Sermon for 10.16.16

Scriptures for today are Here.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature this week – a surprise, unconventional win. Hearing about his win reminded me of a cell phone I had years ago, back when they first let you choose a song for your ringtone instead of just a ringing sound. On my phone, there were about 10 songs to choose from, and being a priest, I thought it was funny to choose Dylan’s song, “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” To be honest, like a lot of Dylan songs, I actually have no idea what that song is about. But what it reminded me of was one of my ordination vows – all Episcopal priests take a vow to “persevere in prayer.” And that song has always reminded me of the poor widow in this parable in today’s gospel, banging on the door of the unjust judge, demanding justice till she got it. When I vowed to persevere in prayer, I believed that’s what I was vowing to do – to bang on God’s door without relenting, praying without ceasing, asking and demanding and challenging God to bring justice and healing to this world.

But I’m not sure about that any more. Because there are some odd things about this parable, and for me it takes some work to understand it. Here is an unjust judge, who neither fears God nor respects anyone else. Lacking love of God and love of neighbor, which Jesus says are the two great commandments all of us should follow, the natural result plays out in his treatment of others and his abuse of power in this world. This judge has no interest in granting justice. He’s in it for himself. He doesn’t care about whatever request the widow is bringing before him.

Which is a real problem in the Bible, because all through the Bible, both Old & New Testaments, but especially in the gospel of Luke – widows are code for the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable and the most defenseless people there are. And therefore, for the Bible, widows and the other two classes of people often named alongside them – orphans and aliens – are the most to be protected, the most to be helped and supported. Because in the upside-down land of the Kingdom of God, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The Bible says so over and over.

Another thing to understand is what “justice” means in the Bible – not what we often mean, which is punishing the guilty – but something more like fairness, like building a world where everyone can live with abundance and no one is poor or oppressed or lives without respect or regard for their needs. That’s what Jesus describes when he talks about the Kingdom of God – a world of perfect justice. Jesus’ message seems to be clear – for this poor widow demanding justice, it is her persistence that gets her case finally heard. The judge says, in our English translation that we heard today, “Because this woman keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice.” Literally, in Greek, she’s not just bothering him, she’s giving him a black eye – hurting him personally and professionally, ruining his reputation, embarrassing him in front of others. So to protect himself, he finally gives in to her demands.

So – Is this how we’re supposed to act toward God? Is God an unjust judge who can’t be bothered to listen to us unless we get so embarrassing that God finally has to send us away? Is God like an inattentive parent who finally gives the kid a cookie just to make him be quiet?

Well, no – the argument isn’t that God is like that – the argument Jesus makes here is, if the unjust judge could finally grant justice, how much MORE would God, who is NOT an unjust judge, grant justice to God’s children, whom he loves and cares about? If we read this parable as an analogy, then God is the just judge who will listen to all the unfortunate widows who come before him demanding justice. Our persistence in prayer will mean that God will listen to us.

Well, but immediately some problems present themselves. Doesn’t God already know about whatever problem we’re bringing before him? Isn’t God motivated to love and grant justice to God’s beloved children, with or without our persistence? Is prayer some sort of test, where if you do it enough, you ace the quiz and get an A?

And furthermore, no matter how much we pray, isn’t there an incredible amount of suffering and injustice in the world that hasn’t yet been relieved? Isn’t God supposed to care about every sparrow and every grain of sand (another Dylan song, but Dylan is quoting the Bible)? What’s God up to, up there? Why isn’t God listening to all our prayers? And what does prayer accomplish, anyway?

I was listening to an interesting interview on NPR the other day that helped me. (Unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the interviewee, so I can’t give proper credit.) The interviewee was a psychologist, a family counselor, who said that during this election season, he has seen a noticeable increase in unhealthy, hateful, angry, immature behavior between married couples. The interviewer said, you mean when couples disagree on the election? The psychologist said no, they may be in absolute agreement on the election and the candidates – and it makes no difference which candidate they’re supporting. The problem is that this election has made a lot of people angry at whichever candidate they’re not voting for, or some issue, or some group of people, and so people on both sides of the election are carrying around a low level of anger.

In the same way, if something happens at work that makes you angry, or on the way home someone cuts you off in traffic and you’re still on edge about it when you get home, you are more likely to snap at the kids, or the dog. He says the same thing happens if you’re driving, and either you hear some news on the radio that gets you riled up, or you are listening to a song you love and you start singing along at the top of your voice. Then suddenly you look down and realize you’re going 15 mph faster than you should, or you find you’re tailgating the car in front of you. That’s because the excitement of the song or bad news or whatever got your heart beating faster and your muscles tensed up, and it moved you from adult brain into your emotional brain. And when you are in your emotional brain, you react to things emotionally, you lose some of your adult judgment, you start tailgating or you snap at the kids or you have blaming, angry, emotional arguments with your spouse. He says that low level of anger many people are carrying around has caused them unconsciously to lash out at people around them in immature ways.

The interviewer asked, how do you correct this if you realize it’s happening to you? The psychologist said, you have to consciously move yourself from your emotional brain into your adult brain. Your adult brain is where you act in mature ways. Where you control your emotions, where you keep your anger where it belongs and don’t direct it at your spouse and kids, where you move into the area of nuanced understanding and mature judgment and values. So how do you lift yourself into your adult brain? He says you do it by thinking about your values, by making plans, by thinking about things in complex ways, by asking yourself, this thing I’m angry about, what can I do personally to make this better?

Which brings me back to prayer. That, I think, is exactly what prayer does for us. Prayer lifts us away from our emotional brains into the realm of values, of nuanced judgments, of caring about our neighbors and loving God – the exact things the unjust judge was unable to do. Prayer connects us with something greater than ourselves; prayer requires us to think about what God wants from us and not just what we want from God. Prayer reminds us of God’s demands for justice and compassion.

Prayer changes us. As Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace, “…prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you cannot imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been.” Or, as Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistence in prayer is a key, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there’s no way of [God] getting to your door.”

Which is maybe reversal of everything we think about prayer: maybe prayer is not a matter of us knock, knock, knocking on God’s door – maybe prayer is a matter of opening the door to the God who is always knock, knock, knocking at our door. Maybe God is the one banging on our doors, demanding to be allowed in.

Maybe God is actually the poor widow coming to us continually, demanding justice. It’s not out of reach to believe it. We do tend to automatically put God in the “powerful” slot in these parables, and read them allegorically so that we think God must be the judge. But remember that God is the one who came to us in Jesus, a poor peasant in an insignificant country who was incredibly vulnerable to the unjust powers of this world from the day he was born, who was ultimately given a humiliating and painful slave’s death on a cross.

