Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Enemies to Friends

Sermon from February 20, 2011
(Epiphany 7 – Year A)
Matthew 5: 38-48
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Love your enemies.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
These are the seemingly simple and direct words that Jesus speaks to us today in his good news:
Love your enemies.

On New Years’ Day, just over six weeks ago, a terrible act of violence occurred in Alexandria, Egypt.
On New Years’ Day, Muslim extremists bombed the al-Qiddissin, or Saints’ Church, in Alexandria, killing 23 people.
The bombing of this Christian church by Muslim extremists was the worst act of sectarian violence in Egypt in a decade.

Yet Jesus says:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Most Christians in Egypt are Coptic Christians.
The majority of Christians believe that Jesus has two natures: fully human and fully divine.
Yet Coptic Christians believe that Jesus has one nature, a mixture of the human and the divine.
My guess is that – if we were to take a poll of people in St. Alban’s -many here would actually have beliefs very similar to Coptic Christianity.

Anyway, Coptic Christians are a minority group in Egypt, making up only about 10% of the total population.
Coptic Christians in Egypt, as well as other Eastern Orthodox Christians, follow the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar.
Therefore, they celebrate Christmas on January 7, rather than on December 25.

After the horrific bombing of the church in Alexandria on New Years’ Day, radical Islamist websites began circulating lists of Coptic churches in Egypt with instructions on how to attack them.
A video attributed to al-Queda proclaimed:
“Blow up the churches while they are celebrating Christmas or any other time when the churches are packed.”

Coptic Christmas arrived on January 7.
Heightened security was present at Christian churches.
Yet, the most amazing thing happened on Christmas this year.
Muslims in Egypt, thousands of them, gathered in Cairo and Alexandria, encircling the outside of Christian churches.
These Muslims made themselves into human shields, surrounding Christian churches with their bodies to protect the Christians inside who were celebrating Christmas.
And when the Coptic Christians came out of their churches after Christmas worship, their Muslim brothers and sisters clapped and cheered, protecting them in solidarity.

Jesus says:
Love your enemies.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

In response to Muslims forming human circles around Christian churches in Egypt,
Another image began to emerge a few weeks ago from Cairo.
In the middle of the public protests in Egypt, Muslim protesters fell to their knees in Tahrir Square in Cairo for their usual daily prayers.
And as the military police started to stone the protesters who were praying, Christians began to join hands and form a giant human circle around the Muslims who were saying their prayers.
In Egypt, Christians, who are in the minority, returned the gesture and protected the Muslims in solidarity and in friendship.

For Jesus says:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

St. Augustine, the great theologian of the 4th and 5th centuries, once remarked in a sermon:
“God has not called us to love our enemies to the end that they should remain our enemies,
But that they should become our friends.”

In tumultuous Egypt, Muslims surrounded the Coptic Christian minority, making a human shield so that the Christians could worship on Christmas.
And Muslims and Christians became friends.
In tumultuous Egypt, Christians surround Muslims who are bowed down in prayer in the streets, making a human shield so that Muslims can pray to the one God.
And Christians and Muslims became friends.

And in our tumultuous daily lives, who are our enemies?
In our tumultuous lives, who are we to love, wo persecutes us, who are we to pray for, so that they might become our friend?

The most famous Psalm in the whole Bible is Psalm 23.
This is the psalm that begins, in the famous King James Version:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
And in this same King James Version, the psalm also speaks about our enemies as it says:
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

Yet when I try to figure out who in my everyday life is my enemy, it helps me to read Psalm 23 in a more modern translation, a translation such as the one that is in our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
In that translation, the psalm prays:
“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”
Ah-ha, now I can figure out more clearly who my enemies are!

My enemies, my adversaries, are those who trouble me.
And when I take an inventory of my own everyday life, there are plenty of people who trouble me.
Why just in this last week alone, there have been several people who have troubled me.

