Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Chosen" Easter 6B (May 13, 2012)

1 John 5:1-6
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey God’s commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey God’s commandments. And God’s commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Child of God?  This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

John 15:9-17
Jesus said, “As God has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept the Creator’s commandments and abide in God’s love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from the Creator. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Creator will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Most holy Friend, Three-person’d God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, teach us the way of love from you. Bring us together in spirit and action, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing each others gifts, and establishing here on earth colonies of heaven. In the name of Christ, our Brother and Saviour.

“This is my commandment,” Jesus says. Not, “it would be nice,” or “Could you maybe try.” No, he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” That is a tall order when we think about it on its own. How can we possibly love others as Jesus loved us—because when Jesus speaks to the disciples, he is speaking to us too. How can we ever love anyone like that? And yet there are those who will do that, who have done that. We often hear this in connection with Remembrance Day, or with the D-Day observations—the soldiers, sailors and airmen who were willing to lay down their lives for their country, for their fellow Canadians, Americans, French, Italians, Dutch.  A photo you may have seen reflects that touchingly in the image of a modern-day businessman, his briefcase at his feet, one land laid gently on the wall of memory at the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial in Washington DC. He is dressed in a suit, but his arm, seen in the reflection, wears fatigues, and within the wall, a reflection and yet not a reflection, his fellow soldiers, his buddies, touch his hand. He remembers those who sacrificed with him—he survived, they did not. And he remembers.

There are other images—today is a day I really wish we had Powerpoint available!—that express this. Law enforcement, fire fighters and other public safety workers share in this ethic. A very moving image from the many from that terrible day, September 11, 2001, is that of Father Mychal Judge, Chaplain to the NY Fire Department, being carried out of the wreckage of the World Trade Centre before the buildings collapsed. He went into the damaged buildings to offer solace and comfort to the firefighters and civilians who were trapped, in spite of the danger. He risked, and ultimately lost, his life in order to serve others. Incidentally, Fr. Mychal was gay—a witness to the falsity of those hateful and false stereotypes of gay men. He laid down his life for his sisters and brothers.  He loved them as he knew himself to be loved by God.

Even as Jesus laid down his life for us, we are to lay ours down for others. It may not be—probably won’t be—as dramatic or horrific as the events of 9/11, or in an armed conflict.  Sometimes it is patience in dealing with someone difficult, or overcoming fear to speak truth—even as our voices shake. It might be our unconditional support for someone who has no one else who encourages them. Maybe it’s a listening ear. Sometimes it’s parenting, whether we are the biological parent or not. Or it might be just the right word at the right time, even when we don’t feel like being supportive.

Notice what is joined with “love one another,“  and with being Jesus’ friends. Jesus says, “For you did not choose me, but I chose you.” This is not our decision to make—Jesus chooses us, calls us, to be in his circle of friends, his chosen family who are to love one another as he loved them. Jesus is focused on us—he’s not listening to the voices of others who say we are too young or too old, or too foolish, or the wrong gender or sexuality or economic status, or lacking in education or over-educated. Jesus’ focus is on us, as we are, as we are made—and Jesus calls us, chooses us to be part of his family, his beloved community. Every one of us was chosen for a reason; others may not be able to see it, but Jesus had a purpose in choosing you.

There’s a song from Sesame Street, called “Sing.” The line from that song that always comes to my mind where I read this passage goes, “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear—just sing, sing your song!” Jesus chose each of us for the song we each have—the song that we are to sing, the love that we are to give. We aren’t chosen based on what someone else can or can’t do. Jesus didn’t say, “I choose Tom for his musical gift, but I’ll choose Kate in spite of her lack of musical gifts.” Each of us chosen by Jesus based on who we are—not what we aren’t, not on what someone else is, and not on what “some people” think we should be. We are chosen, not because we are better or worse than some standard of perfection, but because we are who we are.

