Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 2016

There’s been a lot of bad news this summer. Both here and around the world, we’ve had wave after wave of violence and tragedy; and if that weren’t bad enough, the back and forth we engage around it fans the flames of the deep political divides among us. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that “the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (855), so it seems a preacher has a responsibility to speak word of hope and life in the midst of it all the division. I’ve tried to do that in my preaching this summer, but I have to admit that when it came time to prepare this week’s sermon, I was mostly just feeling weary and cynical about it all, as I’m sure many of you are, too.

Then, as you know, I spent the past week at our diocesan youth camp. About a hundred of us spent the week playing, praying, singing, listening for God, and forming and incredibly loving and generous community. Part of the reason I’m committed to serving as a counselor each year is that camp paints a picture of what a community of Jesus’ followers ought to look like, and is a little glimpse of what I imagine God’s kingdom will be. There is a lot of joy and laughter, and every person is celebrated and loved for the unique person God has made them to be.

This year, the camp staff included four recent graduates of our camp program who were back serving as counselors for the first time. As I got to know each of them a little better over the week, I blown away by their stories, and their dedication to helping our campers know God’s love in very real ways. One counselor is working three jobs to help pay for college, and spent their only week of vacation to help with camp. Others continue to overcome challenges in their own lives, and are driven to give the love they’ve received in our program. I went feeling a little bit like a martyr for enduring the exhaustion and the heat, but I was quickly set straight by seeing the kinds of sacrifices they were making, and the kinds of odds they’ve overcome to be able to do so. It was hard to stay cynical for long in the face of loving, and hope-filled young adults who are passionate about sharing the gift of God’s love that they have received.

In today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus answers the disciples’ question about how to pray, I think he was hoping his answer would shape them into people just like that. He gives them what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer, and then a few stories about how God will be available and generous to us when we cry out to him. At the very end of the passage, Jesus gives us the punch line about prayer: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It turns out that the benefit of prayer is the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. When we ask, and seek, and knock, we aren’t granted our every wish by a divine genie (we all know prayer doesn’t work like that anyway). When we ask, and seek, and knock, we are filled with the gift of God’s spirit, so that we can love as God loves, so that we can be as unrelentingly generous as God is, so that we can be agents of peace and healing and mercy even when the world is as divided and violent and tiring as it has been this summer. In the words of one commentator this week: “The point of prayer is not to change God’s mind but to shape ours, to make us fit for the kingdom, ready to live the only life possible in God’s household: one of love.” [1]

We pray for God’s kingdom, we pray to forgive and be forgiven, we pray for the small gift of daily bread, so that our whole lives might start to reflect God’s perfect generosity and peace in the midst of a hostile and hard world. The more we pray, in the big moments, and in the smallest details, the more we are shaped into Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.

Those four young counselors so easily and naturally gave of themselves because for years and years and years, they had been steeped in the kind of prayerful, loving community that Jesus had in mind.

On the last day of camp, with a lot of help from Trinity’s Suitcase Project volunteers, youth from all over the diocese prayed for victims of violence, and then packed eighty bags for women and their families who have survived sexual assault or domestic violence. Then we went and blessed the bags, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer again. You can’t be part of something like that, and not be filled with hope.The world is a violent, divided, hard, often tragic place to live. This summer has given us almost weekly reminders of that fact. But about 100 youth and adults from around our diocese spent last week soaking ourselves in God’s love and generosity through prayer, and play, and companionship. That’s a hundred more people who are ready to stand as lights in the darkness, as agents of hope in the midst of despair, as agents of peace in the midst of violence, as agents of life in the midst of death. And for all of us here, every single time we gather for anything here at the cathedral, we are invited to do the same—to soak ourselves in God’s love and generosity so we can be agents of the same in our lives—until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

[1] Stamper, Meda.

