Sunday, August 30, 2009

Do-ers of the Word

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter |August 30, 2009 | 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Scriptures: Song of Solomon 2:8-13 ; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Those of us who are more or less of our ilk can often find ourselves suspended between two human ideals ... ideals that are familiar to our faith.

One ideal concerns the “centered life” ... the fulfilment of our human potential ... the deepening of our inner wells ... the artful creation of a life within ... the hallowing of one’s spirit and soul ... the sacredness of simply “being”.

The other ideal concerns the “engaged” life ... re-enacting the puritan work ethic ... the desire to be of use and the fear of being useless ... embracing frenetic activity and loathing the sedentary life characterized by the phrase: “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” ... the simple imperative of “doing”.

Philosophers and theologians have played a kind of mental teeter-totter on the two seats and sides of this seeming paradox between the quietly centered life and the energetically engaged life. We all have our favourite thinkers on matters and conundrums like these.

One of my favorite philosophers is named “Earl”. Just Earl. He might have a last name, but I don’t know it. Nearly every day I go to where I know I can find Earl. Whenever I go there, Earl’s always there. Earl’s retired and there doesn’t seem there’s any place he’s particularly interested in going except where I find him—which is either at home or sitting on a park bench with his buddy. Earl is not a vaunted philosopher ... he hasn’t written any books—though he’s been featured in books ... he’s probably never given a speech. In particular he’s fond of aphorisms ... little pithy sayings usually made famous by better known philosophers.

Now like many of us, Earl struggles with discerning the right balance between being centered and being engaged ... between being and doing. In my time with Earl, it seems clear that “being” has a clear advantage over “doing” in his daily life.

Just the other day Earl was in his advanced thinking position which, to the uninformed eye, might look like simply laying on the couch. Earl’s wife Opal happens by and pauses in silence very likely wondering if Earl is thinking ... sleeping ... or simply dead. Earl ends the suspense by saying: “Just because I’m lying here on the sofa doesn’t mean I’m wasting time.” Earl goes on to say: “Someone once said, ‘The time you enjoy wasting isn’t wasted time.’” Opal reflects on this and then says, as only the spouse of a philosopher can, “Then you’re probably the happiest man alive.”

While those of us who are Earl’s acquaintances might think the struggle between being and doing is quite settled for our retired and thoroughly relaxed philosopher friend, there are times when the impetus to do and act and engage nearly moves him to do these things. A recent day found Earl sitting on his front steps gripping the top stair looking quite focused and determined. Opal approaches and Earl turns and asks: “You want to know what I’m doing?” “O .... kay ...” Opal says. Sometimes Opal is content to leave Earl be and not ask too many questions. “I’m forcing myself NOT to be a grumpy old man. No one likes them. So ... I’m changing my ways. See?” he says pointing toward the street, “Those teenagers are cutting across our lawn and I’m not yelling or saying a word. I’m adopting a Buddhist approach: “Don’t just do something; sit there.” With that, he closes his eyes, fiercely grips the top step and begins to wobble and vibrate with the forced effort. After a moment of watching his best efforts at practicing the Zen mind, Opal says: “I think you’d better do SOMETHING, Earl. Your face is turning purple and smoke is coming out of your ears.”

Oh, by the way, if you’d like to meet Earl and Opal, you’re welcome to join me some morning as I gather with them between the pages of the morning comics under the title of their particular strip which simply reads: “Pickles”.

So this is the “pickle” that we sometimes find ourselves in and it’s the same pickle facing James’ community in this morning’s epistle reading: the seemingly opposite pull between centering and engaging ... between being and doing.

Within our lives as modern Christians we can feel the pull in each of these directions. There is the pull of the quiet place ... the moments of prayer ... meditation and solitude ... orienting the inner strands of your being much as a Zen priest rakes the sand in his garden. Those of us who have found the warmth and light of God’s presence and being in these times and practices can’t be faulted for wishing to dwell in that place ... to return again and again to that sacred presence. And those who are deeply rooted in these ways in the ground of God’s being are an enormous blessing to those others of us who distract easily and who sit still only with great effort. [They are a blessing because they are ... ]

For these others, there’s the rush of engagement ... the job to do and to do well ... the call and response with our lives and energies ... the lavish spending of oneself in the service of high ideals amidst the nitty-gritty details of life ... to echo with one’s life the credo of the writer, Jack London who said: I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. Those of us who prefer to engage our hands in prayer yet know that our world has been deeply blessed by the engagers and responders and do-ers.

