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.

 

Sermon for 1.17.16

Scriptures for today are here.

What’s the difference between change and transformation? A writer named Lenn Milam talks about this. A change happened recently in the town he lives in – a new stop sign was put up at an intersection he drives through on a regular basis. That’s the kind of change that requires you to adopt different habits, right? Only one day he sort of rolled through the new stop sign, seeing no reason to change his old habits. And immediately, of course, he heard a siren behind him. He got a ticket for running the stop sign, but more important, he got a lecture from the police officer about why the stop sign was there, about how many accidents there had been at this intersection, about people the officer had personally seen hurt there because of their own or other drivers’ carelessness. And it caused a change in heart – a realization that rolling through this intersection as he had been doing for years could have terrible consequences. And it was that change in heart, not the stop sign, that led him to change his behavior from then on. The stop sign was a change – the new understanding was a transformation.

Business writers talk about this: change happens when management creates a new rule that people are supposed to follow. Transformation happens when employees work together to discover what changes would be best for the company’s mission. Change is imposed from the outside – all of us undergo change. We get older, our health changes, our jobs change, our relationships change, children grow up and move away – changes are things from the outside that we have to adjust to. But transformation comes from the inside – transformation is a shift of fundamental beliefs and priorities.

And transformation that comes from the inside, versus change that is imposed from the outside, is far more likely to produce lasting differences in the way people behave. The writer Flora Slosson Wuellner says in her bookTransformation: Our Fear, Our Longing, “Transformation involves much more than mere adaptation to outer manipulation. Transformation implies new being, new creation rather than change.”

Change happens to all of us. But transformation is our choice. Transformation happens inside us because of an epiphany – a revelation. A person getting a ticket for rolling through a stop sign changes his behavior because he has an epiphany that someone could get hurt, and it might even be him.

In the Bible, people have epiphanies when they look at Jesus and realize new truths about him. In the church, we are celebrating the season of Epiphany now. During Epiphany, we read one story after another of how Jesus was revealed to the world, and how people were transformed as result. Epiphanies bring transformation. And transformation happens because at the deep, interior, cellular level, people change their beliefs and priorities, and at our best, transformed, enlightened people can inspire whole communities, even nations to new ways of being.

It is clear from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the end that he came to bring about transformation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in John’s gospel. John is an artist, and nothing he writes is accidental or meaningless. So when today’s gospel begins, “On the third day,” we are supposed to sit up and pay attention. In the arc of the story that’s happening, John is talking about the third day after Jesus first called his disciples to follow him. But in the wider story that John is telling, we know first of all that the “third day” was the day when Jesus rose from the dead, the day of new creation.

And looking back to the beginning of John’s gospel, we see parallels between John and Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, with the creation story, the original story of transformation, when all things came to be. John opens his gospel with the words, In the Beginning, just like Genesis. In John’s first chapter, he tells us that Jesus was right there in Genesis, with God from the very beginning of creation, that Jesus WAS the very Word God spoke to make creation come into being: Let there be light.

And that first chapter of Genesis goes on to tell us, poetically, what happened after the beginning: the seven days of creation and what God did on each day. (Parenthetically – the creation story in Genesis is not intended to be a scientific treatise; it’s intended to be a theological one – not a conflict with science.) Back to Genesis – on the third day of creation, it says, God separated the land from the seas, and planted seeds that brought forth plants and trees. So, on the third day of creation, the land begins to flower and blossom.

Which is exactly what John says is happening at this wedding at Cana on the third day as water is not just changed, but transformed, to wine. Jesus has come into the world to bring transformation, new creation. In this miracle of turning water into wine, God’s new creation in Jesus is beginning to flower and blossom.

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Jesus was here.

Now of course this miracle gives rise to many jokes: invite Jesus to your next party! He’ll bring the wine! Changing water into wine can seem trivial, a little parlor-trick miracle, and for years I thought it was. I couldn’t understand why Jesus would waste his time on a silly miracle like this. But there are important things happening here, beyond the memory of creation.

First, the fact that it happened at a wedding. Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding tells us that not only does God bless and transform human love and human relationships as holy and sacred. It also points to God’s eternal covenant with people of Israel and all God’s people, often described in Old Testament (like the lesson from Isaiah today) as a covenant of love and commitment so deep that it is like a marriage. God is so in love with us, so committed to us, that God will never let us go.

And specifically changing water into wine points to another image for the people of Israel that is often used in Bible: God’s people as God’s holy vineyard, that God planted and tends and wants to bear fruit, just as the earth began to bear fruit on the third day of creation. We are planted here as God’s holy people to bear the fruit of love in the world.

And when Jesus starts with ordinary, plain water, it’s the same water that is the most abundant element on earth, the same water that composes 70% of our bodies, the same water we are baptized in, the same water that brings us to new birth as part of the family of God. But when he takes that water that represents us, the people of God, and transforms it at the deepest cellular level into wine – it becomes a new creation. It represents the love of God, it represents the vineyard of God bearing fruit.