What a tremendous gift—Jesus loves us, chooses us to be part of his family of love and mutual support, just because we are who we are! That, my friends, is love.

What do we do with this love, this being chosen by God?

Remember the movie “Saving Private Ryan?” A group of soldiers are detailed, shortly after D-Day, to find Private Ryan—all of the private’s brothers have been killed in the war, and as he is the last survivor, the policy is to discharge him—but first they have to find him. The first 30 minutes, which depict the landing on D-Day, are truly harrowing, but once past that, it is a powerful statement of not only duty, but sacrifice for someone these men don’t even know. They struggle through the front lines of war, losing many of their companions along the way, until finally they find the private in the midst of a battle for a bridge. The captain who is leading them (played by Tom Hanks), mortally wounded, tells Private Ryan, “Just make it worth it. You have the rest of your life now—make it worth it.” In a modern cemetery in Belgium, Private Ryan, now an old man, returns to the captain’s grave, and asks him, “Did I do it well enough? Did I make it worth it?”

That’s our task too. To make it worth it. Jesus loved us, chose us, laid down his life for us. Do we make our lives worth it? Do we care for others, showing them love and patience? Do we lift up the weak, comfort the sorrowing and hurting, celebrate with the joyful, and share love in our community? Or do we fritter our lives away on self-indulgence through material things like possessions, food, or sex, in anger held for so many years, in pain and grief that we do not allow ourselves to release, in blaming ourselves for what others have done to us?

My sisters and brothers, we who are called to be a community know that we have been chosen, in this one wonderful life we have, love one another—period. Not only the people we like, the ones who like us; not just the people who are like us, the people we understand—but also the people who make us angry or uncomfortable or frightened. We are not called to make them like us so that we are more comfortable; we are chosen to love them as they are, as God made them, just as we are to be loved as God made us.

Take your gifts, those wonderful parts of you God gave you, and love your sisters and brothers in Christ’s community. Jesus laid down his life for those he loved, for his community of choice, for you and me.

Make your life worth it.

In the name of the Ever-living, Ever-loving God, amen.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

RevGal's Friday Five

It has been too long since I did this, and I am looking for ways to procrastinate anyway...not deliberately, you understand, just not turning away from opportunities.

So here are the random five from yesterday (see I even procrastinated on that!)

1.  What is the first thing that comes to your mind (right now) that you want to share about yourself.
I procrastinate. No, seriously, I am finally in a good place after at least three years of sadness and a dark place. I want that to translate into more writing.

2.  What is your favorite piece of jewelry or accessory? Why?
I used to have a wonderful rainbow-y watercolor effect silk scarf that I wore at least twice a week. It went with just about anything, from white to black to grey and everything in-between. Unfortunately, when I was unpacking after my most recent move, I pulled it out of a box, not realising it was caught on a belt buckle and tore an irreparable hole in it.

3.  If you could have a starring role in a T.V. show/movie/series, which one would it be, and what would your character be like?
Well, it would probably change the way the series are written, but I would love to be in either one of the Law and Order franchises (preferably with Mariska Hargitay...) or Star Trek the Next Generation, as an ethics/spirituality adviser to the rest of the cast, sort of like BD Wong's psychologist character. I think it would bring an interesting dimension to some of the plots. And apparently I can act fairly well--I was part of a murder mystery dinner recently and people were taken aback when I showed up at the door "in character" and stayed that way most of the evening. Apparently they thought this was the real me sans collar--snarky and bitter and cutting to my "parents." I'm not sure if I should be alarmed or not.

4.  What is one thing you will eat this weekend? Coffee. Eat--have you seen how strong I like my coffee? Profiteroles--I am taking them to a potluck tonight and so they are the only item I know will be there. I am hoping for butter chicken (one of the sometime-attendees makes fabulous butter chicken), but there's always a lot of good food-salads, desserts, taco pie last month... I'm taking a fruit plate for Sunday coffee hour, so I will be eating that as well.

