What’s the CRAZIEST story you’ve ever heard?

How about this one? :

Guys! Johanna, Mother Mary, and I got up at the crack of dawn this morning and took the spices and ointments we had prepared on Friday before the Sabbath. We went to finish properly paying our respects to Jesus, to perform all of the appropriate rituals so that he can rest in peace. But when we got to the graveyard, we found Jesus’ burial plot dug up. His coffin was pulled out of the ground and the lid was open, but there was no body inside!!! Then, suddenly, we saw two men in dazzling clothes standing beside his grave. We think they must have been angels because they gave us a message! And you know, Mother Mary, she was visited by angels before, so she would know an angel when she sees one! Anyway, the angels said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

And we remembered! We remembered everything Jesus had said! He told us three different times, don’t you guys remember? Three times he told us that he would be rejected, suffer, and die. Three times he told us. But we were so scared of what would happen when we finally reached Jerusalem, we must have stopped listening to our Lord. Three times he told us he would die, but he promised that on the third day he would rise again!

Christ is risen!!!!!

But instead of greeting this first message of the resurrection with shouts of Alleluia, the apostles viewed their words as an “idle tale.” This is a very charitable translation of the word leros, which is more accurately translated as “total and utter baloney.” This was the craziest story they’d ever heard! And not in a good way. The apostles were still deeply grieved over the events of Good Friday, they were still in mourning over Jesus’ death, the last thing they wanted to hear was anything that did not confirm what they knew to be certain. Right now, they were all just trying to keep their heads down and survive, they had no time for the women’s cockamamie story.

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The sermon that Mary Magdalene preached on the first Easter morning, was met by all who heard her with utter disbelief and disdain.

It is a crazy story, and that’s a natural reaction to a crazy story!

We can’t observe Easter as Christian people without acknowledging that skepticism and unbelief is as much a part of our community’s resurrection story as are those faithful women who ran to tell the others what they’d seen and heard at the tomb! If you have a hard time believing this crazy story of resurrection today, then you’re in good company! It is a crazy, impossible story! Ten out of the eleven remaining apostles did nothing in response to what the women had shared. Some of them probably even had a few choice thoughts, Perhaps, “Why did Jesus ever let women follow him in the first place? I knew this would happen. We should have been men only, like John’s disciples. Didn’t Jesus know about the delirious tales women tell? Are they making this up for gossip?”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”  It is a crazy, impossible story.

But, just what if it’s also true?

This was the question that prompted Peter out the door and to the tomb. “Just what if it’s also true?” For Peter had already seen the Lord perform one crazy but true miracle after another during his 3 years of ministry. Through his time with Jesus, Peter recalled many crazy but true stories.  He’d seen things that were impossible! He’d even seen Jesus raise others from the dead! But this? He did not believe their story, but he sure hoped it was true!

As Peter arrived at Jesus’ tomb, he saw no dazzling light, and no angelic messengers. But he saw the cloth they’d laid his dead body in, lying crumpled up by itself in the corner. He saw the empty grave, and he was amazed!

Easter would be so much easier if those women had shown up just as Jesus sat up in the tomb and stretched his arms, as if waking up from a long nap. Easter would’ve been so much easier to believe if there’d been a body, if Jesus had walked back with them to not just tell, but to show the others that he was truly risen. But instead, that first Easter morning, those faithful women and those skeptical apostles received the same thing the Church has received in every generation since: a crazy story, the cornerstone of our faith!

On Easter morning, those first disciples had the very same Easter gift we ourselves have this morning: A crazy, impossible story that also happens to be True. Trusting in the promise of the resurrection, each one of those skeptical apostles gave their lives to share this amazing story about how the most important message God has ever shared with the world was told first to those faithful women, and how at first they didn’t believe it, but Christ didn’t give up on them! Christ didn’t abandon them to their skepticism. Instead, Christ showed up for supper later that night, positively famished after 3 days in the grave. And even when they saw him face to face, at first they thought he was a ghost! They were so shocked that this crazy, impossible story was also true, they were flooded with emotions, and Christ said, “Peace be with you.”

This story, this good news, is God’s promise and our hope!

And this crazy story –the gospel- changes our lives, just as it changed the apostles who devoted their lives to telling a story which they first tossed aside as an “idle tale.”

Skeptics are transformed into true believers because this crazy story does not just stay in a book, but becomes a lived reality through the work of the Risen Christ! Christ is still about the work of resurrection, lifting his Church up out of the ashes and rubble and into God’s promised future of new life. You wanna hear another crazy Easter story? We’ve all heard about the rival French billionaires who are pledging to restore Notre Dame to its former glory, there are plenty of millionaires and billionaires around the world who would have given to that cause. But, since Notre Dame went up in flames, over 39,000 people have given over 2 million dollars to help rebuild the 3 historically black churches of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, which were burned to the ground through racially motivated arson a few weeks ago. Thanks to this miracle of crowd funding in response to Notre Dame’s fire, God will raise these 3 little churches up from the ashes into their flourishing future, so that they too will continue to tell this crazy, impossible story of new life through the work of Jesus Christ!

On Easter we celebrate the promise of resurrection, the promise that God in Christ is ALWAYS about the work of changing us and our world for the better. We celebrate the many ways that Christ raises us up on a daily basis to be who we are truly meant to be –loving, kind, and courageous. We celebrate that while death is true, it is not final. The dead do not stay dead in Jesus Christ, for Christ is as alive today as he was on that first Easter Sunday. He is risen, and he promises life and future and hope to us today!

No matter what fears or doubts or struggles hold you captive,  as surely as Christ burst open his tomb, he promises to break you out of yours as well. He promises to take you by the hand and lift you up out of whatever ashes and rubble you find yourself in, and to lead you into new life and freedom and joy in his presence! Resurrection was not a one-time gift, but Christ’s daily work and eternal promise to you, for Christ IS Risen, he’s risen forevermore! Alleluia. Amen.