So maybe this parable means the opposite of what we think it means – maybe God is the poor widow and we’re the unjust judge, and God is banging at the door of this unjust world and asking us to take action to help the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, those without power.

Years ago, I remember seeing a cartoon: a man is praying to God about the world’s suffering, begging God to do something, saying, God, why haven’t you acted? God replies, that’s funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing.

So maybe we should read this parable in both ways. Yes, we should pray because God will hear. And yes, Jesus is telling us to persevere in prayer because that is what opens our minds and hearts to God’s action in our lives. Prayer is what takes us into the higher parts of our brains and our hearts, taking away our fear and anger, our tendency to lash out at those we love when we’re upset, helping us live with calm and compassion and love. As we pray, as we continually open our hearts to our God, we open a pathway for God to come to us: Knock, knock, knocking at our doors, asking us for justice, and giving us strength not only to love our neighbors, but to bring justice to this world, so that we and all our neighbors can live with abundance.

Putting our Trust in God, Not Money

The Acts 8 Movement is asking this week: How has financial giving affected your spiritual life?

Well – I want to share with you a small miracle story. It may not sound like a miracle to you, but it changed my life and my husband’s, and showed us the power of trusting in God.

Before I was a priest, I worked for ten years as a CPA. Tom was also a financial professional – an actuary. Between the two of us, we had loads of financial savvy, and as rising young professionals, we had a nice house in the suburbs of Houston, two very young children, and bright futures ahead of us. What we didn’t have was much in the way of churchiness. We’d had our children baptized, we drifted into a church in Houston from time to time, but you couldn’t call us committed Christians. We certainly didn’t give any money to the church – we figured that was a job for the older, richer people in the congregation.

All that changed when we moved to Arizona. My husband was offered a transfer for no additional salary, but a good upside potential, so I quit my well-paying CPA job, decided to stay home with the kids for a couple of years, and we settled in for life in somewhat reduced circumstances. We bought a house in Arizona and put our house in Houston up for sale.

What we didn’t anticipate was that the Houston house would take so long to sell. We loved our house and assumed everyone else would, too. But apparently they didn’t. The house sat, and sat, and sat. In the meantime, we were living on one salary, making two house payments, and watching our savings dwindle away to nothing.

But in Arizona we joined a church. Not because we got any more religious when we crossed the state line, but because I figured after leaving all our family and friends behind, the church was where I would be able to meet some people. You know, if you show up there, they have to let you in. And we did meet people – a wonderful group of families our age who became like family to us. Because they were involved in the church, we got involved in the church – which led us to God, and eventually led me to become a priest, but that’s another story.

This story is about financial giving. And the thing was, this church that we loved was doing a big capital campaign. But we couldn’t give a dime, to that or to the regular operating fund, because we were strained to the breaking point and watching our savings dwindle away. The leaders would do appeals, and we would just shake our heads sadly, because we just couldn’t afford to give, not with first one offer on the Houston house falling through, and then another, while our bank balance melted away toward zero.

One day, as we heard another appeal in church, Tom and I looked at each other, and said in unison, “It’s time.” We got out the checkbook and wrote a check to the church from our savings account, equal to one house payment on the Houston house. We were one month closer to zero on that savings account.

There was a church picnic that day, so we didn’t get home till about 2:00. In those quaint old days before cell phones, as we walked into the house, trailing our hot, tired children, the phone was ringing. It was an offer on the Houston house. It was a better offer than either of the others, and this one stuck – the house sold, and we were able to get back on our feet.

That may not seem like a miracle story to you, but it did to us. Because we were savvy financial professionals, and we knew it made no sense to contribute money to the church when we were struggling financially. We knew that our job was to conserve our cash, and save for our children’s education, and put away something for retirement – not foolishly give to God’s mission in this church that had come to mean so much to us.

Giving to the church would make no sense. But we did it anyway. And we were blessed. I know this story might sound like “prosperity gospel” theology, where contributing money to the church gives you even more money in return. And I don’t by any means think that happens to everyone, nor do I think that God’s rewards usually come in the form of riches.

But the thing is, for us, sitting there in church, we heard the voice of God at the same time, calling us to do this absurd thing. And God showed us that he was there, blessing us right through it. In fact, in writing that check, we made the decision that our money was not going to be our savior. Against all our training, against all our professional backgrounds, against common sense, we determined that we would put our trust in God instead. And we’ve never looked back.

Every year since then, we’ve increased our giving. Every year, we’ve given out of prayer and thanksgiving and faith in the God who has given us everything we have. Every year, we have found our giving to be joyful. Every year, we have had more than enough to meet our own needs, and make generous gifts outside the church as well. Every year, we have put our trust in God just a bit more.

You see, in our rational, capitalistic world, we Americans are trained to think that our achievements bring us money, and our money will save us. In my Christian faith, I’ve found the opposite. Christ will save us, and it’s our willingness to accept his love that brings us wholeness, and faith, and salvation, and the joy of giving for the sake of Christ’s mission in this world.


Sermon for 9.4.16

Scriptures for today are Here.

I believe it was the great preacher and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor who said, “After reading a great deal about Jesus, I have come to the conclusion that he would not have made a very good parish priest.”

After all, it’s my job to convince you how great it is to be part of this church and part of the Christian faith – we’re warm and friendly! We have great music! Our Sunday school programs are terrific! You’ll love it! You’ll benefit from being a part of it! Whereas if today’s gospel is any indication, Jesus apparently made strong efforts to scare as many people as possible away. Today, he’s not talking about the benefits of discipleship, but about the costs.

Of course, the benefits of being a disciple are eternal and infinite – elsewhere Jesus says things like “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” And, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” In Christ, we have conquered death and we have the promise of life eternal.

But what’s this all about in the gospel today? I mean – hate your father and mother? Go around carrying a cross – which would not be at all metaphorical for the people listening to Jesus – it was an instrument of torture and execution? Give away all your possessions? Raise your hand if you’ve done all 3 of those things! No? Me neither! Somehow this Christianity stuff suddenly doesn’t look very attractive.

So what’s going on here? Well, first of all, this gospel certainly points to the danger of proof-texting: that is, taking one verse or one passage of the Bible, quoting it to other people, and treating it as an immutable and eternal rule for life. People love to do that, either to bludgeon other people who they believe aren’t following the right rules, or to argue that Christian faith is crazy. Jesus says hate your father and mother! Sorry kids, that’s the rule!

