17 March 2013

Outrageous Love

Judas made a very common mistake. He assumed that our love for God and for our neighbor was a zero sum game, that we had to choose between God and our neighbors because we couldn’t love both, not really, not enough. Now, as we know from this reading and others, Judas wasn’t doing a good job of loving God or his neighbors. The name Judas has become one of our cultural references. I could stand up here and call someone a Judas, and you’d all know what I mean: a traitor.

Jesus used that kind of reference all the time. His words as we have them were written down by men who knew about farming and fishing, and about the Torah.

The disciples were Jews, which means they would have studied the Hebrew scriptures, would have the words of the scriptures written on their hearts and their minds in ways that we modern Episcopalians mostly don’t. So when Jesus says “The poor you always have with you,” we hear a sentence standing on its own. “The poor you will always have with you.” And it’s not a sentence I like very much. In fact, when Carol first asked me to preach today I went and looked at the readings and thought “No, not this one. I’m going to sit this one out.” Because when I read that line what I hear in my head is “You poor schlubs are never going to get this whole social justice thing worked out.”

It’s true that some people have used this line to excuse themselves from having to do anything about social justice. Jesus said we would always have the poor with us. The eradication of poverty is an impossible task, so we just shouldn’t bother. But the line “The poor you will always have with you” doesn’t stand alone. Jesus didn’t just make it up because he wanted to smack down Judas. Jesus was referencing Deuteronomy, Chapter 15, verse 11. The disciples and other early Christians who were Jews would have caught the reference right away. I wanted to know when we were going to read that part of Deuteronomy, so I looked it up. It turns that part of Deuteronomy not in the lectionary. It’s possible you’ve never heard it, or if you have you don’t remember it.

Chapter 15 begins by establishing a Jubilee Year, in which the Israelites must forgive all debts within the community once every seven years, and then it goes on to say :

7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. 10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” 

Since there will always be poor among you, therefore I command you to open your hand. That is the “Yes, and . . .” love of God. It is our duty: Yes, you will forgive debts every seven years AND you will be open-handed all the other years, too. And it is our inheritance: Yes, I will love you outrageously. Yes, I will make you in my image, and I will send you prophets, and I will send you men to lead you out of bondage. Yes, you must love me outrageously, and you must love your neighbor outrageously, too. Yes, your neighbor is the person who lives next door, and your neighbor is the man found beaten on the side of the road, wherever he might live.Yes, I will come live among you so that you may hear about outrageous love in my own voice, and I will sit with sinners and tax collectors and tell them about my outrageous love, too. Yes, I will preach truth to power even if it means my death. Yes, I will die on the cross proclaiming my outrageous love, AND I will come back to life so that you can have life, too. Yes, I will forgive you and call you back into communion again and again because I love you outrageously.

Yes, and . . .

But Judas couldn’t hear any of that. I imagine Judas had been growing ever more disgruntled. Perhaps he thought that tagging along with Jesus would lead to fame and fortune and now he finds himself in a dusty house, pushed aside, both literally and figuratively by Jesus’ favorite apostles, and now by this woman who not only displays a love that is beyond Judas’ understanding, but grabs the attention of the whole room in the process.

A generous interpretation is that Judas is simply stuck, as we are sometimes stuck. Despite traveling with Jesus all that time Judas doesn’t understand the “Yes, and . . . “ love of God. He is stuck in a small, legalistic, “no.” Judas, like the older brother in the prodigal son story, simply cannot accept the “Yes, and . . . “ love of God, because “Yes, and . . .” is so outrageous.

God does outrageous things for love of us, and we are called to do outrageous things for our love of God and our love of each other. And doing outrageous things means taking outrageous risks.

Mary did an outrageous thing. She took a bottle of nard, an expensive, imported perfumed oil, and poured it out over Jesus’ feet. Why would she do such a thing? Three-hundred dinarii, a year’s wages, poured out on the dirty feet of a traveling preacher. Have you ever felt so compelled by love that you did something absurd? Have you ever loved so much that you felt that whatever you did wouldn’t be enough?

I can imagine Mary, hearing that Jesus was in the house, being overcome with love, being absolutely frantic with love, and without a thought for the cost she took up the most valuable thing she owned and laid it at the feet of the man who had touched her heart. Was it wasteful? Yes. Was it extravagant? Yes. If she’d taken a moment to think would she have known that such an outrageous and yes, very intimate act, would have opened her up to ridicule? Yes.

And none of that mattered to her, because in that moment the only thing she knew was the love in front of her, and that she had to act. Mary had a calling, a vocation that she could not deny, and Jesus honored her for it. Maybe we should all be a little more extravagant with our love, more wasteful, more outrageous.

Over and over again the Scriptures tell us about the outrageous love of God. Over and over again we are called to love God and love our neighbor not just a little bit, but outrageously.

Over and over again we try to box it in, make it small. We utter a very human “No” to the “Yes, and . . . “ love of God. We say no because of fear. Fear of appearing ridiculous. Fear of giving up something that we’re going to need later. Fear of choosing the wrong action. Judas felt that fear. Mary’s outrageous “Yes” sent him scurrying to the safety of “No.” No, she shouldn’t have wasted that perfume, or the money or the time.

My friend Rachael has founded a non-profit organization in Guatemala that is working with the native population there to coordinate climate change adaptation strategies. As if the usual financial and procedural roadblocks weren’t enough, she also faced a deluge of questions from people who couldn’t understand why she was working in Guatemala, and not helping her “own people.” The assumption being that helping people who live next door to you is somehow more virtuous, or at least more sensible, than helping people far away.