Maundy Thursday: Our Calling is Whatever Love Requires

SERMON Maundy Thursday 2019 John 13: 1-17, 31-35

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Whose feet have you washed lately?

In our culture today, many of us will only ever wash the feet of those who can’t do for themselves. Parents wash their babies’ and toddlers’ precious feet when they give them their baths. Those tiny feet have hardly yet touched any of the dirt and grime of this world God so loves. Most parents delight in washing those sweet, soft feet.

Perhaps, if you have been a caregiver, you may wash your parents’ feet. Their feet reveal a lifetime of journeys. Their feet supported and carried you when you were small, when you could not do for yourself. Perhaps you help massage arthritis medicine into their feet and ankles or pull up tricky compression hose. When I was pregnant, a dear friend insisted on giving me a pedicure when I could no longer see or reach my own toes.  It was a precious gift of loving service.

Outside of these specific opportunities to wash the feet of those who can’t wash their own feet, most of us today wash our own feet and we do so in the privacy of our own bathrooms. But in Jesus’ day, foot washing was a necessary, regular, and semi-public practice. Foot washing was a key component of hospitality in the ancient world. Everyone travelled by foot, wearing sandals on the dusty roads. If you think feet are disgusting today, when most of us wear shoes and socks, you should have seen feet in the time of Jesus! Guests often arrived to dinner parties with their feet caked in grime from their travels.  A good host would provide each guest with a basin of water and a towel as soon as they arrived so that they could “freshen up from their journey” by washing their own feet. Just like we may hang up coats upon arrival today, providing water and a towel was a fundamental way through which guests felt welcomed into their host’s home. The host would never, ever, ever do the foot washing or be expected to do the footwashing. The host would only be expected to provide water and a towel and maybe the assistance of a slave. No free person would ever voluntarily wash the feet of another free person.

So, when Jesus, the host of this Last Supper, gets up from the table, strips down to his undergarments, wraps a towel around his waist, and begins washing the disciples’ travel-weary feet, Jesus embodies the role of a slave. Why did Jesus, who had just a few days earlier ridden into Jerusalem with the pomp and glory of a king, stoop to wash his disciples’ feet?

John writes, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

The only reason anyone would voluntarily wash feet, the reason Jesus washed their feet, was to express the depths of his love and devotion to them.

John tells us that when Jesus stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet, he knew that his hour had come, and that the Father had given all things into his hands. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, had all of the power of the universe in his hands that night. And he chose to express that power through this act of humble service and love. Jesus’ power, TRUE power, is manifested in sacrificial service to others. This is not the way the world generally works, this is not what we’re accustomed to.

Peter protested, what kind of a disciple could allow his Teacher to wash his feet? But Jesus insists that anyone who is to be in relationship with him must receive his love as a free gift or not at all. Like a baby at a baptismal font, Jesus’ love and grace flow over the disciples in ways they can’t fully understand or imagine.

The disciples first receive Jesus’ scandalous gift of love. And then, they are commanded to go and do likewise. “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you…. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus’ commandment to wash one another’s feet is a call to share this same kind of surprising grace and loving service with one another. But Jesus does not command them to love others until they have first experienced his love. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You have to know what my love feels like so that you’ll know what I want you to share with others!” Jesus’ love is the love that binds us together as a community, as a family. Jesus washed every single person around that table, and at the font we too have each been washed by Jesus Christ. We receive Holy Baptism as a free gift from God, and the vocation of the Baptized is a life of humble service which we learned from the example of our teacher and Lord himself!

Are we still called to wash one another’s feet today? If that’s what love requires. While we don’t use foot washing as an act of hospitality today, there may be times when caring for the feet of our neighbor may be the thing they need most in this world. But there are many other means through which Jesus calls us to express his love through acts of humble service:

Perhaps you give rides to someone who can no longer drive themselves. Perhaps your brother or sister needs help organizing their basement or downsizing for a life change? Perhaps you know someone who could use help with basic house cleaning? Perhaps they’re injured or depressed and just can’t care for basic needs in the way they’d like to?

Often times we shy away from offering this kind of hands on service, because we think the most loving thing to do is not embarrass our neighbor. And certainly, we don’t want to embarrass anyone, but sometimes what love requires is a reminder that we’re family in Christ. Today we serve, and tomorrow we may be served, this mutuality of love is what it means to be gathered together around Christ’s table, as Christ’s family. Amen.

The Last Time He Feasts Around My Dinner Table

SERMON Lent 5C John 12 1 8

Martha had truly outdone herself! Martha was the very best cook in Bethany and her hospitality skills were legendary. Our dinner table was gorgeously decorated, with fresh figs, apricots, pomegranates, and jugs of the very best wine. She’d spent the whole day preparing cucumber salad and taboule and baking fresh bread to be dipped in bowls of olive oil and spices. But her true masterpiece was the roasted goat!  Jesus loved roast goat. And this feast was her gift to him.

But what could I give to this one who had given us everything! He’d raised our brother from the dead, and that alone was worthy of celebration! I don’t think I’ll ever stop shouting, “Thank you God, Thank you God, Thank you Jesus!” But in giving us back our brother, Jesus gave us back our lives too! Life would have been harsh, unbearable even, for two unmarried sisters with no father or brother to allow us our freedom. We weren’t allowed to inherit anything from our brother’s estate, everything would have passed to the next male heir –a very distant cousin we’ve never even met! We would have been left penniless. I shudder to think about how our lives might have turned out if Jesus hadn’t come along and raised us ALL from ruin!

What could I give to one who had given us so very much? How could I thank Jesus for such an amazing gift of life?