And so seemingly, we’re back to the mental teeter-totter ... the two seats and sides of this seeming paradox between the quietly centered life and the energetically engaged life ... the seemingly opposite pull between being and doing ... between faith and works.

Now I’ve framed these polarities in this last way—“faith and works”—because a cursory reading of the New Testament might lead one to think that faith and works are somehow mutually exclusive ... that they cannot co-exist within one person ... that there’s a choice one has to make between them ... or that one is somehow superior to the other.

You’ll probably remember that Paul, the Apostle, placed a great deal of emphasis on becoming “right” with God through faith alone. “Justification by faith through grace” is of Paul’s theology in his letters to the Romans and Galatians ... and powerfully echoed by Martin Luther 1500 years later. Paul was rejecting the belief that one’s efforts, one’s “works” were in any way sufficient for “salvation” ... for being in a right and eternal relationship with God. But it was not “good works” per se that were at stake for Paul. Paul was not advocating against living out one’s life in the manner of Jesus. He was simply saying that the intricate, demanding religious practices centered around the minutiae of the Law might very well lead the practitioner away from understanding the pure, unearned GRACE of God that was present in Jesus.

There are those who think they read between the lines of the New Testament a conflict between the theologies of James and Paul. But I’m not so sure.

The Letter of James isn’t really a “letter” per se. It is more a kind of New Testament wisdom writing. The author is writing in the spirit and name of James, the brother of Jesus and an early church leader. The author is a Christian teacher or preacher seeking to offer guidance to Christians on “everyday faithfulness”. In particular, the author of James emphasized the “works of faith” and “the law of love in action”. Faith WITHOUT works—without corresponding acts of compassion and kindness and mercy—faith without those kinds of works was really no faith at all ... that kind of faith is a sham ... a phony ... a mockery of TRUE faith.

Emphasis on “works” made Martin Luther nervous and he wasn’t even sure that James was a “Christian” writing and not sure that it should’ve been included in the New Testament. But I don’t think Martin Luther was at odds at all with the concept of “faith at work” or “love in action”. Luther wrote a whole treatise on “Good Works”.

And James, the letter, is not at all at odds with Paul or Martin Luther and the idea of the all-sufficiency of God’s grace. James is grounded in the assumption of God’s great love and grace as the soil out of which the fruits of our faithfulness grow. James simply asks the question of his community and every Christian community since: “If you don’t bear fruit befitting the great love and mercy of God, then the soil in which you’re planted may be sterile and dead.”

To say it even more pointedly: “If the good words we speak and affirm don’t find a corresponding commitment and activity in our lives ... then the faith we claim is in danger of being no faith at all.”

It strikes me that this nation is a nation of “good words” ... in the past we’ve been referred to in high places as a “city on a hill”—an echo of Isaiah’s reference to Israel as a “light to the nations”. Even if as a nation we do not have a common creed ... a common faith, we have high ideals that are well summarized by Emma Lazarus’ poem that interprets that intention of the Statue of Liberty. Here is one way of depicting the “good words and ideals” of this nation:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

We are in the middle of an ugly, knock-down, drag-out battle over national health care. The battle is the new locus of the highly partisan war for the heart of this nation and its voters. In regard to the question of national health care, I know where I stand and many of us stand. Many of us are confident we know where God privately and perhaps not-so-privately stands in this battle. But without invoking God’s name, we can yet put Lady Liberty’s compassionate vision as the appropriate backdrop against which all of our conversations about the welfare of the most vulnerable of our nation’s people should be held. Use the vision as a bit of a litmus test, if we will, of whether or not we, as a nation, really do live up to the words of compassion and mercy and justice that are etched in brass in a New York harbour.

As I think about Lady Liberty’s grand vision—a vision that is deeply consistent with any so-called Christian ethic ... and as I think about the tens of millions of American without health insurance who are being bandied about like pawns in this healthcare debate, I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words from this morning’s reading from Mark where he castigates the hypocrisy of those whose faith is without works:

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

Will we choose faith or works? Will we choose grand, eloquent words and high-minded ideals? Or will we choose to act in mercy and compassion and justice?

