Saturday, February 29, 2020

Prayer, day 2588

Most Merciful God,
this is a new day,
filled with your promise of mercy: 
let us rejoice and give You thanks.

May the rising light give me sight

to seek forgiveness
and to turn to the way of healing and repentance.
Although I am but a child, 
You, O God, bend near and guide me.

Lord, I remember your unfailing lovingkindness:

may I keep that grace ever before me to light my way today.
You, O God, have set my feet upon the solid rock,
high above the tumults and crashing waves that rise and fall.
You have created us
to be a fellowship of witnesses
and called us to love each other,
which is the greatest blessing of all.

Let us set forth upon the path of hope and reconciliation,

seeking to embody your abundant compassion
as we remember those for whom we now pray.


Friday, February 28, 2020

Prayer, day 2587

Jesus, you are our lamp in our waking:
let us be filled with your light.
Jesus, you are our confessor for our sins:
let us bend the knee of our hearts in penitence and repentance.
Jesus, you are our companion in our day's journey:
let us be guided by your Spirit.
Jesus, you are our healer for our wounds and sorrows:
let us open our spirits to your touch.

Your gospel of Love, Lord, is the root of our humanity.
Your fellowship, Lord, reminds us that we are all One.
Your mercy, Lord, is the ground of our hope.
Your grace, Lord, reminds us that eternal life begins now.
Help us to claim our heritage as your children:
renew us, that we recover our wonder and compassion.

May our prayers rise like incense to your throne,
O Holy One:
draw under your sheltering arm those for whom we pray.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Prayer 2586

Most Merciful and Generous God,
we commit ourselves to your way today,
and set our feet upon the path of faithfulness.

Forgive us our offenses,
our foolishness and hardness of heart,
and grant us the wisdom and courage to change.

Teach us to use the gifts you have given us
of reason, perseverance, and observation
to look with new hearts
at the problems of our time,
at the suffering that surrounds us
that we ourselves act to find solutions,
for such work is prayer, as well.

Grant us abundance of peace,
and the will to work for it with singleness of heart,
standing alongside the oppressed with solidarity.
Gather within your mercy
all those who seek you,
all those who are suffering in body, mind, or spirit,
O God Our Shepherd.
Pour out your comfort, Lord Christ,
upon those for whom we pray.


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Taking on the Cross: Homily for Ash Wednesday

It is on this day that we prepare to enter the season of Lent, and that we are encouraged to take stock of any sins we have committed, any repentance we need to make. It is also a time when many of us who attempt to observe a holy Lent are often prone to “give something up” for Lent: swearing, or drinking soda pop, or chocolate, or electronics. Some of us fast from all food or simply meat on Ash Wednesday and on Friday. The taking on of such a special discipline is meant to help us focus our priorities during the 40 days of Lent, from being reminded of our mortality on Ash Wednesday through the somberness of Holy Week, to emerge in the glorious resurrection light of Easter. 

But what if we looked at this from another angle? What if we thought of this as a chance for true repentance—a literal turning from away from one thing in hope of something better? Rather than giving up, what if we set an intention for ourselves to give in, with an emphasis on the word “give?” What if we used this Lent as a chance to give in, to look in, to lean in--- to try to surrender fears, attitudes, and failures of heart that separate us from the love of God we are called to embody, to take into our very heart and soul and mind. When we surrender these things, there is then a space hollowed out in our hearts that can be filled with Christ. 

Many people comment on the irony of wearing ashes publicly after we have heard a gospel reading that warns against making a show of religious observance. But Jesus is not talking about the wearing of ashes in our gospel. Perhaps the key lies in the fact that we ourselves get so caught up in the idea of the exercising of public piety, that we often lose sight of how Jesus defines that piety—not as ashes marked on our foreheads, but on the three vehicles he highlights: giving alms, praying, and fasting, which were the three most common outward practices of an observant Jew in those days.

When we give alms, we are called to give to others without rules or expectations or demands.

