Sunday, October 8, 2017

On Earth as it is in Heaven [Proper 22A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

On Earth as it is in Heaven

I remember vividly that moment on the morning of June 12, 2016. It was a Sunday morning and I was sitting in Room 211, upstairs, meeting with folks who were interested in our EfM program. And I felt my phone vibrate. It was a text message from my wife. She doesn't typically text me on Sunday mornings; she is aware that I am generally unable to check my phone; I have a lot going on and typically a lot of layers to navigate between hand and pocket. And so, I reasoned this must be important. I checked my phone; I wanted to be sure everything was OK.

It wasn't. “Did you see?” The text read. “Largest mass shooting in US history, 50 people.” And I felt instantly sick – though, I have to admit, and I am embarrassed to say this, I was not quite as sick as when I heard about Sandy Hook. I excused myself from the class and went downstairs. My head spinning; my heart breaking. The first thing I did was check on a friend, a college friend who is gay and lives with his husband in Orlando, to make sure he was safe. And then I had to see the news for myself – hoping against hope that there had been a mistake, that it wasn't really true. But it was and so I hurried to add a petition to the prayers of the people before the next liturgy.

All of it was too terrible to really process and so that Sunday morning, between the liturgies, I did things. Trying to respond in the moment to an event in our nation to which one should never have to respond. Later that week, on Wednesday evening, we prayed the Great Litany and tolled the bell – fifty times, one time for each person shot to death in that Orlando night club.

And then this Monday morning, my wife woke me up with another terrible message: “Did you hear about the shooting in Las Vegas? They are saying it is the worst mass shooting in US history.” And instantly I felt sick – though, I have to admit, and I am embarrassed to say this, not as sick as when I heard about Sandy Hook, and not quite as sick as when I heard about Orlando. And that it does not make me feel quite as sick anymore, that makes me feel sick. Because I am worried that the shock is wearing off, like when one keeps watching the same horror movie over and over again.

What should be unbelievable is becoming increasingly believable. And what should shock me, shock us, is becoming too normal, as if, as a nation, we now expect these things to happen. And I will keep praying “on earth as it is in heaven.” But also this week a man rained down bullets on a crowd leaving 60 dead and hundreds injured. And so this week, I think, heaven feels far away.

The first thing I did was check facebook to make sure my uncle and aunt, who live in Las Vegas, were safe. And then I had to see the news for myself – hoping against hope that there had been a mistake, that it wasn't really true. But of course it was.

Later on Monday, Fr. Brendan and I sat down and planned the public prayer services, for Monday evening and Tuesday morning, and then thought about how we might respond to this tragedy during Wednesday's Animal Blessing. We prayed our prayers and tolled the bell – sixty times, it's hard to even say that out loud, one time for each person shot to death. I hate that we now know how to respond to unprecedented mass shootings.

Which brings us to this morning and Thou shalt not kill. This one has been set in stone since the days of Moses. Of all the commandments it seems the most obvious and the most doable. Most people keep it without even trying.

And yet, from the moment Moses descended Mt. Sinai, humankind has invested countless hours and limitless resources developing the most devastatingly efficient ways to break this commandment. We can kill and destroy in such creative and terrible ways that probably we make the devil jealous.
The Ten Commandments have become more symbolic than understood in our nation - something to up on a courthouse lawn or drive around the country on a flatbed truck. The Commandments are surprisingly popular considering one of them is about keeping the Sabbath – not the most popular idea in our culture.

But I suspect the importance of the Ten Commandments has very little to do with what is actually written on the stone tablets. I think for many people the value is found in the promise of a moral code that is set in stone, something constant in a scary world that is ever changing. There is something mesmerizing about a document that seems so black and white in a world so colored grey. Would that the world could be so simple that ten rules were all we needed?

But while the Ten Commandments are God-breathed and vitally important to our faith – both in the days of Moses and still today – they were never intended to be the whole story or the final word. God doesn't stop with these Ten Commandments; the size of the Torah with its 613 laws is proof of this. This is not the end of the conversation; it the beginning. The Ten Words, so-called in the Jewish tradition, is the charter covenant between YHWH and the people God led out of Egypt. God is extending to the people an invitation into a relationship. And so while, some will always think of this as a list of rules, it is actually all about relationships. The Catechism in the Prayer Books asserts that the Ten Commandments are a gift given to the people of God “to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.”1

The Ten Commandments are the beginning of a conversation – a conversation intended to inspire compassion, encourage empathy, lead us into deeper relationships. They have become decisive in our time, but they were meant to foster community. Often we think of these laws as the “Thou shalt nots.” Though it is worth noting, as one commentator points out, “We can keep all of [the commandments] while taking a nap. That's hardly burdensome.”2 But Biblical Scholar Terence Fretheim suggests that eight of the commandments are stated in the negative for a reason. He writes, “As such, they open up life rather than close it down; that is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors. At the same time, the negative formulation indicates that the primary concern is not to create the human community but to protect it from behaviors that have the potential of destroying it. Yet the commands implicitly commend their positive side.... For example... not killing suggests efforts to preserve life.... It is not enough for a community's life and health to simply avoid crimes.”3

God is not calling us simply to Thou Shalt Not; it is not enough to avoid doing terrible things in this world. We are called to make this world a better place, a place more like heaven. No one of us can dispel all of the violence of this age. But each of us can speak a word of life; each of us can take action against the forces of death.

God's first action was to breathe life into the void, into the chaos. We, created in the very image of God, are called to do the same. Thou Shalt Not Kill is not enough. We are people of life. Where there is violence, we sow peace. Where there is despair, we sow hope. Where there is death, we are called to proclaim life. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us. We are filled with resurrection power. Our story is that life overcomes death – every time.

In a culture seemingly addicted to violence and death, in which mass shootings have become so common we can only remember the ones in which there are double-digit fatalities, we, as followers of the Risen Christ, made in the image of the God who breathed life into Creation, are called to resist the forces of death by any means necessary. See the world I woke up to on Monday morning is not the world I want for my loved ones, for my children. I want better for us. I want Jesus' prayer; that's what I want. I want on “earth as it is in heaven.” And I think you do too.

