God’s Mercy and Love

the 14th Day after Pentecost
Proper 18
15 September 2019

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Click here to access these readings.

        What does the mercy of God look like?  This is a great word: ‘mercy.’  We know what it means, surely.  You don’t have to pull out your phones and look up ‘mercy’ in the dictionary.  You know what it means, but what does it look like?  What does human mercy look like, and what does God’s mercy look like.

        God’s mercy is shown all throughout the Bible.  We see it in the story of Joseph that we’ll read this week for Emmaus Meals; we see it in the story of Jonah and of Ruth, and the story of Naaman who was washed clean of his leprosy.  We see it in our Old Testament reading this morning, where Moses asks God to turn away from his anger and look with mercy on the people of Israel.  We hear of it in the psalms and even in the prophets, which are so often about criticizing and pointing out fault, but all so that the people around them can be led more fully into the mercy and love of God.  Our God is a very merciful god.

        And God’s most merciful act was to come to this world in the form of a human being and live among us as Jesus Christ.  The life of Jesus, from the first moments of the Incarnation to the Cross and beyond it to the Resurrection, all of it was a mercy of God.  God saw that we were in pain, that we humans suffered and were crying out for help.  And God came to us and saved us, and not just those who were in pain but even those whose hearts were twisted and corrupted by the sin of hurting others.  As Jesus says in the gospels, God came to this world to save sinners.  God came in Jesus Christ to save all people, every one of us.

        And what does that mercy look like?  What does it look like on the ground?  Well, in our gospel reading today, it looks like Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Incarnated Word, hanging out with the worst sorts of people imaginable.  Now, we don’t have tax collectors like in Jesus’ time anymore, but, just so you know, these were some awful folks.  They were working for the Roman Empire, often extorting money, usually lining their own pockets, but also just plainly working with the folks who were oppressing their fellow countrymen.  These were not usually the nicest of people.  And yet Jesus ate with them.  It’s no wonder the Pharisees and scribes were a bit confused.

        Now, this reading here in the gospel – this scene and these two parables – are really important.  I think, often, we can get lost in thinking about how sinful we are.  We can look at ourselves, look at all the horrible things we’ve done in the past or said in the past or even just thought in the past, and we can wonder, “How in the world could God, who is perfect in any way, love someone as awful as me?”  And if we don’t do this to ourselves, then we do this to the world; we wonder, “The world is so terrible.  How could God save something this awful?”  We beat ourselves and our world up for our sins, we use them as weapons against ourselves.  And we imagine that God’s work is to stoop down into the muck that is us so that he can lift us up (with a clothes-pin on his nose because of the stench), wash us clean, scrub us down, hang us out to dry, and all so that when we get to heaven we won’t dirt on the clean, white carpet.  When we think this way, we imagine ourselves as stray dogs who don’t really belong with God but that God’s a nice guy and so doesn’t mind all the work he has to do to make us presentable.

        But God’s mercy works quite a bit different than that.  God’s mercy isn’t the same as endurance or a stiff upper lip.   Jesus wasn’t walking around down here with a look of disgust on his face because everyone was so sinful and horrible and he just couldn’t wait until he could go back home to his Father’s.  No, Jesus must have walked around with a look of compassion on his face, with an outstretched hand and an open ear.  The Pharisees come up to Jesus and they’re all like, dude, how can you deal with those people?    And Jesus turns their idea on its head and says, no, you’ve got it all wrong.  It’s not that we humans are basically unlovable but God loves us anyway; it’s that God sees us as blessed children who are lost and who need someone to come find them.  God does not start with our sins but from three words: “I love you.”  And it is from here that all God’s actions, all God’s justice, and all God’s mercy springs.

        Now, this doesn’t mean that sin isn’t bad.  It doesn’t mean that God is a nice, old, doting grandfather who will buy his grand-kids treats whenever he wants.  God’s love isn’t a blind love that just ignores the sin.  God knows our hearts inside and out.  This is what we mean when we pray, at the start of the service every Sunday: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.”  God’s love doesn’t ignore that sin, but God’s love is founded on something much deeper than that.  God created us, brought us into being for the pure joy of loving something in fullness and in hope.  And that love caused God, when he heard us call out in despair, to come down to this world with his arms wide open so that he could embrace us all.