When we pray, we are called to listen even more than we speak, and to place ourselves somewhere where we can hear the voice of our Beloved Savior speaking to us. 

When we fast, we are called to clear away distractions to focus on what really matters. 

Rather than make a game out of our own will-power, we’re actually called to give ourselves over to the will of God in our lives turned outwardly rather than inwardly. 

The difference lies in intent. Our reading from Joel urges us to strip away all the masks that separate us from focusing on God when it urges us to “rend our hearts, and not our clothing” as a sign of our repentance over where we have fallen short and sinned in the previous year. In other words, Jesus calls us to lay down the illusion that we can hide from God, or ourselves and to take the risk to be open and humble before God—and even, harder, to trust in God’s promises. Jesus calls us to strip away barriers, but also the false fronts we put on as a shallow defense against self- knowledge and change. 

The word translated as “hypocrites” here often in the original Greek had a meaning closer to “play-actors.” In Greek theatre at that time, of course, actors wore exaggerated masks so that even those in the furthest seats could see the expressions. Of course, this meant that the actors’ true selves were hidden from view. On the one hand, then, to act as a play-actor is to make a mockery through exaggeration, to overact or mug before the audience. It is said that an actor lives for the applause. Jesus’s remarks here also lead us to ask ourselves about the motivation behind our actions. Are we doing religious things so that we can be thought of as good, or doing good things for their own sake? 

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us know an awful lot about wearing masks. And the reality about those masks is that they may fool the people around us, but they certainly don’t fool God. God knows exactly who we are: our hurts, our self-delusion, our false pride and secret fears. And yet God loves us anyway. Loves us—and encourages us to drop the masks and allow ourselves to really be seen. To be seen—and freed to do the work of discipleship that grounds us in love of God and love of each other. 

The marking of our foreheads with ashes comes with a reminder that we are made from the dust, and to the dust we shall return. All of us. But the ashes are also mixed with oil, to remind us that we have each been chosen by God as beloved, anointed to spend these 40 days rededicating ourselves to Christ’s service. 

And to these two precious elements, we add a third: the shape of the cross. The two lines that are drawn upon our foreheads with this dust are in the shape of a cross—reminding us of a love that never gives up on us, ever, that calls us to new life even as we remember our bodily mortality. It is on that cross that we are drawn straight into the open embrace of Jesus, with his arms outstretched upon that cross, showing us that Love Always Wins. 

 So, putting our masks aside, let us humbly take on the loving emblem of the cross—and let our hearts be shaped by the Love that calls us to repentance without ever abandoning us. 


Preached at the 12:00 Eucharist at the Fountains of West County, and at the 7:00 pm Eucharist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Psalm 103 or 103:8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Prayer, day 2585: for Ash Wednesday

As dawn parts the curtain of night, 
let us fall upon our knees
before our Creator and Redeemer.

Lord God, we confess to You all our sins- 
those done by us, and those done in our name.
We confess to You all our ruptured relationships, 
sundered by fear,
loss of hope,
and idolatry of self. 

May we renounce our casual acceptance 
of the pain of others
in the name of our own comfort.
May we seek forgiveness,
that we rededicate ourselves
to being healing hands in the world.
Let us purify our souls,
and be strengthened to walk
in the pathways of holiness and righteousness.

Refine us, renew us, O Merciful One:
our hearts are outstretched like open hands,
to be charged with your grace and light.
We pray now for all who seek You,
and for all who put their trust in You, Gracious Savior.


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Prayer 2584: For Shrove Tuesday

O God Our Peace, 
God of the Seeking,
who holds the winds in the hollow of your hand,
accept our prayers and praises
as we humbly offer them to You,
in hope, in faith, in trust.

Purify our hearts ands set them ablaze, Lord Christ,
that we may make our intentions
like steel forged in the hearth of your steadfast love.
May we reflect upon your blessings,
O Redeemer and Savior,
and cast ourselves upon your law
as the foundation of our lives and actions,
loving each other as You love us,
fiercely and without fail.

