For the love of God

Audio from this morning’s sermon

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Year A Proper 25: For the love of God

This post has been updated to reflect the version preached at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, October 26th.

Which commandment is the greatest? they asked. It is not, in fact, a difficult question. How else can you even imagine Jesus answering? The first commandment is based in the simple statement delivered through Moses: “I am the Lord your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind and there will be no room for other gods.

Moses goes on to interpret the Law to the people:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

The first commandment, the greatest commandment, can be a little hard to grasp. Literally. We can’t grasp God. We can’t wrap our arms around God, we can’t even wrap our heads around God; how, then, are we to wrap our hearts, our souls, our strength around God?

Yet God, in all love, commands nothing less.  You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.

How often do we really find ourselves just loving God? We spend a whole lot of time and energy and prayer breath blaming God and berating God, bargaining and bartering with God. We can get up a whole head of steam second-guessing God and stressing over God. How often do we give God the benefit of the doubt, let God be God, and let the love flow?

Barbara Brown Taylor describes, at the end of the day, giving God a peck on the cheek, while she was “drying up inside for want of making love.”[i]

That’s why it starts with loving God; because a loving God, the God who loves us knows that without that loving relationship, we are lost, adrift, alone.

Love that isn’t fed fades.

The first and the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of your heart and soul, your mind and strength. And the second is like it. The second is like loving God. Loving our neighbour is like loving God because each of them, all of them, whether we like them or not, is made in the image of God.

That’s why loving God comes first. Because if we’re stuck on blaming and bargaining, berating and bartering, second-guessing and stressing over God, we will do the same to one another, those ones made in the image of God, the ones we can see, and wrap our arms around, or push away; wrap our hearts around, or freeze out.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “You have never talked to a mere mortal… It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”[ii] It is through loving the holy, living, immortal God that we learn how to love our holy, living, immortal neighbour. The danger of neglecting the first commandment is that we forget to love our neighbours and ourselves.

Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, began every interpretation of each of the Ten Commandments with, “We should fear and love God [so] that…” So the fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill. What does this mean?” asks the catechumen. “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbour in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.”[iii] For the love of God, we should not hurt or harm but befriend our neighbour, that one made in the image of God.

And that should be the end of it. Love one another, for the love of God. Except for this:

We need to make room in our lives for loving God, or else the space will be filled with everything else that should come second, even with things that should come last: we need to make room in our lives to love God first. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind: there should be no room for other gods.

Jesus tells his disciples elsewhere, regarding children, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!” (Matthew 18:5-7)

We are failing our children, we are causing them to stumble and fall. We are causing them to stumble and fall through our addiction to violence and our idolatry of weaponry, laying our fear of God on our guns, the things that should come last coming too often first to hand.

I am sick of preaching Sundays after school shootings; that shouldn’t even be a turn of phrase, but it is all too familiar. SWAT teams practice “active shooter” drills in our school buildings over the vacations. Every school has a plan in place. I don’t know a single teenager who hasn’t heard threats to their school, their community. I don’t know a teacher who hasn’t wondered what they would do.

The boy who ended up on the wrong end of that gun on Friday, who killed one, hurt others, dealt incalculable harm to his community, and then killed himself; so much grief: he, and his victims, and their loved ones, and their teachers and helpers all bore, all bear the image of God. And now, that image has been bloodied once more.

Whoever places a stumbling block before a child, it would be better for him to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Our idolatry of readily available weaponry is, our love of guns is, I am afraid, the stumbling block we set in the paths of our children. For the love of God, we need to do better. Whether through self-regulation or legislation, we need to do better. For the love of God.

“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.”

Loving God can be as easy as breathing, for, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Loving God can be as easy as letting the Spirit breathe for us.

Loving God can be as hard as holding the hand of grief, as forgiving the one who hurts and harms; as tricky as loving ourselves and our neighbours, those made in the image of God, and doing something about it, something to keep the blood from staining those images. It can be hard. But for the love of God, remembering whose image we bear, who loves us and forgives us all, we have to try.