Martha was always the talented one, the good one, the one who did what was expected of her. I just couldn’t get anything right. I never was a very good cook, or housekeeper. I was always lost in my thoughts, always told I was too emotional, too lazy. They said I’d never find a husband if I didn’t get my act together.

But Jesus, my dear Jesus, I could have sat and listened to his teaching for hours! He told me I was smart, that my thoughts and feelings mattered. He treated me not like the hired help, not like my worth was only determined by my cooking or childrearing skills. Jesus treated me like I was one of his disciples!

And I AM one of his disciples! I have learned from him, I have grown in faith, and now I try to live according to his teachings of love and service. No matter what anyone else may say about me, I am a disciple of Jesus! He’s my teacher, one of my dearest family friends. JESUS is the love of my life!

So what could I give to this one who gave so very much to me? What could I give to the most important person in my life?

I’ve heard the rumblings around Bethany… while many came to believe in Jesus after he raised our dear Lazarus from the dead, some of the Pharisees were seething with fury. They’re plotting to kill Jesus, we just don’t know how or when. It’s a dangerous time. In my gut I just know that Jesus’ days are numbered. We’ve shared so many lovely meals together, he always stops to see us on his way to worship in Jerusalem. But this visit feels different. While we celebrate with joy together the gift of life that we’ve been given, Jesus isn’t his usual, jovial self. There are worry lines on his face that he’s been trying to hide since he arrived.  I fear this time may be the last time he feasts around our dinner table. I fear I may never see him again after tonight.

So if tonight is the last time I see this man who has given me my very life, if tonight I say goodbye to my greatest love, and if he goes out from our home to face the greatest trials and torments of his life, if my Jesus is to die soon….

What can I give him to show him my gratitude? What can I give him to show him my love? What can I give him to comfort him and bring his worried mind some peace and strength for the days to come? What will provide a memory of the ones who love him most as he faces those who hate him?

I may have no traditional domestic skills, but I do have this jar of spikenard. It’s the only thing I own of value, worth a year’s wages! Our parents left it to be used as my dowry, to prepare me for my wedding day. But I choose to use it to prepare Jesus for what’s to come.

As my Jesus reclines around the table, enjoying Martha’s amazing cooking, I break open my jar and pour out my gift of love. The heady aroma of spikenard fills our house as I massage the fragrant oil into Jesus’ travel-worn feet. He smiles at me with serene gratitude. That fragrance will cling to his pores for weeks. No matter what he endures in the coming week in Jerusalem, the scent of my love for him will remain in his nostrils, and I pray it will give him strength. I dry his feet with my hair, inappropriate, I know, but my hair is my crown of glory, and Jesus is the most important person in my life. So, as I give him the nard from my dowry, I give him my hair as a symbol of humble service, comfort, and love. The fragrance of nard will connect us both, and trigger our memories back to this happy night of celebration, no matter what this week may bring.

Sometimes all we have to lean on are our memories and the hope tomorrow brings. I don’t know how or when my Jesus will die, but I cling to my hope that as he raised my brother Lazarus from the dead, so God will raise my Jesus from the dead.

Sometimes all we have to lean on are our memories and our hope.

I gave him my everything because I know he will give his whole self for the sake of the world.

Amen.

We are called to be THAT big brother -the one who led his brother home

SERMON Lent 4C Luke 15: 1-2, 11-32

“Who are you in this story?” That’s usually where we begin with the prodigal son. This is by far one of the best known parables of Jesus! But, we often glance over the fact that Jesus is using this story to teach the Pharisees a point. The righteous, law-obedient Pharisees are grumbling yet again about Jesus’ habit of sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners. “It’s not fair! It’s not right!” The Pharisees say. “We are the ones who obey the law, we should be sitting in the VIP section of the crowd. We should have backstage access to question and discuss the law with Jesus!” But, these tax collectors and sinners, they don’t want to “question and discuss the law” with Jesus, they simply want to learn from him and celebrate the new lease on life his ministry has given them! Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners to his family, and the Pharisees can’t stand that! Jesus doesn’t tell them how they have to behave or what the social or religious rules are for sharing dinner with him, rather he gives them a safe place to be themselves, feel loved, and to grow in faith around his table. Jesus’ greatest desire is for everyone to learn and celebrate around his table together, both Pharisee and sinner alike! So, he tells the story of a responsible, resentful older brother, a wayward younger brother, and the Father who loves and forgives them both.

The beautiful thing about the parables is that they are fictional stories Jesus uses to convey a higher truth. I’ve always seen myself as the older brother –I am, afterall, the dutiful eldest child in my family. But, this year I feel the Father’s overwhelming sense of relief and peace in a way I never have before.

You see, I’ve always worried about my own brother. He hasn’t always made the best choices, and he’s faced some really awful trials in his life –through no fault of his own.

I’ve always told him he’s welcome and loved in our home, I’ve always told him to call me if he needs me.

Last month, he did. After enduring years of an unsafe living arrangement, he packed up his things and left, risking his personal safety. He called me around 9pm and asked if the invitation still stood for him to move in with us. I told him to come right over.  While he drove to our house, Eric sprang into action getting the guest room ready, and I went to CVS to pick up a cell phone charger and some basic toiletries for him that first night. When he arrived at our home, he looked like he’d been through hell and back. His face was scratched, his clothes were tattered, he was exhausted. We just hugged him and listened to his story, then showed him to the place where he would get the first good night’s sleep he’d had in days. In the weeks since that fateful night, he’s settled into his new home with us, and the children’s love and antics have been a healing balm for him as he recovers and rebuilds his life. He’s smiling a lot these days.  Whenever he mentions the surprising, life-changing grace he’s experienced, I point out that that’s God’s grace at work in his life, because God loves him and wants him to feel whole and well.