Merciful One, God Our Help and Hope,
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
grant us the courage and the will to persevere,
and give your angels charge
over the seeking and the penitent,
as we bend the knee before You, Blessed One,
and lay our concerns before You as we pray.



As we learned how to read, were we 
beginning to forget to look, 
our young eyes caught in tangles of print 
so that imagination was choked? Were we 
trapped at that remove from ourselves? 

Or did we begin to see a new way, with eyes 
that widened in the amazement of reverie, 
memory, invention? As we peered 
between the words, could we make out 
shapes and colors beyond them?

What did our inside eyes make of 
the black marks on creamy paper, on onionskin? 
A dream of angels turned real, perhaps. 
A wooden boat on a lake. Three small loaves 
fragmented to fill all those empty mouths 

and baskets. Or this: a blind man 
opening his eyes so that the first face he sees -
a vision, surely - is Christ's, spittle 
still shining on the quick fingers, 
his mouth saying urgently, Look

—Luci Shaw (1928- ) from Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation

Monday, February 24, 2020

Prayer 2583

We rise to sing God’s praise,
that we may sing alleluia to our Creator,
and testify to God’s sustaining love.

Blessed Redeemer, cast your mercy over us,
and gather us within the bounds of your compassion.
Forgive us our failures of will
and open the gates of our hearts
by the transformative power of your Spirit,
that we may be a source of blessing
in this intricate world You have made.

Gather within your tender care
all who yearn for your healing help,
especially those whose needs
we lay before your compassionate heart, O God.


Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Light in the Valley: Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday A

The disciples had spent the previous six days in shock. Peter had just proclaimed Jesus the Messiah—and Jesus had thrown cold water all over that by explaining that he was going to be handed over to those who feared his influence. Turned over for suffering and death.

 Six days… just like Moses was up on the mountain, being given instructions for the tabernacle and the ark that would accompany the people. Six days… like the six days of creation. 

Peter and John and James go with Jesus—and instead of merely joining him in prayer, they receive a vision before them that tears back the veil and offers them a glimpse of the very glory of God. It’s like they are jolted into a new awareness. It’s electrifying. And so Peter, the disciple most like so many of us, babbles the first thing that pops into his head. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to continue to wish to be dazzled, to have proof of God’s glory paraded in front of their watering eyes?

Maybe Peter is thinking that if they build little dwellings for each of the three great prophets revealed in the transfiguration, they can all just stay there forever, in this experience that seems so dazzling it seems outside the strictures of time, itself. Maybe, also, Peter reflects that tendency we all have to try to domesticate God, to place God within defined boundaries. You know that tendency—the one that seeks to control how much we are willing to cede to God, while ultimately trying to retain control of the rest of our lives—like limiting our worship and seeking of God to Sunday, so long as the rest of the week is ours to do what we like.

I don’t think Peter meant it that way—I think he had just experienced something that had reset all his synapses, and maybe he wanted to stay there until he could figure it all out. That’s relatable, too. In the press and crush of daily life, how wonderful to have some time set apart in the presence of glory. I am convinced that most of us crave that mountaintop experience—even as we fear it, and wonder if we wouldn’t lose our minds at actually experiencing a theophany such as this one.

Mountaintops, after all, offer a sprawling vista to view. They give you a sense of perspective. They remind you of how big the world all around you is. They lift you up above the doubts to a plane or altitude of certainty.

Mountaintops can also make you afraid for that very same reason—you can see how big the world all around you is, and move like a chess piece to the next logical thought—how small and insignificant and frightened we are. Maybe that’s also part of why Jesus urges his three apostles to come back down to the reality of the job at hand, down in the valley. And I wonder how long Peter and the others could have managed to stay there, anyway. And so it is in the life of faith—or more realistically, the life spent wrestling with and pursuing faith, and even sometimes fleeing from it. 