And as we know, it also represents the very blood of Jesus that we share in Communion, the blood of Christ that becomes a part of our own bodies when we worship together. Looking forward in the gospel of John, it tells us when Jesus dies, a soldier pierces his side with a spear and blood and water runs out. John doesn’t want us to miss this detail – He writes with emphasis: “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” In other words, he’s saying, I know this is incredible, but it’s the truth. I saw it, I saw blood and water come out together.

The blood and water mixed together at Jesus’ death are like the people of God being mixed in and transformed into the wine of the kingdom of God – the good wine, the wine we celebrate with, the wine that is so abundant that it’s equal to nearly 1,000 bottles, the wine that is better than any wine anyone has tasted before, the wine that is served at the eternal wedding banquet of heavenly court. The wine that represents our eternal destiny as people of God, and the wine that represents our calling to transformation into the wine of kingdom now.

Jesus wants to transform us at deepest cellular level, into very body of Christ, still bringing transformation into this world today. Because as Christian people, we are called not only to interior transformation that assures us of a place in that eternal banquet. We are also called to work for the transformation, re-creation of this world.

This week, in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday, I watched the movie “Selma” again. It reminded me that it was precisely Dr. King’s faith in Jesus that called him to work for the transformation of the nation. And it was his faith in the tradition of non-violent resistance that he saw in Jesus’ ministry that inspired others in the country to be transformed. Having laws that assured people of the right to vote wasn’t enough as long as other human beings could be endlessly inventive about how to deny them those rights. But watching peaceful people being attacked on TV transformed the hearts of a nation, and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Martin Luther King is one example of how our faith in Jesus and the deep interior, cellular-level transformation he brings can help us to start bearing fruit in the world: planting further seeds of God’s kingdom, transforming the world with God’s love. Not that that work is complete because some victories have been won. We know that racial barriers, for instance, in this country still exist. The work of dismantling racism, injustice, poverty in this world continues.

But it is our calling as people who have accepted the love of Christ, who have been baptized into his body, and who have been transformed into the wine of the eternal wedding banquet, to continue to work for the transformation of the world, so that all of God’s beloved people can flourish.

An Epiphany, like the one we remember today, is a revelation of God’s love. And in the epiphany of Jesus turning ordinary water into the wine of the kingdom, we are invited to share in that miracle. We are invited to the wedding at Cana, along with Jesus and his disciples. We are invited to sense the good wine, to see it, smell it, taste it.

And we are invited not only to observe that good wine, but to become it. To let it transform us from the inside out – through worship and prayer, Bible study and service, giving and sharing the good news of Christ. Transforming lives with the love of Jesus Christ.

 

Sermon for Nov. 22, 2015

In 1919, in the aftermath of World War One, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote perhaps his most famous poem, “The Second Coming.” The first stanza goes like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the second stanza, he expresses his theme in Christian words: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” But in the third stanza, it becomes clear that he’s not talking about Jesus’ second coming, the one we describe in our creeds, as he ends with: “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

In his poem, Yeats seemed to express all the fear and anxiety of the modern world, a world in which frightening, anarchical violence spins out of control. It’s an understandable feeling in the wake of the first world war, with its senseless slaughter and endless trench warfare. And it anticipated the horrors of the 20th century that were yet to come, horrors that were unimaginably worse than the world had seen before.

And we, here, in the 21st century, could repeat those words all over again: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” What words could better describe a world wracked by terror? After all, our new millennium started with 9/11, and we seem to reel from one act of senseless violence after another, as students are in danger in schools, ordinary people are in danger in movie theaters, and just this month a new anxiety has gripped us, with terror attacks in Beirut, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Jerusalem, and perhaps hitting closer to home for many of us, in Paris. It’s a city where some of us have traveled, and where my own daughter spent a summer studying a couple of years ago – so I was struck with grief when I learned that an American college student had died in the attacks.

The attack in Paris horrifies me because I can imagine myself enjoying a concert or dinner in a café, and having my life suddenly, irrevocably torn apart. Even closer to home, as a mother of one daughter who is a college student, and one daughter who is a teacher in middle school, the shootings in schools terrify me because I can imagine one of my children being there. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” – an apt description of a world wracked by terror.

The thing with terrorism is, it doesn’t have real strategic importance – what do terrorists really gain by killing civilians in Paris or Mali, what do lone gunmen gain by shooting up elementary schools and colleges? Nothing, really. St. Augustine way back in the 4th century wrote that one of the major characteristics of evil is that it IS senseless, pure destruction. In his Confessions, he tells a boyhood story of running around with a gang of boys and stealing pears from an orchard, taking one bite of each pear, and throwing the rest away. It was a senseless act of destruction because the boys who stole the pears didn’t even eat them.

In the case of terrorism, there is no strategic purpose, no sense or meaning to the violence and destruction except the fear that comes over the rest of the population – people like you and me who can imagine themselves in the same situation, and grow afraid. That’s why it’s called terror, after all – its main purpose is to inspire fear.

