St. Francis Day: Love without Judgement

When I was a little kid, I loved St. Francis day. I got to bring my dog, and my lizards, and my hamsters to church. My mom, loving parent that she was, made me pick from among our many pets. We could only bring the dog and one other creature. That was difficult for a 8 year old. And, for whatever reason, mammals always got my preference. I don’t know why. But I loved getting to bring my pets for a blessing.

I know there are some kids at Holy Communion that are looking forward to having their pets blessed, having their pets at church. So, I’m okay with leaning into the strangeness of this tradition. Sometimes God hides the truth from those of us who think we are clever, and reveals it to those who are children or childlike. I’m okay with letting the animals come walking down the aisle, one Sunday a year. After all, it’s probably not even the strangest thing we do around this church.

As I lean into this blessing liturgy, I find a real comfort in the idea. We will be blessing the animals that are a blessing to us this morning. We will be thanking God for giving animals into our care. Have you ever seen that bumper sticker: “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am?”

There is a certain reassurance to owning an animal. Animals look to us for comfort, for an ear scratch, probably most of all for food. We can be cynical and believe that’s all our animals want from us. But I think there’s something more.

Sometimes you’ll hear Christians arguing that animals don’t have souls. Well, don’t they?

I’ve said before from this pulpit that I believe animals can be some of our spiritual teachers. At least one of the early church teachers agreed. In the first centuries of the early church, Abba Xanthius, one of the desert fathers said: “A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.”

St. Francis of Assisi, the strange young man we celebrate with this strange blessing ritual today, fought hard against his society’s sense of normal. He sang to the birds of the air, and ministered to the lepers and poor. This rich young man gave up his status, and worked to rebuild his society. He saw the Sun as his Brother, the Moon as his sister. He saw all of creation as a fellow-creature, a relative. As I read this difficult Gospel passage, I can’t help but think of Francis.

Jesus often had to contend with the ambitions of his disciples. He regularly overheard them as they argued. Who was going to run the temple when Jesus took over Jerusalem? Who was the number one disciple in Jesus eyes? Could Jesus promise that one disciple would sit at his right and the other at his left hand? Human ambition was rife, just like it is today.

Jesus often told his disciples that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Become like little children, he’d say. The place of the disciple is not at the right hand of the host, but serving, sometimes thanklessly.

Truthfully, very few followers of Jesus have ever really taken Jesus seriously on this teaching. Francis was one of them. He saw the wealth of the people around him. He saw the opulence of the church, and it made him uncomfortable. He wanted another way to live.

So Francis served. He started by rebuilding a little neglected church. Then he started caring for the lepers, the hungry, and those who were left behind in his society.

And Francis understood something. When you look at the world with eyes for service. When you look at the world not asking, “how can I be recognized,” but instead, “how can I be helpful?” When you look at the world that way, you are looking at the world upside down. You see the world from a totally different perspective.

This, I think more than anything, is what Jesus wanted for his followers: a different perspective. You don’t have to be dogmatically religious. You don’t have to be fixated on money or power. Life is bigger than those pursuits. Real joy can be found, you just have to let go, change your viewpoint. Be of service.

A dog is better than me, because he loves without judgement. So much of our judgement, if we’re honest, is a game of comparison. We judge others so that we can lift ourselves up. I know I do it all the time. I compare the car I drive, the house I live in, the success of my church to my neighbors. I’d say that I compare clothes, but that’s a little niche in my case. Clergy collars are pretty standard from one brand to the next.

In this way, animals can be good spiritual teachers. Our dog Oscar, he really doesn’t care whether we buy him a name brand chew toy. Some of you know that I’m a frisbee player. When Oscar was new, I bought him a few fancy dog frisbees. He’d catch them once or twice, but then he’d get bored. Drove me crazy. What drove me more crazy was that he couldn’t get enough of sticks. Regular old, grows on trees, free as the birds, sticks. He loves them. Can’t get enough. Will chase them all day.

He loves without judgement.

And there’s a freedom there.