What strikes me is the tension between the mountain and the valley in this passage. As we close Black History Month, we remember one person who spoke so movingly and lived so honestly into that tension between the mountain and the valley. 

I am reminded that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the night before he was assassinated, spoke of the transitory nature of the mountaintop experience—that it show us what can lie before us, but until we go into the valley below we remain stuck in a way, unable to take possession of the good things God offers to us—even in the midst of struggle and work that is also the life of the disciple. 

Recalling that Moses himself was brought to the mountaintop to look down into the promised land—to see it, but not to enter it—Dr. King reflected on a previous attempt to take his life, and spoke with numerous death threats that had been leveled at him, even here. He knew that his work the next day, trying to help striking sanitation workers in Memphis, would not be met with joy from all quarters, to put it mildly. His mountaintop experience also served to remind him that the real work was down the mountain and into the valley. 

In our own time, people climb mountains for fun, for the challenge of it. They seek the thrill of going where the air is thin and the Earth curves away at your feet on all sides. Yes, we crave that mountaintop experience. Down in our everyday lives sometimes it’s hard to see that perspective of being on top of the world. The life of faith right now, 2000 years after the apostolic era, is often one of straining toward faith against the cynical tide of our time. 

Yet notice that Jesus knows where his work is—it is among the people, the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, the discounted. Jesus knows that the glory within him has been there all the time. That’s perhaps why he doesn't engage Peter in his idea of building shelters for Elijah, Moses, and the transfigured Jesus. Jesus’s transfiguration is meant not to separate Jesus from us, but calls us to elevate our own understanding of the same glory implanted in each of us, as the poet and priest Malcolm Guite describes in one of his sonnets:

The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.(2)

Peter, James, and John are electrified and terrified by their brush with the Glory of God—and yet also rooted to the spot by it. However, Jesus reminds them that their work, the work of discipleship, of being co-workers in God’s kingdom, is not to be accomplished hiding from the world on some mountain. 

The glory exposed on the mountain is not tied to being on the mountain. To really make the glory visible to all, we have to come down and engage in the work of discipleship. The work is down in the valley, where everyday people are waiting for instruction, hope, and healing. 

This is the turning point in Matthew's gospel, midway between Jesus’s baptism and his death. Now he will turn his face toward the cross-- a parallel scene to this one. On the cross, Jesus will also be between two figures—the two criminals who were crucified with him. On the cross, his claim to be God’s son will be inscribed over him as a form of mockery, for surely the true Son of God would not be hanging on a cross. While he is on the cross, the crowds will wait around to see if Elijah will come to save Jesus. Three of Jesus’s followers will witness his crucifixion, although they will be women (Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome, in this gospel). And thus we turn to face the cross, and prepare ourselves to enter the season of Lent. 

But first, today, we will celebrate a transformative event, a baptism, in the life of one beloved child of God and her family—and that family includes us. Together with Chelsea, we will recommit ourselves to our own baptismal promises—and they are not promises to take lightly. They are a recommitment to living a Christ-shaped life, one that takes seriously not just the reflected glory on the mountain but the work awaiting us as beloved children and heirs of God, entrusted with the work of discipleship. That work of discipleship is not about creating a cozy club of insiders sneering out those on the outside, as some would have us believe. 

The work of discipleship is exactly the opposite: to draw the circle ever wider, to reflect Christ’s glory in our own daily lives not because we are told to but because we are willing to open ourselves up to being filled to overflowing with the love God has for the world and to channel that love in tangible action for healing, reconciliation, compassion, and renewal down in those valley spaces in society.

May we remember the ways we can bring that glory to shine for all to see—the glory of Christ that resides within each of us, the glory that calls the world to God because we are made for God. It is a reminder of the new creation we all become when we turn our lives over to Christ and take our places alongside him, boldly, bright with hope, coworkers for the kingdom. May we all be brave enough to step down from the mountain alongside Jesus. 