And just by having my beloved brother under my roof, and knowing that he’s safe, I feel sense of peace and relief that I didn’t even realize I was lacking. Everyday feels like a celebration that his life is finally looking up, because he was lost and he’s been found. He could have wound up dead, but through God’s grace, he’s alive!

 

I’ve always been the older brother in this story. But today, I know the relief and the joy of the Father. God’s love transforms us from resentful older brother to joyful Father. That spiritual transformation is what Jesus wants for the Pharisees and for each one of us.

Jesus’ point in telling this beloved tale is to remind the Pharisees of God’s extravagant love and to inspire THEM to be the ones running to and embracing their lost brothers and sisters, the sinners and tax collectors.

The saddest part of this parable is that nobody helped the youngest son when he had hit rock bottom. No one took him by the hand and lifted him up out of the pig sty. No one gave him some supper, listened to his story, and encouraged him to call his dad.

In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us;”

We are ambassadors for Jesus Christ, and our vocation is to participate in his ministry of reconciliation. We are the ones reminding the world of the Father’s extravagant love. We are the ones reminding people that God longs to welcome them home and embrace them. We are the big brothers, sent out to look for our long lost, lonely, desperate, or despairing siblings. We are sent out not to chastise or hold past grudges, but to be reconcilers. We are the ones with the blessed mission of seeking out and finding our little brothers and sisters, of taking them by the hand and leading them home to the love of the Father.

God loves each and every one of us gathered here today, and the whole kingdom of God is ours through Christ Jesus, but God’s heart aches for all of the ones who are not present with us, who don’t know that there is a place where they can find rest and peace and a safe place to be themselves as they grow in faith. God’s heart aches for all of those facing struggles alone, without a church family to support and pray for them. God’s heart aches for those who think they’ll never be forgiven or accepted, for those who carry the weight of shame, and for those who fear how they may be judged. Our mission is to seek out these beloved ones, remind them of God’s unwavering love, and invite them home here to celebrate their return with the rest of the family.

Can you imagine if the older brother in Jesus’ parable believed he was a reconciler? Can you imagine if after his brother left for the foreign land, upon seeing how heartsick their Father was, the older brother packed his bag too and went off after him? Can you imagine if he found him before he ended up starving in the pig pen? And in a foreshadowing of the welcome to come, the older brother listened to him, forgave him, embraced him, and led him home to be reconciled with the Father!

Through this parable, and through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are called to be THAT big brother, the one who stopped at nothing to bring his brother home to the Father’s love.

Amen.

Christ is our Patient Gardener

SERMON Lent 3C Luke 13 1 9

I received a pot of tulip bulbs for my birthday last month, and I placed them on my kitchen counter and turned them every day so that their stems would be straight, because as they grew up out of the soil, their natural behavior was to stretch and grow toward the sun. God created the flowers to grow toward the sun, and in due season, to burst into bloom, filling the world with their beauty and fragrance.

So, too, God created us for relationship with the divine. As the flowers grow toward their source of light and warmth in the sky, so we humans are meant to grow toward our source of light and love, Jesus, the Son.

Our passage from Luke’s gospel today is about repentance, grace, and growth.

Jesus begins this passage by debunking some skewed theological thinking. The crowd questioned Jesus about a recent violent tragedy that had occurred. Some Galileans who had come to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate while making their sacrifices to God. The crowd wondered what must these people have done to have earned such a terrible fate? Jesus quickly says, “Nothing!” Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it other than the sinful, violent nature of our world. Victims of tragedies are not the cause of their suffering.  Similarly, in the case of accidents or natural disasters, sometimes tragedies occur through no fault of the ones afflicted. Human life is fragile and fleeting. Here today and gone tomorrow, as the Spring bulbs bloom and whither, as tender seedlings can be wiped out by a late Spring frost. Our lives are precious to God, and yet so very fragile.

And precisely because our human life is so fragile, Jesus urges us today to repent. Repentance means turning our lives back toward God, reorienting towards the source of our life and love. Repentance means growing away from the darkness of our world, and focusing our eyes, our hearts, and all of our energy on God. This is what we were created for, to live in love with God and one another. And we don’t have to do this work of repentance on our own.

To illustrate this reality, Jesus tells us a story of a fig tree in a vineyard. He says,  “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil.’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year until I dig around it and put manure on it. It if bears fruit next year, well and good, but if not you can cut it down.’”

The gardener loves and labors for that fig tree, patiently waiting for it to benefit from his gift of manure and grow. Just as fig trees are intended by God to grow and thrive and provide comforting shade and nourishment, so too are we intended by God to receive Christ’s gifts, to grow in faith,  and to nourish the world around us!

Christ is our patient gardener, who cherishes us even when the world around us may say we’re a waste of soil. Even when we ourselves feel like a waste of space, like we’re floundering, Christ knows our worth and our potential. Christ knows that with the good gifts of his love and care, even the most unproductive fig tree can flourish.

The first year we lived in our house, we planted rows and rows of strawberries in our front garden. We were so excited by the potential of abundant fruit. But, we hardly got to taste a single berry, as the bunnies in our neighborhood feasted on them before they fully ripened. The next year, we planted 3 blueberry bushes along our back fence. To my deep surprise, each bush produced abundant berries even that very first year! But, again, as soon as the berries ripened, the birds ate them before we could pick them for ourselves.  Last year, we planted a peach tree, but we had so much rain that the poor thing caught a fungus, so none of its fruit was harvestable. Over the winter we applied some medicine, and we’re hoping this summer for edible peaches. Last week we planted raspberries, and yesterday a cherry tree, at the bottom of our back garden. Eric added compost and fertilizer to enrich the soil and help the roots develop, to give our plants the best possible chance to thrive and grow and produce abundant fruit. We planted our raspberries in front of a lovely trellis to help train them up and give them support. We’ve chosen the ideal location for our cherry tree to grow its roots deep into the ground, while growing its branches high up into the sky without the threat of power lines impeding its reach. Until it grows enough to produce fruit, we will delight in the shade it will provide for our family and the perch it will make for the birds.  We’ve faced a lot of obstacles, toiling away in our garden. But, in spite of the obstacles and frustrations, we love our garden and continue toiling for its success.