I found this prayer by Malcolm Boyd, to which I’ve made a few personal additions:

  • God:
  • Take fire and burn away our guilt and our lying hypocrises.
  • Take water and wash away our brothers’ [and our sisters’] blood which we have caused to be shed.
  • Take hot sunlight and dry the tears of those we have hurt, and heal their wounded souls, minds, and bodies.
  • Take love and root it in our hearts, so that brotherhood [and sisterhood] may grow, transforming the dry desert of our prejudices and hatreds.
  • Take our imperfect prayers and purify them, so that we mean what we pray and are prepared to give ourselves to you along with our words, through Jesus Christ, who did not disdain to take our humanness upon him and live among us, sharing our life, our joys, and our pains. [for loving hearts are broken until they rest in you*] [iv]

 

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: a memoir of faith (HarperCollins, 2006), 99

[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (HarperCollins edn, 2001), 46

[iii] Luther’s Small Catechism, annotated by Edward W. A. Koehler (Concordia Publishing House, 1971), 75

[iv] “Prayer of repentance” from Are You Running With Me, Jesus? – Prayers by Malcolm Boyd (Avon Books, 1965), 138 [with the preacher’s additions] *after St Augustine

 

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Year A Proper 24: the stewardship sermon

The question about taxes, and rendering unto Caesar, led into a sermon with time for pew-talk. The outline / framework went something like this:

Jesus does a really nice politician’s job of handing the question back to the Pharisees and the Herodians and asking them, “What do you think? Where do your priorities lie? What do you think of Caesar? What do you Herodians think of the puppet kingdom of Judea? Where do you think God is in all of this, and just how do you reconcile it all?”

Because whether or not Caesar’s head is on the coin, all things come of God. Even Caesar bears the image of God, when you think about it.

Jesus invites his inquisitors to think more deeply about their own relationship with money, power, and the economy of Creation.

We’re going to do a bit of the same this morning. I’m going to ask you to reflect on your relationship with money, its power, and the economy of grace. First, I’m going to tell you a personal story about how I relate to taxes.

My Granny Lyle lived and died in her little council house in the northeast of England. She left school at fourteen and went “into service” in the local doctor’s house – think the little maids in Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, on a much smaller scale. Once she married, of course, she had to move out and in with her husband, a working man in the local industry. They raised two children, and she was widowed the minute the younger married and moved out herself. I knew Granny Lyle only as a widow, living in her government-provided house, on her widow’s pension, with her little dog and her budgerigar. As she aged, she became less and less able to breathe: “Puffing Billy,” she called herself. When she died, she left her funeral paid for, and fifty pounds for each of her four grandchildren, her life savings. My father and uncle burned her few sticks of furniture out in the back yard – there was nothing worth keeping – and the dog went to live with a neighbour.

When I paid my taxes and my rates, I knew that Granny Lyle could pay her heating bill, receive free hospital care, feed the dog. Such stories, for good or ill, are what form our attitude to the way in which money supports us in our communal life. Of course, I have the advantage of having lived only in democratic societies where I have at least some mechanism for influencing the way in which my taxes are spent – the vote – but I also have a vivid and affectionate picture of how one who raised me up can be sustained by my turnabout.

So much for Caesar. What about rendering unto God that which belongs to God?

Of course, the short answer to what belongs to God is everything, even Caesar; so again, Jesus is inviting his audience to think a little more deeply, consider their relationship to God, and to “everything.”

This is where it gets a little squirrelly in churches, especially around stewardship time. Because we know that the church is not God, and rendering unto the church does not necessarily equate rendering unto God; in fact, paying for Granny Lyle’s council house in the name of neighbourly love may be just as good and godly a thing as signing a pledge card. Still, the church is one mechanism for returning our gifts to God in worship, in community outreach, and in the hope of a future that brings heaven a little closer to earth.

I’m going to tell you an even more personal story, which explains a little of how I relate to the church.