        This changes things, I think.  It changes the way – or it should change the way – that we treat others in our ministries, how we treat one another in the church, and how we treat our own selves.  And as I’m saying this, I’m kinda preaching to the choir.  Over the past couple of weeks, even months, a few people have come through that our culture would rather ignore.  But you invited them in, ate with them, cared for them, brought them into your lives in hope to heal them and make their lives better, even if just for an afternoon.  Down at the food bank, you laugh with people, you play with them, you ask them about themselves, and you do what you can to help.  And when Father Yohana asks for help, you opened your hearts to him as well.  You’ve formed a relationship with these folks and you’ve loved them, so that they’re part of our family here at St. James’ Episcopal Church.  I commend you all for the love that you have given the lost and lonesome.  It is the work of Jesus Christ that you do.

        And so I saw: keep loving.  Keep loving those people who walk in the door, and those who you meet on the street.  Keep loving yourselves, you who know all the darkest places – and the places of most grace – in your hearts and your lives.  And when you look out into the world and see more darkness, do not give up hope.  Remember that God came into this world to save sinners, to be with us at our darkest moments.  God is with us.  Never, ever forget that.

            And so I stand up here now to encourage you to continue.  We’ve opened our hearts here, and things haven’t always gone swimmingly.  Sometimes we’ve been hurt.  Sometimes we’ve had our help thrown back in our faces.  And we’ve learned through some trial and error how to do things better next time.  But, no matter what happens, we always stand up and keep going.  And we do so not because we have to, or because Jesus did it so I guess we better do it, too.  We love others, and we stand up to love others again and again and again, because love is the foundation of reality.  And as we live that love more fully, as we live God’s mercy in a world beset by sin and hatred, we become, more and more, that love.  For this is the work of God: to form all of us in love, to sustain us in love, and to form us into pure love in the image of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

A heart like a microwaved pizza

the 13th Day after Pentecost
Baptism!
September 8th, 2019

The readings for this day were
Ezekiel 36:24-28
Canticle 9, the First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6)
Romans 8:14-17
Mark 10:13-16

        The worst thing you can do with a piece of pizza is put it in the microwave.  And I’m serious.  If you want to put anchovies on it, that’s cool, go wild.  In Japan, I found that some people like to put mayo and corn on their pizza.  And I was like, really, but, you know, it wasn’t all that bad.  It was still a pizza.  But if you’ve got some left-over pizza from the night before, and you need to warm it up, don’t put it into the microwave.  Like all bread-based food, when you put pizza in the microwave, it comes out all tough and chewy and hard.  It’s inedible.  Sure, it’s still got the cheese and the sauce and all, but you just can’t eat it.  It’s not pizza anymore.

        And I say all this because, in a way, the prophet Ezekiel is talking about microwaved pizza.  Because it seems to me that, if we updated Ezekiel’s language to be more modern, we’d get something like this: “[God says] A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body a heart like a microwaved pizza, and I will give to you a fresh heart, like a pizza straight from the oven, eaten on the streets of New York City.”  Not a tough, plasticky, yucky heart, but a soft, pleasant, delicious heart that fills your whole body with light and joy.  Here, Ezekiel’s writing about how God lives with us in our lives and what God’s presence does to us, how it affects us, moves us, breaks open all those hard parts so that we can live lives of freedom and grace.

        Because we know what Ezekiel’s talking about, don’t we?  Whether we call them hearts of stone or hearts of micro-waved pizza, we’ve experienced that, haven’t we?  I know I have.  I remember, back in middle school, seeing a good friend of mine get bullied.  And all I did was watch, then turn away.  And why?  Why didn’t I do something to help my friend?  I was scared of getting involved, really.  I didn’t want to step in because, I thought, that was his business.  And, hey, my friend was a little annoying, so maybe he even deserved being bullied.  I knew it was wrong, but these thoughts took over, and I did nothing.  Nor was it just when I was young, but ever since, I’ve turned my back, walked away, ignored a call.  It’s something that happens, I think, to all humans, that we ignore those who are calling out for real and honest help.

