Sermon Matthew 15.10-28

“It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles them, but the thing that comes out that defiles.”

We have had a week of confrontation, violence and even murder. We have had displays of ignorance, hate, anger and fear.

We have seen people stand up to hate- even at the risk of their well-being.

“It is the thing that comes out that defiles.”

And what is this defilement?

It is in believing that I am better than anyone else- and then saying that.

Defilement is this: hateful thoughts that become words that become actions that defile this world.

It starts with thoughts that become words, words that are not loving.

It is in saying that other human beings are inferior to me.

It is in saying that certain human beings have no right to live.

It is in speaking hate.

And what is hate?

Hate is a fundamental denial of the reality that every human being on this planet is made in the image and likeness of God. It is a refusal to believe in the fundamental goodness and value of every human being.

This is against what we believe. To quote the Book of Common Prayer’s ritual for Baptism- which most of us have participated in once or twice during the past few months:

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord?

I will with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people; and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will with God’s help.”

This is what we believe.

If you don’t believe that, this is not the place for you.

We must be totally clear. In the words of pastor Jay Abramson:

“Racism is an extremely dangerous sin, invisible to the one suffering under it. Jesus condemned it when He commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” No one who holds racist beliefs can call themselves a Christian. The group in Charlottesville held these views against all but Anglo-Americans. Those views have led them, in the past and now in our present, to despicable acts of violence.

How should we respond to these events?

You and I are not able to recognize the disease of racism in ourselves. We need to find another Christian to pray with us and honestly help us identify any racist tendencies so that, through the Holy Spirit, we can follow the instructions of 2 Corinthians 10:5 and “take every thought captive,” and then daily live out Jesus’ command of love. If you are Anglo, I suggest you find a believer of another ethnicity for this purpose.

We live in dangerous times. Racism has destroyed whole cultures and it will destroy ours unless it is fully and finally dealt with. Followers of Christ should be at the forefront of this healing process. May we all enter into a season of concentrated prayer to that end.”

Former Presiding Bishop Edmond Lee Browning wrote in 1997:

“Sunday at 11 O’clock is the most segregated hour in the American week. The history of every religious denomination in our country is shot through with the scars of racism- fresh scars and older ones. Racial bigotry frequently cloaks itself in religious language.

We all recoil from its extremes, like the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation, but we must acknowledge the link between even the politest prejudice and violence. It is a short step from holding a group in contempt to considering that group less than human. If it is true that the longest journey begins with a single step, it is true for ill as well as good, and small hatreds are the first steps toward great ones.

The custodians of a society’s religious and moral traditions are precisely the ones who constitute the greatest danger; we are the ones people look to for guidance. If we begin to lead those who seek God down a path leading to hatred, or stand quietly by while others lead them there, they may well follow. And the judgment against us in heaven will be more severe. Our God of love can only be served with love. If we- of all people- succumb to the virus of bigotry and hate that afflicts so much of the world, our state is a grievous one indeed.”

So, what do we do?

We love.

We love until it’s the hardest thing that we’ve ever done in our lives. We love until it hurts; we love even if we bleed, we love until our strength is gone- we may have to love until we lose our very lives.

Just as Jesus did.

We must choose the power of love over the love of power- just as Jesus did.

And most importantly, we don’t stand silent in the face of injustice, oppression or abuse.

We stand up. We speak out. We do it, because as Christians we MUST- even if we are crucified because of it.

Because we are created in love; we are created by love; we are created for love; we are created TO love.

Let us pray.

“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in them the fire of your love. Speak the Word and we shall be created, and together we’ll renew this pained and confused world.”

Amen.

Easter Vigil Homily 2016

Darkness.

Light.

Cold.

Fire.

Fear.

Hope.

Pain.

Resurrection.

 

Christians have gathered for thousands of years on this night to remember the history of Salvation. To remember that no matter how dark and cold the world is, no matter how often we are afraid, no matter what pain we must endure, there is Light. There is Fire. There is Hope. And there IS Resurrection.

