Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Paul wrote this letter to the Church at Philippi from prison. The word that is translated here as “Rejoice,” is Chairete. There is a footnote in my Bible which says it could also mean “Farewell.” It is a word that was frequently used for a greeting – it means joy, but also connotes peace, quite similar in usage to the Hebrew word Shalom. As Paul reaches this last section of the letter where he sums up and bids his farewell, he emphasizes it, like, “Farewell in the Lord, but I mean, really, Rejoice.”  Paul rejoices in this community which he came to love long before and in the love of God. He rejoices in the ability to live for others and to encourage the Philippians, and he encourages the Philippians to rejoice, not in what they have received for themselves, not in any comfort or material well-being, but in their ability to serve and give to others.

Some of the most encouraging and inspiring Christian writings have come from pastors who were imprisoned. In the twentieth century Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” The notable thing about these writings from faithful pastors is that they don’t dwell or focus on their own plight, or even how God might be doing something for them, or how they feel about things. Rather their perspective of concern for their correspondents on the outside emphasizes God’s call. In the case of Dr. King, he was reminding his fellow pastors of God’s call to justice and compassion for those who were oppressed by unjust laws; in the case of Bonhoeffer he was sending encouragement to family, friends and colleagues in the ministry for them to have courage and hope in the midst of the Nazi terror and the raging war around them. Near the end of Dr. King’s letter he writes:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

St. Paul gives thanks for the ministries of two women in the congregation, women who had struggled along with him in his work—he encouraged them to continue steadfast and enjoined the congregation to support them in that. He rejoices in the opportunity to serve, and to see the service that others extend to others in the love of God. Knowing his perspective was from prison made his words of thanksgiving and encouragement all the more potent, for he was not serving himself, but the Kingdom of God.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The Greek word meaning “gentleness” refers to flexibility and reasonableness, the opposite of rigidity or harshness—everyone should know that when they approach you, you will be humble and listen.  Paul is not saying this to showcase people who are naturally gentle, but rather to remind each of us that our interactions with one another require flexibility from the outset and at all times.

Then he says, “the Lord is near, do not worry about anything.”  Usually when somebody says that, the smart and worldly answer is, “Easy for you to say.”  This is one of the things about letters from prison. That cynical, discouraged and often argument-winning remark comes up short against the reality of what it means to be in prison. We don’t know whether it was at the end of this imprisonment or some later imprisonment that Paul was beheaded.  When he says, “Do not worry about anything,” he means it, and he’s not whistling in the dark. He’s not talking about ignoring his chains or our situation. He’s not talking about giving up on planning or concern about the realities of finances, of expenses or of revenue. What St. Paul is saying is exactly what is not easy to say: the outcomes of our planning, and the vagaries of human existence may not be what we envision, and our comfort may be intruded upon, but God remains present and his mercy is with us—encouraging us in our gentleness of spirit to rejoice rather than to worry.  It is not that our physical wellbeing and our presence in this world does not matter—Paul encourages all of our desires and needs and concerns to be expressed in prayer to God. But note, each of those prayers is to be with thanksgiving, thanksgiving that Paul gives for the generous and helping spirit of his congregation, of their concern beyond themselves.

As we are bound in the network of prayer into the body of God’s love we discover the peace of God. That peace is not from material security—it is the peace that comes from the prison, whether it is in Birmingham, Berlin, or Ephesus—the peace of rejoicing in the generosity of God known in the love and generosity of God’s people.

Here at Calvary, we live in God’s generosity–on Friday we shared in the fellowship of the Oktoberfest celebration. We encourage one another in our ministries in our everyday lives, as we all grow into the compassion of God in Jesus. We will soon celebrate the love of our neighborhood children on Halloween and then the following Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we will baptize Flynn and Grant, affirming our own baptisms for the sake of their Christian lives going forward. We have much to rejoice about.  Primarily it is that peace of God, that Shalom of God, which surpasses anything we can understand, figure out or worry about—it is that peace that guards our hearts and gives us opportunity to rejoice.  Let us listen to Paul’s final words of farewell, that is, rejoicing—you can see that in the farewell is the beginning of an ongoing path of abundant life:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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You shall not bow down to them or worship them

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the beginning of the law as God gave it to Moses—it is the Ten Commandments. They are worth memorizing, and certainly that was one of the virtues of the old-fashioned way of doing things—such texts would be absorbed into people’s minds, their way of doing things, into their hearts. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 and 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer. It wouldn’t hurt to refresh your memory.