May we all be sustained by hope and purpose in eagerly taking up the work that awaits us in the valley, sustained and uplifted by Jesus’s never-failing presence and reassurance beside us and carry the hope and promise of the transfiguration into the darkened world.


Preached at the 505 on February 22 and at 8:00 and 10:30 Eucharists at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.


1) Top image: Armando Alemdar, Transfiguration.
2) Malcolm Guite, Sonnet for feast of the Transfiguration, at

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Prayer 2582

Blessed be the Name of the Lord,
who lifts us up and places us upon the solid rock:
let us give thanks to God!

Enter into the inmost center of our being, O Holy One,
and anoint us with your Spirit,
that we may cling to your love.
Let us make our home in the embrace of God,
who abides with us and guards all our ways.

May we be filled with the light of Christ:
may it pour forth from our hearts
to illumine our path, and guide us home.

May we be transformed
and radiate the love of Christ
into a world famished for hope and peace.
Beloved Savior, envelop us within your care,
and place your blessing upon those we now name.


Friday, February 21, 2020

Prayer 2581

Almighty God,
whose Love came down to us
in the gift of your Son
to lead us to truth,
we bow before You in prayer.

Send your Spirit of Peace and Wisdom
to pull back that which veils our hearts,
that we may stand before You in thankfulness.

We have been marked as your own, O God:
may we lift up our voices in unceasing praise. 
Hold us fast within your safekeeping,
O Rock of Salvation,
and guide us into holy fellowship as your children.

Bless us and preserve us, O God,
and give ear to the prayers of those we now name.


Prayer, day 2580

Almighty God, 
whose Love came down to us 
in the gift of your Son 
to lead us to truth, 
we bow before You in prayer. 
Send your Spirit of Peace and wisdom 
to pull back that which veils our hearts, 
that we may stand before You in thankfulness. 
We have been marked as your own, O God: 
may we lift up our voices in unceasing praise. 
Hold us fast within your safekeeping, 
O Rock of Salvation,
and guide us into holy fellowship as your children. 
Bless us and preserve us, O God, 
and give ear to the prayers of those we now name.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

Prayer, day 2579

Holy One,
Light of Lights,
rise within our hearts
and fill us with your light,
that we may be people of hope.
Help us to lift up those
who are in anxiety, grief, or trouble,
by loving each other
through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Grant us strength for today's labors,
compassion for today's encounters,
and rest within You, O God, at day's end.
Ground us in your mercy, Lord Christ,
and root us in your love,
that we may grow deep in faith and justice.
Gathered in your name, O Savior,
we ask you grant your peace and comfort
to those we remember before You.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Prayer 2578

The One who calls each tiny wren beloved 
has called us to rise and rejoice:
come, let us adore our Living God. 
Governor of the Worlds, 
Ground of All Being,
your love sustains us and nourishes us,
bringing our hearts to full flower:
shape us and guide us this day.

May we journey this day 
with Jesus as our companion and teacher; 
and embody his healing presence 
with integrity, honor, and beauty.

Fount of All Wisdom,
may we ever serve you with boldness,
proclaiming your saving power within our lives
as we turn our shoulders to the wheel of compassion
and serve each other with grace and truth.
May we link arms and wills
against the surging power of injustice and oppression,
knit together in love and faithfulness
to bear testimony to your glory, Lord Christ.

Blessed Savior, pour out your grace
upon those who turn to you in prayer and hope,
and grant your blessing to those for whom we pray.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Prayer, day 2577: Inspired by the thought of William Temple

The sparrows rejoice in the dawn,
and call us from our slumbers to likewise give praise:
Loving Savior, hear our prayer.

Help us, Blessed Jesus,
to make this day one of peace and healing.
Forgive us our disregard of others' dignity, O God,
our contempt toward those we are called to love.
Forgive us for failing to see the beauty in simple things,
in the voice of a friend
and the touch of a loved one.