When I was born, and my mother and I left the hospital for the first time, I was given into the arms of a social worker from the Church of England Children’s Society, who took me to a foster family, and it was that agency which, over the next weeks and months, arranged my adoption by another family, who gave me my name and the history that I have now. [By the way, they were also marvellous to both my birth mother and me when they helped us to reconnect, happily and affectionately, twenty-nine years later. We keep in touch with a lot of help from facebook!]

Again, our stories guide our giving, our receiving, our understanding of what is mine, what is yours, what is ours, what is God’s.

I invite you specifically in your prayer this week to consider the stories that you were told or that you have told yourself about money: to give thanks where you can; to ask forgiveness if it is needed; to request guidance or comfort if it’s all just too confusing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Love you to death

Flashback: That week, everyone spoke in sympathetic soft, tilted voices. In a grim comedy, I parrotted their corporate condolences, squawking them directly into my father’s hearing aid.

The funeral director was trying coyly to explain the need for a high-necked outfit: the small incision to the throat which would permit the embalmer’s art. As she spoke, she shuffled papers nervously, until her eye fell on the death certificate: septicaemia. “Never mind,” she said.

“What do you mean, we can’t touch her?” asked my bewildered father. No, not us. Them. No embalming. Public health dictates that septic bodies be left intact. As she died, my mother would continue in her death, her body left to nature’s devices and decay.

The last time I saw her living, I peeled off my gloves to soothe her brow, pulled off my mask to kiss her cheek. Rolled up the gown on my way off the ward, washed my hands and hoped.

I can barely imagine doing otherwise, God forgive me. God help us.

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Render

A silhouette
against my eyelids,
black on red;
a name beaten out
by my heart’s tattoo;
the claim that staked me
through and through;
I render unto,
surrender unto -
whose image and
title is this?

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Year A Proper 23: come to the feast

There have been two weddings in this church in the past ten days, and three within three months. Each was its own blend of nervousness, family friendship, family friction, love, hope, and joy. Each of them was noticeable, in the end, for its joy – never but at a wedding do you see so many people smiling from ear to ear from the first note of the prelude to the dying note of the postlude.

Not everyone remembers to smile. Over the past few months, I have heard and read more times than I can remember the sentiment of my clergy colleagues who “would rather do ten funerals than a wedding.” I wrote a blog post on it a week or so ago, frustrated by our apparent ability, facility, even talent for denying ourselves joy, for shutting ourselves out of the feast, those of us who really should know better. After all, if we do not believe that love is a good thing, that family is a God thing, that relationship is the work of the Holy Spirit, why are we in this business in the first place?

“Rejoice!” says the letter to the Philippians. “Again I say, rejoice!” Hold onto whatever is true and pleasing and excellent. Let those things fill you with joy. Rejoice.

The Bible – actually the Bible doesn’t have a great track record on preaching marital joy. From the squabbling and blame games of Adam and Eve to the curmudgeonly instructions of the bachelor Paul – marry only if you have to; better to marry than to burn, at least – with trickery and adultery and polygamy and political matches, the Bible is hardly naïve about the nature of our attempts to make of one flesh two whole, individual, independent people.

[It is also, let’s just be clear for a moment, entirely inconsistent about who should be permitted to marry whom, so that when the politicians and pundits feed us lines about biblical marriage, we should be tasting the distinct flavour of red herring.]

So the Bible doesn’t view marriage through rose-tinted glasses, but it does celebrate it. At the wedding in Cana, despite arguing with his mother, Jesus did supply enough wine to keep the party flowing. The one guest, out of the good and bad gathered from the sides of the streets, thrown out of this wedding, in this parable, was the one unprepared to celebrate, to rejoice; the one unwilling to acknowledge the joy of another, the joy all around him. He was thrown out to wail and weep with the other misery guts, so as not to bring the whole party down.