5.  How do you waste time? (If you do, that is...)
Haha...writing on my blog when I should be working on my sermon and doing laundry. More usually, it's websurfing, browsing YouTube or GoodReads, or playing with my new cat friend, Bobcat.

My new roommate, Bobcat

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

"What is to Prevent Me? Nothing." Easter 5 B (May 6, 2012)

Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of God said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So Philip got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. 

John 15:1-8
”I am the true vine, and God is the vinegrower, who removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. God is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Will you pray with me? Eternal God, bless us with wisdom and understanding; remind us that nothing prevents us from knowing your love except our own fears and doubts. Give us grace to recognise our roots in you, the vine of truth. May we drink deep of the cup of your love, in this hour and in every hour to come . Amen.

It is ironic that this reading from Acts is the prescribed lectionary reading for today. The US United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, and the denomination in which I grew up, was trained, and hoped to be ordained, but was forced to leave—last week at their General Conference of churches from around the world voted to retain language in their Book of Discipline which states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and doctrine.” This breaks my heart. There is so much good in this denomination, so many friends and cherished colleagues and teachers and mentors; and yet the denomination is mired in the past. It must also be pointed out that most of the votes to retain that language came from non-US clergy, the majority of them from the continent of Africa—the struggle again homophobia continues there, against daunting odds. And there’s another irony, that the reading today is about an Ethiopian eunuch.

Indeed--here in the book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible we share with the United Methodists—with all Christians—is a eunuch, a Gentile—that is, non-Jewish—eunuch at that, asking to be baptised by the Apostle Philip. This is pretty astonishing for several reasons. First of all, in the Hebrew Bible, the Original Testament, in the book of Deuteronomy, there is an emphasis on perfection—only animals without blemishes are to be sacrificed, and only men without bodily blemishes are to serve God or to enter the inmost part of the Temple. Therefore, eunuchs—males who have no testicles—are considered ineligible to be part of Temple worship. In a society that emphasized the pre-eminence of masculinity and paternity and the importance of descendents, a male who did not or could not reproduce was seen as flawed. So this eunuch—who, by the way, had probably been operated on as a child, in order that he might better serve royalty, because he would not have the temptation to promote his children—specifically sons—but would do what was best for the ruler. So he was seen as flawed by traditional Jews. And then he was Ethiopian—therefore, not descended from one of the tribes of Israel, therefore not seen as truly Jewish, no matter how much or how well he read the law and the prophets. A double outsider, then.

But—an educated and probably wealthy outsider. He could read—which was rare for anyone at that time—and by the way, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that people began reading silently to themselves, that’s why Philip can hear him reading. And he had a chariot and driver, and the leisure time to make a long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem.

He’s reading the book of Isaiah, a passage from one of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, as those sections of Isaiah are known, which Christians have always applied to Jesus. But I think here the eunuch could have seen this as applying to himself as well—something had been done to him which prevented him from worshipping God as he felt called to do. He had just come from Jerusalem, from the temple, where it must have come home to him in a very immediate way that he was not welcome there as a worshipper—a foreign eunuch.

And then Philip comes along and strikes up a conversation, a literary, scriptural conversation. And in that conversation, Philip shares with him the Good News about Jesus, who did not bar anyone from coming to him—social outcasts, the poor, the sick, the wealthy, children…anyone who sought Jesus was welcomed.

I can almost see it. The eunuch, who had felt he was not wanted by this faith community to which he was drawn, suddenly sees there might be a place for him after all. But he’s been hurt before, and so he asks tentatively, “What is to prevent me from being baptised?”

And Philip says, “Nothing at all.”

And together they go into the water.

Let’s look at Philip for a moment. He’s clearly a good evangelist—he knows how to meet someone where they are, how to speak to their need, to show them the way out of frustration and despair—or simply out of that sense of being left out, unwanted, unknown. Philip sees the Ethiopian man as he is—not as a foreigner, not as a eunuch, not as an outsider—but as another human being, on a quest for truth and a new life. And Philip gives him that hope, that new life. He sets no restrictions on him—no classes to take, no special experience of the Holy Spirit, no need for follow-up. The man asks, Philip gives. How gracious, in the original meaning of the word—gift-giving, generous—Philip is!