We often talk about salvation in church. Sometimes that sounds pretty “pie in the sky” to me. I sometimes wonder if Jesus offers salvation in the here and now. I wonder if our happiness. I wonder if the health of our society and the health of our planet, I wonder if all of that would improve if we could learn to love without judgement. If we could see the world from a different perspective, the perspective of Francis and Jesus, if we could be (even just a a little more ) the people that our pets think we are.

Seeking Peace, Seeking Shalom

Today’s readings center around a search for peace. Jesus, and his disciples are just looking for a little peace. They’re trying to get away on a trip. If any of you need some theological justification for your summer vacation, here it is, Mark chapter six. Jesus says, “everybody needs a break.” The letter to the Ephesians is preaching peace. And King David is trying to find peace of mind. He wants to build God a house, to secure his legacy. Little does he know…

The lessons center around a search for peace.

That’s a search many of us know something about. How many of us feel at times like we are constantly on the run?
Doesn’t feel sometimes like peace, personal peace, is always just beyond our grasp? That word “just” when attached to a pursuit of peace can cause some real issues for our emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. When we just move into our new house. When Sarah just makes it through fourth grade. When we just make this mortgage payment. When I just… you fill in the blank.

Our society is in constant training for this type of goal-orientation. We live in the midst of an advertising-and-sales industrial complex that is training us to be consumers, 24–7. When you just buy this product, your life will be so much better. This product will provide you peace of mind, just buy in. Companies pay big bucks to keep us thinking that way. Every once in awhile, we catch ourselves. I recently saw an ad for a new kind of cleaning solution. In the ad, there’s a spill. Then someone takes a paper towel, and folds it, presses down on the top of the bottle with the paper towel, get this, with ONE HAND. The towel is coated in cleaning solution, and is ready to wipe up the spill, one-handed. In the commercial, it cleaned up so well. I thought, I need that bottle! If I just had that touch bottle, cleaning up would be so much easier. Then another ad came on, and I thought, wait a minute. I’m pretty sure that’s just another bottle of windex…

We’re trained to think, if I just had some push-button cleaning solution in EVERY room of my house, or at least every room in the house with surfaces that could use wiping, I could find peace of mind. This kind of “just” is dangerous in our search for peace, because there’s always a new product, always a new challenge, always a new goal. That “peace” isn’t really peace. When we are “just” looking for one wish to be fulfilled, we never find peace. The horizon lengthens infinitely.

But don’t give up on the word “just.” The word “just” can help us find peace. But we have to move up a couple of lines in the dictionary entry. The first definition of the word “just” is not a synonym for “simply.” Just, primarily means “ethical,” “moral.” Just in this sense concerns us with justice rather than hurry. What would our world look like if Americans worried less about how to “just” get their hands on the next product, and more about how consumer spending could work for a more “just” world?

In Mark’s Gospel, a similar tension arises for Jesus. His society is not as consumeristic, but there’s a tension about “just” getting a break, and having justice break in. Here he is, with the disciples, just looking for some peace. He’s run to the other side of the sea to try to escape the crowds. And they’ve followed him here. Mark’s Gospel includes a lot of rushing and a lot of hushing. People are constantly running to see Jesus, and he’s constantly afraid of the story getting out. But when he encounters the people in the marketplace he never stops healing. He never stops working for justice. Jesus never looks to someone and says, “I’m too tired. Just leave me alone for an hour or two.” His disciples try. In Mark chapter 10, a bunch of scruffy kids are clamoring to get to Jesus. The disciples try hold them back, but Jesus pushes his followers aside to get to the kids. Let the children come to me. And he takes them in his arms, and laughs.

