January 29th, 2017

Please click here to watch a video of this service.

Back in 1991, I was in my first year of seminary and I had two professors who kind of were drawing me into their orbit. One was a bit more progressive and out there, and one was a little more conservative and kind of emphasized the fundamentals. I’m one of those people that you could look at and just assume that I’m on side. You’d just assume that this is one of the people that will agree with me. So I was invited constantly to these two different places to be with these professors and to benefit from them. One of the things that I loved about it is actually, I think there is something to building those kinds of bridges and hearing all sorts of different perspectives. I’ve always felt that way.

One time when I was in my first year, the conservative-ish professor invited us to have a special meeting. This was one of many meetings he would have. It was typical for him to have a Wednesday night Bible study. We would go and he would be seated in a wingback chair, and we would sit on the floor cross-legged, and he would read the scriptures. He was English, so it sounded very authoritative when he spoke. Then we would adjourn to the kitchen and we’d have tea and cookies. In the summertime, he would have these beautiful dinners on this huge porch, this long broad porch in his house. We would have picnic tables set up and there would be lovely dishes.

One time, I go to meet a person who he brought in, an Orthodox priest from Russia who had survived a huge amount of oppression and was there at the time in which the Soviet Union was going through this massive transformation. This was the time in which there was Glasnost, which is Russian for “thaw” but is another way of saying “openness”. This was a time of Perestroika which is Russian for “new thinking”, a time to reimagine the structures. And this was the time in which Premiere Gorbachev was meeting with President Reagan, and they were trying to find a way forward as the countries could be together in a way that was not a covert kind of war.

And so, we met this Orthodox priest. We walk in and there he is in the wingback chair. And we knew what to do, so we sat down cross-legged in front of him, and we spoke for a moment. And it was an unusual encounter because I would ask these questions, and I would get these odd answers. And I had been a Russian studies major for one year at Brown University before I realized that Soviet studies was about to go through a huge transformation, and also Russian is a weirded language, really. So I’d given it up. And so, I asked him at one point, I said, “Well, are you a dissident?” And he answered, “Well, anybody who believes in God and Russia, is a dissident.” And I thought wow, that was impressive.

Yes, because, of course, in those days, the Soviet vision of the world that was Communist, and Communism was this godless belief that we could perfect human nature through proper disciplining, and the proper organization of the economy and space. And the self and the society could be remade without God. And so, things went along well okay, but for some reason, the professor was getting impatient, and it was impatient in that way when English people want you to answer something that they’re asking you a question to, and they’re not getting the answer they want. So I could see him getting impatient, and I got a little bit nervous. And then finally he said to the Russian priest, “What advice can you give to these young seminarians who are about to become priests themselves? What is the most important piece of advice that you could give?”

And the Russian priest paused for a moment, and he said, “Always remember to love sinners.” And that was the wrong answer according to the professor. I think he was hoping for something a little more bold. A little like, “Don’t be afraid to defend the faith, even though you’re being persecuted. Don’t be afraid to be courageous for the Gospel,” or something like that. And so, the professor said, “That’s it? That’s it? Love sinners? That’s all you have to say to these people? Love sinners?” Just like that, and suddenly the evening ended awkwardly. There was no tea, no cookies, we just like, “Okay, it’s late.” And then, we were done. We just all got up, and that was it. I never saw him again. I never knew what happened to the priest.

The most fundamental thing to be as a priest, is it would be someone who loves sinners. Over the years, I’ve been thinking a lot about that because Christianity is an enormously complex religion. It’s got these wonderful narratives, and rites, and ceremonies, and rituals, and we are want to try to simplify it sometimes to the detriment of the details. Important details. And over the years, I’ve been thinking about the simplification of that phrase. The most important thing to do is to love sinners. And the years since, I’ve been reflecting on that moment because as soon as the priest said that, and the professor got angry, the priest just laughed.

What does it mean to love sinners? I think it depends a little bit about how you define each of these things, sin and love. And we can define sin in a number of ways. And Christians have defined sin in a number of ways as pride, as selfishness, as greed, as lust, as violence. But ultimately, I think that sin is best defined as being less than what God has called you to be. As a falling short of the person God has called you to be as a society and community God has called you to be. And all of us have a certain participation in that kind of sin. Because I don’t know if lust or greed is your problem, but I can tell just by knowing this world like I do, that all of us have fallen short of being the person God has called us to be.

And every community falls short of being the community God has called it to be. What is love? Love has been defined as desire, pleasure, pain, longing, devotion, but love, I think, is fundamentally an attitude of will that seeks the best of the other. That they would be all that God has called them to be. That the community that they live in would be all that God has called it to be. And love has with it, as well, a kind of acceptance of the community that it already is, and the people as they already are.

So to love sinners is to be invited into this moment in which we both accept, and will the best of who we are as persons, and what we’re called to be as a community. It’s to go with the grain of Jesus’ own love for us. Because if we were to name the one thing that distinguishes the love of Jesus Christ from the love of anything else, and anyone else, it would be that Christ has had mercy upon us, and that Christ loves us, and delights in us as we are. And that Christ’s love calls us to be all that we were created to be as individuals as community.

So when that Orthodox priest gave that piece of advice, I’ve realized over the years that he was spreading the jewels of his ministry before us. Because in a place like Soviet Russia, where the perfectibility of the person, and the perfectibility of the society was something people believe could just happen through proper discipline, the most subversive thing you could stand for is to say, “No. Community is not built upon these things. But community is built on the compassion and shared experience, and identification we have with each other through our common foibles and flaws, through all the things that we fail in. That’s the ultimate community that holds us together for the love we have for each other, as imperfect human beings, as people that God is not finished with.” Nothing more could have stood against the Soviet system than that simple love of sinners. Nothing could be more subversive.

