Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Threefold Chord

Sermon Delivered September 23, 2012 
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
1 Corinthians 13:1-10;13
John 15:1-4

Sometimes a rope can be your best friend. This was made clear to me one starry night in Alpharetta, GA. I was house sitting over the Summer for a friend whose family owned a polo farm. In the early morning hours I was awakened by the sound of a large animal on the gravel driveway. Having grown up with livestock, I did what seemed the right thing to do. I went and got a halter and led the horse back into the corral. Suddenly I realized in my stupor that I was barefoot, and one misstep of a large herbivore could have been most unfortunate. At that moment I was glad for a threefold chord.

Other times I have appreciated the value of a good rope have involved rock climbing. The type of climb determines the rope. A static rope will offer more strength and stability, but if it pulls tight with too much force it can snap. A dynamic rope has more give to it, though it cannot bear as much weight.

Today we are celebrating the grace of God made known to us through covenants, and we have been given the metaphor of rope, the definition of love, and the assurance that God abides in us if we abide in God.

All of these are traditional wedding passages, and today is certainly a day to affirm and remember individual covenants. Particularly we are celebrating the love that has helped Mel and Paul Clark to endure the hardships of changing lifestyles and locations, health challenges, and financial hardship. And in a few minutes they will reaffirm the commitments that they have made before.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds us that going it alone is a rough row to hoe, yet it is not simply an encouragement to find some one to snuggle with on a cold night! All of these passages are a call to community relationships in as much as they are an affirmation of individual covenants. In fact, the mindset of those in ancient Israel was a communal one. Israel was a man and a nation. The actions of individuals were always in the context of their relationships in community.

And so the first and second chords may be a husband and wife, but they can just as easily be a community that gathers to weather the storms together. The third chord is even more ambiguous, but it is not a stretch to say that it is God. Jesus said that “where two or more are gathered in my name, I am with you.” Therefor it is in our common union as partners and as a community of faith that God is present.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes the most eloquent words about love ever written – and they had as much to do with the frustration you experienced this morning over the leaky pipe in front of the sanctuary as they do about the mutual forbearance that marriage requires of a husband and wife.

I think that one of the reasons that marriage is held in honor in Christian faith is because it is a concrete experience (or at least it holds the opportunity for one) of grace, forgiveness, faith, hope, and love -not just romantic love, but real self sacrificing love- love like that which is written about by poets and dreamers, theologians and schemers.

One such author, Hannah More, wrote these words in the early 19th century:

Love never reasons but profusely gives, gives like a thoughtless prodigal its all, and trembles then lest it has done too little. Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast everything. Love still stands when all else has fallen…. The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved, loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves. Love is the root of all virtues. If there is anything better than to be loved , it is loving. If we love one another, God dwells in us. Love is love’s own reward.

If we love one another – God dwells in us. That sounds a lot like marriage to me. That sounds a lot like the church to me. It sounds a lot like John’s gospel – which reminds us that the source of all love is none other than God. The chord that binds all things is none other than God.

That can be a tough pill to swallow for those of us who declare ourselves to be independent, free agents – kind of like a cowboy. Paul and I talked about that the other day. There’s that old song about Mamas, babies, and cowboys, and the warning comes with good reason! But, truth be told, there’s a little cowboy (or girl) in each of us. On the plus side it means that we believe that – ultimately – we are responsible for ourselves. And it means that we are – at least in our hearts – wired to be loyal and true to our commitments. On the downside it means there is a part of us that resists being transformed from self-made into God-designed. There is a part of us that resists the idea that God made us to be more interdependent than independent.

We don’t like to see ourselves as needing anyone or anything, and yet apart from God we can do nothing. Apart from God we are like a horse that Mel was talking about the other day. She told me about cutting horse that Paul was riding that decided it did not want to be ridden. Apparently Paul took it in stride and let him wear himself out – though I imagine he was thankful for the rope and the leather that offered him something to hold onto.

God is like that. God holds onto us while we rebel, and rejoices when we repent. In the same way, God is the rope or the line that we hold when we endure trials. And that line is seen and felt in the form of our relationships. Sometimes it is in the form of friend – regardless of that friend’s faith – for God can use anyone.

The place we know it and see it the best, however, is in our intentional, faith filled relationships. I don’t just mean our faith in one another. I mean our faith in God that allows us to believe in one another. Because – in the end – all of us will, at some point or another, fail one another. There are some relationships I fail routinely. I am certain that I say, “I’m sorry.” to my wife more than anyone.