Everything I read tells me to just accept things the way they are. I'm not gonna do that. Everything I read tells me that nothing will ever change. I don't believe that. Maybe on earth as it is in heaven is too much to ask. But that is the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, so I believe there is hope. We serve a God who raises the dead, so I believe there is hope. We just need to dream bigger dreams. We need to dream dreams of swords beat into plowshares. We need to dream dreams in which gun violence is no more, in which there are no more mass shootings. We need to dream the dreams of the angels – for peace on earth and goodwill to all. We need to dream God-sized dreams for our nation, for our world. I am challenging us to use our holy imaginations to imagine something better. What does it look like? What does on “earth as it is in heaven” look like? And what are we willing to do to make our dreams come true? What are we willing to do to make our prayer, on earth as it is in heaven, become the reality?






1 BCP, 848.

2 Preaching the Old Testament, 95.


3Interpretation: Exodus, 221.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Trust in the Desert Days

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Exodus 17:1-7

Trust in the Desert Days

The story starts in tears. The people of Israel cried out to God from the land of Egypt. At one time, long ago, in the days of Joseph, Egypt had been a place of refuge. But years past and so did Pharaohs and four hundred years after their arrival the people were no longer welcomed as refugees but feared as invasive outsiders. So came the hard labor. For these people, living now as slaves, Egypt was the only home they had ever known. Ten generations had lived and died, had married and buried, by the Nile. And then the winds shifted – suddenly and without warning.

But it wasn't the shift that caused the tears. It wasn't even the hard labor. The people cried out to God because the land of refuge had become, for them, a land of death. You see, hard labor was not punishment enough for their being different. The Pharaoh wanted to break this people, to put them in their place; and so he decreed a genocide – demanding that every Hebrew male child and infant be killed. He was cutting off the people at the roots. As the people watched their children die, their future die, they cried out to God – the desperate cry of a desperate people – and God heard their cry. And God saved them.

God split open the sea and let them pass through; God made the waters stand up like walls. It was the story they told to their children and their children's children. When future generations would ask them, “Who is God?” this was the story they would tell – the story of the Exodus, the story of the God who heard them and saved them.

God led them through the sea, out of Egypt, into the desert. But in the desert there was no food. And so once again, the people cried out to God and once again God heard their cry. And God fed them.

God fed them bread from heaven. And as if that was not enough, God gave them not only the bread that preserved their lives them but also meat that filled their bellies. They were hungry; they were starving; they were dying of starvation. And God saved them. It was a story they told to their children and their children's children.

Their bellies were full of manna and quail, but in the desert there was no water. And so once again, the people cried out to God and once again God heard their cry. And God split the hard rocks in the wilderness and gave the people drink as from the great deep. God brought streams out of the cliff, and the waters gushed out like rivers.

They were parched; they were thirsty; they were dying in the desert. And God saved them. It was a story they told to their children and their children's children.

Every time the people cried out, God heard their cry and God saved them. Every time. When they were dying in Egypt. And when they were starving in the desert. And when they were dying of thirst. Every time they were desperate, every time they reached the end of their capabilities and strength, every time God saved them. It was the story they told to their children and their children's children.

It was a good story of a good God doing for them good things. But not everything in the story was good. It was not that simple.

When the people got hungry in the desert, they didn't just cry out to God. They goaded God with memories of the good old days in the land of Egypt. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt,” they complained, “when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. Rather then starve to death here in the desert.” Hunger is a legitimate crisis. But then again, God saved them from a genocide in Egypt. It was not all fleshpots and bread.

When the people got thirsty in the desert, they didn't just cry out to God. They goaded God with memories of the good old days in the land of Egypt. “Why did you bring us out of the land of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Thirst is a legitimate crisis. They are in the desert; they had no water; the body, especially a child's body, can only go so long without a drink. But then again, God saved them and their children and their livestock from certain death in Egypt. It was not all wells and water.

They told these stories too. They told them to their children and their children's children. They remembered how they grumbled and complained against the God who saved them. And they didn't just remember in their minds. They told their children and their children's children; they preserved the stories on scrolls. So that, for generations to come, their people, their descendants, would never forget – never forget their doubts and never forget the God who met those doubts with provision and salvation.

And it is not just here, not just in these two instances. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of these stories. And if that wasn't enough, Moses is sure to remind the people again of their failures in Deuteronomy. They remember every time they complained against God and they remember the resulting disasters – the serpent attack, and the consuming fire, and the ground that swallowed some of the camp, and even this quail story takes a dark turn in Numbers when God feeds them so much quail that it comes out of their nostrils. They remember the golden calf and the broken tablets. They remember how every amazing act of God still could not dislodge the doubts in their hearts and their minds. God was good but it was not a perfect story. And they remember that.

You might think they would strike that stuff from the record, pass on only the highlights, preserve their ancestors, those who walked through the Red Sea, those who earned their freedom, as infallible heroes. But that's not what they did. They could have, but they didn't. They tell these desert stories and these desert stories do not make the children of Israel look all that good. In our modern times the tendency is to re-write history, to eulogize away the rough edges. There is always a strong urge to turn our dead into saints. But that is not the story they tell because that is not the story we need.

The desert days were all murky future, indefinite time, constant crises. The people were not superheroes; they were just people – fickle and scared and plagued by doubt. Sure, they watched the Red Sea split in two; they walked between walls of water on dry land. They experienced the power and presence of God in displays rarely seen before or since.

But the desert days were difficult. The people walked from the terror of Egypt directly into the desolation of the desert. They did not walk from the Red Sea into the Promised Land. But without the desert days, they would have never entered into the promise. The desert wasn't easy but they learned something about God in that desert that could be learned nowhere else.

We are entering today into our stewardship season. Church veterans know that that means we're gonna talk about money this month. But stewardship is not really about money; money is only a symbol of a much deeper issue – one that the children of Israel truly grappled with in the desert. The big question is not how much should I give but can I trust God with my life? That was the central question of the desert. It is also the central question of stewardship. Can I trust God with my life?