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 2016

I do quite a bit of cooking around our house, and I am a recipe fundamentalist. Even if I’m preparing something I’ve made many times before, I like to follow the recipe down to the last detail. I tend to be a color inside the lines person in general, so I naturally trust the recipe’s author, and I want to get it just right.

That means I have a lot of sympathy for the lawyer in today’s gospel who asks Jesus a question that sets the whole episode into motion. “Teacher,” he says,” what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus coaches him through the summary of the law—love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. A pretty standard summary. Partly because he wants to make sure he’s got the recipe just exactly right, and partly because he’s hoping to show off the fact that he’s already got it right, he asks for more detail. Who, exactly, is my neighbor?

To answer the question, Jesus tells a well-known story. There’s a guy that gets mugged and left on the side of the road. A couple of good, upstanding church people pass by because they’ve got better things to do and don’t want to get messy with all of that, and then a Samaritan stops, bandages the man’s wounds, finds him a hotel room for the night, and leaves his card with the hotel manager in case the man needs anything else later.

“Good Samaritan” has become a standard way to describe a very nice and helpful person. But the way we normally use that phrase doesn’t carry the full weight of just how crazy the story is. It’s crazy for two reasons. The first is the fact that the hero of the story is a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews as many of you know were bitter, bitter enemies. They both claimed to hold the true religion of Israel, and both thought the other side not only religiously wrong, but thoroughly despicable. The lawyer asks a question about the right way to practice the religion, and Jesus uses the most religiously wrong person as an example of how to do just that.

But the story is also crazy because of just how good the Samaritan is. He doesn’t just make sure the man is ok, give him a few dollars and send him on his way. He fixes up his wounds, finds him a hotel, pays for it, leaves some extra money, and gives the hotel manager his card in case the man needs anything else down the road. This isn’t mere pity, it is excessive, extravagant care. The Samaritan isn’t just fulfilling a religious duty, he is fully consumed with compassion and mercy.

The lawyer is trying to understand the limits of God’s call to neighborly love so he can be sure to get it exactly right. Two tablespoons of it over here, a quarter cup over there. Jesus reminds him that God’s love has no limits, and so we as God’s people are called to love without limit. Following Jesus isn’t about fulfilling a religious duty. Following Jesus is an invitation to be set on fire with God’s love that crashes through even the most bitter divisions.

It’s been a pretty devastating week in America. Two more young black men were killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five policeman were killed at a demonstration in Dallas. All of it feels like it has just intensified the various divisions that have been building for a long time now. Like many of you, I’ve read and listened, and even talked so much over the past several days that I’m not sure any more words will contribute much to sorting it out. All I know is there are a whole lot of bodies being left on the side of the road.

Traci Blackmon, a pastor in St. Louis, had about the most helpful thing to say on Friday. She posted this on Facebook: “Ultimately, the guns used to kill 5 officers last night and wound 6 more and 1 civilian and the guns used to kill Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, 49 mostly Black and Latinx people who were LGTBQ at Pulse in Orlando, 9 people in bible study in Charleston and over 500 other people in our streets this year were loaded by the common enemies of fear and hate…no matter who pulled the trigger.”

In a world full of fear and hatred, the scripture reminds us today they have no place in the gospel of Jesus, and no place in the hearts of those who follow him. If we don’t use our lives to speak out against the ongoing injustice of racism and work to right it, if we don’t resist every form of violence and vengeance, if we don’t actively work to reach across the divisions built by fear, then we’re passing all those bodies by.

Following Jesus can’t be boiled down to fulfilling some simple duty. Following Jesus is about burning with the kind of crazy love that wipes out fear; the kind of love that will pick the most despicable person off the side of the road, clean them up, and pay for their hotel. We do this, here, to feed that fire, to feel and fuel that love. Fear and hatred are on display everywhere you look. The scripture invites us today to become an army of compassion and mercy, loving those we don’t think deserve it, casting fear and violence out of the world God loves, the world for which God’s heart breaks, the world God died to save.