Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"The Person I Love the Least" Pentecost 19


Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18 (Charley)
God  spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Holy One your God am holy. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour.  You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Holy One. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am God.”

Matthew 22:34-46
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

***
Will you pray with me? God of all times and places and nations, open our hearts and minds to your truth today; give us understanding and wisdom, not to be merely hearers of your truth, but to be doers of your will. In all your names, amen.

Love. What is love? That’s a question humans have been trying to answer ever since humans were able to ask questions.  Another question—how do we love our neighbours, and who, exactly, is our neighbour? And the biggest question if all, perhaps: what does it mean to love God?

I can’t promise to answer all of these to your satisfaction, or to mine, for that matter. But maybe we can start thinking about what the answers might be, begin groping towards some kind of idea of what it is like to love God and our neighbour—whoever they might be.

Love is often seen as a fuzzy, sweet, cuddly emotion. Tell that to the parent protecting her or his child—love can be fierce.  Love is not just about roses and chocolates and forever after—anyone who has had rough spots in their relationships can tell you that. Love can be complicated—sometimes you love a person but cannot stand to be near them; or what they are going through is more than you can deal with—serious illness or addiction or a family situation or a spiritual crisis. Love is not simple, it is not all sweetness and light.

We can quote 1 Corinthians 13:4-13—the famous “love chapter,” often used at weddings and Holy Unions:  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” But ideally, these verses apply to any love, not only romantic or partnership love. Think of parental love, or between siblings, or friends. And even that sometimes abstract love of neighbours—ideally, this is true of how we love our neighbours as well, isn’t it? We are patient, we believe in each other, we hope for each other.

And, of course, the key word there is “ideally.” Many parents, siblings, lovers, neighbours do not live up to this ideal—we don’t either, if we are honest with ourselves.

Dorothy Day was an amazing woman who worked with the economically-disadvantaged in New York in the middle years of the last century. She was Catholic, an anarchist, and a social activist—a heady combination! She once said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least."

The person I love the least. It can be difficult to like some people; to enjoy them, to want to be with them, to understand them, maybe; to accept everything they do. But that does not mean we cannot love them. Love isn’t a feeling as much as it is an action—you may not like someone, but you can show your love for them by forgiving them, serving them, healing them. It can be easy to say, “I love you,” but love is shown in action—in the daily acts of caring that reinforce that love. It’s shown in mutual support by a couple, by a parent insisting that a child learn to be self-sufficient, by siblings sharing grief, by friends celebrating good news together.  As the saying goes, “talk is cheap.” Doing is harder. I personally put more credence in the actions of someone than in what they say—don’t you?

 The how of that love is described in the reading from Leviticus—justice, impartiality, honesty, forgiveness. Now, there’s also a mention of “reproving your neighbour or you will incur guilt.” This verse has been so misused, along with one from Paul, which mentions “speaking the truth in love.” It has been used to say hurtful and even hateful things to people, under the self-righteous pretence of “speaking the truth in love.” It has even been used to condemn the marginalized, the infamous “hate the sin, love the sinner.” It can be abused and twisted to excuse judgemental comments of all sorts. But the rest of the reading, all those verses around it, indicate that this is exactly what is not permitted—judgemental faultfinding by the self-righteous.

But the commandment is to love God and each other—to love, not judge or condemn or elevate yourself. We are to love others as we love ourselves. And the reverse is true—we cannot love others until we love ourselves. We cannot accept others until we accept ourselves. We cannot forgive others until we forgive ourselves.

But it is more than that. When we become angry or unforgiving of others, then we are giving them power—we are allowing them to dictate how we feel about them and ourselves. Instead, by no becoming angry, we make the choice to love—remember, you don’t have to like someone to love them—and thus to forgive.

I am not saying to accept the judgement of others—I don’t mean that we have to accept what other people think of us as truth. There is a difference between strong feeling, passion, on the one hand, and anger on the other. Passion is acceptable—stating your position, your feelings. Anger, judgement of the other person as being stupid, wrong, crazy—that is not acceptable.

So I’m not arguing for being a doormat. I am insisting that we have a choice in how we deal with this sort of judgement, of statement. The choice we make can be for love or it can be for judgement. It is up to us. God has told us what is good—to love God with all our power and our neighbours as ourselves.

It is not always easy; but then, the right path, the right choice, is often the most difficult. Sometimes that is how we know it is the right path—because it is more difficult. It’s harder to accept and reach out in Christian love to someone who thinks that because of your gender, age, race, nationality, you are less than they are; or that you are wrong in the eyes of God because of actions you felt called by God to take. Many churches still will not ordain women; some will attempt to exorcise gay men, as if they were possessed by a devil; there are others whose services are rigidly segregated by race or class; and so on. But who are we to deny what God has called someone to do?