It seems silly at times how often the Hebrews complained in the desert. The complaining begins almost immediately after the Exodus miracle. And as a reader, long removed from the moment, it seems to me impossible that the people would ever doubt God again after God pulled off an impossible rescue. God saved them from death – in the most dramatic way possible – and still the question remained in their hearts and minds: Can I trust God with my life?

And that is why the people remember these stories. That is why they told these stories, doubts, failures and all, to their children and their children's children. Because it is easy to trust God in the good times. But sometimes the rocks run dry. And then what?

There is a pattern to these stories. The crisis comes. The doubt creeps in. The people panic. They lash out against God. They cry out in desperation. And every time God saves them. Every time God saves them. And then the next crisis comes and the pattern repeats.

They have their doubts but God always comes through, always proves trustworthy. The people finally learned to trust God in the desert. Now I'm not saying stewardship season is our desert...but, in a sense it serves the same spiritual purpose. Can we trust God with our lives? Every pledge card, every offering plate, confronts us with that question. Do we trust God more than our savings account? Do we trust God more than the fleshpots in Egypt? And it is difficult because those fleshpots, the people could see them and touch them.


Can we trust God with our lives? The children of Israel, they had their doubts. And yet, despite their doubts, God saved them every time. Met their every need. Heard their every desperate cry. And this is the story they told their children and their children's children. This is the story they passed down to us. The story reminds us that trust in God has never come easy. But the story also reminds us that, of course, the answer to the question is yes.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness [Proper 19A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness

Peter could really use a win. Like many students, he just wants to impress his teacher. And if we're being honest here, some of his previous attempts have not gone terribly well – especially that time Jesus called him Satan, in front of the entire class. That stung.

But you have to give him credit, he is persistent. Once again today, he musters up his courage and goes for it. I imagine he studied late into the night, scrutinized the exact wording he would use, practiced in the mirror. He probably played out the scenario in his head dozens of times – just to be absolutely sure that this comment would not again earn him a satanic nickname, but would instead, garner that most precious prize: a gold star from his rabbi, from his teacher.

It's a good question and goes off without a hitch: How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? As many as seven times? Now, a lot of people struggle to forgive someone who wrongs them even once. The ancient rabbis suggested three times – which is fairly generous. But Peter, he is willing to go the extra mile: seven times. And then he waits for Jesus' answer – trembling with anticipation. Just sure that Jesus will come back with something along the lines of, “Seven times. Well, Peter that is truly above and beyond. I was going to say once is enough. Your generosity astounds me. I mean, seven times! Did you hear that guys?!”

Poor Peter; he really just asks the wrong person. Jesus' standards are always ridiculously high. If he would have asked someone else the same question, he would have likely received that gold star. I know I'm impressed any time someone chooses to forgive because many people prefer vengeance or hold grudges instead. And we understand that because we all know that forgiveness is incredibly difficult. It always feels a little like a loss. Seven times then sounds like a lot of times to forgive someone.

Jesus' response to Peter seems, at first glance, rather arbitrary, as if he is just being difficult: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” But it's not. You see, there is a little poem found early in the book of Genesis attributed to one of Cain's descendants, Lamech, that reads, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” The poem traces the escalation of violence in human history. It details, poetically, this cycle of violence in which injury begets death, in which one wrong is avenged seventy-seven times over. The poem brazenly challenges the divine inclination towards forgiveness. It flexes its muscle rather than dare take the loss.

Jesus' response is not arbitrary, neither is it accidental. Biblical scholar Stanley Saunders, concludes, Jesus is calling his community of disciples to participate in undoing the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in spasms of envy, hatred, violence, and retribution across the generations to this day.1 Jesus imagines that forgiveness has the power to break the cycles of violence and vengeance. Jesus imagines that forgiveness frees us from an economy of debt to live in an economy of mercy.

The parable that Jesus tells drops us directly into an economy of debt. Before we look at this parable though it is important for us to remember that it is in fact a parable – not an allegory. And there is a difference. Parables are stories that teach by using familiar situations with just enough of a twist to keep the listeners' minds churning and puzzling. An allegory is different; it assigns a defined correlation to each character in the story.

This story is a parable. The basic economic system found in the parable would have been familiar to Jesus' audience. It was something like a pyramid – with money and power flowing steadily to the top, in this case the top is represented by the king. Under the king were levels of servants who were expected to collect debts and taxes from those below them. As the money flowed to the top, each new collector would take a cut. That was how they supported themselves. As long the person above you in the pyramid, in the hierarchy, was getting what they expected, everything was good. I mean, not for the person on the very bottom of the scheme, but in the sense that the system was sustainable.

One example of the model with which we are familiar in the Bible is the story of Zacchaeus. We remember in the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was obviously close to the top of the economic pyramid – not unlike the unmerciful slave in Jesus' parable today. You might also remember that Zacchaeus was not well liked. That was not because he was rich and folks were simply jealous; it was because he extracted taxes from his fellow Jews that supported the occupying Roman government; and not just that, he also made sure to extract extra to pad his own pockets. He charged them for the privilege of paying for their own oppression. It wasn't illegal; in fact that was just the way things were. It was an economy of debt in which everyone owed someone something. And that of course was the cause of a lot of bad blood.

And so Jesus' audience would have been very familiar with this economic system; it was the one under which they lived. Again, parables begin with a familiar concept. But then things get wacky. The first twist in Jesus' story is the impossibly large debt the first slave has accumulated. This is where 2000 years really obscures the original impact of the parable. Ten-thousand talents would have been a comically outrageous amount to Jesus' listeners. To us, ten-thousand talents means nothing. We don't talk in talents. To put it in perspective though, one talent was equal to approximately fifteen years' wages for the average laborer. This slave is short ten-thousand talents. It would take him about 150,000 years to pay off his debt. That is a lot of years. The audience would understand that the debt was impossible, absolutely impossible, to pay back. And then would be amazed, shocked, that the king would forgive that extraordinary debt.

They of course would also find it shocking that that same slave would then throw a man in prison who owed him just one-hundred days worth of money. The first guy was forgiven, remember, 150,000 years worth of debt and then is absolutely unforgiving, unmerciful, towards the one who owed a very manageable debt equivalent to 100 days' wages – something like a car loan. And to add to the absurdity, the harsh slave throws the other slave into prison where of course he will be unable to work and therefore unable to pay.