I noticed something in looking over the text, however. The text of the first four commandments is more than three-quarters of the text of the ten commandments. Why is that? The law is not a set of rules that we can use to protect ourselves by obeying them. The living God is far too free and dangerous for that little fantasy of ours to be true. The law is the statement of the relationship between God and God’s people.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” God’s mercy brings his people out of the house of slavery. God is the God of compassion, justice and life—no other God is acceptable. A God who does not bring life and freedom is no true God.

The next three commandments—about idols, making wrongful use of the name of God, and about the Sabbath continue to define who God is in relation to God’s people. The other six commandments define our relationship to God as well—being accountable to living a responsible life in God’s community. But let’s consider the longest of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…

And it continues for thirty-six more words. God has defined our relationship according to mercy, compassion, justice, life. Bowing down in worship to things of the world change that focus to things like power, wealth, personal success. To win any of those things is not intrinsically merciful, compassionate, just or life giving. In ancient Israel, idolatry referred to what anthropologists might call “magic,” which is to say using things of this world to manipulate powers in the world. This was done, largely, for individual advantage, or the advantage of one’s close associates. In the Old Testament, it wasn’t really that this magic or those powers didn’t exist but rather that bowing to them violated the relationship with God—it could mean worshiping death, or the means of death for others rather than devotion to the God of Life, of Compassion, of Truth. The true God, the ultimate God is the God of life and mercy. The powers of death are not an alternate God, they are powers and things within this world which take advantage of the fears, selfishness and dishonesty of human beings. We moderns tend to think that we have outgrown such things, but they are very much real and very much with us.  That is why the first question in presenting a person for baptism is: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Think about this world, all the systems, organizations and ideologies that pressure and manipulate people’s decisions and feelings. The almost magical way that Google or Facebook presents you with ads that are tailored to your own very needs, the ways in which we ourselves conclude derogatory things about members of groups that we aren’t part of—based on—repeated rumors that we might hear on our favorite radio station, or things on our twitter feed, or the feelings and attitudes of parents, friends and relatives. These things have precious little to do with the God of mercy, justice and compassion. The God who freed the slaves and brings his children to safety.  Worshiping forces in this world—be they the internet, or political party, some idea of the power of science (other than the real truth of science which is that it is supposed to be about trying things out and being honest about mistakes and when hypotheses need to be changed) or social pressure—worshiping any of these things and bowing down to them breaches the relationship of faith in the Living God. Often people do not see how they are drifting into the worship of death until it is too late.

A priest that I know became very concerned when a girls’ softball team in a neighboring town advertised a raffle of an assault rifle to raise money to go to a tournament. He offered to pay their expenses instead, but that couldn’t happen since the raffle had been announced already.  So he bought most of the tickets and won the rifle.  He announced that he would have it destroyed and turned into a work of art.  This had some notoriety for a while and he received all sorts of messages.  He shared one of them with me. The person took him to task for destroying the gun. Like me, Fr. Jeremy has had plenty of experience with the rough language that filled the message, but what was striking was what he said, “how dare you destroy that beautiful weapon? How would you feel if someone smashed an image of Jesus Christ?”

I’m sure he would deny it, but in his message this man put a gun on a level with the Word made Flesh, God come amongst us. Note that the man had no claim to the gun, it belonged to Jeremy, a machine made of metal, wood and plastic. But its symbolic function was powerful enough to trigger his outrage—to call the destruction of this machine made from the earth, an act of blasphemy. Holiness, reverence and worship was invested in this machine, whose design was solely to cause death.

There are many such symbols, systems and ideas in this world, which serve a God-given purpose but which become idols, controlling the allegiance of people and turning them to the worship of death.

A week ago, a man broke out some windows from his high-rise hotel room and sprayed a crowd with automatic gunfire for ten minutes, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500. From what we have learned so far, Stephen Paddock wasn’t known very well, not even by the two wives and a girlfriend he had lived with. It’s a fair bet that we will come to know much about him and his grievance. Such a grievance couldn’t be proportional to the death and injury he caused—that could only be proportional to emptiness and fury that gives reverence to death over life.

 

Idolatry is commitment to powers that are contrary to life, contrary to God—gaming this world by using the power of death to get an advantage.

.           It is the God of Life who brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It is the God of life that brought Jesus into this world to proclaim his mercy and compassion. If is the God of life that raised Jesus from the dead and who makes life, compassion, justice and peace possible for all his people. Do not join with those who make idols in our time, and do not bow down to them.