        But his is all more than just being a good citizen.  I’m not just saying that we should all be neighborly and then everything’s gonna be alright (though being neighborly is a pretty good place to start).  This is about God; this is about life and letting the life of God grow within us and, through us, out into the world.  Because, just as much as we know what it means to have a micro-waved pizza heart, I think we also know, each one of us knows, what it’s like when our heart is freshly baked, straight from the oven.  Have you ever given a gift, not because you’ll get one in return, or it’s just what you do, but because you loved someone so deeply, so fully, so completely, that you just felt the need to give?  Have you ever stayed at the bed of a sick person, and stayed all through the night, even though you could do nothing, but just so that that person wouldn’t wake up lonely?  When we give with this kind of heart, when we live with this kind of heart, we don’t think about what we’ll get in return.  No, we give to the point where we become love, where we become life, and that’s because, the more we live this way, the more we are Jesus Christ, who was, and is, and forever shall be the fullness of life for evermore.

        Now, in a few minutes, we’re going to baptize little Cooper, but this softening of heart, this un-microwaving of the heart, this isn’t what’s going to happen to him when I pour water over his head.  It’s not like poor Cooper has some microwaved piece of heart in his chest and we all have to get him baptized so that *snap* he’ll have a heart of flesh and life again.  That’s actually a lot like microwaving, and we know what that does to the heart. 

        But something does happen in Baptism.  It’s not the sudden, boom, changing of a heart; it’s the planting of a seed.  In Baptism, God plants a seed inside our hearts.  It’s a Jesus-seed that will grow into a Jesus-plant (I usually think of it as a Jesus-tree, but if you’re more the Jesus-bush or Jesus-flower kinda person, that’s cool, too).  And as Cooper grows, he’ll meet all sorts of adversity.  He’ll get discouraged, he’ll get frustrated, he’ll doubt.  Maybe he won’t make star player on the team the first year out, or he won’t get the job he wants straight out of college.  Maybe, God-forbid, a deeper tragedy will strike.  Life, we all know, is full of disappointments and griefs, and unless we’re careful, these disappointments and these griefs harden our hearts.  But that Jesus-tree, it breaks up that stone heart not from the outside but from within.  It pushes against those hard bits, that doubt and discouragement, it pushes against them so that they soften.  It keeps the heart from turning in on itself in hatred or despair but opens that heart in freedom. 

        And here’s where you come in.  Baptism in Christ means the planting of a seed, a turning of the person to God.  And, like all seeds, that Jesus-seed needs to be nurtured.  It needs to be watered, given fresh sunlight, even manured every once in a while (I’ll let you parents figure out what I mean by manuring the heart).  This is all done by God, of course, but we, as the Church, will also take part in God’s work.  And that’s why, right before the baptism, we’ll all stand up and make promises for little Cooper, who one day won’t just be little Cooper, but Cooper, a man in his own right.  But until then, it’s our job, as family, godparents, other friends and acquaintances – as the Church itself, it’s our job to nurture that Jesus-seed within him. 

        And so, just as Cooper’s Jesus-seed is being planted by the waters of Baptism, so too will we be looking to our own Jesus-tree in ourselves.  This morning, we’re checking in on it, seeing how it’s doing, maybe pruning a branch here or putting in new soil there.  We will, yet again, renounce evil and all the forces of wickedness that enslave us.  We’re turn again to the goodness in Jesus Christ and promise, yet again, to follow him, and to keep on standing up each and every time we fall.  And we’ll make the promise to one another that we’ll help tend and nurture each other’s Jesus-trees.  And then, at last, we’ll look out into the world and promise to be the gardeners of God’s seed, those seeds that he planted in the hearts of every single person, every place, and every thing, when he sent his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to bring life and love into this dark world.