Many years ago, in the ancient desert, there was a meeting [in a monastic community] about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but Abba Pior kept silence. Later, he got up and went out; he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulder. He put a little sand also into a small bag which he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, 'In this sack which contains much sand, are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them. This is not right, I ought rather to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me for them.' The Fathers stood up and said, 'Truly, this is the way of salvation.'2

In the parable, the first slave was released by the king from the economy of debt – an economy that was destroying him. But he chose instead to cling to the system. He was freed and yet chose to enslave himself once again. He was forgiven an impossible debt and yet chose not to forgive others.

Jesus imagines that forgiveness has the power to break the cycles of violence and vengeance. Jesus imagines that forgiveness frees us from an economy of debt to live in an economy of mercy.

This parable is actually quite simple. But it does require us to be honest about our baggage. If we forget that God has freed us from the heavy bag of sand we carried on our backs, we will be confined to a merciless existence – one in which we are trapped in a cycle of vengeance. Ready forever to inflict our pain on others, who will in turn pay that pain forward. It is a story as old as Cain.

But that is not what God wants for us. God is a God of liberation. We see this in today's Old Testament lesson. The God who freed the people from slavery in Egypt, longs also to free us from the economy of debt and bring us into an economy of mercy. Every absolution is a lesson. God is teaching us to be merciful by example.

Jesus is calling his community of disciples to participate in undoing the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in spasms of envy, hatred, violence, and retribution across the generations to this day.3 He is calling us not only with this parable, but also by the example of his life and his death. He forgave even those who crucified him from the cross.

We are all debtors – both victim and perpetrator – with nothing to do but collapse into the mercy of God. And that means, in life, we have a choice: to obsess over all the ignorant, mean, hurtful, misguided things that other people do, to hold tightly to our grudges, to enact vengeance on those who cause us pain or we can look past all of that and gaze into the overwhelming mercy of God. Which is not to say that we don't confront sin in the life of the Church and the World; we do have a responsibility to confront evil and injustice. We just have a strange way of doing it. We are called to overcome evil with good; we respond to violence with love; and we answer the cycles of vengeance with forgiveness.

It's not easy. But as those old desert Fathers might say, “This is the way of salvation.” - for both the one who forgives and for the one who is forgiven.





1 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3393
2 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 469.

3 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3393

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Love Your Neighbor [Proper 18A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Romans 13:8-14

Love Your Neighbor

Tomorrow will be the sixteenth anniversary of Welles Crowther's death. He was twenty-four years old the day he died; this year he would have celebrated his fortieth birthday. But instead he made a decision, a decision that froze him in time.

Crowther worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was an equities trader, a graduate of Boston College. Even folks who did not know his name, recognized him as the guy who always carried a red bandanna in his back pocket. He always carried it – ever since the day his dad gave it to him, when he was just six years old.

After United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, Welles called his mom – just to let her know that he was OK. And then from the 78th floor, he started his dissent – but not alone. In the midst of the smoke and chaos, with his red bandanna tied around his face, trying to protect his nose and mouth from the toxic air, Welles calmly but firmly started leading panicked people out of the building – including the injured young woman he carried over his shoulder.

After escorting the first group to safety, he made a decision: he decided to go back in – into the thick smoke and terrible haze. He was a like light piercing that darkness – the darkness of the building, the darkness of the despair that hung in the air, the darkness of that day. He had already saved lives, but compelled by the power of love, he kept going back into chaos, because there were more lives to save. One of the women he rescued says, “If he hadn't come back, I wouldn't have made it. People can live 100 years and not have the compassion, the wherewithal to do what he did.”1

Welles Crowther's body was later found in a stairwell. He was on his way back up the stairs to save more lives. He is credited with saving the lives of more than a dozen people, total strangers for whom he sacrificed his life. Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

That same morning, I was a senior in college, and all of my classes were canceled. And what I remember of that day is sitting with people – some friends, some I barely knew. We sat together in the chapel – and prayed, and cried, and worried. We sat together in the dining hall – and talked and watched as the terrible images on the television screens bled into the amazing images of heroic women and men. We sat together in our dorm and tried to process a catastrophic event on a surreal day.

That day, as I look back, conjures memories of both the horror of the tragedy but also the beauty of a nation united in grief and prayer, united in heart-break, but also united by love. In the days that followed, the stories, stories of police officers and firefighters, of soldiers and medical professionals, of clerics and counselors, and of ordinary heroes like Welles Crowther, inspired the people of our country to dare to once again hope that light would break through the darkness of tragedy. And we caught a brief glimpse of our nation at its best – beyond the partisan and ideological divisions that plague us – children of God, crying, helping, praying – together.

Today we are witnessing the same thing in places across the country. We are watching people come together to cry, help, and pray. We are seeing this in Texas: people risking their lives to save strangers from the flood waters; people giving of their money and of their time. As wildfires rage, we are seeing this up and down the western region of our nation: people opening their homes to friends and strangers alike; firefighters and other first responders risking their lives to contain the raging infernos and save the lives of their neighbors. And today, as yet another another terrible storm pounds Florida, we will see more people give of their time and money and strength to protect and serve and save people from disaster. We will see people put their love into bold and selfless action. Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The miracle of this is that the love that we will witness in these days of disaster will transcend partisan divides; it will ignore ideological difference. People will reach out in compassion to people who act, look, pray, and vote differently than they do. And, if even for just a moment, Love your neighbor as yourself will be the law of the land.