By what authority?

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

What’s going on in this story? This event takes place during that time we remember as Holy Week, after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and before his betrayal on Maundy Thursday.  He has knocked over the tables of the money changers in the temple, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” The following day, he’s back teaching in the temple when this confrontation takes place. The chief priests and elders were like religious and civil authorities of any time and place—they wanted to keep things quiet and cover up anything wrong, or disturbing, or contradictory in places where they seek to maintain control. That’s why Jesus brings up John the Baptist when he’s questioned.

John had appeared out in the wilderness of Judea a few years previous. He was very much in the tradition of the prophets, like Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. They were about uncovering wrongs and disturbing people who were all about protecting their comfort and influence, rather than following the challenging way of God. Prophets often performed physical signs to emphasize God’s word—Jeremiah wore a yoke to symbolize the oppression that Babylon would bring, for instance. So John the Baptist went out into the desert by the River Jordan, the traditional boundary and entry into the land of Israel, and there he had people repent of their sins and be washed in the waters of that river as a sign of repentance from their sins—from their denial of how they were a part of the evil of their time, of exploiting others, and being part of the death-dealing and self-serving corruption that arose during the dynasty of Herod—the rulers of Judea that served at the behest of the occupying Roman empire. John was arrested and later executed for publicly calling out Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for his immorality and corruption. All four Gospels connect John’s arrest with the beginning of Jesus’ public preaching.

I once heard someone describe John’s preaching as “weak tea” because all that John said in his preaching was to do things that people were legally obligated to do and to live with compassion—things like don’t coerce others, bully them or take bribes.  We mostly like our religion to be bigger, more flashy, doing things wholesale with lots of fireworks—I guess that would be stronger tea than John offered.  Thing is: John meant it.  The way people live their everyday lives makes a difference. God does not demand much—no grand show, no championships in ascetical practice, just living justly and compassionately.  John the Baptist had no time to be fashionable or political. He lived the life of the prophet and that meant that he wasn’t about to coddle injustice or dishonesty. So they killed him.

These elders and chief priests knew all about John the Baptist. These were political guys; they knew that John spoke the truth and it was exactly the kind of trouble they needed to cover up. Jesus knew and he was notifying them—the truth was not going away.  God was not going to stop calling people to justice and compassion.  They answered Jesus, “We do not know.” Because they couldn’t think of any other answer to make this issue disappear. The authority of both Jesus and John the Baptist was truth, the truth of God’s love and justice, and like so many, these authorities needed to deflect the conversation away from that.

So as they paused, as they weren’t sure what to do, Jesus began to tell a little story. We know those kids. At least those of us who have had teenagers know them. Heck, I’ve been those kids, both of them.  If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I’m the one that promises to do everything and then, hours later, is still flipping through Facebook or doing whatever else than the chores I’d promised. Lots of people like to pose as the really righteous, or the really religious or the one who will get things done. But the focus of Jesus’ story is on that other kid, the one who didn’t cooperate at first, who did not appear to be the righteous one. But he had a conscience, he was able to turn, to repent, and to be generous and drop his self-serving choices. That’s the truth that God requires of us, to be able to turn, and to give, not to protect our reputation and privilege, but to humbly do the will of God.

“John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”

The Kingdom of God can be built even from those that are most despised, and even those we respect the least—what is required is to turn away from anxiety about our own standing and success, and to follow the truth of God.

Paul is saying the same thing in this marvelous passage that was read this morning from his letter to the Philippians:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

That doesn’t mean Paul is saying we should want to be regarded as the most humble, religious or generous people around. What Paul is saying is look out for the interests of others. Our life in Christ is focused on the well-being of somebody besides ourselves. It’s also not important to focus on the times we failed to do that – now is the time to look out for the good of others: the weak, the poor, those who are disrespected by others, especially by those who watch out for their own reputations and perquisites. Paul continues:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Notice that this obedience that resulted in death on the cross, was this very teaching that we hear today. Being a Christian is simple, and requires nothing fancy, just the humility to follow Jesus on his path along with all those who are able to turn and give up their fear.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

You also go into the vineyard

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

Today’s Gospel lesson is another parable from Jesus. As I said last week, parables are not allegories, which is to say, the characters and events are not symbolic stand-ins for things and people that we know about.  Basically, they are just stories to illustrate something. So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He’s not saying that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner, he’s certainly not saying that the landowner is God. The kingdom of heaven is like this story.