        Baptisms are a new beginning.  They’re a new beginning for Cooper, who has just started taking steps into this world; they’re a new beginning for us, who so often in our wayward lives need new beginnings; and they’re a new beginning for the Church, which is two-thousand years old but still forever young, forever reborn, in these waters that reach to the depth of Creation and back.

the Grace of God

the 12th Day after Pentecost
Proper 17
September 1, 2019

The readings for today are:
Sirach 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Click here to access these readings. 

         When I came to be your priest last summer, I didn’t make many changes to the liturgy here at St. James.  And this was because, well, first of all your worship was pretty beautiful.  You did most things by the prayer-book, and the extra stuff you did really went to heighten the beauty and the joy of the service.  I was really impressed with things like the silences you had all throughout the liturgy – and these silences that really let the weight of the readings, or the confession, or the Eucharist, they really let them sink in.  They brought and bring me, at least, more closely to God.  As for the rest of the service, I tweaked it a little bit, but, really, I left it the same.

        But there was one thing that I did change.  Before I got here, the wine and the bread were set up at the front of the church nave near the altar.  Instead, we now put them at the back and have someone in the congregation bring them forward during the offertory.  Right now it’s the Brazers and Gwendolyn who do this, but, really, it’s just important that someone from the congregation does it, not one of the LEMs up front or me, the priest.  And I didn’t start this because some of you want to get your steps in or just to add another complication to the liturgy; I did this because it is one of the most important parts of the service.  This simple act represents how we should live to God.

        You see, this little cruet filled with wine, and this small handful of wafers, they represent how we receive God’s love and how we then return it.  Look at our collect this morning for a moment.  Here we address God as the author and giver of all good things, and that’s true.  All good things come from God.  And this isn’t like how, on Christmas morning, we say that Santa Claus brought all the presents under the tree or in the stockings (though this is indeed an image of how God lives in our lives).  God is the author of good material things in our lives, but God is also the giver of all goodness, of all good things.  We experience the goodness of the Spirit when we’re surrounded by our families, or when we’re under the warm summer sun, or when we curl up to read a good book on a rainy day.  We experience the goodness of Jesus Christ when we are healed from our suffering or our pain, or when we experience the forgiveness of our sins and are reconciled back into our community.  And we experience the goodness of God the Father in our faith and our hope that grounds us, or when we look to the stars or the ocean and know God’s love to us in Creation.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  All good things, all of them, come from God.

        And all of this is what we call ‘grace’, the grace of Jesus Christ.  And grace isn’t just those things in life that gives us joy, like stopping for ice cream on the way home, or hitting snooze on the alarm for just another five more minutes of sleep.  These are good things (and things which we should thank God for, surely), but grace goes quite a bit deeper.  Grace does quite a bit more.  One author I read recently wrote that grace is the “quickening and sanctifying” of life.  Grace is the yeast that we add to flour to make bread.  Grace is the sun and the rain and good soil for a seed that helps it grow.  It’s the Eucharist added to Morning Prayer to make our worship here on Sunday moving and powerful and that draws us to God.  Grace is that presence of God, that impossible presence of God, that lifts life beyond itself, that makes all good things come to pass.

        I once saw grace at work while in my hospital chaplaincy.  Truth be told, grace was always at work in the hospital.  I would go into rooms and talk with those who had been there just a day and those who would surely die there.  People told me of their lives and their troubles, and in doing so, something was righted inside them, something was turned from grief and fear to, well, to life.  I didn’t do much of anything; I just sat and listened and watched God at work in these people’s lives. 

But there was one couple who was different.  The grace in that room, I could almost see it, could almost feel it on my skin.  The husband had an illness that was terminal, and he was going to hospice.  There was grief, surely, and there were tears in their eyes, as they both knew that he would soon die.  But there was love, both of one another and of the Lord.  There was hope.  And this hope, this love, this sense that I could see in their eyes and hear in their words, it wasn’t just acceptance of the inevitable, or the smile on one’s lips who looks back on a good life.  This was something more than these two people, it was a goodness and a life that radiated out of them, that caught hold of me and the other seminarians who met them, as well as the doctors and nurses with us.  This was grace, the quickening yeast of life, even at its end.  This was God’s loving presence with we humans who are so lost and alone without him.

