(Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Cor 3:1-9; Matt 5:21-37)
A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to
meet a remarkable man.
He serves as the chaplain at
a nearby state mental hospital.
Chaplain Gene offers spiritual support to the
300 residents and staff members of that facility.
He shared a story of a woman who had a
deep longing for God.
She was psychotic and, though medication could sometimes quiet the voices that plagued her,
it could not silence them altogether.
Nights were particularly bad for her.
She was convinced that she was demon-possessed.
She struggled to understand why God
would not save her from this hell on earth.
She imagined she must be inherently bad.
Chaplain Gene is a staunch Southern Baptist.
He is fond of saying that 25 years ago
he had a number of answers for most any question.
But with the passage of time — and after serving
almost 2 decades with the mentally ill —
he is quick to say that he has few if any answers.
He spends much of his time walking
around the hospital grounds,
talking to folks and listening to those
who need an ear.
He offers a couple of devotional services during
the week in common gathering areas.
Before I headed back to Jacksonville,
we spent some time in a lovely free-standing
chapel located on the grounds of the hospital.
Chaplain Gene told me that the previous weekend,
they had offered the first Sunday Eucharist service
in more than 2 ½ years.
With funding cutbacks, they simply could not
afford to pay the staff that would be needed
to monitor such a gathering,
while still maintaining proper staffing levels
elsewhere on campus.
So they were able this one time to offer a
communion service no one was expecting.
More than 80 patients came to that service,
many of whom suffered just as deeply as
the woman I told you about.
Many of whom probably wonder from time to time:
“Why has God cursed me?”
So, where might we find God in all of this?
That’s not an easy question to answer.
But it is safe to say that God is
in the deep hunger that drew those patients
to the Eucharistic feast.
In just the same way, God is in the longing
that draws us here to worship,
that draws us to His table.
We choose life each and every time
we come together as brothers and sisters,
united in the One who will never forsake us.
And yet, today’s gospel does not cut us any slack.
Jesus seems to raise the bar to a standard
few if any of us can keep.
Sometimes Holy Scripture can seem harsh and unrelenting.
At such times it can be good to take a step back,
to wonder about what the Holy Spirit is trying to say
to us through these verses.
It is safe to say that Jesus is talking to us about
the quality of our relationships
and how we treat one another.
It can be hard work, truly being in relationship
with one another.
It means being willing at times to have
It means not just seeking forgiveness
but also being willing to offer forgiveness.
Each Sunday as we begin our
Church Without Walls service,
the community declares:
“Whoever you are and wherever you
find yourself on the journey of faith,
you are welcome here.”
That means all are welcome. Everyone.
Those with whom we agree and those
with whom we disagree.
Those who look and act like we do,
and those who may be quite different.
A couple of weeks ago, a young woman
came to our Sunday Service for the first time.
Then the following Wednesday, she showed up
for our Morning Prayer and Coffee fellowship,
outside of Clara White Mission.
She approached me to apologize for
leaving church abruptly.
Apparently someone had made her feel unwelcome.
When I reached out to shake her hand, I noticed
she had numerous scars on her forearms,
from cutting herself.
Then she told me she was a Satanist,
that she had been raised that way,
and wondered if she could still come to church.
I admit, something inside me hesitated but
“Yes, you are welcome to come” I told her.
Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself
on the journey of faith … is another way of saying
The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.
I don’t know about you, but at times
I find myself wanting to explain things to God,
to argue with his crazy logic,
when all he wants me to do is surrender.
“Let your word be ‘Yes, yes” or ‘No. No;’
anything more comes from the evil one.”
Last Sunday as several folks gathered on the grass
before the service, one man called me over.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
As I approached him, I must confess that I hoped
he wouldn’t ask me for something I couldn’t give him.
I introduced myself and then sat down with him.
“What’s going on? I asked.
He looked at me with a face etched by
pain and exhaustion.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he said.
“I don’t want to drink anymore.”
He was weighed down with despair, but
he was also in that grace-filled space of
knowing his own powerlessness.
He was ready for a new possibility.
What does it mean to choose life?
It means trusting God enough to bring everything
that we have and all that we are to the altar.
The 12-steppers pray it this way:
“God, I am now ready for you to have
all of me good and bad.
Take away my defects so I can be useful
to you and to others.”
That is what it means to be a living sacrifice.
You good people of San Jose Episcopal
have been wonderful partners,
providing support and, most of all, the gift of
your presence at our church without walls services.
You come regularly as a group, and some of you
even come on your own from time to time.
It is amazing how quickly community develops.
I see it in the smiles of our regulars who
recognize you and greet you when you return.
This is true liturgy – the work of the people
with God — at its finest.
Something happens in that funny patch of grass.
Something happens under that sycamore tree
in the diocesan parking lot.
Something about that space makes it easier
to let our guard down, to be ourselves.
To own all of who we are
– our frailties and our strengths –
is to be fully present, to be fully alive.
In 2 ½ weeks we will recognize Ash Wednesday
and enter into the season of Lent.
This is a wonderful time to take stock.
To gather ourselves – the good and the bad –
and bring it all to the altar.
May God give each of us the grace to choose life.
Whoever we are and wherever we find ourselves
on the journey of faith,
may we encounter the True Source of Light and Life.
May we be blessed.