The fact is, you can’t understand a passage of the Bible out of context – you need to look at the whole body of Scripture to be able to understand what it’s saying. Jesus said plenty of things to contradict these sayings today – he said, for instance, that the gospel is all about love – Christians aren’t supposed to treat other people with hatred.

To understand what he’s talking about, you need to understand something about the language he is using and something about the context of this story. So first of all, the language – Jesus spoke in Aramaic, a Semitic dialect similar to Hebrew, but the gospel writers wrote it down in Greek, and we have it translated into English. All of these translations involve making decisions about what words to use, words that might not carry the same ideas in the different languages and cultures you’re dealing with. In Aramaic, when Jesus talks about hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself – he is setting up a contrast with what he wants us to understand is most important – being his disciple. He is saying you need to love all these people and things – because the gospel is all about love – he has said that plenty of times – but love them less than him.

Our lives are intended to be oriented completely toward the God of love. When they are oriented toward the God of love, as our first priority, the love we give to other people naturally flows out of the love we share with God. Loving God comes first – all the other loves in our lives come second.

Second – this passage shows us Jesus talking about the costs of discipleship. He wants his followers to understand that the grace of God comes to us free, but not cheap. In the words of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life to oppose the Nazi regime, there’s no such thing as “cheap grace.” He said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness wo…repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Too often in the modern world, he believed, we accept the benefits of grace without thinking about the costs. The benefits are easy to see: a loving church community, healing, comfort, prayer, even social acceptance – eternal life, for God’s sake – but Bonhoeffer didn’t always see the grace of God changing people, making them anew.

If we’re honest about it, we are sometimes not all that different – we think a lot about the benefits of Christianity – a meaningful fellowship, eternal life. But it’s a bit harder to think about what that commitment might cost. Yes, the grace of God comes to us merely for the asking – we are saved by God’s grace before we ever earned it or deserved it – God gives us forgiveness we don’t deserve and eternal life we could never earn. But Jesus asks for commitment as our response to him – full-time commitment.

That’s because he’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will pick up his cross and carry it to his own place of death, and give his life so we can live. The closer he gets to Jerusalem, the more crowds gather around and follow along. They’re watching a spectacle like they’ve never seen before – people being healed from lifelong illnesses by his touch, people being fed by the thousands. As he marches toward Jerusalem, people are saying he’s the Messiah. Many of them probably think he’s going to Jerusalem to start a rebellion against the Romans, many of them hope for advancement and high positions in the new kingdom they think he’s going to set up. The disciples are actually arguing on the way about who will have the most power in his kingdom.

And in the middle of this circus, here is Jesus, knowing they have it all wrong. They’re talking about the benefits – he wants them to understand the cost. He knows that he is going to suffer, and he knows that many of them will too. And he is probably exasperated with the thrill-seeking crowds who act like they’re watching a three-ring circus. He wants them to come down off the bleachers and join in the action themselves. The cost will be different for each of them, Jesus says – but if they truly want to be his disciples, being a disciple has to be the most important thing in their lives. More important than family obligations, which were everything in that world. More important than possessions– the pursuit of wealth and advancement that we spend so much time on has to mean nothing compared to following Jesus. More important than life itself – for some of his followers, they literally will give their lives for their faith; for others, they will simply dedicate their lives to spreading the good news of Jesus and doing his ministry. For every single one, picking up their cross and carrying it will mean figuring out how to commit themselves deeply and completely to God’s kingdom.

And what does that mean for us? I think it means that for each one of us, we need to ask what carrying the cross is going to mean in our lives. What does the cross mean? Eternal life, the love of God brought to earth, freedom? How does that change us?

Following Jesus, if we do it right, should make big difference in how we live and act. What that difference is, each one of us is going to have to figure out. We’re going to live that commitment out in every single decision we make every single day. The author Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” The accumulation of a lifetime of decisions becomes the meaning of our life. What’s clear is that a true commitment to the cross and to becoming a disciple of Jesus will affect everything about how we live and work and make decisions and own property and care for the world around us.

For an example of the changes Jesus brings, look at our New Testament lesson – Paul’s letter to Philemon. What’s going on here? We have an entire letter from Paul to his friend Philemon, a Christian Paul is writing to from prison. Philemon is a wealthy property owner and he owns a slave named Onesimus. Strictly speaking, Onesimus isn’t a name, but a label – it means “useful.” But Onesimus is useless to Philemon right now, because he has run away from his owner and come to Paul. With Paul, he has become a Christian and like a son to Paul – and to Paul, he is very useful. Paul sends him back to Philemon with this letter begging Philemon to do the right thing. Either free Onesimus, or welcome him back as a brother instead of a slave, or send him back to Paul. It’s not clear exactly what Paul hopes will happen – but Paul wants Philemon, based on his newfound Christianity, to understand that the old categories of master and slave don’t apply any more. Onesimus is to be loved as a brother – which is what he is.

In other words, no matter what decision Philemon makes, his Christian faith has changed his life – has changed his treatment of what he would consider his property, has changed the ordinary decisions he makes as a citizen, has changed his relationships with the people around him. If followed through to natural conclusion of freeing not just Onesimus but all his slaves, his commitment to Jesus will change the very way he lives and does business.

Those same questions apply to us too. Following Jesus changes everything. It changes the decisions we make. It changes how we do business. It changes how we treat other people. It might require us, like Philemon, to look at other people we think of as lower class, different, not as deserving as we are, realizing they are brothers and sisters. It might require changes in how we use our possessions, how we live our commitment to love. Because if we are Christians, we are citizens of God’s kingdom first – citizens of every other kingdom and commitment second. Christian faith is not a Sunday commitment. It’s a full-time commitment to carry that cross all the time, to let it change our lives and our selves.

So for each of us, if we’re going to make a commitment to Jesus, we need to ask: What is that cross we need to pick up? What is that change we need to make? We need to look at what we say – are we building people up or tearing down? We need to look at how we do our work – are we operating with love and integrity, or are we thinking about gain and self-advancement? We need to look at how we love – because love is the meaning of the cross, and Jesus says, pick up your cross and follow me.

The costs are real, but the benefits are immeasurable – through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sermon for 6.19.16

Scriptures for today are Here

Today is Father’s Day, when we give thanks for the gift of fatherhood in all its forms. I’ve been blessed with two terrific fathers in my life: my own father and my husband, father of my children, and it’s one of the great joys of life to have watched these two wonderful men in action, and benefited from their love.