Let’s be VERY clear that any of us who feel that we need to choose between faith and action are facing a false dilemma. It may help to return to the image of the teeter-totter which does not suggest disconnected realities, but profoundly connected and interdependent matters of our lives of faith.

As someone has suggested:"Faith" and "works" are not opposed; they're not even disconnected. The truly wise, truly faithful individual is known not by what they say they believe, but in how they live what they believe. After all, according to Eugene Peterson, "Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is skill in living. For what good is a truth if we don't know how to live it? What good is an intention if we can't sustain it?"

One of the great pains in this time of recession is the spectre of unemployment. California is at the highest recorded level of unemployment since modern measures of joblessness began. Unemployment is tragic at several levels, but not the least of which is that the energies and ideas and the “usefulness” of an extraordinary number of our employable neighbors are not being utilized.

James’ concern is that the Word of God—the heart, mind, spirit and intentions of God’s own being were under-employed, under-utilized, largely un-realized in the lives of too many who made great professions of faith. James urges his listeners, then and now, to take rich and living faith we have embraced and internalized ... to the next step. To plant that faith and to allow it to flourish in rich and compassionate acts and decisions. Loving action rooted in deep faith. That’s the call of James to us and it’s a call that can be heard and heeded by any person of good faith and good conscience whose professed ideals are underemployed and underutilized.

We are human “beings” ... spiritual souls capable of great depth. Let us also hear the call to be human “doings”—hearing within the truthful depths of our souls the call to employ the just and merciful ideals of God’s own heart ... and the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ.

Faith at work. Love in action. Hearers AND Doers of God’s word of grace, mercy and peace.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

At Home in the Shalom of God

A Sermon by The Rev. Greg Ledbetter | August 23, 2009 | 12th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture: Psalm 84

Do you love a good adventure? A time of excitement and challenge?

For me a good adventure often centers around camping in the “great outdoors” ... hunkering down among the sparks and cinders of a campfire, slapping at a few friendly flying critters, bathing daily in SPF 70 sunscreen as Jan insists should be my custom, staggering up and down mountain trails while the dogs chase varmints. THAT is really living.

Now I know, there are among us gentle souls who find that stepping from the shower onto the bare tile of a strange motel room to be wild and woolly enough for their refined sensibilities. If they’ll allow me to show them REAL living, I’ll drag them along to Mexico sometime where we stand barefoot (and often in the “all together”) on uneven and muddy concrete floors and luxuriate under one and a half gallons of drizzling, luke-warm water ... SUCH LUXURY! When I come home after such an experience and realize—after the fact—that I’ve just used ten gallons of water to rinse my hair ... well.

Showers were few and far between in our campgrounds this summer, but Jan and I were amused by one camper’s determination to not altogether forsake the comforts of home. This tent camper, camping in a rustic high altitude campground, brought along his satellite TV dish, a television and a portable generator for powering up the whole mess. We walked around the campground one evening and while everyone else sat around their campfires talking and roasting marshmallows, this camper sat in front of his bear box where he’d placed his TV and watched the evening news.

For those of us for whom camping is appealing and meaningful, we might well puzzle, as I have this summer, over this rather odd enjoyment we get out of choosing to live for a time as nomads ... as those without permanent homes ... to live lightly and with fewer possessions and attachments ... to live, as so many do all around us, as though we were ... homeless.

I think for many, the simplicity of life lived out of a tent and over a Coleman stove is such a refreshing contrast to their work-a-day lives burdened with cramped schedules, multiple obligations and all of the “stuff” that we accumulate so easily in this acquisitive age. When Jan and I travelled to Vermont four summers ago to share in our old church’s bicentennial celebration, we travelled with two small suitcases. In one suitcase we took a few clothes and our toiletries. In the other suitcase we carried a small tent, an inflatable mattress and a few blankets. And except for food, we needed nothing else. We continue to look back on that time of paring things back to ONLY the essentials as a kind of golden time ... a time remarkably special in ways we still have trouble explaining.

And by contrast, for those of us who are blessed to have homes—and we know that’s not all of us ... but for those who are, do we not know of times when, in spite of a roof over our heads, we felt strangely “away from home”, without belonging, rootless and placeless ... ? Could it be that our “homes” and all that go with them can keep us from understanding what it means to “be at home”?