Open our eyes to delight as a child does
in the wonders of this Earth,
and in the faces of those we meet.
Let us rejoice in this sacramental universe
made holy by your sustaining love and grace.

Lord, strengthen us to demonstrate our faith
in a time of doubt and faithlessness.
Holy One, let us arise from our prayers before You
determined to persevere in mercy and truth.

Spirit of Compassion,
bend near to those who suffer
in body, mind or spirit.
Guide us, O Shepherd, in the paths of peace,
and rest your blessing upon those we now name.


Monday, February 17, 2020

Prayer, day 2576

Beloved Savior, we come before you
seeking your grace and compassion this day: 
we long for the weight of your hand upon us 
as we seek to live into your witness of reconciliation. 

Awaken us to your presence within us, Lord Christ, 
that we remember that in your incarnation, 
you remind us of our true nature and work: 
to heal the sick,
to stand alongside the oppressed,
to reconcile the lost,
to honor the least of these, 
to walk humbly and ever closer with our God. 

Blessed Jesus, you taught us to pray and to listen, 
to embody wisdom, peace, and virtue, 
breathing forgiveness and mercy 
in the renewal of life, holiness, and hope for all:
Today, may we set our feet firmly in this pilgrim path. 

Bless and strengthen us in determination, O Messiah, 
as we seek to embody your light and truth, 
and in your compassion pour out your comfort 
upon those whose needs we bring before you.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

Life Abundant Through Grace: Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, year A

In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character is Phil, an unpleasant, egotistical, cynical weatherman in Pittsburgh who is forced to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in the hamlet of Punxsutawney. Together with a cameraman and his cheerful, charming new (female) producer named Rita, he travels to the home of the Groundhog festival and does his report, with a big helping of sarcasm to his coworkers.

Forced by a winter storm to spend another night in a place he dislikes, he wakes up to find that he is reliving the same day-- Groundhog Day-- over and over. Every day the same wake-up music and deejays on his alarm clock radio, every day people dancing to same strange polka at the village square, called, strangely, Gobbler's Knob, every day having to report about what the groundhog (a critter who is also named Phil) supposedly does, and every day unable to leave town and go home. 

At one point, after he has already relived the same day multiple times without finding a way to escape, he glares into the camera and says, "You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life." Which pretty much describes Midwestern winter thus far, as we are on the 352nd day of February.

Yet as he relives this same day, over and over, Phil discovers that he DOES have some choice in each day. At first, he uses his time for mischief—messing with people’s heads, observing a security truck so he can steal money from it and buy a Mercedes—and remember, everything resets the next morning, so there are no lasting consequences. The problem is, the more he does things to waste time or to reinforce his own flaws, the more he focuses on his own misery while ignoring what’s going on in the lives of those around him, the unhappier he gets. 

The change comes when he starts focusing, however imperfectly, on someone other than himself. He gets to know Rita, his producer, and finds himself attracted to her, and in order to win her over, he begins remaking himself. He learns French, because she studied French poetry in college. He learns how to play the piano, because that’s one of the things she is looking for in a mate. He learns her likes and dislikes (1).

But it is only when he stops doing these things for his OWN selfishness, and starts trying to make himself a better person in order to be worthy of her, his attitude toward these endless repeated Groundhog Days begins to change. Eventually, the final thing that sets him free is when he seeks to become a better person for the sake of everyone around him—when he uses the days he has to let go of all that has made him a bitter, self-centered person and to learn to live as a compassionate, outwardly focused human being—that Phil is truly transformed.

Once Phil stops seeing himself as a hostage on the wheel of life and embraces his own agency for kindness and generosity, he is completely changed and redeemed. 

In other words, Phil is transformed once he sees grace everywhere in that everyday town among those everyday people at whom he used to sneer. He sees this replaying of the same day as a gift rather than a curse. Phil comes to realize he has the ability to either waste his time or use it to see his connection with others, and to try to make life better for those around him. Once Phil realizes that, instead of shutting people out, the truly full life is one that invites people in, he is transformed. Once Phil stops trying to erect barriers to deny other people’s claims upon his compassion and generosity, he truly comes to life. 