On Father’s Day we can remember that Jesus prayed to God as “Father.” Not because God is male in any way – Bible says God created human beings in God’s image, both male and female – God transcends gender categories. But because God as Father is a symbol, a way of describing God’s love for this world. And the family relationship we all establish with God at our baptism makes us all beloved, all one in the family of Jesus Christ. The symbolic Fatherhood of God gives us an example of the loving care we are called as Christians to offer in this world to make this world a stronger, better place.

But the world is not always a loving, caring, good place to be, is it? Our gospel today gives us one example of how we humans treat each other. Jesus and his disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Gerasenes, that is, non-Jewish people, Gentiles, outsiders. They get out of the boat in a foreign country on the other side of the sea. And they’re met by this wild man with no clothes, possessed by an unclean spirit or a “demon” – which is a category we modern people often don’t understand. The idea of demon possession indicates that the person’s behavior is not his natural way of being. Some outside force has caused him to be not himself, in a way that surrounds the person with evil, makes his life unbearable.

Whatever possessed the man, we would probably diagnose it as some sort of mental illness today; they diagnosed it as a spiritual illness back then – either way, it’s something that’s not his fault and he can’t control it. We can’t really say what exactly it was, but what we see in the gospel is that the people of his town absolutely don’t know what to do with him. We can imagine that they’ve focused a lot of time and attention on him because his behavior has been so troubling – we can imagine that his status at any given time has been talk of the town, that huge energy has gone into controlling him. They’ve tried chaining him up (an unhealthy and unloving response to a terrible situation), he breaks all the chains – he’s gone to live among the tombs, wearing no clothes. If he’s not actually dead, he’s dead to them. They’ve written him off as the ultimate outsider.

And from the point of view of these good Jewish disciples just arriving on a boat from across the sea, he’s unclean in every possible way –if they associate with him, they will be unclean too. He is unclean because he is a Gentile, he is unclean because he is possessed by an unclean spirit, he is unclean because he is living among the dead, he is unclean because he is living near a herd of pigs. He has been driven out of town by his own people, excluded and uncared for. He is an outsider among outsiders, a horrifying person for the disciples to meet.

The evil that surrounds him is not only his demon possession, but also the reaction of his family and friends to chain him, exclude him, drive him out. They have truly demonized him, and in a lot of ways you can’t blame them. They’re at their wits’ end, they have no idea what to do with this man.

But Jesus changes all that – he drives out the unclean spirit, whatever that is, he brings healing to the man, restores him to his right mind and his proper place. And the people of the town are terrified and ask Jesus to leave – not because of the loss of a valuable herd of pigs – but because Jesus has come in and upset their whole society. He has set a man free from his chains, he has made it necessary for the town to welcome back the outsider as one of them. They have to think up a whole new way to live with him now. Jesus has brought healing, but he has also brought crisis. Jesus has required not just this man, but the whole town, to reconcile and begin a new way of life.

Which is what Jesus always brings: healing, restoration, reconciliation, a new way of life, as we see in our New Testament reading today: Paul’s great declaration of freedom in Christ: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” There will be no demonizing, no outsiders, no subservience in the church of Jesus Christ.

Paul is dealing with a situation in the church in Galatia where people are pointing fingers and putting labels on each other – some people are arguing that only Jews can become Christians, others are saying that all are welcome. The argument comes down to whether the gospel depends on human categories, or whether Jesus calls us to break down barriers and welcome the outsider. Paul comes down forcefully on the side that says that all are welcome, there are no requirements except that a person be loved by God – which is all of us. He says Christ did not come to accentuate divisions that already exist between people, but to break them down.

He uses the picture of what happened at ancient Christian baptisms, when a person would come out of the water and be clothed in new white clothes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” You are a new person, he says, you have come into a new birth, the old labels and allegiances no longer apply. Jew or Greek, he says – racial divisions don’t matter; slave or free – who wants to hold you in captivity doesn’t matter; male and female – the gender roles that society might want to construct around you don’t matter. We could add, gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat. These things do not define us – what defines us is our relationship to Christ.

And that relationship is based on belovedness: we are loved. That love of Christ sets us free from all labels, free from all human divisions, free to come together with people we disagree with and work to make this world a better place, free to accept a new identity in Christ. In Christ, we are set free from the divisions of this world. In Christ, we come together as one.

Which is so very important for us to hear in this time of division and fear, isn’t it? It’s been a difficult week, here in America – if you’re like me, your heart has been broken by the news of another massacre, this time in a gay bar in Orlando. It’s not the first time a minority group has been targeted. It comes almost exactly a year after a massacre in which 9 African-Americans were killed inside their own church in Charleston, SC. We Christians grieve along with God’s children who were victims in these terrible events, and we open our hearts to the suffering of their loved ones.

But, like almost every time this happens, the country is convulsed with conflict once more about what to do to prevent such attacks in the future. This one had every kind of controversial element you could think of, it was a perfect storm of controversy: a Muslim claiming allegiance to ISIS, the victimization of gay people who are often targets in our society, the fact that most of the victims were also Latinos, a perpetrator who had abused his wife and was never prosecuted, the use of a type of semi-automatic weapon that has been controversial for years, the ongoing conflict between political parties that can’t seem to agree on anything, can’t even sit down and talk about solutions.

It’s the kind of event that can cause us to retreat into our separate political camps and all start arguing over where the blame really lies, while not taking action to prevent such crimes because we can’t agree on what to do. In the words of the Bible, we say, How long, O Lord? How long will events like this keep happening? How long will people keep hurting and dying because of the radical fringe actions of a few? How long until peace comes?

And yet at heart, there is so much we can agree on. All of us are frightened by the idea that some criminal or terrorist, possessed by a mental or spiritual illness, could take our lives, or the lives of people we love, at any time. All of us know the vulnerable, like people enjoying a night out in Orlando, or schoolchildren in Newtown, or people just going about lives in other places from Charleston to San Bernardino to Virginia Tech, should be protected so they can lead safe, happy lives.

We don’t know the solution right now, but we need to discover it together – pointing fingers at each other isn’t helping.

And what we do know is that 49 people should be waking up this morning and going about their lives, instead of dead for a week with their families collapsed in grief and planning their funerals.

What we do know is that nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, should be in church this morning.