Now, Rachael could answer her critics with examples of how Guatemala is really not far away, how 1/3 of our migratory bird species live there for 5 months of the year; that climate change pressures are forcing a family migration rate [to the US and other countries] of 85%, that many of the problems that Guatemalans now face can be traced, at least in part to a 1954 coup d’etat organized and carried out by the CIA. But that’s not why Rachael is there.

Working with the people of Guatemala is what Rachael knows in her heart she must do. Although our faiths are not the same, she and I agree that she was called by God to the place where her gifts best fit the needs of the people, and that any other work would always chafe, a little bit. She felt the same frantic, outrageous love that Mary felt, and instead of listing all the reasons why she couldn’t possibly go, she said "Yes, and . . . "

We are not all called to another continent, as my friend Rachael is, but the needs of the world are great, and diverse, and widespread. Some of us are called to the altar, some of us are called to Guatemala, and some of us are called to the kitchen.

In any of those things, and in infinitely more, we may be called to the “Yes, and . . .” love of God. We may find ourselves, as Mary did, frantic with love, eager to pour out our most valuable possessions. Or we may find ourselves trying to explain why it’s impossible, why “no” is the only sensible answer.

We may claim that we don’t have enough brains, or courage to meet the need. That’s our Judas talking. Judas says the need is too great, and I am too small. But Judas is a traitor, and when we listen to him he betrays us. Because however small you are, however much you might lack in brains, or courage, you are created in the image of outrageous love, and the world needs outrageous love in all its forms, in every shape and size, on every continent, across the oceans, and as far into space as humans can go.

The world needs you to look for that which excites your outrageous love, find it and say “Yes, and . . .”

As prepared for delivery,
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church,
College Park, MD
March 17, 2013
Lent five, Year C RCL

03 March 2013

Brown-Butter Buttercream Birthday Cake

Downy Yellow Cake with Brown-Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Brown-Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream

I have come here today to confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned.  In full knowledge of the importance of birthday cakes, I did willfully try to get away with making a pound cake for a friend's birthday because I didn't want to be bothered with frosting a layer cake. My feet were only set back on the path to righteousness by a stern rebuke from my friend's husband.

(Okay, not a stern rebuke, but "statement of my friend's mild preference" seems sort of anti-climactic, doesn't it?)

And, as it turned out, a different friend of mine had spurred a thread about brown butter over on Facebook and I had filed away the phrase "brown-butter buttercream" for future use. So I decided that if I was going to frost a cake I was going to do it with style.

The first step is to brown the butter, which is a simple matter so long as you're willing to hang around the kitchen stirring occasionally. I recommend hiring a three-year-old to run up and down a step stool and report on the state of the butter every thirty seconds, but you can manage without if necessary. You can do this a day or so ahead, which will give the butter plenty of time to cool.

I also recommend doing this with a stand mixer, but I managed with a hand-held electric mixer and  you can, too. It just requires a bit of patience.

The recipe I started from made a vat of frosting. I only needed half to frost a two-layer, nine-inch cake. The rest is in my freezer, awaiting the next bout of cake. The recipe here is half of what I made, but feel free to double it if you are making a huge cake or you want to have a bag of buttercream in your freezer in case of cake emergency.I'm considering adding some melted chocolate when I defrost and re-whip the remaining frosting.

This is a buttercream, so it is not going to be stable in hot weather. This might the best frosting in the history of cake, but it is the wrong frosting for summer. Try a cooked flour frosting instead.

Brown Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Try not to eat it all before it touches the cake, unless you really want to.

Brown-Butter Buttercream


1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter

6 ounces egg whites (4-5 large egg whites, 3/4 cup)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

To brown the butter:
In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Allow the butter to come to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Foam will form and then subside. Butter solids will become visible as white flakes. When the white flakes begin to turn brown, remove the pan from the heat. And pour through a fine sieve into a bowl. I do not line my sieve with cheesecloth or a coffee filter because I want the small bits milk solids to remain. They fleck the frosting with tiny bits of extra deliciousness. Allow the butter to cool to room temperature, then move to the refrigerator, where it will keep well for at least a week.

Brown Butter
Browned butter, scooped into balls for easy incorporation into the frosting.
That dark brown stuff is the browned milk solids. They're delicious.

On the day you are going to make the frosting, remove the butter from the refrigerator and set aside to soften.

Mix the sugar and egg whites together in a large, heat-proof bowl, then set it over a pan of simmering water. (If you're using a stand mixer, you can just use the mixer's bowl.) Heat, whisking frequently, until the egg whites are 140 F, or hot to the touch.

Remove the bowl of egg whites from the double boiler and set in on the counter on a slightly damp towel to prevent slipping. Using your hand mixer at full-power, beat the eggs into a fluffy meringue until the bowl is cool to the touch. If the meringue is more than room temperature, then the butter will melt and the texture of the frosting will not be as good. If using a stand mixer, beat with the whisk attachment on high speed until the bowl is cool to the touch.  You should have a stiff, glossy meringue.  It would be a perfectly adequate frosting on its own if you were so inclined.

Swiss Meringue Not Yet Buttercream
Congratulations! You've made marshmallow fluff!

Add vanilla extract to the meringue. With the beater on high speed, begin incorporating the butter a couple of tablespoons-full at a time, pausing occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a flexible spatula.

Frosting can be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator for several days, or frozen for several months. Chilled frosting should be allowed to come to room temperature slowly over several hours, and then re-whipped before being used.


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