A few years ago, before I was ordained, I assisted at a funeral followed by a wedding for one family in one week. It was hard, on everyone. And yet when the day of the wedding dawned, even the widow set aside her grief and her widow’s weeds and dressed up instead in the outfit she’d planned to dance in at the wedding of her son, and everyone smiled to see the young couple make their vows, those ridiculous, marvelously, gospelly, naïve promises to love one another for a lifetime when none of us knows even what tomorrow will bring. Everyone rejoiced, even through tears, to see the celebration, to participate in the start of something new and blessed by God, something loving, something true.

The Lord God will destroy the shroud and the winding sheet; God will swallow up death forever. Instead, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast, a banquet. This is the Lord for whom we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation,

says the prophet.

Rejoice. Again I say, rejoice. Hold onto whatever is true, and whatever is pleasing, and whatever is excellent. Let those things fill you with joy. Rejoice.

There is plenty in this world that threatens to rob us of the joy that God intends for us. We know all about disease and suffering and death and war. We know about racism and sexism and Islamophobia and homophobia. We know about selfish, petty people and we know about divisive politics. We know violence and we know hunger and we know all too much about all too many things that threaten to rob us of the joy that God intends for us.  We do not need to rob ourselves of joy that is offered to us on a plate full of wedding cake. We do not need to deny the joy of others. That is too easy. Rejoice, says the epistle. Again I say, rejoice.

A friend reminded me this week of the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness, she said, comes from happenstance; stuff that happens. It is irregular, it is conditional, it is unpredictable.

Joy does not depend upon circumstances so much as on decisions. We can choose to be joyful even in the face of fearful things. (That is not to say that we always can choose joy, on command, on demand. We are prone to suffering, and when it takes us by surprise, or it wears us down with its persistence, it can take an effort and it can take time to return to joy.)

But joy depends less on happenstance than on the knowledge that whatever happens, God is with us. Joy is a choice. The choice to rejoice. To hold on to whatever is true, honourable, pure, just, pleasing, commendable, excellent; those things that speak to us of God, and communicate the joy with which God made us and invites us and blesses us. The joy which God promises us, after death has been destroyed, even in the midst of life.

And here is the promise of that joy, that feast, to which all are invited, the good and the bad found along the roadside, you and I, and the only wedding garment with which we are ordered to adorn ourselves our grateful hearts, and the joy that comes from within.

In the older versions of our prayerbook, there was an exhortation for the priest to use when giving notice of Communion and inviting the parish to its celebration:

Dearly beloved brethren, on — I intend, by God’s grace, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: unto which, in God’s behalf, I bid you all who are here present; and beseech you, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, that ye will not refuse to come thereto, being so lovingly called and bidden by God himself. Ye know how grievous and unkind a thing it is, when a man hath prepared a rich feast, decked his table with all kind of provision, so that there lacketh nothing but the guests to sit down; and yet they who are called (without any cause) most unthankfully refuse to come. Which of you in such a case would not be moved? Who would not think a great injury and wrong done unto him? Wherefore, most dearly beloved in Christ, take ye good heed, lest ye, withdrawing  yourselves from this holy Supper, provoke God’s indignation against you.

It is an easy matter for a man to say I will not communicate  because I am otherwise hindered with worldly business. But such  excuses are not so easily accepted and allowed before God. If any man say, I am a grievous sinner and therefore am afraid to come; wherefore then do ye not repent and amend? When God calleth you are ye not ashamed to say ye will not come? When ye should return to God, will ye excuse yourselves, and say ye are not ready? Consider earnestly with yourselves how little such feigned excuses will avail before God.

Those who refused the feast in the Gospel, because they had bought a farm, or would try their yokes of oxen, or because they were  married, were not so excused, but counted unworthy of the heavenly feast. Wherefore according to mine Office, I bid you in the Name of God, I call you in Christ’s behalf, I exhort you, as ye love your own salvation that ye will be partakers of this Holy Communion.

Rejoice always; again I say, rejoice. Come then, let us keep the feast.

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an-oblation

full or smashed empty,

spilt or splinted, say that I

am; or you are not

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