Grace isn’t something that fades like emotions or memories fade.  Nor is it something we have, that we can, say, stick in the bank to use later or keep hidden under our bed for a rainy day.  Again, grace is the quickening of life, the enlivening of life.  It builds us as people, as Christians, in the image of Jesus Christ.  It takes the gifts that we have been given in our birth and in our new birth in Jesus Christ, and develops them and furthers them, like a teacher who sees nurtures the potential in a student.  Grace is how God works us more fully into his own image, which is Jesus Christ.  And all this so that God can achieve his great intent: to bring all us humans, and God’s Creation with it, home. 

There are many moments of grace in our liturgy.  Really, I think you could say that the whole thing, from the opening hymn to the dismissal, is an experience of God’s grace.  But the Offertory is special.  Here we take two symbols of our work in life, work that we struggle through, that tests us and can even beat us down, these two, small symbols of all our life, and we bring them before God to be made into the very Body and Blood of God’s Son Jesus Christ.  But that’s us, too, isn’t it?  We human, we broken, wayward, sorrowful people.  We bring ourselves before God as well, and what does God do?  He loves us.  He gives us life and nurtures us, so that our frail hope and longing can be made into an image of God himself.  For we give to God everything that we have, and what we are given in return is more than we can possibly imagine.

 

Stuff and God

the 11th day after Pentecost
Proper 16
August 25ht, 2019

The readings for today are:
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Click here to access these readings.

            Have you ever heard of the liturgical workout? No, it’s not what Episcopalians do when they go to the gym. It’s what we do right here in our church nave. It’s often said that we Episcopalians, and many others who worship God liturgically, are always standing up and sitting down. And you might not notice this if you’ve worshipped this way for a long time. It all seems, to us, pretty simple. We sit down for readings – unless it’s the gospel reading, then we stand. We also stand for the Nicene Creed, but then we sit back down for the Prayers of the People. And when it comes time for the Eucharist, some people stand and some people sit (both are just fine, by the way). And some people, if their piety is just right, will kneel instead. We are always getting up but then sitting back down.

       And we don’t do all this just because it’s fun to stand up and sit down all the time. When we pray liturgically, we don’t just pray with the voice but with all the senses and the whole body together. And each of these different ways we pray – they mean something. Why do we stand at the gospel? It’s because we are people of Jesus Christ, people of the Gospel, and we stand to show respect to the words of our Savior. Why do we sit or kneel at confession? It’s because in our confession we are humbling ourselves before God. Nor are we just saying, “God, I’m sorry”, but using our whole body, our knees and our shoulders and our hands and our voices to confess our sins to God. And why? Because we feel that doing so helps us come to a fuller realization of our sins and mistakes and, hopefully, leads us to an amendment of life. Physically sitting or kneeling, we believe, helps that process, as does, when we’ve been absolved, standing up helps us enter more fully into God’s mercy, grace, and love.

       There’s a kind of “stuff-ness” to liturgical worship, isn’t there? There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of physical things that you can touch or things that we do. We’re always standing or sitting, bowing and crossing ourselves, or using water or oil or chrism or bread and wine. We have chalices and patents, bells in towers and hand-bells that acolytes can ring through the whole Eucharistic prayer (not that this happened recently…). Our priests wear three layers of clothes and we like holding hymnals better than using projectors. We like stuff – things we can reach out to and touch, things we can hold, things that help us reach out and touch God and one another in love.

       But then comes the letter to the Hebrews. The author seems to be saying something different here. He writes that, when we come to God, we come to something that you can’t touch. Being with God isn’t like holding onto stuff like bread or a book, but like a blazing fire, something that is there and that you can see but that you can’t reach out and hold in the palm of your hands. Or like darkness or gloom, or the raging of a tempest, or even just the sound of a trumpet. These things move us, or allow us to see, or send us running, but no matter how much they affect us we can’t hold them. You can’t put God a box or a nice pretty bag. We can learn about and be brought to God through things, through stuff, through God’s Creation; but at the same time, it’s important to remember that God isn’t Creation. God is more than this world. God isn’t tangible, he’s not what we can see on the surface of things. God is more than that.