And that’s a good thing. Because relationships, like ropes, are fragile. Ask any serious climber about the dangers of a dirty climbing rope. A few grains of sand or dirt can become like tiny knives in a weight bearing rope, ripping it apart from the inside.

It doesn’t take much to see that selfishness, pride, envy, and greed can do the same thing in any relationship. And so Paul reminds us why love is the greatest, because love doesn’t simply overlook these things. Love overpowers them. Love that is grounded in God’s perfect love scatters these things like shadows fleeing the sunlight.

In the end what truly matters is not romance for individuals or enthusiasm for communities. The gospel these passages proclaim is about fidelity under the Lordship of Christ. Partnership is about knowing and being known. Community is about bearing burdens and sharing joys in a way that the things that affect you also affect me. Leaky pipes, disability, and every trial we can face have no comparison to loving and being loved. For we are not defined by what happens to us. We are defined by the love that holds us.

We are defined by the love of God made known through Christ Jesus who redeems and transforms us – whether we want it or not – again, and again, and again. It is not a question as to whether or not God does this. It is instead an invitation for each of us to affirm God’s love for us through every relationship and every chance encounter. As a friend once told me, “It’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard.” Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Denial Is Not A River

Sermon Delivered 9/17/12
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

“When I was a young man and went to seminary school,” [that’s a Doors reference I have always wanted to make] I found that all the cool kids had bumper stickers – much like the bumper sticker theology wall at C.U.P.S. They proudly brandished statements like Eve Was Framed, or Question Authority, or the truly rebellious, In case of rapture, can I have your car?

So, naturally I set about to find a fitting statement – something that was not merely sarcastic, but truly reflective of my faith. And lo and behold, in a shop in Little Five Points in Atlanta, it came to me – Denial is not a river in Egypt. I placed it tenderly on the rear window of the cab of my small, beat up, yellow pick up truck – and everyone who knew me agreed that it seemed fitting.

In the book of James, we have been hearing about the way in which our denial of healing relationships and restoration for others is actually a denial of healing relationships and restoration for ourselves. We’ve been told that we even lose our sense of self – our true self – when we fail to see others as God’s beloved creations. When we assign value based on needs we deny what we know to be true – that value is not based on skills or abilities or public professions or any other human trait. Value is assessed only on the love of God.

And God loves us so much, and trusts us so much, that God created us with an instrument that is equally fit for tragedy and triumph. That instrument is, of course, the tongue. Now, you might think that this admonition is for those of us who claim to be, or are labeled as, extroverts. You all know at least one person like this – someone who thinks by speaking rather than considering all the angles beforehand. I would suggest, however, that whether you are a “straight shooter who speaks your mind” or someone who speaks in carefully measured tones, the opportunity that exists is the same.

More specifically, James is addressing those who teach, and not just any teachers – but those who teach about God. This is not the best scripture to share the Sunday after kicking off new church programs! Yet we are a people that believe in God’s ability to use each of us. In fact, in a few minutes we will sing words like “Teach me, Lord, that I may teach,” and “Use me, Lord, use even me,” penned by Frances Ridley Havergal over a century ago.

I think that we sing things like over and over again this because we sing what we believe – or at least we sing those things we believe with more passion. It does not hurt to be familiar with the song, but if the song expresses our belief we will put more into it. You can see that just driving down the street!

James talks about bridling and taming, though – which is really more about letting the will of someone or something else determine your actions than it is about expressing passion. In some ways this is like an answer to the question, “Can God make a rock that God can’t move?” James seems to say, “Yes, and it’s in your mouth!”

Still, the idea of taming is interesting to me. I want to believe that I can tame my tongue. What does that really mean though? In the story of The Little Prince, by Antoine De Saint-ExupĂ©ry, the Little Prince encounters a fox who begs the Little Prince to tame him. The Little Prince, “who never let go of a question once he had asked it,” asked the fox what this meant – to be tamed – because he was not from this world.

The fox said, “To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

Now this may, in truth, be more of a definition of co-dependancy than taming, but it reminds me of something else. It reminds me that the thing that James is so concerned that we will mess up is the very knowledge that God made each of us as unique in all the world. God made each of us with the idea that each of us will contribute to the project of restoration and redemption that God is constantly involved in.