The difference, I think, is not insisting that everyone believe in the same way, and acknowledging that others may have different beliefs, ways of living, and viewpoints. If Person A believes that women should not be ordained, and belongs to a church that does not ordain women, then I am not going to tell them they are foolish and wrong—they have their belief. But—and this is the not being a doormat part—I believe—obviously—that women can and should be ordained—that I am not to stand in the way of a person who is called by God, and therefore I must insist that Person A’s beliefs cannot be used to decide how my church, the church I attend and whose beliefs I hold, will operate. Person A has a belief, I have a differing belief. I respect that belief—but mine must also be respected. I am not going to judge them—I will love my neighbour as myself—and I will look for a reciprocal respect.

That is how we love our neighbours—by respecting their beliefs, seeing them as our sisters and brothers who may have different ideas or beliefs, but who nonetheless are made in the image of God, as we are, and who therefore is to be loved as we love ourselves.

So here’s a challenge for you for this week. Remember that quote from Dorothy Day? “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." Who is it in your life, your daily everyday life, that you love the least? I’m not talking about world leaders or politicians, or historical figures. I mean someone you interact with, or used to interact with, who you find it hard to love as you love yourself. You don’t have to like them, remember—but you do have to love them. Maybe it’s a former partner, or a parent or sibling; maybe it’s a boss or co-worker or neighbour or even a friend.  Whoever that person is, focus on loving them—seeing God in them, praying for them, loving them as you love yourself. I’m not saying it will be easy or simple—even thinking of them may bring back painful memories , or revive the frustration of the relationship. But if you continue to try, to pray for them, to love them as you love yourself—you will find, eventually, a change in how you see them. It probably will not happen in a few days, and maybe not in a few weeks or months. But keep at it—keep seeing God in them, keep loving them as you love yourself.

For this is the greatest commandment—to love one another as we love ourselves and as we ourselves are loved by God.

In all God’s many names, amen.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Whose Image?" October 16, 2011, Pentecost 18

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Creator and  our Saviour Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Maker your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Saviour Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
And you became imitators of us and of Jesus Christ, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of God has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for God’s Child from heaven, whom God raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

***
Will you pray with me? Creating God, you have left your fingerprints on our spirits; remind us yet again of your presence in our lives and our hearts; help us remember that we are yours always. Open our ears, our minds, to your word for us; give us wisdom to speak and hear your truth. In all your names, amen.

Images. So many kinds of images. There’s our self-image—how we see ourselves, the image we want others to see in us. We may try to act and dress and speak in certain ways, live in a certain place, drive a certain car, listen to certain music—all to conform to an image, whether it’s the hipster or the Goth, the Christian, the kd lang clone, the metrosexual, the cowboy, the intellectual…whatever it may be. But when we don’t try to conform to a prefabricated image, when we listen to the music we like, wear the clothes we are comfortable in, speak in ways that reflect our most deeply held beliefs—then the image we project is of ourselves, our true selves—and the image of God who made us is a part of that image.

How do we project an image? Partly through our body—what we wear and how we wear it—our jewellery, clothes, hairstyle, even tattoos. It’s shown in how we carry ourselves—proudly, or shuffling, striding confidently or creeping along, hoping no-one will notice us. It is in what we say and how we say it—our vocabulary and tone of voice, our delivery and our eye contact. Our attitude, too, projects part of our image.

But whatever that image is, God is a part of it. And therefore, bearing God’s image, we belong to God. And not only us, you and I, but everything that is, ultimately belongs to God. We may use it, or share it, but the earth and all that is in it belong to God, as the psalmist says.

“Whose image is on this coin?” Jesus asks the religious leaders. “Whose image?” And they answer that it is Caesar’s image. That’s who ordered it to be made, the one who, in the final analysis, owns it.  And therefore God, who created the universe, and placed the divine image on all things—everything that exists belongs to God.

 That is the theory, anyway.

How well do we put that into practise on an everyday basis? What does it mean to say that everything belongs to God? Does it mean we should just give everything to the church? Well, no, not exactly. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give to the church of your choice! But it’s more than that. If all we are and have belongs to God, then are we caring for it? If everything that exists is God’s, how are we doing at giving that back to God?

I once heard it said that it is easier for us to pay the CRA than it is for us to pay God.

Is that true for you? Have you paid your taxes to the province and the CRA, but when you feel God tugging you in a certain direction, do you resist? I know it is often true for me. I know that all I am and have is God’s and yet… I may know that God is nudging me towards a certain path, but I resist going down that path because it will mean work, or struggle, or a risk—and so I don’t give God what is God’s. Are we good stewards, caretakers of all that God has given us? Our families, our finances, ourselves, yes—but there is so much more God has given us. This lovely world, our planet Earth—are we giving that to God? Our sisters and brothers here in Windsor and around the world—they certainly bear God’s image. Are we giving God in other people what God is due?