This last week Wednesday, I had a brief email exchange with a good friend.
He and I were trying to work out some plans for an upcoming event.
He suggested one plan, then I suggested another plan, then he emailed this brief message back:
“Nope. No way. Your plan won’t work.”
His short and curt response troubled me.
And I was very tempted to fire back a nasty email in response, but I wisely decided not to escalate the violence.

He later picked up the phone and called me, saying that he realized that conversations via an iPhone keypad are sometimes not the best way to communicate.
This friend was someone who had troubled me.
And for about an hour in my day last Wednesday, he was my enemy, my adversary - and I was mad at him.
Yet now, because of our encounter over the phone, we are now friends again.
For God has not called us to love our enemies… that they should remain our enemies,
But that they should become our friends.

Who is troubling you?
Maybe the person who is troubling you is your ex-wife or your ex-husband,
Maybe they are your enemy because of things that were done years and years ago.
Yet Jesus says to love our enemy - and reach out our hand of friendship to make a human shield of forgiveness for the other person.

Maybe the person who is troubling you is your boss or a co-worker,
Maybe they are your enemy because you feel that they do not value your work.
Yet Jesus says to love our enemy - and reach out our hand of friendship to make a human shield of understanding for the position of the other person.

Maybe the person who is troubling you is a long-estranged friend, maybe they are your enemy because of harsh words of misunderstanding that were once spoken.
Yet Jesus says to love our enemy - and reach out our hand of friendship to make a human shield of a clean slate for the other person.

For God has not called us to love our enemies so that they should remain our enemies,
But that they should become our friends.

And if Coptic Christians and Muslims in tumultuous Egypt can reach out a hand of friendship and protect each other in a ring of solidarity,
Certainly we can reach out our hand in friendship to those who trouble us in our tumultuous daily lives.

So love those who trouble you.
Reach out your hand in friendship.
Love your enemies - until they become your friends.


Holiness of Life

Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Love your enemies. Be perfect, be holy, just as your heavenly Father is holy. These are the Gospel imperatives that Jesus had for us to hear last Sunday. Tough words; much easier said than done.

In the reading from the Old Testament book of Law, Leviticus, we also heard last Sunday: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (19:2).” Holiness of life (or whole-y-ness of life) is what God commands of us.

How do we lead a holy life? In our hearts, I think we really do know the answer to that question. In family conflicts, do not retaliate, but be kind. In dealing with someone who grates on your nerves, go the extra mile and extend a hand of friendship. In talking about our enemies, both “foreign and domestic,” do not be mean-spirited, but be gracious and open-minded. Be holy, be perfectly loving, just as your heavenly Father is loving.

In practicing the Christian Faith, being holy is not about nice manners; being holy is about loving others in the way that Jesus loves us.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Choose Jesus Christ

Sermon from February 13, 2011
(Epiphany 6 – Year A)
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

I just knew that if I watched TV long enough last Sunday night, I would get me some good sermon material.
After the unfortunate singing of the National Anthem by Christina Aguilera,
After the opening kick-off between the Steelers and the Packers,
After the retro-80s half-time show,
After all of that, the hit TV show Glee was back on for a brand new episode.

For those who do not know, Glee is a TV show on Fox about a high school glee club.
The glee club is filled with a menagerie of kids:
The disabled, the losers, the geeks, as well as a few kids who are also on the cheerleading squad and the football team.

In last Sunday night’s episode of Glee, 3 of the girls are in the glee club, as well as members of the cheerleading squad, under the tyrannical direction of Sue Sylvester.
Yet Sue Sylvester has scheduled the championship cheering competition for the exact same night that the glee club is to be performing the half-time show at the football championship.
The girls, Santana, Brittany and Quinn, must make definitive choice.
The girls can either be on the cheerleading squad –
Or they can be in the Glee club.

Puck, who is a football jock and also in the glee club, comes to talk with the girls.
Puck reminds the girls of the story, the narrative of how the glee club brings life.
Then he gives the girls a choice:
Do you find life and meaning as an up-tight cheerleader?
Or do you find that your heart sings with life when you are in the glee club?