What does “home” mean for us? What does it mean to “be at home”? Is “home” a matter of “bricks and mortar”, a roof over the head? Or will we consider that “home” is a far deeper matter than that?

Be sure that this is not a modern matter, a modern anxiety, these questions and concerns about “home”. Even in the Hebrew scriptures there appears to be consternation and differing opinions about where and how one is most at home ... and even the questions of God’s home ... God’s dwelling ... God’s abiding place.

Today’s text, Psalm 84, is understood to be a song of pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem and the Temple where God’s presence is thought to have dwelled. We have sung the song with the pilgrims already, but let me read the opening phrases once again:

How lovely is your dwelling place,

O God of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints

for the courts of God;

my heart and my flesh

sing for joy to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,

and the swallow a nest for herself,

where she may lay her young, at your altars,

O God of hosts, my Ruler and my God.

Happy are those who live in your house,

ever singing your praise.

The Temple as God’s home.

I saw a tiny clip the other night of Jay Leno doing an embarrassing interview with a young woman. Jay asked the woman “Who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?” She puzzles for a moment and then says: “I have NO idea.” Jay then asks: “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” On the woman’s face is immediate recognition and she cries out: “Sponge Bob!” Yikes.

No pilgrim in the time of the Psalmist would have been stumped by the question: “Where does God live?” Of COURSE God lives in the Temple. The Temple is God’s home ... the Temple is God’s throne from which God rules God’s people. The psalm reflects the belief that of all the places in the world that God could choose to dwell, God chooses to live in the Temple and there to be served and worshipped and adored by God’s chosen people.

And God’s dwelling place, as depicted in this psalm, is a place of great and gentle welcome. Even the tiny feathered beings of creation can nest and find rest in the precincts of God. Even strangers and foreigners who reach out to God’s presence, as the psalm goes on to say, even they will find a gracious and hospitable place and a gracious and hospitable God.

It’s too bad that this ancient sense of the hospitality of God and God’s dwelling place doesn’t receive the same rigorous attention as, say, the Ten Commandments. If those who think of themselves as “Judeo-Christian” believed that any place God dwelt should be a place of gracious hospitality and kindly welcome, what a different world this would be. What a WONDERFUL world this would be.

This psalm of pilgrimage contains echoes of one of this summer’s themes from Peace Camp. Our resident theologian, Rita Nakashima Brock, reminded us that for the first thousand years of the church’s existence, “paradise” was not so much a place beyond sight or a place beyond time, but an earthly dream that sought embodiment in the here and now. The Temple for the Hebrew pilgrim in the time of the psalmist was a kind of earthly paradise ... a place where one’s whole being could co-mingle with the heart and being and goodness of the Creator of the Universe. Imagine joining with that pilgrimage toward Jerusalem, toward the Temple, toward paradise ... and imagine feeling that yearning to simply be in the presence of God where prayers and songs flowed as naturally from the center of your soul as breath did from your lungs. To be at home in God’s home: PARADISE. And to know that in God’s presence, in God’s home, you are fully welcome, fully safe, fully embraced: PARADISE.

It is as St. Augustine said in his “Confessions” many years later: “Our souls know no rest until they find their rest in thee.”

Do we not come to this place of worship each Sunday with some of that happy yearning still within us? The yearning of the pilgrim who leaves home to find her or his truest home?

Standing alongside the psalmist’s worshipful certainty that the Temple was God’s true and permanent home are notes of concern and caution ... concern and caution about being overly confident that one could know exactly God’s whereabouts ... concern and caution about whether one could build a home for God and then “keep” God there ... concern and caution that there were even deeper matters than the worship of God that should not be neglected—matters of justice and mercy.

You may remember that earlier this summer one of the texts of the day concerned Nathan the prophet having to puncture King David’s ardent dream of building a home for God—building the Temple. Until the time of David, God had been more or less ... homeless ... God was a vagrant God ... wandering from place to place as the people of Israel wandered toward a home, but not yet in possession of a home. But within the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures there is an awareness that that was not all bad. There was a proximity to God that was rich and altogether different than if God were to be “ensconced” in a temple made of hewn stone.

It’s sort of like the families we saw this summer gathered around campfires, their faces glowing in the flicker of the flames and glowing with the joy of simply being together. When they leave the sacred simplicity of the mountains, will they still come together as they did while camping? Or ... will they return to the many things that continuously draw them apart?