Another word for image is example. Paul held up the Thessalonians, the Christians in Thessaly, as an example of people who truly loved God and passed on what Paul had taught them. They were the image, the example, of God in Christ.

I read a book this weekend titled “In My Hands.” It is the account of a young Polish woman, Irene Gutowna, who, during the German occupation of her country in World War II, saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish people. She worked for the Germans in one of the officer’s mess halls, and because she spoke German and looked typically German, was assumed to be German, and so she heard news before anyone else, and was able to get word out of coming actions, or roundups, of the Jews. She eventually hid a dozen Jewish Poles in her boss’s villa, even agreeing to be his mistress as the price of his silence when they were discovered.

Irene risked her life many times to save other people. She reached out to people deemed to be unworthy of life by the “powers that be” and saved them from death. She thought little of herself, and everything of others. For the many people she rescued, she was the image of God—rescuing, sheltering, loving, self-sacrificing.

We are not all called or gifted to act as Irene did. But like her, we all are gifted by God, are the image of God. Do we give God all that we owe to God? Only you can answer that question for yourself. I know I fall short, often.

The good news is that it is never too late. Whatever you have delayed or put off or denied or brushed aside or simply didn’t deal with—you still can. Now is the time. Whatever it is that you owe to God, now is a good time to give it to God.

In the many names of the one true God, amen.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

I did not preach today, so no sermon. In honor of Coming Out Day on October 11, and in memory of the death of Matthew Shepherd on October 12, 1998, I offer Melissa Etheridge's song "Scarecrow," which was our anthem today.

Monday, October 03, 2011

"God's Harvest Table'" Pentecost 16, October 2, 2011


Isaiah 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Luke 22:14-20
When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;  for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the realm of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the realm of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form

***
Will you pray with me? Welcoming God, it has been a hard week for many of us. We come to you seeking restoration, refreshment, encouragement and hope, knowing we will be fed at your table. Give us grace to accept your gifts without doubt, knowing we are your beloved children, and part of your universal family of love, united through your child, Jesus the Christ.

Yesterday I did one of my favourite things—driving out in the county. There is something about being out there, riding and talking in the company of friends, stopping here and there for apples or a late breakfast, seeing the trees beginning to change—I need that experience in my soul during the changing seasons, in spring and especially in the fall. It brings me to that autumn state of mind—time to make stew, to eat apples fresh from the orchard with cheddar cheese as a bedtime snack, to put away the sundresses and sandals and dig out the turtlenecks and sweaters, to stock up on soup mixes. It’s harvest time, with all the harvest feelings of plenty and full cupboards, of taking stock for our preparations for the winter to come—do we have what we need to make it through? Are the root cellars of our lives full—not just with food, but with friendships, mutual support, love, hope, all the blessings of our lives? Next week is Thanksgiving, when we recognize and name these blessings; but today we can recognize where those blessings originate—the one from whom all blessings flow.
In our reading from Isaiah, that vineyard did not produce, in spite of all the owner’s preparations—the cultivation, the weeding, the wall to keep out predators and thieves, the winepress ready to go when the grapes were ripe. In Isaiah’s day, this vineyard image was a metaphor for Israel—that Israel was God’s vineyard, prepared and planted but not productive of God’s good things. We cannot read that forward to Jesus’ time and say that once again Israel was not ready, did not give honor to the one who deserved it. That is not historical for one thing, and for another, it lets us off the hook. We can dismiss it as meant for those who could not follow Jesus, and pretend it does not also apply to us.
The fact is that God creates, plants, vineyards in every one of us—all of our individual hearts—gives each of us gifts and the means to share them—those vines and the grapes God is looking for.
So—how is your harvest coming? Have you been weeding and watering, pruning and clearing, preparing the vines for the harvest? Are you looking over the vines, seeing if the grapes are ripe and ready to be picked? Have you been willing to share your gifts, your talents, whatever you have that is needed?
We don’t always know which of our gifts will be needed nor how they will be used. Sometimes we know we have a gift—for, say, conversation, we can talk to almost anyone about anything—but we can’t see how God could possibly use it or need it. And then one day, we realise that  with our gift, we can be the welcomers—the ones to greet others at the door, to host a coffee hour, to be part of a newcomers welcoming group—or maybe even to become a counselor, supporting people in need, offering hope to people who can’t seem to find any.
God uses all our gifts, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us, how un-useful. The harvest in the vineyard of our spirits is never wasted.
Today is World Communion Sunday. Today we gather in spirit with our sisters and brothers around the world at God’s table of grace. This Communion table is God’s harvest table, full of the gifts we have brought, to be shared with all of God’s people—gifts from the vineyards of our hearts, our gifts and talents and finances and graces.
Do you know the two most powerful forces in human life, the two basic motivating factors in all we do? Eating and sex. They are both necessary—food to continue the life of the individual, and sex to continue the life of the species. And so they both feel good and are pleasurable—and so both can be insidious addictions, because we must eat to live and the vast majority of healthy adult humans have sexual feelings. How we act or whether we act on those feelings of physical hunger and sexual desire is another matter and beside the point. My point is that in every civilization, around the world and across time, these two factors define the culture.

