Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany (2017)- St. George’s Episcopal Church


downloadJesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” One of the greatest gifts of being a chaplain at St. George’s is the opportunity to continually encounter the word of God fresh from the perspective of children.

To celebrate the season after Epiphany, over the last couple of months I’ve been reflecting with our students on the parables of Jesus. Our middle schoolers have acted some out, our 3rd and 4th graders are writing their own parables, and some of our youngest students are hearing these stories for the very first time. Last Tuesday in my first grade Bible class I was telling the story of the Good Samaritan. There was a circle of about 15 six and seven year olds sitting on the floor and I had just unwrapped a small cloth which portrayed on its front a scenery of a middle eastern desert. And while 15 first graders are normally not much more easier to direct than 15 cats, for the moment, the eyes of each of my students were fastened to the cloth which I held in my hands, and every bit of their attention hung on each of my words. I began the story: “This parable has been passed down from generation to generation and was first told almost 2,000 years ago.” I watched as each child’s eyes lit up as they whispered the word, “wow!”, but before I could continue, one bright young student shot up from the floor onto his knees and quickly edged his way closer to me with his hand raised (though not with the patience for me to call on him) and broke the quiet whisper of the room to ask me, “OOOooo, was that in the 80’s?!” I politely responded that it wasn’t quite in the 80’s, and continued the story.

It occurred to me later that for this young man, the notion of a story being ancient simply meant that it was self-removed. It was from a time long ago which had nothing to do with him. I thought about the fact that his parents were probably born in the 80’s, and for this 1st grader, there was probably nothing more ancient to him than imagining a time when his parents were his age. And while most of us may need to think back a little farther than the 80’s to feel completely uninvolved, certainly we can share with this child that feeling of ancient distance between us and the time of Jesus.

Such a perceived distance between us and the gospel stories has often given us the luxury (or perhaps handicap) of hearing them tamed and approachable. We listen to Jesus telling a story about a Samaritan man helping someone in need in response to the question, “who is my neighbor?,” and we say to ourselves, “isn’t that nice” and we go on our way completely missing the deep emotions that must inevitably have been caught up in the idea that a Samaritan—an outsider—would risk his life on a dangerous road to help a person in need whenever that person’s own priest and pastors ignored him.

Words have power. While on the surface it may seem that words are simply a collection of symbols organized to convey thoughts and meanings to one another, words are so much more than that, and while some hardly demand notice, others carry the weight of the world. There is no doubt that in our society there are certain words which are pregnant with feelings and associations beyond their simple dictionary definitions. That there are certain words which, when said, drive out from the depths of us feelings of defensiveness, fear, prejudice, and at times joy and excitement.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to engage in a little experiment. I’d like for everyone to close their eyes and pay attention to their chest and breathing. Try to let go of all the pressing thoughts eagerly begging for your attention and relax in this present moment. In a second I’ll read a list of words, and I want you to notice the subtle response your mind and body gives upon hearing the word. Did your muscles loosen or tighten? Did your breath stop for a moment? Did you eyebrows furrow? Did your lips loosen into a smile or tighten into the slightest frown? You may not notice a reaction to each of the words, but if you closely pay attention, you may notice a response to at least one.

Winter, Religion, Family, Republican, Democrat, Work, Episcopal, Muslim, Trump, Catholic, Christmas, ISIS, Divorce, Mother, Gay, Christ

Okay, you can open your eyes. Everyday we encounter society shouting certain words at us that are inevitably associated with personal inner sensations of attachment, defensiveness, pain, guilt, relief, etc., and we forget that Jesus and the people of his time were no different than us in being caught up in this complex world of division and insecurity. For Jesus’ Jewish listeners, to utter the word “Samaritan” would have inevitably been accompanied with feelings all over the map, from suspicion to hatred. For Jesus to tell a story with a Samaritan as the hero, for some, may have been utterly shocking. But the ancient distance between us and the original telling of the story has enabled us to read over these implications without giving the slightest notice.

And so we come to today’s gospel reading. “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” Let me repeat that. “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” I wonder what it might take for us to remove the veil of comfortable separation within us in order to hear these words with their original astonishing potency. Christ is asking us to do the unthinkable. To drop our fears and prejudices of the other (justifiable or not) and to find within ourselves that most sacred of feelings normally reserved only for family and close friends and to spread it to those we would rather pretend did not exist. Christ is asking us to love our enemies. Not simply to tolerate. Not simply to coexist. But to love.

And who exactly is our enemy? I’m sure we could spend time making quite a list, but perhaps we’ve already started making one this morning. A moment ago we did an experiment. What word was it that tightened your chest? What word made you shift in your seat? Whether it was “Mother” or “Republican,” whether it was “Trump” or “ISIS,” I wonder if that word might just be your enemy.

Of course it’s difficult to love your enemy. That’s sort of the point. Further down in the reading Christ continues, “What’s the big deal if you love those who love you? Everybody does that! Who cares if you welcome people who welcome you! That’s easy! I’m not asking you to be polite, I’m asking you to be perfect.” Or as our Old Testament reading puts it, “be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Well, that’s quite a request, isn’t it? It sounds like we’ve got our work cut out for us. But how do we even begin on such an endeavor?

Perhaps the words of the poet and writer, Kahlil Gibran will be helpful here, “And God said, ‘Love your Enemy, and I obeyed, so I loved myself.”

I’ve had the privilege this semester to teach a high school elective which I’m calling, “Religion News of the World.” In the class we’re simply watching the headlines and reading articles having to do with religion, and along the way as we encounter other faiths, traditions, and belief systems we discuss and learn. Recently we’ve been discussing the role religion plays in influencing people’s response to conflict. We happened to read about a group of Catholic nuns refusing to leave Aleppo, Syria—even in the midst of death and destruction—rejecting any notion of saving themselves and abandoning the community they serve. There’s a very similar story about a group of Trappist monks, who in the 90’s lived at a monastery in Algeria, taking care of the poor and sick of the village, which had a predominantly Muslim population. An extremist group began to rise in power and the monks would eventually be caught in the middle of a civil war. A wonderful movie has been made about the story called “Of Gods and Men” (which we watched in class) and followed the monks as they wrestled with the decision of whether or not to leave the country, and how to respond to those extremists which started knocking on their doors demanding medicine or treatment for their war wounds.

What impacted me most about the film was not the courageous demonstration of love for the neighbor and love for the enemy, but the intense inner struggle that had to be overcome in order to face the calling that was before them. As a physical enemy banged on the door to their home, an inner enemy banged on the door to their heart.

Doesn’t that always seem to be the case? Doesn’t it seem that when we come face to face with those who bring us pain we wound ourselves further by reliving the past, or internalizing the pain, or retaliating? “God said love your Enemy, and I obeyed, so I loved myself.”

I’ve found that sometimes my greatest enemy is not someone out there, but its something in here, and it’s only when I deal with what’s inside, that I am able to deal with what’s out there. The internal and the external are intimately interwoven and can not be separated. We can not begin to love the other if we do not love ourself, and we cannot begin to love ourself if we do not love the other. These endeavors happen simultaneously and mutually strengthen one another.

As a Franciscan, I would be remiss if I did not fit St. Francis into my sermon at some point. In the book sitting in front of you there is a prayer attributed to St. Francis. The prayer perfectly reflects this idea that in the love and healing of the world is the love and healing of the self and vice versa. I’d like to end with this prayer.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is discord, union.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console.

To be understood, as to understand.

To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving, that we receive.

It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.