We see it- if we look- we see it in the joy of a new mother.
We see it when we refuse to answer violence with more violence.
We see it when those who are wronged refuse to pursue revenge.
We see it in the face of our beloved- a hope that will never die.

We’ve come close to giving in.

We’ve created weapons that could destroy this planet. We’ve created laws based on fear and not hope.

We’ve built walls and fences- both physically and with words of hatred toward one another.

We’ve been victims of fear mongering.

We’ve been guilty of fear mongering.

We’ve looked past those in need because it makes us uncomfortable.

We’ve turned other human beings into evil creatures in our minds.

We’ve created idols.

We’ve become narcissists in the way we feed our egos with the illusions of power and wealth and status. Sadly, I think I have to say we’ve not learned that much in 2000 years.

For example, we have turned the fully human and fully divine Jesus into Superman- someone so far above us that we can never get close. We’ve glorified him so much that the glory of his humility- his humanity- means nothing. If you listen to some of our brother Christians, you might as well believe that some alien visited our planet from Krypton- and we need to be very afraid of him.

I saw Batman vs Superman today. I loved it. Because I love Superman. Always have.

Superman represents the power and strength of hope- the might of the good. And that is helpful and hopeful for us as human beings. He represents our better nature. He also represents a fighter- a soldier- who uses his powers to crush the enemy.

For many Christians, Jesus IS Superman.

But I think it’s worth noting that there can be no comparison.

Jesus forbids violence. Jesus refuses to defend himself. Jesus sits and eats with people who are seen as the dregs of society- people that many of us scorn today. In this town filled with Christians, why do we have a $4 million dollar animal shelter, but no homeless human shelter?

Jesus doesn’t fight for justice- he becomes it. He becomes it by embracing those who are downtrodden, broken, diseased overlooked and alone.

It is no accident that women discover the empty tomb first. Women were among the least of Jewish society- suddenly become the vital heralds of a miracle- exactly what the Kingdom of God is about.

“The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.”

This is crazy talk.

Crazy enough to get you executed. Even today.

We are here tonight to celebrate the light that has come into the world- and we are here also to pray that the darkness will not overcome it.

Because there is no guarantee- that’s part of the definition of HOPE.

If we knew it was all going to be ok, we could just go home and watch tv or Youtube or Facebook and forget that we have a job to do.

We forget often enough anyway. I know I do.

But we do have a job to do. What’s that job? To imitate Jesus. As fully as possible. As best we know how. Because our baptism unites us with him in his pain, his death and his resurrection. It’s not about following the rules in order to get to heaven- it’s about imitating the Master so that we can change the world.

Just like him.

By being crazy- at least in the eyes of the world.

Crazy Christians.

The Biblical scholar NT Wright said, “You can fulfill the commandments of the Bible better by falling in love with God than by trying to obey him. The Christian faith is not a business transaction. It’s not an arranged marriage where you receive a dowry of riches for compliance. Christianity only works if you’re in love.”

And an alien is hard to love- unless you’re Lois Lane.

My point is simply this: Jesus is lovable. And loving Jesus helps us love each other. And loving each other-unconditionally- is what will change this world.

Darkness. Light. Cold. Fire. Fear. Hope. Pain.

All a part of the mix. All meant to be part of our human experience. And resurrection?

Well, that only happens if we sacrifice our egos.

Just like Jesus.

Joseph W Laythe, PhD

When I first met Joey Laythe, At Carroll College Freshman orientation in the fall of 1983, I didn’t like him.

He was loud, he was brazen, he was funny and he had more energy than I did.

Competition.

Because I, too, am loud and brazen and funny.

Later, we became pretty good friends. I would say, that we learned- as all friends do- to join forces.

We had some pretty good times at Carroll College. In particular, was the time Joey almost got us arrested. Another was when he threw a paper airplane in Fr People’s class when Sr Mary Sarah Fasenmeyer fell asleep during Fr People’s tenure check. Behind her head. Right at me.