In pilgrimage and with God having no home other than the “tent of meeting”, God was especially close and real. Within the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures there is a legitimate fear of too closely identifying God with any one place ... and a fear that once a “permanent” home has been built for God, God’s people will begin to believe they have captured God ... the majestic wildness of God now somehow contained and channelled and controlled to serve the people who claim to be serving God.

In today’s other lectionary text from the Hebrew scriptures, which I did not read, King Solomon—King David’s son—is offering a prayer of dedication for the newly constructed temple he has been allowed to build. He asks in this prayer: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!"

The Temple may serve as a large and semi-permanent “tent of meeting” where God meets those who call upon God. But let us not think that somehow any temple or any cathedral or any church or any faith or any denomination or any single soul can somehow contain the allness and the fullness of the God of all creation.

That kind of thinking, the “God in a box” kind of thinking, is what provokes the wrath of the prophets who alone, sometimes, seem to understand the “wild, holy and free” nature of the God who will not contained ... or constrained. To imagine that one has boxed up God or imprisoned God with one’s religious edifice is fail to hear God’s cry that the truest worship of God and the fullest experience of dwelling in the presence of God is when justice and righteousness are the ground upon which the worshippers kneel when they pray to God.

Amos the prophet was a simple shepherd from Tekoa. And sometimes it takes the simple ones to see the truth that those who are brighter and wealthier choose to ignore. Amos is looking at the nation of Israel long after the Temple had been built. The walls and ceilings of the Temple were stained dark with the smoke of the fires of sacrifice that the priests were sure that God desired above anything. The people were quite confident that God’s permanent presence in the Temple—and permanent blessing on the people was a given, no matter how far they strayed from the ideals of God’s heart. But Amos, dwelling outside the inner circle of privilege saw the results of a people who went through the motions of the faith, but no longer understood the heart of the faith. And so he declares judgment upon the people of Israel with these words:

because you trample on the poor

and take from them levies of grain,

you have built houses of hewn stone,

but you shall not live in them;

you have planted pleasant vineyards,

but you shall not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your transgressions,

and how great are your sins—

you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,

and push aside the needy in the gate.

Seek good and not evil,

that you may live;

and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,

just as you have said.

Hate evil and love good,

and establish justice in the gate;

it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,

will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

I hate, I despise your festivals,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

You know with a little counselling and cognitive therapy, Amos could have turned those grim thoughts into happy thoughts.

Where does God live? Where does God dwell? Where can we find the “courts of God”? The Temple in Jerusalem is long gone ... and long gone, I think, is that God is to be too closely identified with any one place ... or any one religious practice or people. The lingering message of Amos is that God is to be found where justice and righteousness are made manifest. The building blocks of this Temple that cannot be built with human hands are: acts of mercy and kindness ... the struggle for fairness ... the work to end oppression and injustice ... the lifelong labor for the fulfilment of the vision of Shalom. And the building blocks are human beings of all places and inclinations who choose every day and in ever thought and action to “seek good and not evil.”

Amos says: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.”

There’s an ad on TV you may have seen. A camera follows a little boy as he wanders around his neighbourhood in some far off, foreign land. You can see that he’s wandering around with a little tape recorder recording all of the familiar sounds of home. And then you see him playing these sounds over the phone to his homesick sister who is in college in a far off place.

Echoes of home ... echoes of our true home. Our true home is in the heart of God’s being and the sounds and the sights and the tastes and feel that are the essence of the heart of God’s being are the sounds and sights, tastes and feel of Shalom—peace with justice, righteousness mingled with mercy.

We are each, in our own way, pilgrims on a journey from where we are to a place beyond our sight. Not beyond our sight because it is hidden in some heavenly cloud, but because it is a peaceful dream that is yet beyond our reach. And still we journey on, as pilgrims do, journeying toward God, journeying with God, sharing the joy of the dream of Shalom as we travel and sing. And I think it would be a fair revision of today’s psalm to exchange the vision of an earthly Temple for the vision of a temple of justice and righteousness, where all have a place and a purpose, where all may find and make a home in peace:

How lovely is your Shalom,

O God of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints

for the Shalom of God;

my heart and my flesh

sing for joy to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,

and the swallow a nest for herself,

where she may lay her young, within your Shalom,

O God of hosts, my Ruler and my God.