That’s the thing about justice. When the world becomes a little more just, when you witness a small change in our society, when we are part of bringing justice for one family, one child, being part of bringing justice gives you a sense of peace. And that peace often comes with a laugh and a smile, rather than a yawn and a whimper. It’s the phrase we’ve heard in the streets a great deal this past year “No Justice, No Peace.” But spelled a little differently K-N-O-W justice, K-N-O-W Peace

Now, many of the mystics have argued that you need to cultivate inner peace if you are going to work for peace in our world. Who am I to argue? I do agree that a contemplative life, a life of prayer helps. Meditation, and yoga, and sabbath, these are all helpful practices, neccesary even. Don’t hear that I am against taking a vacation. I believe in vacation. BUT, unless that inner work looking for peace is connected to a outward life of seeking justice, any peace we find will be shallow, hollow. Unless you are connected to the well-being of others, peace is elusive.

The letter to the Ephesians continues the search for this robust sense of peace. Across all of the divisions we set up in humanity, Ephesians tells us, Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” There’s a balance in Christ. Peace isn’t just about me. It’s not just about me finding my individual peace of mind. It’s not about me, my legacy, or even simply my family. Peace is bigger, it’s broader. Christ’s peace always concerns itself with the welfare of the other, those who are far off, as well as those who are near.

Finding peace isn’t something we can do alone. You can’t buy it with a credit card or with a good grade in school. You can’t win peace in a contest where another loses. Peace is something we are knit into with one another. There can be no true personal peace without social justice.

In this sense, peace isn’t something we can “acquire” or “attain” at all. We don’t win peace. We find peace by giving something away. We find peace by letting go of our need to acquire. We find peace by letting go of our selfishness. We find peace by looking for justice for others. That’s the wisdom of Jesus. That’s the peace of Jesus, a peace the world cannot give.

I can’t tell you that Jesus’ peace will put your mind at ease in our world. Jesus warned his disciples that following his way would put them at odds with the powers that be. Looking for justice can get you in trouble. Many of you know that Pastor Rebecca, your former associate and interim rector was arrested for protesting again this last week. She stood in the street peacefully demanding an accounting for the treatment of another teenager shot by police, and she spent the night in the City Jail. I talked to her on Tuesday morning, after she got out. I told her I was calling to make sure she got “sprung,” and if she hand’t been “sprung” from jail, I was going to go down there in my collar to check on her.

Working for justice can get you in trouble, but our world needs some troublemakers. We have inherited a status-quo that is NOT peace. Before I take my seat, I want to leave you with one more bit of wisdom about from one more trouble-making ordained woman, our current Presiding Bishop. Now, I am very enthusiastic about our new Presiding Bishop, our PB, Michael Curry, but I’m not ready to let go of our current Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schoir, quite yet. When we remember her leadership, more than any other accomplishment, I hope Bishop Katharine is remembered for her prophetic teaching about peace. Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori helped us expand our understanding of shalom.

It helps to use the Hebrew sometimes. “Shalom” somehow seems more spacious than “peace.” Bishop Katharine speaks of Shalom a great deal. She wrote a whole book about God’s Shalom. She has pointed our church to the vision of “Shalom” in the accounts of God’s creation. Our world and humanity were created for “shalom.” We were created to live in peace with one another, and in peace with creation itself. Our failure to live out that shalom is evidenced in the hatred and violence between humans, and it is evidenced in the destruction of our planet. She asks the church to consider the global and planetary consequences of our broken relationships.

Our story from 2 Samuel seems to agree with Bishop Katharine. If we’re looking for peace, maybe our role isn’t about building giant edifices. King David wants to build the lord a house of cedar, to cut down trees, and level land, and build a great big building for God. God tells him no. Sometimes, as God tells Nathan, to tell David, sometimes God is more easily found in a tent. If you’re looking for peace, look for places to connect to nature. Look for places to get back in relationship with creation. If you’re looking for peace, it helps to engage the questions about your ecological footprint. Peace doesn’t come from building more and more complexity into your life. Peace comes from simplifying.