While she was sleeping.

But I digress.

Joey annoyed me. And I’m pretty sure I annoyed him. Because we were a lot alike.

And I think we really only realized it a few years ago.

Through Facebook.

Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.

Joe supported me through a really weird time in my life, so I figured it was the least I can do to be here, when he asked me in October.

We saw the world in much the same way. We saw the world as a place in need of education, in need of healing- in need of love. In need of kindness and understanding. That is the pinnacle of my faith- and we connected there.

Neither of us would happily put up with willful ignorance. Neither of us could put up with injustice.

Neither of us could stand idly by when people were being injured, manipulated or exploited.

We mutually liked every Facebook post the other made.

These are the human ties that aren’t maybe created through birth, or circumstance, but by common purpose.

We had some of the same mentors at Carroll- some of the most formative years of my life- John Downs, Fr. Gene Peoples, and although I never took a class from him Dr Robert Swartout- a man who inspired generations of historians. And someone who especially inspired Dr Joseph Laythe- to be a teacher, an academic, and a good human being. They all did. That was the magic of Carroll for me. We were surrounded by exceptional human beings with great hearts- who inspired us to be exceptionsal human beings-stretch ourselves beyond the obvious into eternity.

All I ever wanted was to be a priest. All Joe ever wanted was to be a teacher. A funny, irrepressible academic with the heart to change the manner in which his students would perceive the world around them. And the brilliant brain to teach them the facts that motivated his heart. Along the way, he added some additional wants- being a husband to Chris and a father to Lydia and Izzy.

This was his world.

And now, it’s ours.

“We all have a story. If you’re not friends with your mailman, you’re missing something”- John Downs.

“Jesus was the ultimate example of powerless love”- Fr. Gene Peoples.

I hold these things close in my life today. For me, it’s what Christianity boils down to.

Jesus rejected the love of power for the power of love. He spent time with the small people of society- those estranged and downtrodden and misunderstood. He ate with sinners- prostitutes and tax collectors and Pharisees and common people- they were all the same to him. People who needed to be seen as people.

Today, we make people into things. Murderers, terrorists, gays, Buddhists, Muslims, Republicans, Democrats, Hoosiers, Buckeyes, North Dakotans, poor, diseased, addicts, transgender, prostitutes, anything but human.

Jesus makes us see the human.

Joey asked us to please see the human beings beyond the labels. And today, I beg you- please, never forget, we are not things. We are people. It may be the best way to honor our husband, our father, our teacher, our friend.

It’s how I will remember him. Last week at Mass, I came across the following from Bridges of Contemplation- Lent and Holy Week with Thomas Merton, where the author said

“Life and death are identical twin sisters born within every human being. We are all kin as we travel the uneven roads of our common journey through life. Yet being kindred- why are we so unkind toward each other?

Why do we find it so hard to see each other’s dilemmas as being identical to our own? Why do we so often accept unkindness as the order of relations among us? For us to live unkindly to each other is to live unnaturally.

How do we live kindly in an unkind world?

Humility teaches us kindness. Humility prevents our taking the first places at life’s banquet, prevents our excessive consumption of resources while sisters and brothers on other continents or down the street cannot feed their children.

Humility helps us step down from the pedestal of individual destinies to share life with the crowd.

Humility helps us to see how easy it is to lose everything we hold dear in an instant; our house, our status, our families, our very selves lost in the distractions that keep us from realizing our kindness with one another.

Lent is an occasion for us to reorient our priorities, to attend to the least privileged first- to allow the lame lead us in the procession by their slower pace and with rhythms that appreciate how we must all proceed carefully or suffer soul-death alone.”

I will honor my friend by being careful with other humans beings in my life.

I will treat them with respect and dignity and kindness and humor and understanding.

I will treat them with love.