And yet even the disciples that physically walked the earth with Jesus could not get their heads around the idea that God wasn’t just going to physically conquer the bad guys and restore Israel with Jesus as God’s anointed One. Jesus asked them, “Who do you they say I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet.” Then he said, “Who do you say I am?” Peter nails it, “You are the Messiah.”

And Jesus tells them to bridle their tongues. It was not time yet. Jesus wanted to let the actions of God speak – not simply the voice of a man and his followers. Too many had claimed that title and led people to their death in bloody insurrection against Rome. But Jesus was not here for that. He told them openly that his path led not to a victory over Rome but to certain defeat for a crime against the state – even death on a cross.

Peter could not handle this. It made no sense. He pulled him aside and said something like, “Jesus, stick to the script. You are messing this up for everyone!” Jesus told him in no uncertain tones that he had become a Satan – a being in ancient Hebrew mythology that was responsible for the suffering of Job and the testing of prophets.

Then Jesus told the crowd even more plainly that the welcome matt for new disciples was open – if anyone was willing to join him on the cross. Martyrdom is not a convenient or comfortable invitation. Yet faith in Christ is a constant invitation to death of self and resurrection to the new being.

One of our Wednesday night studies, “The Me I Want To Be,” starts from this very position. It starts with the idea that, “There is a God, and it is not you. Therefore, your life is not your little project. Your life is God’s project.”

That does not mean that we are not responsible. What it means is that our deepest need is not to accomplish spirituality as much as it is to become aware of God’s active presence. In our awareness we realize which parts of our lives that we, like Peter, really want to follow our expectations. And we realize that in the denial of our need to be transformed we are, in fact, in denial of Jesus.

In the class last Wednesday we talked about the different versions of our identity based on the assumptions and expectations of others, the expectations we place on ourselves, and the true self that God created us to be. There was a lot of wisdom in that room, so I asked the simple question,“How many times can you really become someone new?” The answer was given as though it were obvious,“How many times does the sun come up?”

And so the question of denial is not so much a matter of whether or not we are in denial. The question is what we have chosen to deny. Are we in denial of our false self or our true self? Are we in denial of the reality of the cross or of its invitation? Are we in denial of the humanity of the one with whom we disagree, judge, and discount, or are we in denial of ourselves? Apparently, even for Jesus, the answer is found in the actions of God and the way in which our lives demonstrate or deny the love of God.

Frances Ridley Havergal not only wrote the hymn, “Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak.” She also wrote the following Prelude to the hymn, “Ministry of Song.” 
Amid the broken waters of our ever-restless thought,

Oh be my verse an answering gleam from higher radiance caught;

That where through dark o’erarching boughs of sorrow, doubt and sin,

The glorious Star of Bethlehem upon the flood looks in,

Its tiny trembling ray may bid some downcast vision turn

To that enkindling Light, for which all earthly shadows yearn.

Oh be my verse a hidden stream, which silently may flow

Where drooping leaf and thirsty flower in lonely valleys grow;

And often by its shady course to pilgrim hearts be brought,

The quiet and refreshment of an upward-pointing thought;

Till, blending with the broad bright stream of sanctified endeavor,

God’s glory be its ocean home, the end it seeketh ever.
Denial is not a river, but through Christ we may deny all that is false and proclaim all that is true. May it be that each of us are found to be in such deep denial of this present darkness that the light of Christ flows through us like a river to the sea. Amen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Proxy Server

Sermon Delivered on September 2, 2012
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

I met a guy the other day who is a computer programmer. He’s one of the parents on my son’s soccer team. When small talk led to the inevitable, “So, what do you do?”, he stated his occupation and followed it with a shrug, a smirk, and the moniker of pride and shame, “Geek.”

What a transformation that term has gone through, thanks to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – the patron Saints of technology. [Owen Rachal interrupts, “Excuse me, Zach? Technically speaking – St. Isidore of Seville is the patron saint of the Internet, computers, computer users and computer technicians. He is the patron saint of technology.”]

Thanks, Owen. As I was saying, Geek used to be a term of derision and shame. Children’s songs were composed about the weak and pitiful creature known as the pencil-necked geek. But not anymore! Now they are our heroes and members of squadrons of deployable helpers for our technical needs.