Happy are those who live in your Shalom,

ever singing your praise.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

School Rules

A Sermon by The Rev. Brian Dixon | August 9, 2009 | Ordinary Time

Scripture: Ephesians 4:25--5:2

We are now 9 days into August. To the dismay of many students and teachers and the joy of many parents school will be starting back very soon. I have a nephew that will be starting kindergarten next week. And with the start of school comes another set of school rules to be learned and obeyed. I trust that many of you still remember some of those school rules that were printed up on a bulletin board. I’m thinking particularly about elementary school, not so much high school where the rules are don’t do drugs, don’t bring weapons on school grounds, or don’t lock Brian in his locker. (Maybe that last one is just me.) School rules in elementary school are almost always in the positive as opposed to the negative. Think back, what are some of those rules or ways to behave? (Give time for folks to respond.)

All of these rules or ways to behave in school are usually pretty simple, simple ways of living with one another. Be Kind. Be Nice. Share. Tell the truth. Hold hands. Making sure that everyone has a safe environment in which to learn. They are ways of living in community. We don’t just teach our kids how to read and write in school, but we also teach them how to live in the world. And at the heart of what we ask our children to be is to be kind. It is simple. Be kind. And it is at the core of what the writer of this letter to the Ephesians is asking that community too. Be kind. I considered just standing up today and saying be kind and then sitting down. It is that easy. But we all know its not. It’s not that easy to be kind otherwise we all would be. Otherwise the writer wouldn’t spend so much time on it. We as adults fail over and over to live up to what we teach our children in Kindergarten. I’m not even sure we value it at all. We believe what Julia said in the 80s and 90s sitcom “Designing Women”--the Dolores Street folks can tell you I quote from this show a lot--she said in response to someone saying “the meek shall inherit the earth...” “Yes but they wont’ keep it for very long.”

Nancy Lamott a cabaret singer who died of ovarian cancer in the mid-90s sang a song that went a little like this:

So many things we can’t control
so many hurts that happen everyday
so many heartaches that pierce the soul
so much pain that will never go away
How do we make it better?
How do we make through? What can we do when there’s nothing we can do?
We can be kind
We can take care of each other
We can remember that deep down inside we all need the same things
And maybe we’ll find
If we are there for each other
That together we’ll weather
Whatever tomorrow may bring
Nobody really wants to fight
Nobody really wants to go to war
If everyone wants to make thing right?
What are we always fighting for?
(Click here for a sample)

We are not kind. We are not nice. Instead most of the time we are self-preserving. And self-preserving and kindness do not always go together. Self-preservation does not help us live in community very well. It does usually help us from getting hurt. Self-preservation also makes sure that we stay on top. It makes sure that we always win, that we are always right, that we always have the most power. But always winning, always being right, always having the most power doesn’t always make us the best neighbors. Our nation’s wars have been about maintaining our status, showing our strength. While at times they may have been cloaked and even on occasion appropriately understood as a protection of our freedoms, they have been a way of staying on top, saying to other people and other nations that we will make our own decisions. Often in direct disregard for the nations and peoples that we are in battle against. Whether necessary or not, war is never nice. War is never kind. Last year I was visiting family in Florida. My 3 year old nephew was in trouble for hitting his sister, and so my sister, his aunt, proceeded to slap his hand all the while saying “William we do not hit.” But apparently we do. We say don’t hit, be nice, be kind, and yet what we do is something else.

Our healthcare debate right now in the country is largely about self-preservation. Everyone thinks quality healthcare for all is a good idea. I even think most people would agree that it’s cost is over-inflated. What people don’t agree on is who should have to pay for it and who should control it. I don’t want anyone telling me who my doctor will be or what medical treatment I should be allowed to have. I want to be able to make my own decisions. And I’m really pretty happy with the medical care I receive now. Those of us who receive quality healthcare and have decent health insurance see no need for reform. But what about the person who has lost her job, his health insurance? The person who can’t afford health insurance at all. The person who would lose a days wages in order to just go to the doctor. What about that person? To which most people say “Well yes that person needs affordable healthcare.” The rub comes when I am asked to help pay for it. Why should I help pay for someone else’s healthcare? Why should taxpayers have to shoulder the cost of the system? Has anyone seen the recent Reese’s peanut butter cups commercials? It shows the two peanut butter cups and then these word’s begin to scroll onto the screen. “Sharing is a nice gesture...stupid but nice.” We tell our children to share, but we aren’t necessarily looking to share as adults. Not if it is going to cost me some of my well earned income.