Because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

I used to think that really enlightened people took their pain and changed the world; Nelson Mandela. Gandhi. Mother Teresa. Vaclav Havel. Peter Abelard. Victor Hugo. Joan of Arc. Francis of Assisi. Charles Dickens, Alexander Graham Bell, Oscar Romero, Stephen Bieko. Father Damien of Molokai. Dorothy Day. Raymond Hunthausen.

Like I said, I used to think these people took their pain and changed the world. But now, I’ve changed my mind.

I think these people took their pain and changed themselves.

And that changed the world.

That’s what our Joey did.

That’s what we are to do.

We are here to take our pain- a very ordinary part of our human lives- an unpleasant part of our ordinary lives- and change the world.

We are here to take our pain and change the world.

Into something extraordinary.

That’s building the Kingdom of God.

That’s honoring our husband, our father, our teacher, our friend. Because that’s what he did.

We take our pain, and we change the world- by being kind to one another.

Please be kind.

Above all things.

Even- and especially- when people can’t pay you back.

Or even, when they almost get you arrested- especially then- they might become your dear, dear friend.

Be open to surprises.

That’s life.

Amen.

June Becomes Even More Beautiful

My sermon from today at Living Waters UMC:

(Mark 5. 21-43) The gospel today says much to us about faith.

The faith of Jairus- a man who, out of love, calls Jesus to help.

The faith of the woman in the crowd- who dared, out of the desire to cease her suffering-

to touch the robe of Jesus as he passed by.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have such faith?

Or are you a person of that faith now?

If you already have that faith, you can relax, because I won’t be talking directly to you this morning- but you can help me if I stumble.

I don’t think that will be very many of you.

I know, because I’m not sure I have that kind of faith.

I would like to believe as an ordained person, a professional Christian, that I have some sort of leg up on that faith, but it’s just not true.

I believe, but I’m not sure if it’s always faith.

I have many things that get in the way of that simple trust that God is greater than I am.

Fear does that.

Gets in the way.

Love of money gets in the way.

Anger and resentment and cynicism and pain- they all can keep me from trusting that God has things under control- or at least- like a parent watching a child make a huge mess and then helping them clean it up- God is still waiting with us to see how much of a mess we make before he has to step in again.

This week has been a particularly significant one for me. June usually is- with Gay Pride and my ordination anniversary and it’s such a beautiful time to be in Montana. June is beautiful, but it became even more beautiful for me in the last week, because there were three additional  things of major significance that happened in my life.

Because of chronic illness and preexisting conditions, I am subsidized in my healthcare by the Federal government. There was a chance that it could be taken away from me by the Supreme Court. But, in a move that allowed my soul and my family to rest more easily at night, those subsidies were preserved.

I seriously did not know what I (or tens of thousands of Montanans) would do if the decision were not in our favor.

But it was.

And I knew I would handle what I had to if necessary, but it felt like a wind of grace blowing through my life.~

Like you, I watched the news in horror to learn of the Charleston Massacre in an African Methodist Episcopal church. During a bible study. By a man who was embraced by that congregation as a seeker- before he shot at them- causing death and destruction and injury to a peaceful place dedicated to Christ Emmanuel “God with us”. That’s what Emmanuel means- God with us. It didn’t seem like God was with them, did it? ~

I am a man whose relationship was not acknowledged legally across our country until Friday morning. And I have to say, that for the first time in my life, I feel like a full citizen of these United States- even though many people still hate me for what I am without ever caring about who I am. I feel grace in the affirmation of my dignity by the court we hold Supreme in this land.~

Three different and yet enormously important moments in my life packed into a few short days. Sometimes when I think about it, I feel a little giddy, drunk with the craziness of this week.

Right now you might be saying, “Two of those things were really good for you, Greg- but the other one, the shooting was very horrible. How can you put them together?”

Fair question.

Notice I didn’t say they were all happy moments- they were significant.

Significant is the daughter of a murdered mother looking at the killer and saying “I forgive you.”

