February 24, 2019

2019 Feb24

Epiphany 7 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


Bishop Mary’s theme for us in the Diocese to reflect on throughout 2019 is “Relational Courage”. I have interpreted this as a challenge for us to have the courage to forge new relationships or to repair a broken one in order to forge a new relationship out of that broken one. This is to be done as individuals and corporately as a parish.


Both Joseph and Jesus today point us toward Relational Courage as individuals. Imagine what it took for Joseph to welcome his brothers. They had sold him to travelers and then convinced their father Jacob that a wild animal had killed Joseph. It would be very reasonable for Joseph to carry anger toward his brothers for the rest of his life, even though Joseph came into good fortune. Yet, Joseph welcomed his brothers. He did make them endure some tests, but he ultimately welcomed and cared for his brothers, and at the very end of the Book of Genesis, he formally forgives them.


That took courage.


The word “courage” comes from the Old French meaning “heart as the seat of emotions.” Joseph had to reach way down into his heart and welcome and forgive his brothers who had sold him to the Egyptians. Yes, family relationships were different than our 21C Western concept today, but the chapters in Genesis as they are written highlight the dysfunction and pain in Jacob’s family of 12 sons. The sharing of the heart moved them toward reconciliation. Eventually, all the brothers were vulnerable toward one another.


The word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin “to be wounded”. This is one of the few words that doesn’t get thrown around without understanding its meaning. People know that to be vulnerable is to open oneself to be wounded. Why would anyone do that? It’s the complete opposite of “courage”.


But is it?


One’s courage comes from a place of vulnerability: to express yourself from the heart as the very deepest seat of your emotions is to open yourself to be wounded. To open yourself to be wounded in an effort to be in a relationship with another person requires searching the seat of your emotions, your heart. Courage and vulnerability go hand-in-hand.


In the Gospel, Jesus always makes life more challenging, and He demands behaviors that require more courage and more vulnerability. Last week, at the core of The Beatitudes wasn’t really about making the poor feel better. The Beatitudes are about turning the power structure upside down: Those who are strong enough to show their vulnerability to God and community are those who are in God’s favor; those who believe that their wealth and power make them closer to God are fools.


Today’s Jesus Challenge, which is the next set of verses in the Sermon on the Plain, is a big one. Jesus tells us:


“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you;
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”


This command goes against every instinct that a human being has! This goes against evolutionary biology and Darwin’s theory of the Survival of the Fittest. This goes against the very structure of our societies. <pause> And that’s the point! Jesus is telling us that the Divine Pathway is not one of power and privilege, it is not one that a disciplined checking off of boxes will see to fruition. The Divine Pathway is an arduous journey which requires vulnerability before both God and our neighbors. This is why high-profile Christian leaders fail, and they fail spectacularly, because the journey of the Christian is not easy and does not allow us to push people out of our way in the rush to the top. It’s a journey that requires us to be in relationship with those within our communities, to be vulnerable with them, and to allow ourselves to be transformed by those relationships.


Imagine if your Relational Courage led you to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” So, you go home today and make a list of the people who fit into these categories and you muster up the Relational Courage and the vulnerability to do what Jesus is demanding of you in the Gospel today. What would that look like? What would that feel like? What would you do? What would you say and to whom?


This is what Jesus wants from us. There’s no hermeneutic, no cultural or historical context that will help us interpret this bit of scripture in a different way. This is one of those moments in the Bible when what is written in black & white is what it is. So, what if you went home today and made a list of the people who fit into these categories and you muster up the Relational Courage and the vulnerability to do what Jesus is demanding of you. What would that look like? What would that feel like? What would you do? What would you say and to whom?


That is a big task! It’s a task that people in 12-step programs and in therapy undertake. It’s not impossible, and it often leads to lives so transformed in positive ways that they make books, movies and TV shows out of it:


  • Mr Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”
  • The TV Show “My Name Is Earl”


As a matter of fact – or at least conjecture – Relational Courage is the stuff that makes us cry when watching Prime Time TV. The chaos of the first 17min of a sitcom is tidily wrapped up with expressions of Relational Courage that warm our hearts.


This is the hard stuff that Jesus wants us to do. NOW imagine a different approach.


Imagine if you approached every
relationship – new or old – with
modest vulnerability and
Relational Courage.


If you are too open and too vulnerable, you might get hurt – the naïve new kid at school. But if you really knew how to embody Relational Courage, perhaps you would have fewer enemies, fewer people who hate you, curse you and abuse you. Rather than having to fix relationships, all your relationships would be healthy.


But on a day-to-day basis, we probably avoid the Relational Courage that could genuinely enhance our lives and the lives of others. Most of us maintain fairly superficial relationships with most others, which means that those relationships are easy to maintain at an emotionally-safe distance or to dispose of.


A couple of weeks ago, I asked you to consider what activity gives you joy out of proportion to everything else, and then I asked you to share that with someone you are not related to. Sharing something so personal about yourself required Relational Courage and a degree of vulnerability. Though, I would venture to guess that most of you experienced some delight because of the exchange, and enjoyed getting to know the other person a bit more.


Sharing deeply personal attributes requires Relational Courage, but it can be life-enhancing. In this culture of loud, angry, polarized soundbites, taking time to offer something meaningful to another person can result in transformation…an opportunity that you control. You discern what is meaningful to you and what and how you want to share it, and then you share it to the degree that you are able.


Sharing personal characteristics as an exercise in Relational Courage is not about sharing your résumé or your address history. Neither is it about sharing your opinions on particular matters. When we do that type of exercise in a group, that is where we tend to go: to the safe stuff. “Here’s something you probably didn’t know about me: I like chocolate.” Or “I worked in a call center when I was 16.” Or “I met my wife on eHarmony.” That type of sharing doesn’t require Relational Courage. Superficial engagement does not come from a place of vulnerability; Relational Courage does.


Sharing that results in the transformation of a relationship is deeply personal and meaningful. It doesn’t have to involve tears, but it might induce a tear or two. It might induce a smile or laughter. It’s true engagement with another. It’s the kind of stuff you hear on NPR’s “Story Corps”. Every one of those stories – the snippets we hear on Fridays during “Morning Edition” – bear the essence of Relational Courage.


Today’s readings are pointing us toward reconciliation, and reconciliation requires vulnerability and Relational Courage. But our everyday relationships require Relational Courage, too. Our everyday relationships, the relationships we have among the St Stephen’s Family, can be deepened, and we each can be transformed.


Human beings were created to be in relationship with others.


As you come forward to be
transformed by the deep
relationship you have with Jesus
Christ in the Eucharist, walk
away from the altar with a spirit
of Relational Courage to deepen
a relationship.


Lent is only 11 days from now. Consider how you might muster up the Relational Courage, the courage to be vulnerable, to repair a relationship and to deepen another relationship during Lent.

And also consider that the person with whom the most Relational Courage is required to develop a transformational relationship might be yourself.

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