And when we see that, when we see folks live that commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in this world, we catch a glimpse of the coming Kingdom of God – the world of God's dreams. We catch a glimpse of the world as it could be. This is what Paul means in today's epistle lesson. He writes, “The night is far gone, the day of salvation is near.” It is both an acknowledgment of the brokenness of our present reality, and a bold affirmation of what God has in store for us. The Kingdom is not quite here, but the Kingdom is coming. And then he calls us to live as people of that day, to let the world catch a glimpse of heaven in our lives, in the ways in which we live our love. Paul calls us to be the answer to Jesus' prayer: thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The task sounds impossibly big. But then again, Paul seems to suggest that it is actually shockingly simple. Sometimes living as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, seems so complicated. The Bible is this huge book, packed full of laws, and rules, and commandments. And if you don't believe me, join us on Wednesday evenings for our Deuteronomy Bible Study. There are 613 commandments in the Torah alone, in just the first five books of the Bible. And yet, here, Paul, like Jesus before him, makes it all shockingly simple: “Every commandment is summed up in one word, one word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'” And then he goes on to explain, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

That is pretty simple, right? All we have to do to fulfill the law of God, to make God's hopes and dreams for this world come true, to answer Jesus' prayer, is to love. Love your friends. Love your brothers and sisters in Christ. Love your family members. Love the strangers and the aliens. Love the widows and the orphans. Love the vulnerable. Love your enemies. Love those who disagree with you, those persecute you. Love those who are rich and love those who are poor. Love those who are easy to love and those who are hard to love. Love the unlovable. Did I miss anyone? Love your neighbor as yourself. It is that simple and that difficult.

But some days it actually seems possible. There is something about tragedy, something about disaster, that reminds us that there is nothing more important than: love your neighbor as yourself. Since Hurricane Harvey hit, millions and millions of dollars have been donated to help the people there who are suffering; people have risked, and in some cases sacrificed their lives, to save perfect strangers; folks have put aside differences to work for the common good. Love flows most easily from broken hearts. In the midst of disaster, people put their love into action. And we see, in times of trouble, what Love your neighbor as yourself looks like in the real world.

For Jesus, love is the highest purpose of the human life. When asked to identify the greatest commandment, Jesus chose love: love God and love people. Love means so much to Jesus, that before his arrest and crucifixion, he said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” And he didn't just say it, he lived it.

Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Not only does it fulfill every law, love changes the world. Every act of love brings the Kingdom of God closer. When love happens, it is impossible to miss it. Every act of love is a ray of light shattering the darkness.

In 1878, the city of Memphis, Tennessee was hit with a yellow fever epidemic. The epidemic hit so hard that the city actually lost its charter as a city for fourteen years. As people died all around, many fled the Mississippi River area to preserve their lives. But not all fled; there were a few who decided they could not leave. See there were people, suffering and dying. There were people who needed to experience the love of Jesus, needed to know that Jesus loved them in their time of trouble; they needed to feel that undying love in the midst of their dying. Sister Constance, the head of the Anglican Community of St. Mary, and the sisters of her order, stayed. They knew they would die but they stayed. And in the midst of suffering and death, in the midst of a contagious, fatal disease, in the midst of disaster, they loved. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And those dying of yellow fever were to them total strangers.

Most of the sisters died. They gave their lives because they took Jesus’ commandment seriously: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” They could have left the city, the people, Constance and her companions, but they were compelled by a commandment, compelled by their Lord, compelled to love with their lives as Jesus loved with his life.

On the Feast of All Saints, in that same year, the Rev. J. Jay Joyce commemorated the sisters in his sermon. He said, “They brought the light of woman's loving care to many who else had been denied it; and in their vocation and ministry they counted not their lives dear unto themselves, for willingly and gladly they yielded themselves victims, and many left their healthful home on the Hudson to find death on the Mississippi.” Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We are living in a world in which pain and sorrow, sadness and despair are still very much the reality. But also we are living in a world with an amazing capacity to love. There is still plenty of darkness, but every act of love is a ray of light shattering that darkness. By the power of love, God's dream is bringing the nightmares of this world to an end; the sun is rising, and the light is breaking through the darkness, and the day is almost here.

We are children of the light. We are called to carry the light into the darkness. We are people of hope. We are called to speak hope into the despair.

It's all very simple: Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, let love make your every decision, let love form your every belief, let love dictate your every word, let love drive your every action. Let love be your mission and your legacy in this world. God has a dream for this world; Jesus has a prayer for this world. It is simple. It is love.






1http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2002/america.remembers/stories/heroes/welles.html

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Do It Anyway [St. Stephen's Day]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60

Do it Anyway

I suspect the prophet Jeremiah might take issue with today's collect. The collect for the Feast of St. Stephen, the feast we are observing today, begins: “We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen.” First martyr, huh? First martyr of the Christian Church? Sure. But first martyr? Probably quiet a few of the prophets and sages, from Jeremiah to John the Baptist, who quite literally lost his head, would object to that unqualified first.

Stephen was the first post-resurrection martyr, but he was not the first to suffer for his witness, neither was he the last. Stephen takes his place within the great throng of witnesses – of those who dared speak the word of God, who risked everything for the sake of the Truth. According to the biblical witness,, God has been speaking to and through human beings since the book of Genesis. Also the Bible shows us that those words are rarely well-received. In fact, God's Word became flesh in the person of Jesus, and, you might remember, even he was not terribly well-received.

The Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha, the stories of the early Church, they are all littered with martyr stories, stories of heroic women and men of faith who gave their all for the love of God. And in almost every case, the end of the story escalates to what feels like a huge overreaction. Today's story from Jeremiah is a good example. Now he isn't killed in this story; tradition tells us that he was carried into exile and later killed by his own people, but the crowds do threaten to kill him in this story. Now he is admittedly not a sweet talker. But he is actually trying to save them from disaster. That is a nice thing to do. But they want to kill him because, well, folks don't like to be told that they might be wrong, in need of repentance. The obvious reaction to that, the rational reaction, might be for the crowds to say, “we beg to differ” or just ignore him. But instead they advance on him while shouting “You shall die!” That seems like an extreme reaction.

The reaction to Stephen is, of course, even more shocking. Let's consider what we know about Stephen from the book of Acts – the biblical book that records his ministry. Before today's lesson, we learn that the disciples enlist Stephen and a few others to take care of the widows. So that is Stephen's primary ministry: taking care of widows. In addition to that ministry, Acts tells us that Stephen did great wonders and signs among the people. The only other thing Stephen does in his entire story is talk about Jesus. So that's: takes care of widows (good), signs and wonders (good), talk about Jesus (good). And so, obviously, the story ends with him being dragged out of the city and stoned to death. Again, it does not seem like an appropriate, or sane, reaction.