What we do know is that 20 children and six teachers in Newtown should be spending this Father’s Day with their fathers, starting their summer vacations, with their parents worried about nothing more than how to keep their energetic spirits busy all summer.

What we do know is that 32 people at Virginia Tech should be graduating from college and thinking about how to start giving back to the world.

What we do know is that this world spends way too much time living among the tombs, surrounded by death.

When the will of God for our world is not death, but resurrection; not grief, but wholeness; not division, but reconciliation and restoration and healing and bringing people together as one.

What we know also is that Christian love and humility asks us not to demonize each other, not to drive each other out and exclude each other as not worth talking to, but to respect each other and learn from each other and act together with love and concern for the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Because Jesus came to heal divisions, to cast out demons, to overcome evil, to defeat death, to make this world into a better place.

So that this world, instead of a place of evil and death, can grow into a place of life and health, a world that reflects the love of God, our loving Parent. Amen.

Sermon for 4.17.16

Scriptures for today are here.

Long ago when Tom and I were first married at age 21, we lived in a tiny apartment in Houston. Our apartment was on the second floor and we had a lovely view out our bedroom window: we looked out on the parking lot, down below, and beyond the parking lot, a very busy, noisy freeway. One day there was a knock on our door (back in the days when people used to answer their doors and their phones, you might remember those days), and so we answered the door.

It was a person working for the campaign of a candidate for mayor. This was a candidate we had heard of, and generally felt positive about, though we paid very little attention to Houston politics. But since we liked the candidate, when the campaign worker asked if we would put a small sign supporting her in the window of our apartment so that people driving by on the freeway would see it, we said sure, why not. And we put the little sign there. And somehow the fact that we had a sign supporting this mayoral candidate made us stronger supporters. I remember voting for her, and following her career, and supporting her in her re-election campaign, and being disappointed when she retired.

Studies say this happens frequently – that if a person puts a sign in their yard supporting a particular candidate, having the sign strengthens their support. It’s an example of how our behavior influences our beliefs. We usually think that if you believe something, you will act accordingly. But studies show that often it’s the opposite – if you act like you believe something, you are much more likely to come to believe it. So, for instance, studies show that if you are wearing formal business attire, you think with higher-order abstract thinking than if you are dressed casually. Or, if you put on a doctor’s lab coat, you tend to be more attentive and analytical than if you are wearing a painter’s smock. Certainly our beliefs influence our behavior, but in a very subtle but important way, our behavior also affects our beliefs. In fact, our behavior and our beliefs reinforce each other.

Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Good_ShephardThis came to mind for me as I was reading today’s gospel story. John Chapter 10 is known as the Good Shepherd Discourse because in it, Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd, and offers an extended meditation on what that means. We tend to think of this as a kindly, pastoral, comforting set of images. Jesus as the Good Shepherd goes in our minds with Psalm 23, a wonderful psalm of comfort and assurance that God will be with us throughout our lives, restoring our souls, leading us beside still waters, comforting us in the valley of shadow of death, promising us that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And certainly this is part of what Jesus wants us to understand, when he calls himself the Good Shepherd – we can trust and depend on him. He will never lose a single one of his sheep. He will care for us and give us eternal, abundant life.

But John our gospel writer wants us to understand more than this, too. Because this gospel is set in context, it is part of an ongoing story. And the story we are joining mid-stream when we read this passage is that Jesus is in conflict with the leaders of the Temple. He has healed a blind man, and they are upset about it. They call in the blind man and quiz him sternly about what happened, who did it, whether he’s faking it and wasn’t really blind to begin with, and so on. And when he sticks to his story that Jesus healed him, they throw him out of the Temple. Jesus’ power threatens their power.

So when Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd, he is saying they are not good shepherds for God’s people. Which is a saying with lots of resonance in Jewish tradition, because the kings and leaders of Israel were supposed to be shepherds of the people, like King David, the original shepherd-king. And the prophet Ezekiel had railed against false and wicked shepherds, and predicted that God himself would gather and shepherd the people of Israel.

When Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd, he is equating himself with God. And he is also saying that they are not good shepherds. They have failed.

(A parenthetical note: please don’t read this as anti-Jewish. This is not a Jewish thing, it’s a human thing. Humans fail. And Jesus says the leaders of the Temple, like many humans, have failed, because they have made a priority of hanging onto their own power and have neglected to listen for the voice of God – so they can’t hear it when God is speaking.)

When they question Jesus, he responds: “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”

In other words, they don’t believe in Jesus because they haven’t followed him. They haven’t behaved like they believe in him, so they don’t believe in him.

Many theologians have spent a lot of time and effort trying to unravel what this might mean for us. How do we come to follow Jesus and be his sheep? Don’t we believe first, then decide to follow him?

Maybe not – elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” And indeed all the gospels show Jesus choosing people, seemingly at random, certainly not based on any particular gifts or talents, uneducated simple people, to come and follow him. Which is lovely – we don’t get chosen because we deserve it or because we are special – we get chosen because Jesus loves us. So far, so good.

But why do some people apparently get chosen to come and follow Jesus, to have our hearts and our behavior shaped by him, and others don’t? Why aren’t the Temple leaders his sheep? This is where theologians get tangled up.

Some, like John Calvin, have expressed God’s choice in terms of predestination – God knew before he created us which ones of us would be chosen for eternal life and which ones would be damned. This is the hideous, to me, idea, that God created some people on purpose to send them to hell and everlasting damnation.

Others, like Jacob Arminius, believed that each believer makes the choice to follow Jesus and enter into everlasting salvation. But this idea seems to ignore this idea that Jesus has chosen us, we haven’t chosen him, and it is by following him that we come to believe; by being in his presence, our hearts and minds are shaped by him.

Other theologians have abandoned the idea of choice altogether and have simply said that God chooses everyone. But what about free will and the option we have to ignore Jesus’ call? What about people whose actions are pure evil?

Here, for me, is where the idea that our behavior shapes our hearts, helps explain things. I believe that if we cultivate behaviors that ignore Jesus’ command to love, that we will develop habits of the heart that make it impossible for us to hear his voice when he asks us to come and follow him. Our behavior closes our hearts.

Brain research seems to support this idea – in infancy and childhood, and to a lesser extent throughout life, the neurons in our brains learn to connect with other neurons in increasingly complex patters as we learn to think. The pathways that we are most accustomed to thinking along are the ones that will develop they strongest connections – our thoughts truly shape our reality. This is why if we spend all our time thinking negative thoughts, denigrating others, assuming the worst about people, our brains will more and more tend to shape themselves along these habitual lines of thought. And our behavior will reflect it.