       So, does that mean that we’re wrong to like all this stuff in our worship? If God is something that we can’t touch, if God is like the sound of a trumpet, or the blaze of a fire, or darkness and light, things we can’t hold, then is it okay to have so much stuff here in church that we can hold? Well, yes, it is. This is actually an old question for us Christians, one that folks were talking about over a thousand years ago. You see, back in the 7 and 8 hundreds, people were worried and wondering: should we really be making art that depicts God? Should we paint pictures of God or build statues of him and his saints? People were, of course, already doing this, and doing it quite a bit, but theologians were wondering if it was such a good idea. They were worried that people would see those pictures and statues and think, well, here’s God right here – and then worship the pictures and statues and forget about the true God. In other words, they asked: doesn’t all this stuff – these images, these statues, these bits of our worship that are just things – doesn’t all this stuff get in the way of worshipping God?

       And the answer from a thousand years ago is this: no. Keep your art and love your art. Keep all that stuff in your churches. And they said this not because they just really liked art but because of how God saved humanity in Jesus Christ. God did not come down as some vague spirit to save us. God did not just think us into salvation. And God didn’t just give us some great, intelligent, wise person to lead us into a better way of life. No, God came down to us as Jesus Christ – as St. Paul writes in Philippians: God humbled himself to be with us, to walk on this earth with us, to kick around in the dust and to lift us from the dust, all to save us. God became that dust, entered into and became that dust that we are, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, so that that dust, so that we who are dust, could walk in eternal life.

       But the essence of things, the truth of things, is not in the dust, but in the one who became dust, who humbled himself, even to death on the cross. All this stuff here in church is beautiful and joyful and so very helpful to our lives in God, and while these things aren’t God, we shouldn’t just turn from them all to a form of worship that is somehow more pure because there are fewer things in the room. For in being Incarnated into this world, God said to a bit of metal with a rope attached to it (a bell): you are worthy to sing my praises. And God said to some sheep wool and probably a bit of plastic fabric (a chasuble): you are worthy to stand at my altar. And God said to us, who are dust, and to dust shall we return: you are worthy to shine with the same light as that of my Son, Jesus Christ. Because through all of it the light of Jesus Christ, which is like a burning flame lighting our path, or the sound of a trumpet calling us home, through all of it shines the holiness of Jesus Christ.

God is Life

South Coast Convocation Beach Eucharist
August 17th, 2019

The readings for this service are:
Job 12:7-12
Psalm 98
Philippians 4:4-7
Matthew 19:13-15

       We heard a lot about God’s hands this morning, didn’t we? In the Old Testament, we heard how all life, every living thing, is in God’s hands. In the Psalms, we heard how God’s right hand has worked salvation. And in a little bit, we’ll pray together the Prayers of the People, where we will give thanks that God fashioned us and this beautiful place with his life-giving hand. This all reminds me of a song we used to sing as kids: “He’s got the whole world, in his hands.” Do you know that one? As a kid, I imagined this big set of hands, cupped around, and a bunch of people, or even the Earth itself, just sitting there in God’s open palms.

       Now, hands signify something really important in the Bible and for us Christians; they signify the life-giving presence of God. Think about the Bible, where people are always reaching out and touching Jesus with their hands; and when they do, they’re healed. Or that Jesus, and the disciples with him, lay their hands – physically touch – the sick and the injured, the lonely and the destitute, folks no one wanted to be near, much less touch. Some of these people are suddenly healed, miraculously, though others are shown, rather simply, that they are not alone in their pain, that someone cares for them and loves them. For some, that’s healing enough.