Significant is the amount of compassion that allowed a symbol of oppression to be swiftly removed as an accessory to murder.

Significant is a nation that mourned the good people who lost their lives for trying their best to have faith in a world that so seldom supports it.

Significant when the President of the United States gives perhaps the best sermon I have heard in my life to a grieving nation and especially a grieving race of Americans who have been particularly plagued with violence, oppression and prejudice.

Like I said, significant.

If you haven’t seen that eulogy offered by President Obama, I officially recommend it. And I’d like to quote a few lines from it, because it gets right to the point of the message today. We can have all the faith we want- but without grace- we are nothing.

“Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and shortsightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

At some point, my friends, we have to allow our imperfect faith to meet God’s perfect grace.

And we have to believe that our feeble attempts to love will be assisted by the Grace of God and become an offering of sweetness and peace and substance and good.

That’s the story of the gospel today.

Even when we but try, God meets us in the person of Jesus Christ and offers us help with the power of the Holy Spirit.

He has raised those from the dead we have thought were lost forever.

He has alleviated our suffering- and the suffering of many throughout the world, because we have simply -with whatever small faith we possess- reached out to touch his garment.

So maybe this Gospel isn’t about faith after all.

Maybe it’s just simply about God’s grace- which is just another word for love- about God’s grace being unstoppable.

That’s what we call the Gospel, the Good News. God’s crazy love for us is unstoppable.

Amen

Marginalization

Sermon to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bozeman, 1.25.15

Good morning- it’s so great to be back here!

I’d like to continue with Nina’s theme from last week.

Dr King and Bayard Rustin are heroes for standing up for their race- a springboard for civil rights. They were the precursors of Stonewall, the feminist movement, Occupy Wall Street, It Gets Better- and much more.

Marginalization.

It means not being part of the body- on the margins.

Marginalize: “to put or keep (someone) in a powerless or unimportant position within a society or group.”

There are many ways to marginalize and be marginalized.

Socially. Economically. Politically. Physically. Ideologically. Theologically, Spiritually. Religiously. Scientifically. Literarily. Geographically. Hygienically. Racially. By almost any reason human beings can think of.

There’s a psychological principle that’s used to keep people in their place.

It’s very effective- and it’s become so commonplace that most of us don’t realize that it’s happening. And it’s all around us.

It’s called shame. And it’s a killer.

Shame is used by persons or institutions in power to promote powerlessness. It’s often confused with guilt, but it’s very different.

Guilt is a feeling that arises inside from trespassing a value. I feel bad.

Shame comes from the outside and it’s a judgment “You are bad”

We can internalize this shame, believing it ourselves, that because someone or something in power thinks we’re bad, their authority is accepted and we believe it ourselves.

Does this make sense?

Guilt can often be helpful because it helps us define our values- keeps us from doing things against what we believe and hold dear.

I have never found shame to be helpful.

Shame is what often brings young people to hurt or even kill themselves. Shame is disguised as bullying. Shame is disguised as wealth. Shame is disguised as political or religious power. Shame tells us that we aren’t who we “should” be.

I want you to be very clear about the disease of shame in our world. I want you to be able to recognize it so that you can avoid it in your own lives and can counter it when you see it in the world around you.

And I’ll give you the best example I know. Every time you hear a “should” or shouldn’t”, you’re more than likely about to hear a shaming statement or question.

You should know better. You shouldn’t act that way. You shouldn’t complain. You should sit down and be quiet. You shouldn’t ask for what you need. You shouldn’t rock the boat.

Does that make sense?

Which brings us back to marginalization.

What are some of the reasons people are marginalized in our world?

What are some of the ways people are marginalized in our country?

What are particular ways people are marginalized in Bozeman, Montana?

In the US we have a particular social theory called capitalism that was supposed to equalize all people who worked for a living. The theory is that if you work hard, you will be able to thrive.

It is sadly and deeply untrue at this point in our history.

The minimum wage cannot support a family of four unless both parents work over 40 hours a week.