I must say, I have a bit of geek envy sometimes. Computers are so accessible and the commercials tell us that technology is our slave. So, I should be able to figure out how to make it do most anything, right? I should at least know what all the options are. Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever get frustrated because you don’t even understand the question it is asking?

Take this for example – proxy server – how do I even know if I want to connect with a proxy server if I don’t know what that is. I think I know what that means, but I’m not entirely sure. I think I need a geek. Owen – can you please tell me what a proxy server is?

[Owen offers a description that is something like this: A server is a computer that holds and offers certain content – files, music, documents. A proxy server performs the function of a server on behalf of the server. He ends by asking me what this has to do with the gospel.]

Thanks, Owen. I’m not sure. Let’s see if we can figure that out. Psalm 146 speaks of God as the one who formed and maintains all of creation. It reminds us that God is the source of healing, reconciliation, and providence – especially for the poor. James reminds us that it is through the poor and the powerless that God has chosen to demonstrate God’s kingdom. Why?

James clearly seems to think that the rich take advantage of the poor, dragging them into court. So, it seems to me the issue is about power. If we have the power to help and we refuse to, have we become part of the problem? A person still has choices to make, but less power equals fewer choices.

[Owen interjects, “That’s great, but I still don’t see what this has to do with proxy servers.”]

OK – right. Maybe that is why James said, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Still don’t get it? [Shakes head, “No.”] OK, then let’s look to Jesus. That always helps. Jesus has this odd encounter with this woman from Syrophenecia. He happens to be in her neighborhood. She asks him to cure her daughter of demons. He rejects her as a non-Jew, and not very politely I might add. So she reminds him of her value as a creature of the creator, and Jesus heals her daughter because of her action.

Then you have this blind guy who is shoved in front of Jesus by his friends. Jesus heals him by spitting in some mud, rubbing it in his eyes, and telling him not to tell anyone. Weird, huh?

But, here’s the thing. In both of these stories the person who is healed gets healed because of the action of someone else. I realize it is an oversimplification, but Jesus is the dedicated server – the one who came to disseminate love, justice, forgiveness, and redemption. The friends and the mother have been offered healing by proxy.

It’s kind of like the opposite of the question I recently heard about a gun. If I gave you a gun and you kill someone, who is to blame? Well, I would argue that there are no clean hands in that scenario. In converse – if you help someone in Jesus’ name, who is responsible for that person’s redemption? Obviously it would be Jesus.

Let’s back it out a little further. If the Syrophonecian Mama had not gone to Jesus about her baby, would Jesus have done anything about it? Let’s push that point deeper. If you had never heard of God – if you had never been loved in the name of God – would you be here?

[Owen interjects and suggests that some may be here because they are looking for the experience of being loved – having not experienced it elsewhere.]

True! How true that is. And if that is the case, it seems to me that our actions in response to God’s grace are even more crucial. Not only are they an expression of the love we have received, but our actions are not even our own. When we act on behalf of God, we offer salvation, hope, and redemption by proxy – and that is a reality that is just terrible.

I don’t mean bad. I mean formidably great. I mean that it is pregnant with the possibility for great faithfulness and equally great selfishness. Deciding that one’s actions are the actions of God is generally the hallmark of disaster. Realizing that one’s actions are in concert with God’s will is generally the hallmark of discernment.

And how do we know which is which? Well, according to scripture, we know that we are acting in concert with God’s will when we go to bat for someone who cannot stand up for themselves. According to scripture, we know that we are acting in concert with God’s will when we see our own healing and we can’t keep from telling others about it. And, according to scripture, we know that we are acting in concert with God’s will when we advocate for the poor.

You know, we get a lot of requests for help here. We are in a prominent location, and there are a lot of people who pass through the area – and a substantial homeless population. The expressed needs of those who come by are greater than the resources of this congregation – individually or collectively. That’s not uncommon, and it’s not because we are small. Perhaps we could shift our resources and priorities, but that would not address the need.

For those who become angry and say that we do not help, I say, “Yes we do – just not that way.” We have an emergency food bag surplus to offer. We have connections with other ministries and agencies. We visit the elderly and provide food. We have an amazing gift basket ministry that expresses a theology of abundance and stewardship.

In fact, just this week a member emailed me about a family of 13 that lost their home to a fire. The elves immediately put together baskets of toys, household goods, and stuffed animals to demonstrate the love of God. Another member mentioned the good works of some others in this congregation and said, “If I get to heaven it is on their coat tails!”