Even more, researchers find that the emotions of one person in a room can influence the emotions of all the others – so if we think in negative, critical, unappreciative ways, everyone around us will tend to feel the same way. Our negative thoughts and behaviors become like a virus that infects our world.

So perhaps the truth is that those who hear Jesus’ voice and are able to follow him, be his sheep, accept the promise of eternal and abundant life, are those who have shaped their thoughts and their reality in ways that allow them to hear the voice of love. They behave and speak with love, they cultivate the presence of God, and therefore when God speaks, they are able to listen and follow. And that in turn is how they come to believe in Jesus and have life in his name. Jesus calls us all – only some of us are able to hear.

So my question is, how do we cultivate behaviors and habits of the heart that allow us to be Jesus’ sheep, to hear his voice, to follow him? I think there are four in particular.

First, cultivate habits of kindness and generosity. The habits of behavior we cultivate shape our minds and our hearts. And a mind and a heart shaped by love, kindness, and generosity allows Jesus to speak words we can hear and follow. Long ago, in my business career, I faced a conflict with a co-worker that was affecting every part of how I felt about my job. Truth be told, it was probably as much my fault as it was my co-workers, but I didn’t see it that way. I was angry and frustrated all the time. Until one day I adopted the radical strategy of praying for her every day. Which is not an easy thing to do, with someone you don’t like very much. You can’t pray with words of hate – you have to find words that are acceptable both to you AND to God! You have to find a way to pray with love. Somehow I did – and within two days, our relationship had completely turned around.

You can’t pray for someone without loving them, whether you like htem or not. And love for others changes your life. And I believe it shapes your brain and heart, and makes way for you to hear Jesus’ voice.

Which leads to the second thing: Daily prayer. Praying 20 minutes a day makes a measurable difference in people’s lives – they are healthier, happier, calmer. Sometimes people think prayer doesn’t “work” – they didn’t feel God’s presence. But opening your mind and heart to speaking to God and listening for God’s voice in return means that you are in daily conversation to know God’s will. That’s how we learn to listen & follow J. If you don’t know how to pray, or need some additional resources, see our website – we have a great section on prayer.

The third thing is the practice of the Examen. It’s an ancient Christian practice that originated with St. Ignatius Loyola, of reviewing each day at the end of day: Where was God in my day? What am I grateful for? Where did I act in accordance with God’s will? What could I have done better? And praying about it – praying for blessing of the things done right, praying for forgiveness of things that can be done better, so that you end the day with a clean heart, and start the next day anew. Living the Examen means you are in conversation with God every day about the state of your heart and the actions you are choosing to take.

And the fourth thing: Regular Worship. Worship is when we gather as a community, but more than anything else it is our chance to glorify God. And in a liturgical church like ours, worship is where God does the work of caring for us. We do have sermons and so forth that interpret the word, but the majority of our worship time is spent letting God nourish us through Word and Sacrament. As we hear the word, as we pray about our world, as we let God feed us with bread and wine, we are allowing God to form us from the inside out, to restore our bodies and souls at the cellular level.

And as we are transformed by God, we learn to hear that voice: You are my sheep, I am your shepherd. Come and follow me.

Sermon for 3.13.16

Scriptures for today are Here.

Scientists tell us that our sense of smell – our olfactory nerve – leads to a different part of our brain than our other senses do. Our other senses lead to the parts of our brain that work things out rationally; our sense of smell leads to the part of our brain that processes memory, mood, and emotion – the oldest part of our brain.

The strong connection between smell and emotion probably explains why I can catch a whiff of Chanel No. 5 in a crowd and instantly be seven years old again, kissing my mother good night as she prepares to go out for the evening on a Saturday night with my father, wearing her nicest dress and her pearls. It explains why the smell of fresh bread means comfort and happiness for us. It explains why fresh cut grass can take us back to long hours spent running around outside in our childhood, covered with grass stains and dirt.

And you have to think that the smell of nard, the perfume in today’s gospel, has stronger associations than most others for the people of Jesus’ time. For one thing, it has a very strong odor – a priest friend of mine said three years ago, the last time this story appeared in lectionary, his rector had the bright idea to bring a jar of it into the sanctuary so the whole service smelled like nard. He says he thought he would never get that sticky-sweet smell out of his hair, clothes, and vestments. And three years later, you can still smell it at odd moments when the AC kicks on.

anointing stoneI smelled that smell in Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, on the anointing stone where supposedly Jesus’ body was laid out and anointed for burial (picture above). People still come to that spot and anoint the stone, weeping and praying and crying out their love for Jesus as they rub it with oil, so throughout the whole vast church, from the place of Jesus’ death to the tomb where he arose you can turn a corner and catch another whiff of the sweet scent of nard.

Nard is a smell that lasts a long time, and it’s a smell that for the people of Jesus’ time would mean love and it would mean death. It was the spice used to anoint dead bodies for burial, family members saving up for years to buy a jar of oil that was worth a year’s wages or more, but was an important part of their family inheritance, lovingly passing it down over generations to anoint each member of the family as they died.

So for Mary of Bethany, Jesus’ friend in the gospel today, the smell of nard would have reminded her of her parents and her grandparents – her feelings of deep love for them and the feeling of anguished loss at their deaths. And it would have forcefully brought home to her a more recent memory – the death of her brother Lazarus, and his awakening to life again.

You remember the story – Lazarus and Mary and Martha were good friends of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill, Mary and Martha send word to Jesus to come quickly. But Jesus lingers where he is, and finally arrives at Lazarus’ tomb four days after Lazarus died. Martha declares her faith in Jesus with an edge of blame: “If you had been here my brother would not have died!” – and Jesus makes one of the most startling statements in the gospels. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

And he proceeds to prove it, with what is in the gospel of John the most astounding of his seven signs (remember that Jesus’ miracles in John are not just miracles, but signs that point to a deeper reality about who he is and what God is doing through him). In this climactic sign, Jesus stands before Lazarus’ tomb and commands the people to roll away the stone. Martha, the practical one, protests because Lazarus has been dead 4 days, and already there is a stench. And surely that stench of the tomb is one of the most primitive and awful of the smells our brains know, surely it is the one that ties us most closely to emotions of grief and loss.