Gardening helps us understand God’s own patient grace as Christ toils for our spiritual success and growth our whole lives through. Whatever situation we may face in life, Christ is patiently tending us, providing us with what we need to grow and thrive. He plants us where we need to be. He doesn’t give up on us, no matter how many amendments he may need to make to our soil. He waters us with his own life force through Holy Baptism, he feeds us the spiritual miracle grow of Holy Communion, and he patiently trains us with the trellis of God’s Word. And he places the right companion plants nearby us to help us grow through our relationships, and thrive as a community.

We will all one day be cut down, for we will all one day die. But until that day comes, Christ invites us to turn our hearts and lives toward the Son. Christ our patient and faithful gardener will never give up on us! He will continue providing us with whatever we need to grow strong and healthy in spirit so that we produce abundant fruit. And, like the plants in my own garden, the fruit that we will produce through Christ’s faithfulness to us, are not just for God’s good pleasure, but our fruit serves to nourish the habitat around us –creation itself and all of its creatures and people. Our spiritual fruit is for the feeding of the world with God’s promises of grace and love. Amen.

The Foxes Do Not Have the Final Word

SERMON Lent 2C Luke 13 31 35

A fox can scramble over or dig under a 6 foot high fence. It can jump 3 feet in the air. It can even chew through chicken wire! They are the single greatest predator threat to backyard chicken farmers! As hobby chicken keeping has become more popular in recent years, the internet is full of ideas about how to protect your flock: instead of using chicken wire, make all of your fencing out of hardware cloth instead. And, make sure to bury that hardware cloth several inches below the ground, all the way around your chicken coop, to deter foxes from trying to dig under. Or better yet, get an electrified fence, or a really large dog to sound the alarm! Conventional wisdom says that chickens are essentially defenseless, and must be protected and sheltered at all costs by those who hope to keep them producing eggs for their families.

In our passage today, a group of Pharisees want to keep Jesus safe so that he can keep producing miracles for them. Jesus is about halfway through his march towards Jerusalem, where (as he has already told his followers) he will face rejection, suffering, and death.  The Pharisees warn him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you!” It’s important to note here that Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, has already executed John the Baptist for his faithful work as God’s prophet. This is a very real threat. But, instead of shaking in his boots or heeding these warnings and heading for cover, Jesus declares with defiance, “I have a message you can send to that weasel from me, Go and tell that fox, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’”

Jesus sends word to Herod that he has life-changing, life-saving work to do right here and now, and he plans to carry on with his ministry every single day until he reaches Jerusalem. He’s headed toward Jerusalem, but he stops in each town and village along the way to comfort and heal and even raise the dead. His ministry to real people who are hurting is of the utmost importance to Jesus and nothing will deter or distract him from this ministry of healing. Jesus portrays himself as a broody, hen in this passage, loving and providing life-giving comfort and shelter and warmth for the people the same way a Mother provides for her chicks. Jesus laments that as Mother, his deep desire is to gather under his wings even those who reject his message and cause harm. Jesus does gather the suffering and marginalized to his chest, and even wishes the foxes of this world –like Herod- would accept the love he offers and be gathered under those same wings. The tragedy of the gospel, for Jesus, is not the fact that he is going to die, but rather it’s that so many reject his love and actively try to impede his mission to love the marginalized.

Jesus knows where he’s going and the danger that awaits him, and yet he chooses to walk toward Jerusalem anyway. Jesus knows that death on the cross is but the second to last stage of God’s mission for him.  For on the third day he will complete his work. Neither death nor those who threaten death have the last word, for the last word will always be resurrected life. Jesus knows that death is coming, but so too is life everlasting, and the knowledge of that promise gives even Jesus the inner strength to press on defiantly in the face of the danger he faces.

Theologian Dr. David Lose writes, “Absent all the stories prior to Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem, we might imagine that Jesus’ death is the story of one more tragic account of a senseless, unnecessary, even unjust death. But Jesus didn’t die accidentally. He died precisely because he gave attention to those the larger world deemed insignificant and proclaimed a God who embraced and loved all, not just a few. Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection is a story of the triumph of sacrificial love over death, hate, injustice, bigotry, and all that stands against the will of God to love, bless, and save the whole world.”

Jesus’ death was not the end of his works of healing and liberation, but his work was completed through his resurrection and continues to this very day, wherever Christians put their reputations and even lives on the line for those who are marginalized.

Jesus does not allow the foxes of this world to dictate or impede God’s action on behalf of humanity. Yes, there are scary and oppressive forces in our world, there are those who would prefer God’s message stay silent and the vulnerable stand undefended, but Jesus invites us as his church to participate in his ongoing work of performing cures and setting the captives free and standing up for what is just and faithful.

This Lent during adult faith formation, we will be remembering the lives and ministries of Harriet Tubman, Patrick of Ireland, Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Each one of these saints of the church carried out Christ’s mission at different times and in different parts of the world, and each one of them risked their reputation, comfort, and bodily safety for the sake of sharing the message of Christ’s love for all people and standing up for the dignity of all human life. Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were martyred as enemies of the state for proclaiming Christ’s love and justice and standing on behalf of the oppressed in El Salvador and Germany.

In a speech to the Catholic University of Belgium, on February 2, 1980, Romero said, “In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs–they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled [from the country]. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided. If all this has happened to persons who are the most evident representatives of the Church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands…. But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”

Oscar Romero was martyred on March 24, 1980, while celebrating mass.