It was a very human reaction to the very divine reality that God came in flesh to dwell amongst us. And because of that – because of that man, Jesus – we have become children of God. In fact, we have become the hands and feet of God – not because of our worthiness but because of God’s willingness. God is willing to be vulnerable on our behalf. God is willing to let us make terrible choices.

In the end, it is not our works that prove our faith – for a light that is properly connected to its source cannot help but to shine. I would be remiss, on Rally Day, if I did not say that our opportunity to grow in faith is crucial to that connection. So, for Owen and for the rest of us, salvation by proxy is what creates that connection. Salvation by proxy is is the connection we offer.

We receive it – and we offer it – in every relationship and every chance encounter. It’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard, and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

G.I.G.O.

Sermon delivered 9/2/12 
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

G.I.G.O. is a programmer’s acronym for Garbage In Garbage Out. It is used to describe sloppy program design that results in a computer program that functions less elegantly than it could or should. It also represents a certain knowledge of best practices – or at least the ability to see certain errors that are not obvious to the uninitiated – and, therefore it functions as a type of Pharisaic code.

One could easily use the phrase Garbage In Garbage Out to describe the scriptures we have read today. Psalm 15 tells us that God only tolerates the blameless – those who speak no evil, do no evil, and will not hear of it done. These are the ones who will abide in the tent of the Lord.

James comes across with the one-two punch to tell us that good only comes from God, and that if we hear about Jesus but do not love like Jesus then we are lost even to ourselves. We are pretenders going through the motions of faith. And so our correctness of doctrine and good intentions mean nothing unless we walk the walk. I must admit that although I am honored to stand here every week and hold this holy conversation with each of you, the hardest part is walking out and attempting to practice what I preach.

It’s true. It’s true, because we have this Jesus fellah who comes along and tells us that our concerns over correct behavior have become disconnected with our devotion to God. If James’ words leave us spinning, Jesus delivers the knockout by telling us that he can’t hear our prayers or our beautiful songs because our actions are shouting too loudly for him to understand a single word that we are saying, singing, or praying.

Yup. It’s pretty straightforward - Garbage In Garbage Out.

But wait a second. Where is grace and mercy in all of that? Blameless indeed – who can live up to that?

And what about James’ question about faith? Does faith not save you? How does that square with the Reformed understanding of salvation by faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone? What about those who are too limited to do anything for anyone else?

Then you have Jesus picking on the Pharisees for washing things. These traditions came from a communal experience of God, and they were designed to save lives. Seriously, nothing gives you an appreciation for good hygiene like an intimate experience with bacteria in a foreign country!

Though I have not had that pleasure – praise God – I can recall getting kicked out of the kitchen, and being given a stern lesson about things I should have known about, on a mission trip with a group of Doctors in Guatemala. The rituals of cleanliness were connected with a very real sense of security and a very real fear of illness. Who was this Rabbi to challenge them, anyway? Did he not care about the health of his followers? He must have seemed like a sloppy and impulsive leader to them – or maybe I just want him to seem that way in order to justify my own limitations!

Either way, there are a lot of questions that are starting to stack up here. Let’s start with this idea that it doesn’t matter what you put into your body. It just does not make sense. It goes against the idea of Garbage In Garbage Out. It does not compute.

All my life I have been told that I am what I eat. In elementary school I remember the cartoon fruits, nuts, and vegetables that we would point to and call each other or claim to be when we ate those items. We had no idea of the stereotypes for these items; we just knew that if you sat next to Scott Thompson he would trade shin kicks with you to see who was the toughest.

I don’t know that this ritual had much to do with what we ate, but it was an indicator of what was inside of us. My memory is a little soft, as I have slept a few times since the mid-70’s, but I can recall telling him to stop and being called a wimp. I can also recall being friends with him – not great friends, but not enemies either.

That seems to me to be a God thing – not a result of our actions, but a result of God’s influence. For the book of James says, “every perfect gift is from above.” I think we want to believe in a God who manipulates every occurrence, but I think God is more influential than that. God is more trusting than that. I think we want God to be like the God in the story of the orphanage cafeteria.

The story goes that the nuns put out a large tray of shiny, red apples with a note that said, “Take only one. God is watching.” About halfway through lunch they noticed the cookie tray at the other end had a note from a student that said, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples!”