Bishop Katharine’s teaching about Shalom is informed by a robust sense of science. She has a PhD in oceanography and taught at the University level before becoming a priest. She once compared a church convention to a gathering of whales out in the ocean. Bishop Katharine’s time as Presiding Bishop has been a prophetic call to listen to science, to listen to the planet, to listen to creation. Our world hungers for shalom. God’s creation is groaning for healthier relationships between humans and their environment. Our society is growning for peace between peoples and a just sharing of resources. “Shalom” then is peace in the largest, fullest sense. To seek Shalom is to seek peace not just for yourself, not just for others, but for the planet.

If you are looking for peace within yourself, expand your horizons. Look for a bigger peace. Maybe go work in a community garden. Dig into the dirt with your neighbors. Share food with someone of a different race, color, or creed. Help a neighbor apply for food stamps, or a recent immigrant apply for a visa. Ride your bike to work. Visit the sick. Stand with the oppressed. When we make these small moves towards God’s shalom, we feel a bit more at peace. When we pursue a more just world, we can let go of just trying to get ahead. That letting go is where peace is to be found, a bigger peace, Shalom.

May you find God’s peace, God’s Justice, God’s Shalom.

Jesus, Marriage, and Divorce

Three years ago, when I was a seminarian, I remember listening to Luis preach a sermon about these lessons.  I don’t remember the whole sermon, but I do remember Luis beginning by summoning all of that theological heft we’ve been missing during his sabbatical, all of that gravitas Luis has when he preaches.  So three years ago Luis stands up here and summons all his gravitas and he says, “when I speak about marriage, I’m speaking about gay marriage and straight marriage.  I think our society, and our church, need to get with it.  We’ve been behind the boat.”  Just a few months later same sex-marriage would be legal in the District.  Since that time a number of same-sex couples have been married here at St. John’s.  For the purposes of this sermon, I also make no distinction.  Same-sex or opposite sex, marriage is marriage.

So, maybe you have heard about this little piece of papyrus.  A piece of papyrus that has been all over the news because it says, “and Jesus said to his disciples, my wife.”  Of course the question is: Jesus said to them, “my wife.”  My wife what?  My wife cooks the most amazing cous-cous , you wouldn’t believe?  Jesus said to them, “my wife” and my mother-in-law really don’t get along?  Jesus said to them, “my wife” writes all my material?
I don’t actually think that the papyrus makes any difference to our faith, and I don’t think if Jesus was married, it would make much difference to us either, but it helps us to remember that marriage is always a cultural construct.  In Jesus’ time, if you weren’t married and having kids by the time you were twenty years old, they actually could sentence you in religious court, and the legalese was that by being unmarried, un-procreating, you were “killing your descendants.”  (I hope I’m not giving any ammo to some hopeful grandparents out there.  Don’t go call your kids and tell them your priest said it was sinful not to give you grand-babies.)  In Jesus time, in first century Jewish society, marriage was still, largely, a process of buying and selling a bride to produce offspring for the tribe.

The Bible’s narrative moves through several different nuanced cultural-historical understandings of marriage.  Think about Jacob marrying Leah first, so that he can marry Rachel, the woman he really wants, later.  Solomon had how many wives?  The concept of marriage changes over time, even in the time of the writing of the Bible.  Which is why I think we have to be very careful with what Jesus says to us today.  (Incidentally, I wrote a few pages of sermon about the argument going through the first century argument between rabbis Hillel and Shammai about divorce, and how what Jesus says is really a feminist commentary on that argument over divorce, but I decided to spare you.  To sum it up, it is a BIG deal that Jesus says that a woman could divorce her husband.) Anyway, trying to take Jesus’ statement out of its context, and apply it to divorces today would be disaster.  Ask the Catholic Church.  The absurdity of annulments just irks me, which probably makes me a good Episcopalian.