In that sense Stephen's story is not unique. The Jewish martyrs in 2 Maccabees were slaughtered because they would not eat pork. St. Perpetua was killed for not signing a loyalty pledge. St. Laurence was brutally murdered by the state for claiming that the Church's greatest treasure was her people. Manche Masemola was killed as a teen by her parents for attending pre-baptismal classes at the local Anglican mission. Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot while celebrating the Eucharist because he publicly implored the local authorities to stop killing peasants. Jesus was crucified for spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God, for healing the sick and raising the dead.

Sometimes bad things happen to really good people doing really good things. And it is hard to make sense of it.

What is truly remarkable is that at some point each and every martyr glimpses the cross ahead of them and makes the choice to follow Jesus anyways. Perpetua could have just signed the paper and lived. Manche Masemola could have stopped pursuing Jesus the first time she was beaten by her parents. Oscar Romero could have settled into a quiet, comfortable life as a Church bureaucrat.

And St. Stephen could have stayed home and kept his mouth shut. That is a choice he could have made. But he didn't. The work to which Jesus called him got hard, got dangerous; he did it anyway. Each and every martyr decides at some point that the Truth is worth it.

And that is why we celebrate Stephen and his fellow martyrs. Death is not what makes them special. Everybody dies – the faithful and the unfaithful alike. In fact, the word “martyr” descends from the Greek word simply meaning “witness.” It's just that some martyrs keep on witnessing to the Gospel Truth until they and this world were parted by death.

In the Church we commemorate both those who died because of their faith and those who witnessed to the Gospel until they were peacefully enveloped by eternity. Painful suffering or a martyrs' death is not what makes one a good Christian. A dramatic death is a not a substitute for a godly life. It is one's willingness to lay it all on the line, one's willingness to surrender everything for the sake of the Gospel that puts us on the path that Jesus' trod.

More than a century ago, our fore-bearers adopted St. Stephen as our patron. And by giving us his name, they also placed us firmly within his powerful legacy. It is that very legacy that continues to inform our mission as Episcopal Christians in downtown Colorado Springs so many years later: to bear witness to God's amazing grace in this city, in this nation, in this world. It is not his death that we are called to emulate, but Stephen's life. We are called to love and care for the vulnerable and marginalized, like he did. We are called to go from this place and into our world full of God 's grace and power, the same grace and power that filled him. We are called to be living signs of Christ's reconciling love, like he was. We are called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, to speak hope and love and truth into this world, until the Kingdom comes or until we run out of breath – just like St. Stephen.

Saints never know the final destination; they only know the next step. They live their lives one act of love, one word of truth, one healing touch, one prayer for peace at a time. Not for the promise of popularity or the assurance of reward, but because Christ has claimed us: heart and soul, mind and body. And the who claims us in baptism also calls us, gives us our mission. And the Gospel mission demands our best, our all. There is nothing more important.

Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta, gave her life to the work of the Gospel. She did not die a martyrs' death, but she gave her life in the service of Christ nonetheless. Day in and day out, she walked in the way of Christ – one act of love, one word of truth, one healing touch, one prayer for peace, one step at a time. Jesus called her to seek and serve Christ in, in her words, "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." She cradled orphans and touched the untouchables. Not for the promise of popularity or the assurance of reward, but because she belonged to Christ and Christ gave her a mission. It wasn't easy, but she gave her life to it. It wasn't easy, but she did it anyway.

On the wall of one of her orphanages, she hung this poem:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,
LOVE THEM ANYWAY
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
If you are successful,
you win false friends and true enemies,
SUCCEED ANYWAY
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,
BE HONEST AND FRANK ANYWAY
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,
BUILD ANYWAY
People really need help but may attack you if you help them,
HELP PEOPLE ANYWAY
Give the world the best you have
And you'll get kicked in the teeth,
GIVE THE WORLD THE BEST YOU'VE GOT ANYWAY.1

Saints never know the final destination, but they keep following Jesus anyway. The journey of faith is walked one step at a time: one act of love, one word of truth, one healing touch, one prayer for peace at a time. And not every good deed or every kind word will be met with applause. Sometimes your love will be met with anger. Sometimes the Truth will invite hostility.

St. Stephen did not know where his ministry would take him. Jesus called and he simply followed – faithful even when the stones started flying.

We can't control the results or dictate the reception, we can only answer the call. We are St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. We are called to bear witness to God's amazing grace in this city, in this nation, in this world. And if the work gets tough, and it might, and if the road gets rocky, and it might, you know what we're gonna do. We're gonna do it anyway.





1http://www.kentmkeith.com/mother_teresa.html

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Heart [Proper 15A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 15:10-28

Heart

How dare Jesus talk to them like that? They were better than him. He was a nobody from nowhere. Sure, Jesus had a handful of followers and some popularity but pretty much anybody with some charisma can brainwash a few na├»ve peasants. To them, to the Pharisees, he was inferior. His father was a hillbilly carpenter – if that guy was even his dad. There were rumors that his mother was already knocked up when they got married – just another loose teenage girl with no morals. It's no surprise he shows his elders no respect. Just look at the kind of family he comes from.

And that group he calls his disciples. What a joke. They are a shabby bunch; they don't even observe basic purity laws. Can you imagine: they don't wash their hands before they eat. And their leader has the chutzpah to walk around like he is expert on Torah? His disciples don't even follow Torah. Torah, the Law handed down from God to Moses, from Moses to Israel, that was the Pharisees' thing. They were the pros from Jerusalem, from the big city; Jesus was the amateur from Nazareth – and you know what they say about that town, “Does anything good come from Nazareth?” It's a rhetorical question; the answer is no. So who does Jesus think he is? Who is he to challenge them? He should be chiseling their stones or building their tables.

To his credit, Jesus takes it all in stride. His disciples come bearing the upsetting news, probably hesitant to break it to him: The Pharisees were pretty offended by that last comment. But Jesus just brushes it off. For him the Law is about the heart. What one eats or what one does is not the end game. God is not about manners; God is about transformation – changing hearts and lives to change the world. Jesus knows it starts inside. He would rather his disciples eat with dirty hands than speak with dirty hearts. He said as much. The Pharisees didn't like it. But it wasn't the first time; won't be the last. He doesn't apologize: Torah was made for the people, not the people for Torah. Purity is not about hands; it's about heart and soul.