People who have millions- perhaps billions- of dollars in this country have never worked a hard day in their lives. They simply were born into the “right” families. Families of wealth, power and influence. Sounds a lot like Feudal Europe.

I don’t think that this was how it was supposed to work.

We have enshrined wealth in this country, further marginalizing the poor, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged. Some to the point of despair.

As spiritual people, it is not our job to create despair; it is in fact, the opposite of our job.

There once was a group of people who “were together and had all things in common. They would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” They cared for the widow and the orphan with great care and “They were of one heart and one mind and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”

Any guesses?

These quotes are from the book of the Acts of the Apostles- they describe the early Christian community.

Sounds a lot like socialism doesn’t it?

Oops- I said the S word.

All spiritual traditions recognize the marginalized as a part of their mission- and all spiritual traditions recognize the importance of restoring humanity to every human being.

In my tradition, we believe God is in love with every human being- not just those with wealth or power or prestige.

Our job is to bring humanity back to the forefront.

Our job is to see those on the margins and bring them in. Our job is to speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves. Our job is to bring the truth of systems of government and society to the surface- if they don’t serve all equally, they don’t serve at all.

And God is here for everybody.

Despite what some of those in power would have us believe.

Christmas Sermon 2014

I wonder how many of you remember Art Linkletter. He originated this program called Kids say the Darndest Things. He would get a child or two or even a small group and ask them questions and the responses (at least the ones we saw) were truly hilarious. I remember two interviews in particular. The first was a little girl about five or six with a heavy Brooklyn accent:

Mr Linkletter: How do you feel about being in school?

Girl: I LOOOOVE School!

What do you think of your teacher?

I LOOOOVE my teacher!

Well what do you think of your mommy and Daddy?

I LOOOOOOOOVE my Mommy and Daddy!

Do you like ice cream?

I LOOOOOOOOVE ice cream!

You seem to love everything I ask you about.

Well, I’m a very loving person!

I love that story because it’s really true, isn’t it? Deep down we’re very loving people. There are things that we love, people that we love, animals that we love, places that we love, foods that we love, seasons that we love, books that we love, movies that we love music that we love- and the list goes on and on.

We love what speaks to us.

The other interview was with a group of kids and Art Linkletter asks them:

Have you ever been in love?

And this boy, who’s probably again five or six says “Oh Yes!”

Mr Linkletter asks “With whom are you in love?” He was very correct in his grammar.

And the little boy, without missing a beat, says pointing to a girl in the group “I’m in love with her!”

The little girl memorably shrieks and starts crying.

Whereupon Mr Linkletter says to the little boy “I’m not really sure, but that little girl doesn’t seem to share your love.”

The little boy says “Well, I’m In love with her, I don’t just love her. And I don’t suppose she can do anything about that.”

Out of the mouths of babes….

Today we celebrate Christmas- The feast of the birth of Christ. The Christ Mass.

The celebration that God’s love for us became manifest in a baby born in a barn. Not a palace or the suburbs or a gated community or a hospital or even a house.

He was born in a barn.

In a country occupied by a foreign power.

To poor parents who probably didn’t really know what they were doing- as most parents of their firstborn will attest.

Born also to a people who yearned for God’s light. And to the whole world as well.

I love the Christmas story because it’s so simple.

And because it’s so filled with complicated richness.

For centuries the Jewish people had walked in anticipation of Isaiah’s words “you who walk in darkness shall see a great light”.

I’ve known a few Rabbis in my life and one of the things they have taught me is this:

For hundreds of years The Jewish people had cultivated a relationship with this God who delivered them from oppressors and violence and injustice and who asked them to wrestle with theology- to get down and dirty with questions and curiosity- because if anyone can take a question God can.

Being an Episcopalian means using our heads as well as our hearts. We get to question things. We get to wrestle with things, just like Jacob wrestled with the angel.

Today, I’m going to ask you to wrestle with this: God is in love with you.