And over the years, I’ve discovered that in many ways, this priest was also transmitting a fundamental teaching of his own tradition of Christianity. And Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, which is one of the greatest novels ever written, there is this moment in which an older priest, an older monk, Father Zosima, is speaking to these other monks, and he is on his way to his death. And he tells them that the most important thing that they have to keep in mind as a monk, is not that they have been called to holiness, but they have been called to community because of their need, and because of their sin. And if they could recognize and realize that it is their sin that brings them to community, that they have come to become completed by the community that they are surrounded by, their ministries would truly be a gift. “Only then, only when a monk recognizes his own fallenness, and enters into community as someone seeking help, only then,” he tells them, “Will our hearts be moved to the love that is infinite, universal, and knows no limits, then each of us will be able to gain the whole world by love, and wash away the world’s sins with our tears.”

And this exchange with the monks completes an earlier discussion that happens in that novel between the elder Zosima, and a doctor. The doctor comes to him, and he says, “I have a problem. I have a hard time reconciling my great love for humanity with my love for particular people. Because the minute I have these great moments about humanity, I meet someone who completely disillusions me. And it can be anything, not just the bad things they’ve done. It could be just the way they eat their soup, it starts to irritate me. And then there are moments in which you meet someone in particular who you adore, but you end up with very negative beliefs about everything they stand for.”

Zosima’s answer to that doctor is the work of the monk. Because by loving sinners, you have to learn to love yourself, to see yourself as beloved, and to know yourself as beloved in community with other sinners. That is the way to find, in the particular, the whole, the universal, the thing that holds a Christian community together. Now all of this goes with the grain of everything we’ve read today in scriptures. In our reading from Micah, there is this moment in which it’s been constructed as a court case. God is going to bring a judgment upon God’s people. They have not been holy, and everything is breaking down in their society. The sacrificial system in which they would offer God these sacrifices and receive these blessings, the system is breaking down. The currency that holds it all in place is becoming devalued.

And so, God sets up a court case in which God is both judge and prosecutor. This is not a good state of affairs for the people of God. And the passage ends with God offering a plea bargain to them. They can’t find their way out of the currency crisis of the sacrifices, but what they can do is they can walk humbly, do justice, and love kindness. They could recognize their own place as limited infallible people in this world, and do the good that God wills for themselves and for the community.

And in our reading from 1 Corinthians, there’s this moment in which Paul is dealing with a community that is divided by debates over who is more powerful than others, or who is rich and who is poor, or who has been given the blessings of the Spirit, and who do not have these blessings. And Paul says to them that the one truth that will pervade everything in their lives is the Cross of Christ. It is the Cross of Christ that is the wisdom of God, which is foolishness to the Greeks, and a stumbling block to the Jews, is the Cross of Christ, which levels everyone, and invites everyone to be reconciled, and directs the community’s strength. Not to its shared experiences, or its shared class affiliation, or its shared history, but that they’re common places as members of the Body of Christ. Reconciled by Christ.

And finally, we have Matthew’s Beatitudes. And every time I hear the Beatitudes read in church, I think of what an incredible privilege it is to be able to speak those words, and to hear those words in this holy space. And Christians have for centuries, debated over how these Beatitudes apply to us. One line of interpretation is that they mean something, that they are speaking of an existence that is not yet here. A far-off time. So there will be a day when the poor, and the poor in Spirit will be blessed, and with those who mourn, will be comforted, and when peacemakers will be celebrated. But that day is not now, and the purposes of the Beatitudes is to break our hearts to make us recognize the distance, and to pray and make our life a life of repentance.

This was the interpretation of Martin Luther who wrote in the first of his 95 theses that when our Lord Jesus Christ said the word repent, He did not mean one time. He meant a whole lifetime of repentance. And then there are others who believe that the Beatitudes apply to the here and now for those who are willing to commit themselves to being holy as their Father is holy, as we read later on in verse 48 of this same chapter. And those are people who have decided to give up everything, and to be part of a religious community that stands in opposition to everything around.

But I think that that axiom that God has come, so that we would learn to love sinners. I believe that axiom has in it a lens through which to see the Beatitudes as an invitation to conversion. Because the only way we will receive the blessings of God, is if we are willing to go to the places where God has been giving His blessings. And that is to this broken community as it is, and as we find it, not only here, but also in the world around us. To be with those who mourn. To be with those who are poor and poor in Spirit. To be those who are trying to be peacemakers. To be those who suffer for righteousness sake. When we are willing to walk in those places, we will encounter not difficulty, but blessing. We will be blessed. We will be blessed. We will be blessed.

And the choice we have today is whether or not we want to seek that conversion to be changed by that love, to have ourselves renewed as individuals, and as a community. That we want to try to demonstrate in our own context what it would mean to be that kind of community in a world which is not quite as divided as maybe it was in 1991. But still in pretty rough shape.

Our collect for today is an incredibly beautiful collect. The collect is that part, that prayer that centers everything. It has this line, “Grant us Your peace in our time.” What does it mean for us to be peacemakers in our time? What is God calling us to do to love and live out the Gospel in our time? How can we be that community that is bound together by the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ our Savior in our time? These are the things we have to ponder, and to wrestle with as individuals, and as a community, as we give thanks on this day for all that God is already doing in our midst as He leads us home. Amen.

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