But Jesus persists, and as the stone is rolled away, shouts “Lazarus! Come forth!” And the dead man emerges, blinking in the sunlight, still wrapped in his grave clothes, still smelling of the mingled smells of the tomb and the sweet-spicy nard. And Jesus commands, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Let him go free from the tomb, free from the fear of death, free to live in full knowledge that God’s love is stronger than death, God’s love calls us out of the tomb, God’s love calls us out of all grave clothes that bind us – God’s love calls us into eternity. God’s love unbinds us, and lets us go.

But the powers of the world don’t like to believe that God’s love can overcome death, because their most powerful tool is death. And hearing of Lazarus’ new life, the rulers in Jerusalem decide that Jesus has to be stopped. They will show who is in charge of death. And Jesus must die.

So Jesus wisely goes away for a while. But now it is time for Passover. And Jesus comes back to Bethany, a small town in the hills above Jerusalem, from where you can look down into the city and see the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. And the night before Palm Sunday, when he plans to go riding on a donkey down the hill into the city, his friends give a dinner for him, knowing, through their laughs and awkward silences, pretty much what has to be coming next for their beloved rabbi.

Lazarus, his friend, is sitting next to him, leaning against him at dinner, possibly with the mingled scents of the tomb and the nard still on him. And Mary goes into the back room, gets their family inheritance, the spice that is worth maybe $25,000 in our terms. And she does something that seems to make no sense at all: she breaks the earthen clay jar of sweet oil, and pours it out on Jesus.

Not only does she extravagantly waste her family’s inheritance. She breaks lots of rules at the same time she breaks this earthen jar. She anoints his feet, something you don’t do for living people – only for dead ones. She loosens her hair, something an honorable woman doesn’t do in front of men. She touches Jesus, something an unmarried woman doesn’t do to man she isn’t related to. And she fills the house with the smell of love, love that follows a person to the grave, love that survives death, love that will always remember.

By breaking open her family’s inheritance, its provision for all future deaths, Mary is saying that death has no more power over her and her family, she is showing her faith that she will have no more need to anoint anyone for death. And she is preparing Jesus for the tomb, the day before he willingly goes riding toward it.

In this one act, Mary marks Jesus as a member of her family. She pours out a love so strong, so intense, that it is not bound by any customs or practices of her time. She prepares him for an ordeal that will overwhelm him with terrible physical sensations. And this act of love makes a difference to him: we know because just a few days later, at his last supper with his disciples, Jesus will copy Mary’s act of love – as she knelt and washed his feet with oil, and wiped them with her hair, he will kneel and wash his disciples’ feet, and wipe them with his garment. Mirroring her pure act of love with his own, and commanding us to do the same. Her love for Jesus becoming his love for his disciples becoming our love for the world, the love of God and the love of human beings all intermingled and overflowing.

And surely, in the middle of his ordeal on the cross, the sweet smell of nard will stay with him; surely, through his whole time on the cross, as he endures what he has to endure, he will from time to time catch a sudden smell of Mary’s gift, remind him somewhere deep inside, in the oldest part of his brain, that even after he has been betrayed and denied and abandoned, that he is deeply loved.

And so Mary has prepared Jesus for his death and for his burial. She has recognized that no matter what comes, love is stronger than death. And she has poured out her love for God’s Son.

The question is, what is our love worth to God? Wouldn’t you think God would be right there agreeing with Judas that a better use for such an expensive gift would be to sell it and give the money to the poor? Shouldn’t our gifts be practical, useful? The thing is that we are commanded to love God and love our neighbor. When Jesus says, the poor you will always have with you, he is not saying not to serve the poor – in fact he’s quoting from Deuteronomy, that explicitly says because you will always have the poor with you, you should always serve them.

But Jesus knows that loving your neighbor comes from a deeper source. It comes from loving God. And we pragmatic Americans, like Judas, may want to see measurable results from loving God – we may want to see effectiveness. But it seems that God doesn’t measure love in terms of effectiveness. God’s love for us, after all, is extravagant, overflowing, like a broken jar of oil costing a year’s income.

Christian theology says that God’s love overflowed into creation and caused all things to come to be. And God’s love overflowed into Jesus, who came into the world as the Son of God, whose love was poured out for us, whose body like ours was bound together from the elements of the universe, an earthen jar of clay, but was broken on the cross, so that his love could spill out – a love that was stronger than death, a love that would not stay locked in a tomb, a love that overflows to everlasting life.

And what this story tells us is that God’s love is not only poured out for us, God actually hungers for our love in return – our overflowing, extravagant love. That God loves us with an intensity so passionate that God’s Son would rather die than be separated from us, and that God yearns for us to love him in the same extravagant way Jesus loves us.

With the same kind of intensity that Paul showed in the epistle reading – crying out passionately, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

That’s the love God wants from us. A love that is nurtured by worship and reading the stories of God. A love that is strengthened by spending time with Jesus in daily prayer and in simple conversation about the events of our lives and our world, and by spending time with him in the sacraments and in the people he loves. A love that overflows from us into the people around us, so we can’t help telling them about Christ’s love.

A love that is the most important thing in our lives, so that our love too is extravagant and overflowing, carrying with it the sweet smell of God’s love, a smell that seeps into our hair and clothes and pores, and every now and then brings us scent of love that will never wear off, love that overcomes death and the grave and carries us to everlasting life.

Sermon for 2.21.16

Scriptures for this Sunday are here.

Listen to this sermon here:

In the Episcopal calendar of saints last week, we remembered Janani Luwum. Born in Uganda in 1922, he was a lifelong Anglican, educated in England. He returned to Uganda and rose to become archbishop of Uganda in 1974. It was a position where he could either collude with the dictator Idi Amin, or risk his life by opposing his brutal regime. He chose the second course, becoming a leading critic of excesses of regime. In 1976, when government troops attacked and ransacked a university, Luwum chaired a group of religious leaders that wrote a memo of protest.

In 1977, Luwum and other leaders were summoned to the presidential palace and accused of treason. The other leaders were asked to leave, but Luwum was told to remain behind. As his companions left, Luwum told them, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.” He was never seen alive again, and the next day his family told he was killed in a car crash. At his funeral, his body still missing, the crowd chanted, “He is not here! He is risen!” Several weeks later, his body was finally released to his family. They opened the casket and saw that he was riddled with bullets.

According to witnesses, he was probably personally shot by Idi Amin. He’s one of the most celebrated 20th century Anglican martyrs, with his statue at Westminster Abbey among the martyrs of the church.