God is in love with you.

And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Who’s been in love?

When a person falls in love, the world changes, does it not?

And if that love is returned- well, we might even say that we’ve experienced the Divine.

Being in love is not about doing the right things, saying the right things, wearing the right clothes, showing up at the right place, ordering the right food…. Love is much simpler than that.

True love is delighting in the presence of the Other- and knowing that they delight in the presence of me.

This is the essence of Christmas: God delights in us.

I’ll say it again- God delights in us.

Yeah, I know we don’t always get it right, but we’re trying.

And when someone is in love with you, they forgive when you apologize, right?

So does God forgive us.

God delights in us so much that that delight became a person.

It became Jesus.

He is the manifestation of God being in love with us.

Which is pretty amazing if you stop to think about it.

God is in love with you. God is in love with me. Are you wrestling?

We celebrate it in the words of scripture we hear and in the Eucharist- the ultimate sacrifice of someone in love.

Listen to the words “This is my body broken for you- this is my blood shed for you”-

Words of love from a parent to a child. “I give my life for you.”

Words of the lover to the beloved “All that is mine is yours.”

I also want you to remember something else:

God is in love with the people we find it hardest to love- that’s the most important thing to remember.

When you find a person hard to love remember this: God not only loves them, God is in love with them.

God is in love with some “miserable people”.

And sometimes those “miserable people” is us.

And when you have a bad day and feel unloved and find it hard to believe that anybody loves you, remember this: God not only loves you but God is in love with you.

And I don’t suppose there is anything you can do about that.

Except to try and love back.

Like Jesus did.

Amen

Dare We Hope?

My sermon to the UUFB today:

There are a lot of words we use every day,
that we don’t really pause to consider.
“Hope” is one of those words.

What do you think of when you hear the word “Hope”?

For most of us, “hope” will conjure up images of fantastical satisfaction and happiness- or maybe the iconic images of a certain presidential campaign.

Maybe almost trite images.

And yet, there’s an allure to the word “Hope”

In that presidential campaign, the opponents made fun of the word, made light of it- and I would submit- that may be why they lost.
They underestimate the human gift of optimism.
And I do think it’s a gift.

It’s very easy to look around and see the evidence of malignancy and evil around us- and far away from us- thanks to the miracle of instantaneous global communication. It’s not hard to find stories of death and destruction, exploitation and pain, suffering and greed, disease and addiction.

It’s not hard at all.
In fact, it’s so easy that our society suffers from all sorts of ills because of it- depression being ubiquitous in this day and age.

I think hope and optimism have a bad rap. It’s easy to make fun of the word “hope”. Realists say that it’s fantasy.

I think it’s completely and perfectly human.

Take Winter. It’s no accident that the early Christians of the Northern Hemisphere chose the solstice for the celebration of the Savior’s birth.

The Advent wreath, the greenery, the Christmas tree- none of them originated with Christianity. Some maintain that Germanic tribes placed candles in a sacred circle of greens to symbolize hope in the return of the sun and the promise of Spring. We know Scandinavian people placed candles on a wheel to honor the cycle of the seasons. We know that midwinter- again in the Northern Hemisphere- is around December 21- when days are at their shortest and night is at its longest.

I can imagine that for primitive people whose lives depended on the return of warmth it was good to remind themselves that winter won’t last forever. And I can imagine that it was very hard centuries ago- without antibiotics and polar fleece and refrigerators and Costco- in a harsh climate when those who were weak would often die- I can imagine that some would find it hard to believe that the winter would ever end- especially during the time that night became longer and longer and colder and colder.

But those who knew- those who had lived through the winters before- they were the strength of those who weren’t so sure.
They held out hope.

They knew that in the midst of the longest night- it was important to tell stories of the approaching spring. To hold out hope- to remember optimism when it was at its most elusive.

As always, our lives our shaped by those who have gone before us.

Hope is in our genes- if we care to think about it.

The basic instinct of survival is a mechanism of hope, isn’t it?