And that’s a message we find in the gospels as well—perhaps even THE message as we seek to determine how to live a truly good life—a truly reverent and abundant life. In our gospel, Jesus likewise is trying to teach us how to transform our own lives by living into the spirit of the covenant we live by in our lives as disciples of Jesus. This is week three of a four week course in Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard comparisons between ourselves and salt and light. We are reminded that Jesus is acting as the new Moses, teaching from a mountain just as Moses did, not CHANGING the commandments handed down on Sinai but expanding and clarifying them. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill,” Jesus reminded us last week. That’s why the teaching we receive from Jesus in today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount uses a repeated pattern: “You have heard it said x, but I tell you x-plus.”

At the root, these teachings in our gospel today—about anger, adultery, divorce and upholding your oaths-- are all about relationships, either relationships with God or with each other (just as the Ten Commandments were). Most of the oaths we make—for it is THAT kind of swearing that Jesus is speaking about, not the cussing kind of swearing—are about regulating relationships and expectations. They are also about intentions, not merely the actions themselves, but what we are trying to accomplish by our actions. That emphasis is carried over from last week’s readings.

Jesus’s teaching regarding anger is a word that speaks especially to us today. We live in a world that is awash with anger and contempt, especially toward people we regard as the “other,” as “them,” as people different from us. It’s one thing to recognize our differences—but it’s holy to celebrate those differences while maintaining the form conviction that ALL people are reflections of Jesus’s incarnation, which is itself a reminder that we are all created in God’s image, without exceptions. The anger that Jesus is talking about here is the anger that treats others as enemies, as less-than, as not fully human and worthy of respect. 

And it’s here that a distinction needs to be made before going forward. We all get angry—especially when we have been hurt by someone—and often that anger gets multiplied the more intimately connected the one who hurts us is to us. And there are certainly people who may have hurt us before and who may hurt us again—and we are not being asked to keep opening the door to more abuse by someone who cannot be trusted with our hearts. But we can still love them—even if that means we love them from waaaaaaaaay over there while we stay over here. That’s perfectly fine. 

That’s not wrong—it’s giving ourselves the gift of freedom. It’s giving ourselves the gift of not allowing those who have personally sought our harm to live in our heads and our hearts rent-free. But you can’t overcome your enemies by imitating them. That’s just self-destructive—and worse, it lets them win in tearing you down. 

Allowing ourselves to come to the other side of anger is a gift God calls us to embrace. Coming to the other side of anger is also about coming to the compassionate understanding that people who act out of malice, out of selfishness, out of fear and anger as a way of life have themselves been hurt in some way. As the saying goes, most people we encounter are carrying burdens about which we have no idea. We have the power to choose to step out of that cycle of suffering and free ourselves from it, or we can perpetuate it. But all people-- even people who are angry, hateful, lost-- are nonetheless as much God’s beloveds as we are. And through Jesus’s words about anger, God honors us by making us partners in attempting the reconciliation of the whole world that is the foundation of the kingdom of heaven. 

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose birth we celebrate on February 4 in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints wrote one of his greatest works on Matthew’s sermon on the Mount. In Chapters 9-11 of The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer addresses the gospel portion we read this week (remembering that Bonhoeffer consistently uses masculine language as a default, which I will be adapting as necessary, lest anyone think his points only apply to males. Regarding Jesus’s point concerning anger, Bonhoeffer says this: 