Neither death nor those who threatened death had the last word in Nazi Germany or El Salvador’s civil war. Through their inspiring examples of faithfulness to Jesus and his mission of love and justice for the vulnerable, the stories of Bonhoeffer and Romero live on as examples to all the faithful who have come after them.

Jesus’ resurrection completes his work, and gives us the strength and faith to continue his life-changing, life-saving mission in all times and places. No matter what threats we may face today or tomorrow, the promise that strengthened Jesus is the same promise that strengthens us: death will not be the end of our story, but our work is complete when we rise with Christ, Romero, Bonhoeffer, Tubman, Patrick, and all the saints.    Amen.

Spiritual Fitness is a Marathon and not a Sprint

SERMON Lent 1 Luke 4 1 13

I can’t tell you how many times throughout the course of my life, I’ve ended up injured when starting a new exercise regimen! As we all know, exercise is good and healthy for us, it helps us feel better, sleep better, have more energy, and can even help us live longer! But, we all sometimes forget or ignore our physical limitations. Sometimes I get so excited to start a new program, that I dive in and do the whole workout before seeing how it will affect me, and then I end up the next day on the couch feeling like I’m dying from this thing that’s supposed to make me live longer.

It turns out, the road to physical fitness is a marathon and not a sprint. It takes time and intentionality to build good habits. If improving our physical fitness really is a priority, then we must carve out time in our schedules for it and persistently build up to our goals. We can’t go from the couch to a 5k overnight.  Rather, we must train our bodies gradually over the course of time to be receptive to new kinds of exercise and even to grow to love it so that we don’t end up incapacitated on the couch or giving up all together because we did too much too fast.

The road to physical fitness is a marathon and not a sprint, and the same is true of our spiritual fitness. As we begin the holy season of Lent, we each begin a spiritual fitness regimen to deepen our relationships with God and with one another. We do not engage in generous almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as a means to achieve our own salvation –God’s grace alone is sufficient to save us- bur rather, the spiritual disciplines stretch our spirits and open us up to deeper experience of God and deeper love of neighbors. The spiritual practices of Lent are used to as exercise for our spirits, to get us back into spiritual shape as we return to God with our whole hearts. In making our relationship with God a priority and carving out time and intentional practices to cultivate our love of God and neighbor, we gradually return to the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism and renew our relationship with God as we journey with Jesus through death and into life in 40 days.  Spiritual preparation is a marathon and not a sprint. And in our reading today, Jesus similarly spent 40 days preparing himself to live out his vocation as God’s son.

Just after he was baptized and anointed by the Holy Spirit, before he began his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days alone in the wilderness. The wilderness is the historic place of spiritual preparation of God’s people, Israel. It’s the training gym of the spirit. Jesus fasted and he prayed for 40 days. And Jesus reflects on what it means for him to be God’s Son, just as we will reflect for 40 days on what it means for us to be a child of God.

Scripture tells us that at the end of those 40 days, Jesus was famished. He was vulnerable. And he was tempted by the devil.

After 40 days of fasting, the devil whispered in his ear, “Hey Jesus, why are you doing this to yourself? Since you are the Son of God, why don’t you just turn those stones over there into some bread. You’ll feel so much better, and it will be so easy for you. You know, since you’re God’s son.”

And Jesus took a deep breath and drew his strength from the Word of God, saying, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

And then the devil, that old liar, showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, all their luxuries and conveniences, and whispered again in Jesus’ ear, “What good is power if you’re not allowed to use it for your own needs? I’ll give you powers to make all your dreams come true. You won’t have to follow my agenda or mission for your powers, you can have all of these luxuries and conveniences! All you have to do is worship me.”

 

And again, tempting as those luxuries must have seemed at the time, Jesus clung to his convictions, responding to the devil’s temptations with the Word of God, saying, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And finally, the devil whisked Jesus away to Jerusalem and placed him on the highest point of the Temple, and once more whispered in his ear, “Don’t you want proof that God is worthy of your allegiance? Don’t you want proof that God will have your back when it counts? You’re giving up so much for the sake of following God’s mission for you. Your life would be so much easier if you didn’t have these principles. If I were you, I’d want proof that God would save me when it counts. Since you are God’s son, throw yourself down from here and watch the angels catch you! It’ll be hilarious! After all, it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

And Jesus was now famished and angry, his patience had run out, for the devil had twisted a beautiful psalm about TRUSTING God in times of trial, into a temptation to test God. Jesus said, “Everyone with any sense knows, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

 

Jesus fasted and prayed and was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. The temptations of Jesus were never about proving his identity as God’s Son, but rather all of the temptations were about HOW he would live out his vocation as God’s son. Isn’t this the temptation we each face as followers of Jesus? At the Baptismal font, our identities as children of God were secured and assured. We are God’s beloved children. And yet, we sometimes fail to live like it. We sometimes fail to live like we are loved beyond measure. We may engage in self-destructive behaviors or get jealous and lash out at others. We may fall away from God and instead use our time and energy and resources to serve only ourselves. Each and every one of us faces our own temptations. And unlike Jesus, sometimes when the devil catches us vulnerable or irritable, we do give in to the whispers that lead us away from God.