Even the limbic system that shuts down our reason in the face of danger and makes us flee, fight or freeze to enable our survival- even that is a sign of hope. It’s in our biology.

That’s probably why the pessimists never win in the long term. Hope isn’t just a trite term for people who can’t handle reality. It’s an attitude for living.

I like to tell my clients that the only difference between excitement and fear is the projected outcome.

The energy is the same- it’s just the projected outcome that’s different. And that projected outcome starts with us.

In our minds, in our hearts, in the way we choose to interpret the world around us. Excitement and curiosity- or fear and dread? It’s our choice- at least more than we think.

One of my favorite stories is this one:

Two boys who were twins, one an incurable optimist, one a pessimist.
The parents were worried about the extremes of behavior and attitude and finally took the boys in to see a psychologist.

The psychologist observed them a while and then said that they could be easily helped. He felt they just needed to adjust to the world by encountering things that would counteract their strong tendencies of optimism and pessimism.

He said that they had a room filled with all the toys a boy could want. They would put the pessimist in that room and allow him to enjoy life.

They also had another room that they filled with horse manure. They put the optimist in that room. They observed both boys through one way mirrors.

The pessimist continued to be a pessimist, stating that he had no one to play with.

They went to look in on the optimist, and were astounded to find him digging through the manure.

The psychologist ran into the room and asked “What on earth are you doing?”

The boy replied “With all this manure, there HAS to be a pony in here somewhere!”

I love that story.

But I know that sometimes i’m not looking though the manure for the pony. Sometimes I’m just sitting in the manure, disgusted. Because, well, you know, it’s manure.

That’s when I forget myself. It’s when I forget my biology.

It’s when I forget that the energy I feel in my body is often harnessed by the projected outcome I hold.

So, yeah, I can sit in the manure, or I can haul the manure back to the garden where it’ll do some good.

My choice.

Our ancestors have chosen to celebrate the return of the light for millennia- it’s why the early Christians chose the bleak midwinter- to link the returning light to the birth of Jesus. Smart, eh?

They’ve chosen to believe that the dawn follows the darkness, that life will continue.

And so do we.

I’m betting that it’s why you’re here today.

And I’m also betting that you’re interested in learning to become skillful at living life with hope.

I believe that the first step in living a more skillful life
is to become more aware of living an UNskilled life.
And by that, I mean living by habit-
not with awareness, not with wonder, not with hope-
but by automatic pilot- habit. By numbing perhaps- or lying to ourselves.

It’s ultimately unsatisfying.
Habits are things we do without thinking. That’s very unskillful.

Skill means bringing awareness and creativity, attention and intention into our endeavors.

I think it’s only by paying close attention that we live skillfully in this world.
And by paying attention to the possibilities is the way we live hopefully in this world.

During his days as president, Thomas Jefferson and a group of companions were traveling across the country on horseback.

They came to a river which had left its banks because of a recent downpour.

The swollen river had washed the bridge away.

Each rider was forced to ford the river on horseback, fighting for his life against the rapid currents.

The very real possibility of death threatened each rider, which caused a traveler who was not part of their group to step aside and watch.

After several had plunged in and made it to the other side, the stranger asked President Jefferson if he would ferry him across the river.

The president agreed without hesitation.

The man climbed on, and shortly thereafter the two of them made it safely to the other side.

As the stranger slid off the back of the saddle onto dry ground, one in the group asked him, “Tell me, why did you select the president to ask this favor of?”

The man was shocked, admitting he had no idea it was the president who had helped him.

“All I know,” he said, “Is that as I thought of asking the question, on some of your faces was written the answer ‘No,’ and on some of them was the answer ‘Yes.’

His was a ‘Yes’ face.”
(C. Swindoll, The Grace Awakening, Word, 1990, p. 6.)

That, my friends, is the face of hope.

So, dare we hope?

If biology and the human spiritual history of millennia have anything to say about it, we dare not.