And our practices at church continue this focus on hands. At the passing of the peace, we shake hands or hug one another, all in the name of Christ, welcoming them into our hearts and our lives. Or in the sacraments: In Baptism the pouring of water and the anointing on the forehead with oils, or Reconciliation, where at that most beautiful moment, when we are reminded that we are loved by the God of all things, the priest puts his or her hand on the head. Or in the Eucharist, the simple and vast depths of the Eucharist, where a small wedge of wafer or bread, the very Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, is placed in an outstretched hand. And all this, all these moments, signify something: a presence, a life, a depth within the world that is far beyond ourselves.

       And God, and our church, and our Christian lives extend out beyond the four walls of our worship space, don’t they? I think also of the hands that I have seen in my own life, as well. I think of the hands of my father, who was a woodworker. His hands are like anyone’s hands who works with wood all day: they’re nicked and scratched, they have deep callouses and are scarred, but they’re also deft, able, skillful, and sure. Or I think of my daughter’s hands and my own when we go out to play in the sand. After just a few minutes of building castles and burying each other in the sand, our hands are grubby and dirty, and they most certainly have to be washed before we can eat lunch – but even so, they are full of the life and joy of digging about in the earth. And I think of the hands of Jesus, which I have seen in paintings and statues and in my own heart (and surely you have, too): the hands of Jesus, our God and our Savior, human hands but holy hands as well, as they were lifted to heal and as they were laid on the cross and nailed to its hard wood.

       And all these images – hands in healing, hands full of dirt and grime, hands giving bread, hands bleeding at the palms – these images all point to one thing: not just of some vague presence but the presence of Life and it’s advent into this world. Now, our own hands, our fallen, human hands, can bring other things, too. Sure, we can bring life into the world, we can be God’s hands, but we can also work death, destruction, and pain as well. But God’s hands are different. God’s hands are life. In God’s hands is life, not sitting on the top but deep down inside them, like a bit of salt baked into a cake to enhance all that flavor; or, if you’ve spent some time in the South, you’ll know sweet tea, where the sugar isn’t just added in later but brewed into the tea itself to make it, oh so delicious. And all these are just more small, partial images, because that goodness and hope and life of God’s hands are deep down at God’s core, who he is; because God is Life. God is Love.

       And all this love, all this life, it’s not away on some mountain top. It’s not locked away in secret somewhere so that only smart and adventurous people can find it. It’s not something that only our great spiritual ancestors can find because they were just more special than we are. It’s right here. As St. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice!” And why? Because the Lord is near to you, or, as in the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord is very near to you. This Life, this Hope, this Goodness, and this Love, they are here for us, because God is here among us. Whether we’re under the church roof or out here on the side of the beach, whether you’re in a hospital room or on the other side of the door, waiting in anxiety, God is with you.

       But sometimes, truth be told, it’s hard to remember all this. We live in a troubled world. Each day, it seems, we are met with new tragedies, news that awakens our anxiety or anger or even our hatred. And it seems that we have just two choices: to push it all away and hide from it or else enter into it and risk becoming that pain and anger ourselves. But whether we go out or stick home, whatever we do, we Christians don’t begin there. We don’t begin in pain or anger or despair, but in Life. We begin in Hope, even if (or especially if) there doesn’t seem to be any. We begin in community, in listening to one another, in the seeking out of all people, regardless of who they are and how different their cultures or thoughts or politics are from our own. We begin in Love because God began in Love. God created the world, we believe, not because he was bored and needed something to do, or that God was incomplete and so needs a world; no, we believe that God created the universe, this world, and all the creatures in it, for Love. And that Love is the foundation of all things, from the grains of sand out there on the beach to the planets and stars out there in their courses.

       And we, too. We have been created anew by that Love. It is a Love that we have long yearned for, long hoped for, and that Love found us and is bringing us home. And our work now, we pilgrims on a journey to our true Home, is to shower the world with that Love. To open our hearts when it’s easy and when it’s tough, to listen to those we agree with and those we think are fools, to seek God in all people, no matter who they are. For Love was at the beginning, Love is now, and Love forever shall be the beating heart of Creation and the center of all our lives.