And that is why the second half of our Gospel lesson today is so intriguing. After Jesus offends the Pharisees and their delicate sensibilities, he heads straight into a territory just teeming with impurity – the gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. And there he is approached by a woman, a gentile woman, more specifically, a Canaanite woman. “Canaanite” as in enemies of the Hebrew people since the very beginning, since the book of Genesis. It was a hatred passed down through the generations. This woman, on her own, approaches Jesus, a Jewish man, a rabbi. How dare she?!

Sure, his disciples are a little careless when it comes to hand-washing rituals, but they are not about to let this slide. No Gentile woman, no Canaanite, is going to talk to their teacher – act as if she was worthy to grace his presence. That would be an embarrassment. She is an enemy, a woman, and from an impure place. She is, in their minds, of inferior stock. And so they beg Jesus to send her away. Far be it for them to risk impurity.

Just moments earlier Jesus and his disciples are accused of being in violation of purity code. But it's all good now because they've found someone even less pure. Jackpot.

The disciples words and actions are pretty straight forward here: they want this woman gone. It is much harder, I think, to interpret Jesus' words and actions in this story. I mean, he certainly doesn't look good – at least not at first glance. Remember she is there because her daughter needs healing; her plea is for mercy. And his reputation precedes him: he responds to cries for mercy; he heals those in need. Or does he? First, he ignores the woman – doesn't even bother to deny her plea. Then he tries a quick brush off line. Then, when she persists, begging Jesus to heal her daughter, a desperate woman in a desperate situation, he calls her a derogatory name, in that context, an ethnic slur. Not exactly the most flattering Jesus story.

Maybe Jesus struggled with the cultural biases and prejudices of his family and community, like we all do. It's possible. But given the context, it seems to me that it must be more complex than it seems to be on the surface. He just said to his disciples, just a few verses earlier, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” It would surprise me if Jesus would then turn around and belittle a desperate woman with ethnic slurs. It would surprise me even more if the writer of the Gospel, who is a Jesus fan, would show Jesus immediately violating his own teaching. If Jesus really meant what he said, he might have just defiled himself.

Now, maybe I am letting Jesus off of the hook too easily; that is possible; but I think he is projecting the biases of his disciples and, by extension, the early Church. And by projecting those prejudices and ultimately subverting them, Jesus exposes the ugliness that lived in their hearts and proceeded from their mouths. The New Testament is surprisingly honest about the early divisions and discrimination with which the Church wrestled. The first leaders of the Jesus' movement were hesitant to let Gentiles, us, in at all. They thought they were looking for the lost sheep, not for the dirty dogs. It's just that Jesus kept pushing it.

Healing this Gentile's daughter would not be out of character for Jesus. Earlier in Matthew's Gospel Jesus performed a healing for a Gentile. He healed females – young and older. And so perhaps Jesus is simply verbalizing the thoughts of his own disciples' hearts – letting them experience their true impurity – not the hand stuff, the heart stuff. The story does end with Jesus healing the daughter and marveling at the woman's amazing faith. Transformed in the eyes of the Jesus' followers: she comes to Jesus as a Canaanite “dog”; she leaves as an enduring example of faith – an example for even the disciples.

In Graham Greene's excellent novel The Power and the Glory, he writes, “This [human race] was the race which had invented the proverb that cleanliness was next to godliness – cleanliness, not purity.” And of course we did. Cleaning is easy; purity is hard. It is much easier to apply a quick spit and polish than it is to allow God to purify our hearts of things like racism, and pride, and greed. We humans get caught up on things like hand-washing rituals because it is much easier to argue about some rules than it is to let God transform our hearts, much easier to spin complex justifications or throw out some red herrings than to truly examine those ungodly things that burrow their way deep down inside of us.

And so we find ourselves acting like the Pharisees or Jesus' disciples more often than we care to admit. We claim the moral high-ground as if it were a sniper's tower – trumpeting our superiority as if we, and “our kind”, were alone made in God's image. These dark whispers hide in the corners of our souls: “How dare he have dark skin in this neighborhood?” “How dare he fall in love with another man?” “How dare she bring her 'inferior' culture into this country?” And we, in this social media age, bombard the Internet with all our vitriolic opinions, flooding blogs and comment sections, condemning people we do not even know. They become merely pawns in our political and ideological games. Human beings boiled down to a single attribute, a single stereotype, a single talking-point – all to justify the precious hatreds to which we cling so stubbornly.

It is humanity at our worst. And it happens in the Church, unfortunately, as often as it does outside of the Church; it happens as much in our country as it does beyond our borders. It is a human problem. We are at our worst when we look at another person and refuse to see their humanity – their fragile, scared, complex humanity. We are at our worst when we refuse to see that we're all built of the same dust, all made in the image of the same God, all loved by an impossibly infinite love. The book of Revelation ends with people from every nation, every skin color, every language, a beautiful family surrounding the throne of God – a vision of the Heavenly Kingdom of which God dreams. But because of our prejudices, because of the sin in our hearts, too many people, too many Christians, refuse to see it, fail to dream God's dream, fail to catch God's vision.

And it is that lack of vision that begins to eat away at our hearts. The evil intentions of our hearts become the evil words that become the evil actions that become the evil words we use to justify our evil actions. Driving a vehicle into a crowd or hanging a child on a lynching tree: it never starts that big; those things start with a dehumanizing thought or word – a seed planted by a parent or a politician or a pundit or a pastor. An evil like white supremacy is not natural; it is planted and it is nurtured, deep in the fertile soil of the human heart. And once it is in, it is hard to get it out.

We are a world of people carrying around poisonous prejudices as if they were precious treasures – spewing hatred, and starting wars, and inflicting violence. Passing down our hatred like an evil inheritance to our children and our children's children. And I have to admit, I don't know about you, but sometimes I look at the brokenness and chaos in this world, I feel the weight of the despair, and hope starts feeling like a foolish fantasy, the coming Kingdom of God seems forever away. Some days it feels like these cycles of evil will just never end.