Now so far this sounds like a pretty good socialist, democratic sermon right. I actually am feeling pretty good about myself. I’m a pacifist, I don’t believe war is ever just. And I do think that as a taxpayer I should shoulder part of the load for better healthcare for all. I think we should have a single taxpayer system. I am nice, I do share, I am kind.

But here are some ways that I can’t be let off the hook. Tell the truth. What the writer of Ephesians says is to speak the truth in love. We tell our children to not tell lies. But sometimes I don’t do that. I am afraid of what the other person will say or do if I tell the truth. They will be mad at me. It will hurt their feelings. To be honest though, me not telling the truth is often about my own fear and less about the well being of the person I am in relationship with. I don’t want to get hurt. My ego might get bruised. Truth telling isn’t about being mean, it isn’t about telling someone yes your butt does look big in those jeans. It isn’t always about being right. It’s about saying words that someone is ready to hear and needs to hear. It is about speaking truth to power, even when it might cost me something, a job, money, security, a relationship. Speaking truth in love is about doing and saying that which builds up and deepens community rather than tears it down. And sometimes I just don’t do this, and sometimes I really like to be right. And I imagine I am not alone in this situation.

We tell our children to hold hands. We sing the hymn

and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

And yet we aren’t really known by our love are we? We aren’t really known by our Christian unity? Brad Pitt was recently interviewed by Parade magazine. He was asked about his religious beliefs. In the article he talks about being raised by conservative Southern Baptists. He was taught that Christianity was about a list of dos and donts. Don’t go to rock concerts. Don’t drink. Don’t use profanity. He remarked that people try and tell him that Christianity is about more than that, but that he doesn’t really believe them because that is not his experience. Despite our best efforts we don’t always convey a spirit of unity. We don’t hold hands. To be honest, I don’t want to hold hands with Southern Baptists, I don’t want to hold hands with folks who think that who I am and what I believe are wrong. I don’t want to hold hands with Pat Robertson. Because sometimes they are mean.

All of these ways of misbehaving that are listed in the letter to the Ephesians are ways of shoring ourselves up so that we don’t get hurt. Malice, slander, wrangling. They are the armor with which we gird ourselves so that we can escape injury in living. Because when we are kind, when we are generous, when we speak truth in love, when we care about the well-being of the community, we make ourselves vulnerable. And when we are vulnerable there is a real chance that we will be hurt, or that we will hurt someone else. When we love there is a real chance that love will not be offered in return. When I offer my hand to Pat Robertson there is a real chance that it will be rejected or quite possibly bitten. So we suit up, we put on an armor to protect our fragile bodies and egos.

And what we are being invited to do is to disarm, to take off the protective gear. And I say invited because we are not being commanded to do anything in Ephesians. We are not being asked to follow the 10 commandments. We are being invited to act like God. To act like the loving Creator. We are being asked to be kind, to be tender-hearted, and then we are being asked to forgive. Say your sorry. Which might be the most important part. Because when we get hurt which we will that is when we are truly being invited to behave like the Divine. That is when we can extend or receive forgiveness. Did you hear me? We have to give AND receive forgiveness. When we love there is a real risk that we will injure also. When we are standing along side of instead of above there is the chance that we will fail to love adequately as well. In the Broadway musical Wicked, that has been playing at the Orpheum theater in San Francisco now for a while, at the end of the show the two lead characters sing a song called “For Good” which is all about how the two have benefitted from knowing and being friends with the other. And at one point Elphaba sings “just to clear the air I ask forgiveness for the things I’ve done you blame me for,” to which Glenda sings “but then I guess we know there’s blame to share...” The greatest gift that has been extended to us is grace, forgiveness. The great gift we offer to the world and to each other is forgiveness. Do you remember that shooting at the Amish school a few years ago? Even before the bodies of those dear children had grown cold, the community, the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, had already begun to offer words of forgiveness to the shooter and the shooters family. We must forgive, we must love, we must be kind. It’s that simple.

And maybe we’ll find
true peace of mind
if we always remember
we can be kind.