So here’s the question that we have to address as Christians in times like these: What does our faith have to say to us in a time of terror? How are we to live and believe? Well, the first thing to remember is that one of the most often repeated phrases in all of Scripture is: Be not afraid. I did a quick computer search that showed that some variation of this phrase appears in the Bible at least 78 times. God says it to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; Moses says it to the people of Israel getting ready to escape from Egypt; the prophets say it numerous times to a people fearful of conquest; the angel Gabriel says it to both Mary and Joseph as he is preparing them for Jesus’ birth; Jesus says it to his disciples when he calls them to come follow him, and Jesus says it to them again when he is preparing to die: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

In a very real sense, we could say that God called Israel as a people, and Jesus came to humans as the Son of Man and Son of God, on purpose so that we should not fear – not fear evil, not fear death, not fear any powers that might overcome and harm us. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are not subjects to fear.

Or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear changes us, fear makes us close in upon ourselves, fear prevents us from acting in accordance with our values, fear separates us from each other and convinces us that we can rely upon no one but ourselves. And Jesus has come to release us from the power of fear and power of death.

Jesus shows us in the gospel today what it means to live without fear. Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we recognize the coming Kingdom of God, but we choose an odd gospel to honor a king – the gospel where the king is sentenced to death. Jesus stands before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate thinks Jesus is the one on trial, but Jesus puts Pilate and the kingdoms of this world on trial instead.

Knowing that Pilate has the power of state terror behind him, knowing that Pilate can torture him and have him killed, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, and that his kingship brings him into the world to witness to the truth. In the face of lies, power struggles, and violence used as instruments of political ends of the Roman Empire, the one thing Jesus has to proclaim is the truth that there is a different kingdom. And those who belong to the truth, he says, listen to his voice. The next line of the story is not in the lectionary today, but Pilate simply sneers, “What is truth?” Those who belong to the kingdom of lies can hardly believe that truth exists.

But it does exist, in Jesus and in Jesus’ kingdom. And truth stands against all the lies told by the evil powerful ones in this world. Truth stands against all the false kingdoms of the world. Truth stands against the senselessness of evil. Truth stands against violence and death. And the truth, soon after this scene, will be sentenced to die on the cross, in another senseless, and ironic, act of evil and terror. That’s what the cross was: an act of violence, sponsored by the Roman state, meant to strike fear in hearts of Jews who might fight back against the power of Rome.

And it was a very effective tool of terror – except in the case of Jesus. Because Jesus died, and yet was raised from the dead. Fear and death and the rulers of this world had no power over him. In Jesus, truth triumphs over lies, and life triumphs over death, and we have been invited into a new kingdom in which true justice – not the justice of Pilate – reigns supreme. And in Jesus, we await a Second Coming that is not like the Second Coming Yeats saw – some rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born – but the Second Coming of Christ’s Kingdom: the Kingdom we pray for each Sunday, where God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For Christians, the challenge before us is how to live as followers of Christ in the meantime. As followers of Christ, we are asked to make Christ’s story our own story. So how do we live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, tellers of Christ’s story, when Christ’s kingdom has not yet fully come?

In a sense, we Christians stand with one foot in each kingdom: one foot in the kingdom of this world, and one foot in the coming kingdom of Christ. In the kingdom of this world, I am not a pacifist: I believe that the good must stand up against evil: forces of law and order and justice must rise up against the senselessness of evil, defend the powerless, protect the refugee, bring the guilty to justice. And the powers of good do sometimes prevail; but as soon as one Nazi Germany is defeated, another evil arises. The fight against evil is a constant one.

For us regular people, who don’t have decision-making power in this world, I think the most important thing for us to do is to have confidence in God, so we don’t become subject to the fear that closes us in on ourselves; to hold onto our values to love God and love our neighbor, because that’s what Jesus has given us to do.

Because as Christians, we know the truth that is beyond all lies: that evil cannot ultimately win. That’s the lesson of the cross. God is more powerful than evil, life is more powerful than death. And the final defeat of evil and terror will come in that day we pray for, when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.

The ultimate temptation for us in a time of terror is to lose our faith and believe that evil will win the day. But if we believe that, we forget that the only power terrorists have is the power of fear and death. And against the power of fear and death, we can hold up the power of the life-giving cross. The cross that lets death triumph, and yet rises beyond death to bring life. The cross that is most powerful expression of love this world has ever seen. The cross that is the ultimate throne of the ultimate king of the promised kingdom of God.

A kingdom in which the Holy Spirit renews the face of the earth. A kingdom in which God wipes away every tear. A kingdom in which love triumphs, and hate will no longer exist. A kingdom that will bring all people together to serve the God of love. A kingdom in which there is no fear, no terror, no sighing, no grieving, but only life everlasting.

And in that hope that rises above despair, we take our stand for the Lord of love, Christ our King. Amen.