It is said that the two best ways to learn a language are: 1) to learn how to cook and eat that culture’s cuisine and 2) to have a lover who speaks the language as a first language.  Any culture’s most rigid rules and customs—not laws, but customs and habits—are around food and eating, and sex. Who may invite whom to eat at their home, the foods offered a guest rather than a family member or intimate, how the table is arranged, who sits where, how the tableware is used—these all have importance and if any of them are violated, confusion and possibly offence and insult are the outcome. In Europe, for a minor example, when the fork and knife are placed parallel on the plate, it means the person is done eating—in North America, it means nothing. In North America, it is common to invite someone to your home for a casual meal after knowing them a short while. In Germany, to be invited to someone’s home is an honour and an indication of deepening intimacy and friendship.  In a restaurant in Europe, if it is busy, strangers may share a table—with no expectation of conversation, although it is not offensive to talk. In North America, that is unheard of! And so on.

Sometimes these two factors—meals and intimate relationships—are brought together, such as a date for dinner out, or a special meal prepared the first time a potential partner comes to your home.

But they both come down to vulnerability and sharing. We open our homes, our private space; we open our hearts, our spirits; we dare to share what moves us most, what we would most grieve losing—our homes, our selves, our physical bodies. We risk vulnerability, that openness to being hurt, because it is in that risk, in finding that the other does not hurt us but in turn opens and shares with us, that we find true intimacy.  In going to someone’s home, sitting at their table, eating their food, that person risks our presence in their private space—and we risk going to an unknown place, a place that may be dangerous to us in some way—not literally, probably, but where we both, host and guest, risk rejection, misunderstanding, loss of dignity or standing, exposure of our faults or ignorance…any number of things.

And yet, having taken that risk, we may well find a deeper level of intimacy, a better knowledge of the other person. We have both dared to be foolish or wrong—and we were not. To me, sharing a meal in someone’s home, whether it is a full-blown seven-course dinner or simple coffee and cake, is an expression of caring and intimacy, a way to say, I care for you and want to know more about you, to support and encourage you; I trust you with my fears and hopes and vulnerabilities, and you can trust me with yours. This is why, across cultures, violation of these hospitality customs –to injure a guest or allow a guest to be harmed is so grave, and often results in expulsion, temporary or permanent, from society for the offender. Guests require the best of the host, generosity, vulnerability and protection.

All of this comes together in Communion, which is sharing a meal with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We share not only a meal, but ourselves, being vulnerable to them, and them being vulnerable to us; with God as our host, God and God’s people are intimate, open, and trusting with one another. And so we pray for our sisters and brothers, support them, encourage them, both as churches and as individuals. You can see this every Sunday.  In our worship service, we come together in worship—the call to worship. We hear what God has to say to us, in Scripture and then the discussion of that Scripture. We put that message to work by returning gifts to God in thankfulness and then by praying for our sisters and brothers, and for ourselves. Then we confess—we tell the truth about what we have or haven’t done as we know we should—and having received and then given forgiveness, we can come to God’s table as equals, with no constraints between us of distrust or anger or hurt. We share God’s marvelous feast, and then, nourished and strengthened by God’s love, we return to the world to share that bounty with other people.

That is the Christian life, wrapped up in symbolism and condensed to an hour! We’ll be talking about it in more detail, incidentally, at our worship study and training event on November 5…

It is God who invites us to this table, all of us. As you have heard me and many others say many many times, this is not my table, not this church’s table, but God’s table. We gather in spirit around this table with all Christians of all times and places—Rome in 75, Paris in 721,  Cadiz in 1551,  Brazil in 1834, Capetown in 1921,  Tokyo in 1965, Sydney in 1999, Windsor in 2012.

It is not for us—you and I—to determine who can come and who cannot come to share God’s gifts. All are invited to share at God’s table—even Judas shared in that last supper with Jesus which we remember in Communion, in the upper room with the other disciples.

So come—today and all days—receive God’s gifts, God’s trust; deepen your knowledge of God, open your heart to God, risk that vulnerability at God’s table. Join with all God’s children in this feast of love, spread for you and for all of us through God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ.

In God’s many names, amen.