Spiritual fitness is a marathon and not a sprint. In those moments when we sin, we don’t just give up on our relationship with God and spend the rest of the month on the couch feeling hopeless and sorry for ourselves. Rather, through God’s grace, we are constantly welcomed back to the font, back to the forgiveness of sins, and back into relationship. We are God’s children forever, and through the Holy Spirit, God works with and through us as we engage in the disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting, generous giving, works of love, and study of scripture. God works in us through these faith practices to strengthen our resolve for the next time the devil comes whispering nonsense in our ears. God uses our spiritual training this season to teach us HOW to live as God’s beloved children, so that these lessons may stay with us all year long, so that next year we may start this journey in a spiritually fitter place than we are today. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. And the Holy Spirit is our personal trainer, working with us every step of the way to mold us into who God calls us to be for the sake of the world. Today you may only spend 5 minutes in prayer, but perhaps by the second week you’ll be up to 10 minutes, and perhaps by the third week you’ll be up to 15, and so forth and so on until you experience God as your constant, beloved companion throughout the day. No matter what your starting point may be this first week of Lent, God loves you and encourages you to practice your faith and strengthen your spirit this Lent. Amen.

Spoiler Alert! Death is not how the story ends.

SERMON Transfiguration C Luke 9 29 36

I am impossible to watch movies with –so my husband tells me. I always want to know what’s going to happen next, I have a million questions about what’s going to happen next. I absolutely hate suspense! Though I absolutely love the thrill of a solved mystery, I just can’t handle lots of suspenseful music and drama. Even at my age, if a detective show gets too intense, I will cover my face with a blanket like my 7 year old son, or stare into my phone until the suspense is over! If something on Netflix has ended with a cliffhanger, I will keep watching until the trailer for the next episode tells me everything’s going to be ok. While most people avoid them, I happen to LOVE spoilers.

I think the reason I’m like this is because Netflix offers us a special privilege that doesn’t exist in real life –a glimpse into the future! Spoilers for what’s going to happen in the next episode, and even the next season! Could you imagine how it would change our lives if we knew exactly what would happen to us and the ones we love next month or even next year? I think we’d all walk around amazed and terrified all at the same time!

And I imagine that’s how Peter, James, and John walked down that mountain of transfiguration –amazed and terrified all at the same time!

The Transfiguration is Jesus’ gift to his disciples and to us. It’s the preview for what we can expect in the next season of his life, and in this next season of the Church year.

Eight days earlier, while Jesus was praying, he asked his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” And they responded, “John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” And then he asked them the question he still asks his disciples, “But you all really know me, who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter rightly proclaimed, “You are the Messiah of God.”

Wow! Amazing.

And Jesus told them that as the Messiah, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious authorities, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

How…Terrifying!

Perhaps, as the fully human Son of God, even Jesus was terrified by his knowledge of his coming crucifixion. In Luke’s gospel, the disciples do not respond to this first passion prediction. I imagine that the disciples all pulled the blanket over their heads or stared into their phones, pretending to not really hear what he was saying about his fate. It was too terrible, too terrifying to think about it happening to Jesus.

Perhaps even Jesus was terrified. For we’re told that 8 days later, he brings his closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) up the mountain to pray with him. It’s worth noting that in times of fear and struggle, Jesus himself turned to prayer for comfort and strength. Jesus prayed most earnestly, and his disciples -spiritual works in progress- started to fall asleep. But the scripture says they were startled wide awake by what happened next! Jesus’ face, which they knew so well, became changed before their very eyes, he began shining with divine glory –and even his clothes turned dazzling white. And if that weren’t enough, Elijah and Moses stood right there by his side in their heavenly attire. Elijah and Moses discussed with Jesus his coming departure –his exodus- which would happen in Jerusalem. Jesus’ exodus would be the continuation and completion of Moses and Elijah’s work as God’s prophets. Just as Moses led God’s people through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so Jesus –the Messiah of God- would set God’s people free from the fear and bondage of death. Jesus is our deliverer, paving the way through the wilderness of Good Friday and into the promised land of resurrected life. God’s people would be healed and set free once and for all through the terrifying and amazing events that would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem.

Perhaps Elijah and Moses even gave Jesus some pointers as to what to expect in an extraordinary death, perhaps their purpose for being there was to give Jesus’ a glimpse into the first few minutes of his next episode, to comfort him and give him strength.

But the purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration was to give his disciples a glimpse of the glory beyond the painful suspense of Good Friday. Jesus was transfigured before them to reveal the core truth of our faith to his closest friends, to spoil the dramatic ending of his earthly life.  As Frederick Buechner said, “The worst thing is never the last thing, it’s the next to last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock bottom worst of the world, like a hidden spring.” All of that rejection, suffering, and death that Jesus will weather, that is not how his story ends. The worst thing we can imagine, is NEVER the last thing. Rejection, suffering, and death, it’s not how our stories end either. Spoiler alert! The glory we see on Jesus’ face today reminds us that –as God’s beloved children- we will one day shine with the reflection of God’s heavenly glory. Each and every one of us will one day join the saints all dressed in dazzling white! No matter how bleak our present circumstances may seem, our story ends with shining glory and eternal life in the heavenly chorus.

This is the gospel of life that sets us free and transforms the way we live our lives today. And we need this very good news –this sneak preview of the glory that awaits us- to sustain us when our own lives feel too on edge with fear and suspense. No matter what happens in our families, with our health, with our jobs, or in our world, through Christ we have glimpsed the ending of our own stories, and it’s an ending not to be missed! Until the very best, very last thing comes, God sustains and strengthens us in our Christian lives with the promise of salvation, the belief in God’s eternal love for us, and a whole community of fellow disciples who surround us in prayer and support when life gets hard. These pillars of our faith give us strength and grace to face whatever Jerusalem lies ahead in our own lives. Amen.

Advanced Methods of Discipleship: Loving those who are hardest to love.

SERMON Epiphany 7C Luke 6 27 38

When I began college, I was eager to dive in and learn everything there was to know about my chosen subject, but I was introduced to the concept of prerequisite classes! I had to take Intro to Psychology, a 100 level class, before I could move on in the 200s to Research Methods and Statistics (my least favorite class), before I could take Psychopharmacology in the 300s, which helped prepare me for Abnormal Psychology in the 400s.