Santana, Brittany and Quinn choose to perform at the half-time show with the glee club.
And the coach of the glee club, Mr. Shu, smiles from the sidelines, pleased that his kids have chosen what brings them life.

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the Hebrew people are presented with a choice.
The Hebrew people can choose to not follow God and to chase after idols.
Or the Hebrew people can choose God and his commandments of justice and love, which will bring them life.

In many ways, Moses has been the coach of the Hebrew people.
Moses led his people out of their slavery in Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea on dry land.
Moses led the people in the desert for 40 years, striking a rock so that water would gush forth and calling down bread from heaven for them to eat.
And now Moses has led his people to the edge of the Promised Land.

Moses recalls the narrative, the story of his chosen people.
Then he asks them to make a choice, as Moses cries out in his farewell address:
“I have set before you life and death.
Choose life [by] loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.”

Last Sunday night in the episode of Glee, the jock named Puck recounts for the girls their story of singing, the narrative of their abundant life.
And then the girls are faced with a choice.
And Moses, the leader of the Hebrew people, recounts the exodus story, the narrative of their abundant life.
And then the Hebrew people are faced with a choice:
A choice to choose death and false idols by going their own way and not following God.
Or a choice to choose life, by loving the Lord and following his ways.

And this morning, my brothers and sisters, we are faced with a choice.
Do we listen to the story, the secular narrative that the world gives to us?
Or do we listen to the story, the sacred narrative that Jesus Christ gives to us?

Last week, I stumbled upon a piece of writing that I know is going to change my ministry.
The Rev. Paul Winton, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina has written a paper, a paper that deals with the concern that our young people, as well as our older people, are not practicing the Christian faith.

This priest writes:
“What is obvious is that from Little League to the summer swim team phenomenon,
When parents are energetically engaged with their children in the actual enterprise…
These are the very enterprises that their children come to value…for a lifetime.”

This priest also writes this:
“The Sacred Narrative…has in fact been driven out by the secular narrative;
Principally the sports narrative.”

Last Wednesday night, Jimmy and I attended the Baylor men’s basketball game vs. Nebraska.
During a timeout in the game, cheerleaders ran down onto the court, carrying boxes of hot pizzas from Pizza Hut.
Those in the stands who cheered the loudest were given an opportunity to win a free pizza.
Consequently, children of all ages screamed at the top of their lungs.
Women began to squeal with excitement.
Fully-grown men jumped up and down like school girls, yelling:
“I want a pizza! I want a pizza!”

Jimmy turned to me and said:
“I just wish that people would get half this excited about receiving Communion.”

My friends, I am serious when I say this:
When we are more excited about receiving a free pizza at a basketball game than we are to receiving the bread of heaven,
Then we are not choosing life, but we are choosing to worship idols.
When we are more engaged and energized by the narrative of the Super Bowl than we are to the sacred story of Jesus’ resurrection that gives us eternal life,
Then we are not choosing life, but we are choosing to worship idols.

And as your pastor, as your spiritual coach, I am genuinely concerned.
And as Moses looked into the Promised Land, he was genuinely concerned, as well.

Moses was concerned that his people would choose to forget their sacred story, the exodus narrative, the story that God delivers us from slavery and feeds us in the wilderness and leads us to a land of promise.
And I am concerned that we will choose to forget, or never even know, our sacred story, the narrative of how Jesus sets us free from our bondage and feeds us with daily bread and leads us into the promised land of peace and justice for all.

Therefore, as your coach, as your leader, I see a perfect opportunity on the horizon for us to choose life, to choose to not forget our sacred narrative.
A perfect opportunity awaits to choose to not replace the sacred narrative with the narrative of sports or careers or upward mobility.