Philip took it seriously, that command of Jesus to proclaim the gospel to all nations. He spoke to the eunuch “where he was;” he recognised that this man knew something of God already, and so Philip started from where the other man was, and shared the Good News.  It changed him—it had to made a difference to Philip, too, that the man from Ethiopia understood what Philip was teaching him and wanted to commit his life to Christ, in spite of the fact that he was not Jewish, was seen as an outsider. It is in sharing our faith, our trust in God, that our faith is strengthened—in sharing God’s love, our sense of that love is expanded and made more powerful. Philip was changed as much as the man he baptised. For both of them, the experience marked a change in their lives of faith.

Philip has received love and grace from the vine of which he is a branch, and he passes it on to the one he meets. Like Philip, we Christians aren’t the vines—we are the branches. We are rooted in Christ, our vine.

This week we are all about transgressing boundaries—of insider and outsider, of law and spirit, of grace, of hope, even of gender. Like a vine that has grown over and outside of a garden wall, refusing to be contained, spreading riotously through its branches, bearing its fruit inside and outside those boundaries, so is Christ and Christ’s love. Refusing to be limited by death, Christ rose; refusing to be limited by space or time, Christ’s followers have spread over all the earth, passing on the message of love and forgiveness for all, for freedom from death, for Christ’s companionship and grace through suffering and loneliness. Refusing to be bound by a limited understanding of God’s grace, Philip baptises and brings into God’s house the Ethiopian eunuch.

When we talk about God’s boundless love, this, my friends is what we mean. Rooted in the vine of God’s care for all creation, we, the branches, spread over all the earth, beyond all bounds, to share the Good News of God’s love for all that God created and called good. We are changed as we understand how fully God loves all people, all creatures. It widens our hearts. Christianity is not a solitary religion; it is lived and believed as part of a community. We believe, we do. We.

When we begin drawing circles about who God loves—not this person, not that person, not that group—we limit God, we deny God’s love for all that God created. Over the centuries, the Christian church has realised this—the circles have been made wider and more open. At first, the church was a sect within Judaism; then it became its own faith tradition, but open mainly to free men; then to all humans to be members, but still, only legitimate adult males could be leaders and they had to be unmarried. Then the church changed again—opening the circle—and married men and those whose parents were not married could lead. Then women became ordained leaders, and men of all races and ethnicities. Now we stand at the threshold of the last widening of that circle—inclusion of sexual and gender minorities. You know, the church could have saved a lot of time and anguish and pain if they had simply looked at this first recorded example of evangelism—to a person who was part of a gender minority, which did not hinder him from baptism, or leadership in the Ethiopian church. 

This opening, widening, branching, does not mean we lose sight of whose we are. We remain connected, attached, to Christ. The Greek word used in this reading, meno, from which we get our English word “remain,” translates as “stay,
live, dwell; last, endure, continue."  We remain part of Christ when we share that good news—we bear fruit as the branches do, but we cannot do it without the vital sap of the branch running through us.

With the love of Christ in our hearts, our veins, we reach out to anyone who needs to hear our good news of love and redemption and resurrection, we break barriers and boundaries down—whether of tradition, custom, fear, or ignorance—in order to spread our branches of God’s love around the world and beyond.

Sharing God’s love stretches us, makes us grow, until in time to come, we will break down all the barriers that oppose us. God’s love changes us every time we share it, every time we see again the power of God’s love to make all things new, to bring new life to that which was thought to be dead, inert, useless, or even evil.  For Christ is the vine, full of the sap of God’s love; we are the branches, bearing the fruit of that love in the testimony of our lives to those who do not believe that God can love them.

Go, and bear much fruit in the name of our true vine, Jesus the Christ.

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...