Today we think of marriage very differently.  No one is bought and sold.  We hold up an idea of two equal partners, standing before one another, their family, friends, and their God, and pledging to love, comfort, honor, and keep one another.  Both people make those promises.  We have in our marriage service what I think is a beautiful statement about two equal partners, choosing to create life together.
I chose that phrase carefully, “to create life together.”  Jesus quotes Genesis when asked about marriage, and surprisingly, I think he quotes Genesis on purpose.  Jesus actually quotes only part of a verse from chapter one when he says God created them male and female.  The whole verse is: “God created humankind in his image.  In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Jesus assumes the pharisees know this crucial introduction, this story of Genesis.  Jesus knows that the repetition in the first part of the verse places the emphasis there.  The verse primarily tells us something about the nature of humanity.  We are made, all of us, each of us, in the image of God.  Women and men, in the image of God.  Specifically, in the image of the God who creates, the Creator.  We are made in the image of the creator, which makes us co-creators.  We are beings who are given, in our creation, the gift of creativity.

Creation Window, Chester Cathedral

Humans are alone in creation as made in the image of the creator, with God given creativity.  Notice in the second chapter of Genesis, God has Adam name all of the animals, using his creativity to take an active part in creation.  This is the creativity that scientists use when the come up with theorems which change how we live life and imagine the universe.  This is the creativity that poets use when they use words to express emotions we did not know they had inside of us.  We are made creative, in the image of the creator God.
Anyone who has been married for a good long time can tell you, marriage takes creativity.  Every few years you are faced with a new situation, a job loss, an unexpected child (let’s be real), every few years couples face crisis or joys that change the nature of a relationship.  It takes creativity to respond to the new situations of life.  It takes creativity to respond to the person your spouse becomes over time.  Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian writer and lover of music, likened her music to a piece by J.S. Bach.  In one of her books, she called her marriage a “Two-Part Invention.”  Marriage takes a lot of creativity.
Creativity is not just reserved for married couples, or to couples at all for that matter.   I don’t think that all people are called to be married.  Some people are called to live in marriage, others are not.  I think that all of those stories of princesses and princes finding one another that we hear as children in fairy tales put some crazy ideas in our head.  I don’t think that all people are meant to be married, and I think we do a disservice to a lot of people when we norm marriage, when we make marriage a norm.  I think a lot of people would be happier if they weren’t married, and we would save a lot of anguish if we realized that not all people are called to be married. We’d probably save a lot of money on dating websites as well.  Life outside of marriage takes creativity, takes God given creativity as well.  Creating a network of friends and companions that becomes a family to care for and be cared for by, takes loving creativity.
Similarly we have to face, in our society, the reality of divorce.  Sometimes marriages do not work.  These words about divorce from Jesus are often quoted, and they are tough.  But the Jesus I know is a Jesus whose love and forgiveness is bigger than any single law or commandment.  I think sometimes divorce can be a creative way to respond to a really bad situation, and I mean creative in the literal sense.  Sometimes, sometimes, I think, divorce can be life-giving.  Sometimes it takes an end to a situation which is stifling, to allow new life to be born.  I don’t think that any couple I known came up to an altar expecting to get divorced.  I think that people make their vows with all of the best intentions, but sometimes we can’t fulfill even our best intentions.  That does not mean we don’t try.  I have known some very good marriages, and I have known some very good divorces.

What is important, as Christians, who believe we are made in the image of God, is that we seek to live our lives in a way that creates life, for ourselves, for our spouses, for our children, for our families, and friends, and community.  Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.”  We live life creatively for the sake of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, for all of those people out there who are made in the image and likeness of God.

These are hard lessons.  When Luis preached three years ago, he finished his sermon by pointing out that these are hard lessons.  Then he said that in three years he would be wiser about his scheduling.  He wouldn’t preach. Whichever assistant was being unruly, he said, would get to tackle these lessons.  I don’t know what you’ve been hearing while you’ve been away. (Whatever it is Gini did it.) Whatever motivated this act of creative scheduling, I appreciate a good challenge.
I think the readings we have before us challenge us.  They challenge us to live with creativity, in the image and likeness of the God who creates us and who loves us.  They challenged those of us who are married to bring that loving creativity to our marriages.  These scriptures challenge those of us who are not yet married, and those of us who are perhaps never supposed to be married to live lives creatively as well, to gather a community of friends and loved ones.  Because we are not meant to live life alone, but to live life out of love creatively.