In one month, on Ash Wednesday, March 9th, the season of Lent will begin.
The 40-day season of Lent is the Episcopal Church’s version of a revival.
And during this upcoming season of Lent, we will re-double and revive our resolve to choose to say ‘no’ to death - and to the worship of the world’s idols.
We will choose to say ‘yes’ to life, by sharing and witnessing to our sacred story and by following Jesus all the way to his cross and his empty tomb.

So, choose life – and put more energy and enthusiasm into weekly worship and Sunday school and Bible study than you do for soccer practices or gymnastics or cheering at Little League games.

Choose life – and put more energy and enthusiasm into reading the sacred scriptures than you do for researching basketball teams to complete your March Madness brackets.

Choose life – and put more energy and enthusiasm into your practice of prayer than you do for your practice of jogging or bicycling or arm-chair quarterbacking.

The cheerleader girls on Glee had a choice.
The Hebrew people on the edge of the Promised Land had a choice.
And you have a choice:
To choose the secular story that the world gives;
Or to choose the sacred narrative of Jesus’ abundant life.

I am concerned about the choices you make.
Choose life.
Choose Jesus Christ.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

No Omitted Verses

As many of you know, in church on Sundays, we read scriptures that are appointed in the lectionary. The lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings; we read 4 selections each Sunday from the: Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament and Gospel. Many times, the selections may be shortened by not reading the portion that is in brackets. On the scriptures that are printed on the insert in the worship leaflet, these optional omissions are noted by green brackets.

It is my policy that we never omit these “optional” verses in our worship. I like to say: “When you think that you have heard enough scripture in your life, then we can talk about omitting verses!” And my experience is that the suggested omissions are sometimes the most troubling or interesting parts of scripture, which to me means that we should wrestle with them all the more!

This Sunday, if we omitted verses, then we would not hear about how we are called to be a “repairer of the breach (Isaiah)” or that “the wicked will see [the righteous] and be angry (Psalm)” or that “we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians).”

I am glad that we have so much to learn about God from the unbracketed – and the bracketed – verses of scripture.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Road Less Traveled

When I was in the fifth grade, and just about to leave the comfortable confines of elementary school to move on to the big, bad world of junior high school, the school librarian, Mrs. Marks, read us a poem. The poem that she read to us was Robert Frost’s famous, “The Road Not Taken.”

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

When I entered into junior high school, I was certainly faced with choices, choices regarding classes and cigarettes and drugs. Throughout my life, I have been aware that there are two roads that diverge in the wood. And I have discovered that the road less traveled has made all the difference in my life.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims to his followers that he alone is the Bread of Life, that we must eat this bread, that we must believe in him, that we must consume him and eat him and feed on him in order to live an abundant life. This teaching is too difficult to swallow; therefore, many of his followers choose the road more traveled and leave Jesus behind.
Yet a small group of followers choose the road less traveled. His closest followers ask Jesus: “Lord, to whom else can we go?” They realize that their options are limited; there is no better option in life than to believe in Jesus, for by choosing that road, it has made all the difference.

Each and every day, we see two roads that diverge in the wood. And we must make a choice: do we take the road that the world says leads to life? Or, do we take the road less traveled, the road where Jesus’ teaching is difficult, the road that asks us to give up everything, the road that calls us to lay down our life for our friends, the road where we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus so that the Bread of Life may dwell in us, and we in him?

As your pastor, I have promised God and you that I will show you that there are two roads that diverge in the woods. You do have a choice. Yet as your spiritual leader, it is my joy when I see you choose the road less traveled.

When I see you choosing to study the Gospel of John, when I see you opening the Bible with your teenager in the youth room, when I see you washing dishes in the parish hall kitchen after a Sunday lunch, when I see you singing in the choir room every Wednesday night, when I see you pulling into the parking lot every Sunday to eat the bread of heaven that gives life to the world, when I see you taking the road less traveled, then it is my joy to know that you are choosing the road to abundant and eternal life.

Take the road less traveled by. Choose Jesus. For he has made all the difference.