Anything worth doing, whether it’s getting an education, raising a family, planning and implementing a new project at work, changing to a healthier lifestyle, or making more space in your life for prayer –anything worth doing requires hard work and intentionality. In any endeavor that will produce growth, we can expect some growing pains along the way. We may have to take classes we’d rather not –like statistics-, in order to get us to where we need to be in order to grow. The same is true for the life of discipleship.

As Christians, we’re meant to grow in faith and discipleship throughout the course of our lives. The Holy Spirit works through us to produce spiritual fruit and growth and to equip us and stretch us as we engage in spiritual practices that are difficult. We all begin the life of faith as spiritual children, and then –as we practice our faith throughout the lifespan- by the grace of the Holy Spirit we grow into spiritual maturity.

St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians about this experience of spiritual growth. He wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

This practice of putting an end to spiritually childish ways is precisely what Jesus is preaching about in this section of his sermon on the plain.

While, “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is Jesus’ “Discipleship 101 class,” today Jesus brings out the really challenging material! “Love your enemies…. Do unto others –ALL others- as you would have them do unto you.” This is Jesus’ “Advanced Methods of Discipleship” class.

All of those people upon whom Jesus just proclaimed woe last week…. he now turns around and urges his disciples to love them. ALL of them. Love is the power to transform our world as it is into our world as it should be! Love –especially this most challenging kind of love- is the power to transform the hearts and lives of enemies and turn them toward the Lord. Our love is a radical witness of God’s radical grace. Our love reminds our enemies that the Lord loves them, which is a difficult truth for us to swallow, but it is the truth. God loves everyone –even those whom we find hardest to love. Even those whom we would love to judge and condemn and call down woe upon. To our baser instincts of revenge and resentment, Jesus preaches, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Love of enemies is counterintuitive, countercultural, and most definitely counter anything WE would want to do! But it is what Christ calls us to. It is the way of spiritual growth and maturity.

Christian love is not loving only those who love us back –Jesus says everyone does that! And, Christian love is not even JUST about loving our unknown neighbors and turning them into friends. But mature Christian love –the active kind of love- is about loving those in our lives who are hardest to love: those whom we know and who get on our last nerve, or who have deeply hurt us. Mature Christian love is choosing to treat others the same way you would want to be treated, even when they’ve spread rumors about you, or broken your heart, or verbally attacked you, or worst of all when they’ve physically harmed you or the ones you love.

This was a challenge for our family last year after our car accident. We kept getting all of these letters in the mail about being the victims in a crime and asking if we wanted to seek financial restitution from the person who hit us. He was driving drunk with his own child in the car when he slammed into the back of us and sped away. When someone causes such a disruption in your life or could have seriously hurt your children, the natural temptation is to cry out “throw the book at him!” But, Eric and I prayed hard for him and decided not to seek anything because that poor man was in enough trouble as it was. If he was driving drunk with a child in the car in the middle of the afternoon, then he surely needs help and healing from whatever caused him to make such terrible choices. I wish I could say that we contacted the man who was driving that pickup truck and told HIM that we forgive him and wish him wholeness and healing, but to our shame we didn’t. We’re still growing as disciples too.

Mature discipleship is coming to a place where we can act lovingly and compassionately even toward those people who have caused us harm. This is hard and holy work. And it’s truly only possible through God’s grace, which allows us to follow Christ’s example of forgiveness and compassion.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, and it definitely doesn’t mean faking warm and fuzzy feelings, but it means letting go of the knots within our own hearts that make our chests feel tight with resentment.

Now, this message of forgiveness and love of enemies does NOT mean returning to an abusive situation! Christ says pray for those who abuse you, and that’s about it. Tragically, for millennia, these challenging teachings of Jesus have been used by those in positions of power to justify oppression and systemic abuses, even within the Church. To this day we see stories of abuse in the news covered up and justified in a myriad of evil ways. Today, I pray each person here hears the words of Jesus as he truly intends for them to be heard –as good news of healing and empowerment for those who have been harmed. When Jesus said “Turn the other cheek” he was making a powerful statement in favor of nonviolent resistance to abuses of power. In the ancient world, those in power would beat their subservients with the back of their hands, and would only beat those of equal status with an open palm. When Jesus says “turn the other cheek” he’s saying “if they’re going to beat you anyway, make sure they have to face you as their equal, rather than continuing to treat you as less than.” “Turn the other cheek” does not mean “allow yourself to continue to put up with abuse.” Rather, it’s a statement meant to shock the abusers into ending the cycle of abuse.  Jesus says pray for those who abuse you, but you have no obligation to return to or stay in a situation of abuse.  Pray for those who abuse you, and for yourself for the power to heal and move forward in this blessed life God intends for you.

Forgiveness does not mean excusing horrible behavior, but it means moving forward spiritually. And forgiveness is not something that we can always accomplish through our own will alone, but in conjunction with God’s grace at work within us over the course of a whole lifetime. God accompanies us on our journey of forgiveness, and holds us close for as long as it takes to bring us peace. Forgiveness is  not for our enemy’s benefit, but for our own spiritual peace.

Mature Christian love is not defined by warm and fuzzy feelings for horrible people, but rather by the compassion to understand that no one starts out life treating others in horrible ways. Love of enemies is pausing to understand that something terrible must have happened in their lives to cause them to behave in such a way. When we have compassion for what others have been through or for what they may be going through right now, we have no choice but to put away the spiritually childish practices of judgment and condemnation, and to grow in forgiveness and grace toward even those who are hardest to love.

These “Advanced Methods of Discipleship” is hard and holy work, but Jesus promises, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate….The measure of grace you give to others will be the measure you get back.” Amen.