For the Christian, worship cannot be divorced from the service of all of humanity as our kin, as it is with the rabbis. If we despise our brothers and sisters our worship is unreal, and it forfeits every divine promise. When we come before God with hearts full of contempt and unreconciled with our neighbors, we are, both individually and as a congregation, worshiping an idol. So long as we refused to love and serve our brothers and sisters and make them an object of contempt and let them harbor a grudge against me or the congregation, our worship and sacrifice will be acceptable to God. Not just the fact that I am angry, but the fact that there is somebody who is been hurt, damage and disgraced by me, who ‘has a cause against me’, erects a barrier between me and God. Let us therefore as a Church examine ourselves, and see whether we have not often enough wronged our  neighbors. Let us see whether we have tried to win popularity by falling in with the world’s hatred, its contempt and its [insulting treatment]. For if we do that we are murderers. Let the fellowship of Christ so examine itself today and ask whether, at the hour of prayer and worship, any accusing voices intervene and make its prayer vain. Let the fellowship of Christ examine itself and see whether it has given any token of the love of Christ to the victims of the world’s insulting treatment and contempt, any token of the love of Christ which seeks to preserve, support and protect life. Otherwise however liturgically correct our services are, and however devout our prayer, however brave our testimony, they will profit us nothing, nay rather, they must needs to testify against us that we have as a Church ceased to follow our Lord (2).

Bearing contempt for others cannot be made right just by offering a gift at the altar. No, that’s too easy, and avoids the very real work of reconciliation. The entire point of covenants and commandments is that we live in RELATIONSHIP with God and with each other. Relationships are holy things but also sacramental—for they help us evaluated how strong our commitment to living as God’s children really is. We show our commitment to God by how we treat others—even those to whom we are strangers, or those who are difficult to love. God knows sometimes WE can be difficult to love—but God loves us anyway. That's called "grace," and like the song says, it's amazing.

It can never be repeated enough: one of the greatest blessings of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian theology is our repeated emphasis on the importance of the concept of the incarnation—of how, in Jesus, God comes to take on our human nature and live as one of us, thereby hallowing our frail flesh and giving us the example of a truly enlightened, joy-filled, purposeful life. 

Our incarnational theology, proclaimed, embraced, and celebrated in our weekly observance of the Eucharist, reinforces the sacredness of the image of God that resides within all humanity, and indeed is shot throughout all of creation (3)That’s why anger, fear, jealousy, or prejudice that leads us to discount anyone’s life—no matter how much we may disagree with them or their actions—as less sacred and worthy of protection than our own lives or the lives of our family and friends is equivalent to the breaking of our covenant with God, as discussed in our reading from Deuteronomy discusses. 

When we choose contempt rather than seeing the holiness and sacredness of any of our kindred people, we are choosing to let death and destruction reign in our hearts, rather than choosing life and love. God calls us step back from hurting other people through our own anger—even those who have hurt us. Whether they are worthy or not is not our concern.

And that’s hard. But all real transformation—the choice of life over death—is of course not going to be easy. It WILL be worthwhile, and will bless US as much as it blesses those around us.

We can choose to do the same thing over and over again even if it makes us or those around us miserable, and try to fool ourselves that the collateral damage doesn’t matter—but it doesn’t really work, does it? Jesus came to reorient us away from surrendering to the death-dealing precepts of this world—so that WE could not only have life, but so that we could work for the liberation and flourishing and healing of the entire world from the ways of suffering, anxiety, and death. Jesus calls us to embrace abundant life given to us through God’s grace.

Jesus offers us the gift of freedom—and to lift up those we see along the way, especially those who may be hurting. That’s why the Great Commandment is this: to love God with that you have and all that you are, and to love your neighbor—no matter how distant—as much if they were a part of your very own body. Because they are. Let us seek the way of generosity, the way of reconciliation—for our life and the life of the world.


Preached at the 505 on February 15, 2020, and at 8:00 and 10:30 am on February 16 at St. Martin'sEpiscopal Church, Ellisville.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Citations and Sources:
1) Groundhog Day, written by Danny Ruin and Harold Ramos, 1993.
2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, chapter 9 (“The Brother”), pp. 144-145
3) Ibid., p. 145.