And I am reminded of my favorite line in The Power and the Glory: “It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization--it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”


And so Christ died – for a world of people desperate for mercy, desperate for love, half-hearted and corrupt – even for those spewing hatred, and starting wars, and inflicting violence. Christ died for this world – this broken world of broken people. Christ died for the Canaanite woman and for all the desperate outsiders begging to be heard, crying out for mercy. Christ died for the disciples: for those who wear their prejudiced hearts on their sleeves. Christ died for the Pharisees and for all the self-righteous religious people who are too selfish with God's love. And Christ died for us. To break the cycle. To plant a new seed in our hearts. So that love would grow and finally choke the evil out. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Nothing but Good News [Proper 12A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Romans 8:26-39

Nothing but Good News

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you have been wondering: what exactly is this Good News we're always talking about in church? What is this Gospel that we are called to share beyond those heavy doors? This is it. This is the Good News. This is the Gospel.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is nothing that can separate us, nothing that can separate me, nothing that can separate you, from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.

Like Paul, I too am convinced. I am convinced that this simple truth is the Gospel, this is our Good News. I am convinced because this news is so good that even Christians have a hard time believing that it is true.

I first realized this as a young Pentecostal. I must have been in my early teens when I saw a picture of a protester holding a sign that said, “God Hates Fags.” I had heard a lot of things in my church as a child but this was new. I grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” It never occurred to me that there were Christians who believed that God hated people, that God hated some of this world's children. The Bible says: nothing can separate us from the love of God. But some Christians simply cannot believe that God's love is that radically inclusive. Some Christians find that kind of love so offensive that they stand outside of funerals with signs proclaiming bad news – a message that directly opposes the Good News of God's love outlined in our Epistle reading today.

But it wasn't the last time. Those folks from Westboro Baptist Church, who became much more well-known in later years, are pretty explicit in their disgusting brand of prejudice and hatred. They are an extreme example. But I started to notice that much nicer Christians also had an argument with good news at the end of Romans 8. There was the sweet young Baptist girl who informed me that Roman Catholics were going to Hell because they were not saved and so were the Pentecostals in my church because we were just a cult. There was my freshman year roommate who was a very strict Calvinist and believed that God created some people just to populate the tortuous circles of Hell. So much for the love of God. So much for that Good News that nothing can separate us from God's love. Apparently there were all kinds of things – everything from denomination to destiny.

And then on a college break I visited the old Pentecostal church which I had attended during my teenage years. I still had friends there. And I knew the rhythm of the service; it was less formalized than our pattern but predictable nonetheless. I knew the service would end with an altar call; it always did. But I had been away for awhile and so I listened with fresh ears. And the pastor said to a room full of Christians, mostly the regulars, “If you died tonight, on the way home, if you were hit by a bus, do you know where you would go? If you died tonight would you go to Heaven or Hell?” And then he encouraged the congregation to think about the past week. Had they sinned? Had they done something wrong? A yes answer meant potential damnation. And then he reminded everyone, especially those who felt certain of God's approval, that there are a lot of good people are in Hell. The altar was open. Salvation, it turned out, was week-to-week. Hell, separation from God and God's love, was not impossible as Paul tells us in Romans 8, but instead a constant threat.

And then, more recently, In December of 2011, my former Bishop, Mark Hollingsworth was invited to appear on a local Cleveland radio station by one of the morning shock jocks. The deejay was infuriated by an ad campaign the diocese was promoting. In a series of radio and billboard ads, the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio decided to simply spread the Good News: “God Loves You. No Exceptions.” That is what the ads said.

And that message set the deejay off. He brought the Bishop on to tell him off. The deejay spent most of the interview berating and belittling the Bishop. Bishop Hollingsworth calmly listened as the host angrily expressed how offensive and irresponsible it was to tell people that God loves bad people, to tell victims that God loves the very people who hurt them and their families. The Bishop listened carefully and acknowledged the deejay's feelings. And then to this angry host and his audience the Bishop calmly stated one of the most offensive truths of the Gospel of Christ, one that even Christians have a hard time believing: “We don't deserve God's love; we get it, whether we deserve it or not.” Nothing can separate us from God's love. No exceptions.

This is our Good News – a Gospel message drenched in impossible grace. And it is too good to be true: love that defies explanation, love well beyond what we could ever deserve, love that stakes an unbreakable claim. It is too good to be true, but also it is. It is true. I am convinced.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is this passage that gives me the strength to walk into this world as a minister of the Gospel – to sit and speak hope into the life of another grieving spouse or another heart-broken child of God, to shout my alleluias at the grave and preach resurrection into the face of despair. Because I am convinced that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God.

It is this passage that comforts me when my troubled mind keeps me up at night – unable to sleep because I cannot stop thinking about that day's failures or all of the things I am anxious about tomorrow or the weight of mortality and what will I do if something terrible happens to my wife or my boys. I am convinced that no matter what happens, nothing will separate us from the love of God.

It is this passage that gives me the courage to fall more in love my kids every day. Because even though I know that I brought them into a big, dangerous world that will break their vulnerable hearts over and over again, I am also convinced that nothing can separate them from the love of God. And so they will be OK.

It is this passage that allows me to stare down the cloudy future, fully aware that sorrow and sadness and pain and death are out there waiting for me – an unavoidable part of this earthly journey. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is news so good that it is hard to believe. Can you believe it? If you can, it will change your life. I promise.

This is our Gospel. This is our Good News. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And nothing means nothing. No exceptions. God loves you. Hard stop. Our world is filled with people who feel unloved and unwanted; this world is filled with people desperate to hear that they are loved with a truly unconditional love. And that is our message. The Church has spent centuries drawing lines and defining conditions and listing exceptions. Because the Good News seems too good to be true. But I am convinced by the nothing.

I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God. That is the Good News that we are called to live for and die for. That is the Good News that we are called to share. It is so simple, but it is so powerful. Can you believe it? Will you believe it? The world needs us, those of us who have experienced God's amazing love, to believe it because it is impossible to share our Good News if we do not believe it. But it is impossible not to share it when we do.