As I listened to his story last Wednesday in evening prayer, I was struck with not only the courage he displayed in opposing the regime, but the incredible contrast his life poses with mine, and with most of ours. For us, being Christian requires no particular courage. It may even score us points in being more upstanding, better connected in society than others – after all, political candidates in US score big points for being Christians. Because Christians are dominant in the US, it’s easy for us to have lukewarm faith, to take no chances, to treat our faith as incidental to our lives, something to fit in after we’ve done everything else that is important to us. We can take Jesus for granted, we can assume he will be there to comfort us when we are in trouble, we can live our life taking no risks for the gospel. The life of a martyr, who lives with courage, who subjects himself to persecution and death for the sake of Jesus and the ones Jesus loves, is almost startling to us. We know long-ago Christians risked everything for their faith. It’s much easier to forget that Christians are still doing these things today. And even easier to forget that Jesus still calls us to risky, courageous living for the sake of our faith.

Take a look at the gospel today for an example of risky courage. It’s an odd little story, full of foxes and hens and little chicks being gathered up under mama’s wings. But it’s also a story of courage and daring. So often today we see love as an easy, pleasant, feel-good thing. But love for Jesus is not a simple sentimental emotion, a way of looking kind and nice to his neighbors, a way of fitting in and being socially acceptable, which is what love too often means for Americans, with our romantic movies and Valentines.

Love for Jesus isn’t about Valentines and chocolates – love for Jesus is risky, it’s dangerous, it is courageous, it’s frightening, it requires him to be vulnerable.

We could easily see this little hen Jesus compares himself to as a sweet, domestic, affectionate little creature – and that’s true, but it’s not complete. Because this motherly little hen is using her body to shield her chicks from the fox Herod, who is a stand-in for all the corrupt powers of the world that oppress people. Bishop NT Wright points to a well-known farmyard image: of a barnyard after a fire, with a blackened hen dead in the fire, with her wings spread out, still sheltering a brood of living chicks, protected by her body. The motherly love of that hen takes form of sacrificing herself to save her children.

Jesus knows perfectly well that’s exactly what will be required of him. He knows the people in power want to kill him. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will die. And he’s determined to do exactly that, for love. When helpful Pharisees try to warn him off confronting the powers in Jerusalem, the seat of power in his country, because Herod wants to kill him, Jesus responds not with fear of the painful death he knows is awaiting him, but with tenderness for the very people who are putting him in danger. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he laments. “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Indeed, many prophets have been ill-treated in Jerusalem, as the Bible tells us. And we should not make the mistake of interpreting this lament as anti-Jewish or an indictment of Jerusalem alone, because Jesus and all the disciples were Jewish. What Jesus is talking about here is the universal human tendency for the powerful to protect themselves at the expense of others, to do anything, including murder, to shore up their strength. He is speaking in the role of the prophet. Prophets are those who, as the Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Comforting the afflicted is what Jesus is doing with his healing ministry “today and tomorrow” – that is, on an everyday basis. But on the third day, he finishes his work, moving to Jerusalem, the seat of power, to afflict the comfortable – and the powerful people in Jerusalem, like in any society, will not respond well to being afflicted – they will kill him.

But his death will have a purpose: his reference to the “third day” makes it clear. His death will open the way to eternal life; it will defeat the power of evil and death; and it will show us the ultimate way of self-giving love.

Love is more than a cozy, comfortable emotion. Jesus’ love for his city Jerusalem, and for any city or community or nation where people struggle for power and control, takes the form of courageous tenderness that puts himself at risk, where he interjects himself into places of danger out of love. And his willingness to risk himself will mean salvation for those he loves.

Christian love means that we might lose everything, but it means that we, and the world, might gain everything too. The world is better for the witness of Jawani Luwum, who gave everything for love; and the world has salvation because Jesus was willing to spread his wings over us and protect us – which is courageous, daring, risk-taking, self-giving love.

So how, in our comfortable world where we are at no risk of being persecuted for our faith, are we to exercise such daring, courageous, self-giving love? Interestingly, the social work researcher Brene Brown has done a lot of work on this question. If you’ve seen her famous TED talk, you know that she became interested in how people live what she called “whole-hearted lives.” She’s Episcopalian and got the term from our confession – we have not loved you with our whole heart.

She discovered that people who experience joy in life weren’t different from others because they had fewer problems, or more money, or better health, or a more comfortable upbringing, or more education, or anything else. What they had was the courage to risk being vulnerable. Because love is inherently risky. Any connection with another human being, she found, requires us to open up and let that other person see us as we really are – which means that in order to love, we have to forget about being perfect, we have to dare to be vulnerable.

True human love and care for another person requires accepting who we are and allowing other people to accept that too. And who we are is imperfect struggling people. And the people who were willing to be vulnerable, she found, were the ones who knew how to love, who lived with conviction, who committed themselves to others. She points out that we so often see “courage” as a sort of iron shell, where a person has no vulnerability at all. When in fact “courage” is a willingness to give your heart to something even though it will almost certainly hurt. As I discovered when my first child was born, the choice to become a parent is a choice to let part of your heart go walking around outside your body from then on.

Any love is like that. Any love requires vulnerability. Any love is risky. Any love takes courage. But love – risky, dangerous, courageous love – lets us live wholehearted lives.

I think in that truth is the key to the Christian life. Because the truth at the heart of our faith is that we are imperfect people. We make mistakes, we ask for forgiveness, we know we cannot save ourselves, we allow God to save us.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.

In our recognition of who we truly are, in our admission before God and before others that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we gain the ability to live with courage. To open ourselves to connection with God, to let God’s love live in us. To share that love with others.

Because courageous martyrdom like Janani Luwum’s is not the only kind. In the church those who have died for their faith are “red martyrs”.

But there’s another kind – “white martyrs.” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said this week that white martyrs are those whose lives are so utterly dedicated to Christ, whose life is so surrendered, that they speak of Christ in everything they do or say. Which is where I think we comfortable, religiously free Americans can give real witness to our faith, can live with courage and love for this world. Because our society may be perfectly happy for us to call ourselves Christian, that may even score us some points, but for us to live like Christ, to witness to him in everything we do or say, to have the courage to speak our faith and speak out our love and care for this world and take action to make that love real; to challenge those who hurt others, to oppose the powers of poverty, crime, racism, oppression, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable: these things take courage. The courage to risk our reputation for our love. But that kind of courage is worth it.

Because in our life and in our death, in our love and in our courage, like Jesus, we glorify God. And that is the goal of the Christian life.