Just like the kids who took too many cookies, each of us is confronted with choices (some more often than others) where our individual actions affect the lives of others. It is rarely as direct as the opportunity to contaminate an entire team of Doctors, and a lot of the time our influence goes by unnoticed.

I was confronted by this unexpectedly in a village in Ghana in 2000. Treva and I were on a travel seminar and we were touring a village where they farmed cocoa beans. They showed us how the beans were painstakingly harvested. It seemed so sublimely agrarian and communal that I did not even think about the fact that painstaking means that it hurts to do it. As the reality of their hardship was sinking in, the village elder asked if we – in the U.S. – drink much cocoa. Ignorantly and flippantly I said, “No, we mostly drink coffee.” He simply and straightforwardly replied, “We wish you would drink more cocoa.”

So, I guess my choices do affect others. I think that is the point of the Gospel, as we have received it today. It reminds me of one of the most profound questions of faith I’ve ever been asked. The question is, “Can an ‘I’ be saved apart from a ‘we’?”

Is my salvation dependent on my faith alone, or is it deeply and intrinsically connected to my relationship with you? The answer to each of these, I believe, is yes. Yes, I am saved by faith alone – and that faith is not a product of my actions or decisions. It is by the grace of God that I have been given the faith, attested to in scripture, to believe in the impossible.

It is impossible that I might be without blame. It is impossible that I will never have to say that I am sorry. It is impossible that I will always speak the truth of God apart from my opinion, and that my speech and my actions will always reflect the image of God in which I was created.

Yet God is still willing to be known through me, and God is still willing to be known through you. In fact, our salvation is dependent on God’s actions and only becomes real to us when we respond. Our salvation has been real to God all along, but through our relationships with others it becomes real to us.

The Psalmist reminds us to stand by our word even if it hurts us to do it. Our trust, our faith, our health, and our salvation are not ours to determine but God’s alone – and all shall be well. The book of James encourages us to get rid of those habits, those compulsions, and those convenient justifications that keep us from doing what we know is right. And what is right – anger over injustice or action to offer relief? Obviously, true and right religion is not about doctrine or tradition. It is about loving the way you have been loved and helping those who cannot help themselves.

This is a real struggle for our congregation. We have learned the hard way from giving hand outs, and we have specific ways that we offer help to the needy. As individuals, I know that many of you are involved in your own civic groups and ministries to help and support others. You give generously to our denomination’s special offerings, and the Session is faithful in using a portion of those funds locally.

The Christmas Basket Ministry is an obvious place of support, and last Friday they were in full swing. One of our ecumenical elves, Sharon Bakay, has been sharing stories with me from an inspired Christian named Linda Lanclos who has started up a program called “Escape from Poverty.” Linda is taking a small group of struggling individuals, teaching them life skills, and turning it into a reality TV show on the local access channel. Why would she do such a thing?

She is doing it because she gets it. She understands that caring for the marginalized means being in a relationship that limits her lifestyle in order to empower theirs. She is doing it because she understands that doctrine and tradition help you to name things and to celebrate what God has done, but only by paying attention to our relationships with others can we understand our relationship with God.

That’s what Jesus was telling the Pharisees. He was not attacking tradition. He was warning them against the worship of tradition. He did not want them to end up – as in James – unable to recognize themselves as children of God. Jesus was not just giving a list of things not to do. He was describing the natural consequences of a life devoted to self instead of devoted to experiencing God in our relationships.

And so it is with us. If we are dead set on truly experiencing, exploring, and expressing the love of God in our common unity, then the expectations are pretty good. You know, if you take that list that Jesus uses as a warning and flip it to show the positive expectations for a life of faith lived in community, you get something like this: self-control, respect of property, respect of life, fidelity in relationships, generosity, righteousness, trust, personal restraint, sympathy, esteem for others, humility, and wisdom.

That sounds pretty good from here, but in a few minutes I’ll be walking out that door. Unfortunately, I may not live this faith as purely as I preach it. Fortunately, between this pulpit and that door, a table has been set for you and for me to remind us of who we are and whose we are.

This tradition will not save us, but through our common union we will participate in the salvation that God makes complete through every chance encounter, every imperfect relationship, and every action that extends the grace and mercy we have received to someone else. Who knows – you might even find that through extending that grace you have become the one on the receiving end. And to God be the glory in all things, now and always. Amen!