This story is a bit unusual—it catches our attention. Not the first part where he finds day laborers throughout the day. At grape harvest, time is of the essence, as many hands as possible are important to get the ripe grapes in before they start to dry out or fall off the vine. But then comes time for pay. That’s when it gets interesting—people who had only worked a single hour received as much as those who had worked for twelve.  The people who worked all day were upset—and probably most of us would be too.  How unfair! We worked more, we deserve more!  Or at least those others deserve less.

In looking out for ourselves, we sometimes over-estimate our own work and other virtues and the difficulties we face at the same time as we underestimate others abilities and their difficulties.  That’s kind of the way that people work. It’s more important to be aware of that tendency than to condemn ourselves or others when we figure it out.

So all the people who had been working all day were angry. If we take a peek at this morning’s lesson from Exodus, we see that it takes less than a chapter after being saved from slaughter by the Egyptians for the Israelites following Moses to get angry. Angry has become a pretty popular thing to be.

All those folks were quick to conclude that the landowner was being unfair—or that Moses or even God is unfair in not giving us what we think should be our fair portion. The landowner was unimpressed. At the beginning of the day, the workers were satisfied to work for a denarius—a silver coin a bit smaller than a quarter that was typically what a day laborer was paid for a day’s work. Why did he pay the others that came later the same amount?  We don’t know—the people who were angry certainly thought it was unfair and unequal—but one could speculate why a landowner would do this. Maybe he just didn’t want to get into complex accounting—a day’s wage was a single coin, why start subdividing and messing with small change? Perhaps—and this wouldn’t make the people who had worked all day happy, but as a long-time boss, I have seen this—perhaps the latecomers were better workers and he wanted to make sure that they would want to work for him the next day.  Maybe the landowner realized that a denarius really only covered the basic needs of his workers and he wanted all the workers to be able to be healthy and fed for the next day of work.

When the landowner asked the last ones he hired why they weren’t working, they told him, “Because no one has hired us.” I can remember times looking for work when I didn’t have a job, perhaps some others have experienced this, being ready to work, looking, willing to take anything and no opportunities appeared. That is likely the experience of those hired at the eleventh hour—desperation, discouragement, having a hard time holding on to hope. So this man hired them and they took the job at the end of the day, to work for whatever bit they might get.  There was nothing requiring the landowner to pay them a day’s pay, no expectation of it at all. The landlord would not explain or justify himself to the gripers,

Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go: I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

“Are you envious because I am generous?” When I read this story, that is the key—the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s overwhelming generosity, God’s compassion for those who are beyond hope, discouraged, last in line, or at the bottom of all the advantages and opportunities. “The last will be first” in God’s Kingdom. It’s a kingdom of grace, not of self-pity, selfishness, or envy.  Fair is not what we desire for ourselves, but how abundant life and healing is given to all God’s children.

Living in Christ means looking beyond our self-interest, and enduring the challenges that comprise the real world we live in. It is praising God for God’s generosity, not so much his generosity to us, but God’s generosity in giving life and well-being to those who may not expect it, those that are last in the eyes of the worldly around us.  We praise God for bringing us together with all humanity and glorify God for giving life and hope when it seems near to running out.

Let’s conclude with words from today’s psalm:

Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name,

Make known his deeds among the peoples.

Remember the marvels he has done,

His wonders and the judgments of his mouth.

He led out his people with silver and gold;

In all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.

Egypt was glad of their going,

Because they were afraid of them.

He spread out a cloud for a covering

And a fire to give light in the night season.

They asked, and quails appeared,

And he satisfied them with bread from heaven.

He opened the rock, and water flowed,

So the river ran in the dry places.

For God remembered his holy word

And Abraham his servant.

Traveling light

 A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

People often base their ideas about the Bible on rumors they have overheard, or popular prejudices, or images they have seen based on those things rather than paying attention to the biblical text itself. So the Israelites cross the Red Sea and we envision Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. The sudden parting of the sea with walls as straight and plumb as we see on those steps that Dan Holzli has been fixing outside our kitchen, with ground in between so dry that a hygrometer would read zero moisture. And we hear about the chariots and we see the same Charlton Heston in the Roman chariot race in Ben Hur. These images—great film images as they may be—get in the way of hearing the story as it is.

The chariots of the Egyptians—1500 years before the Romans began racing with their own version of chariots—those Egyptian chariots carried a crew of at least two, perhaps three or four, with a driver and archers meant to chase down scattered soldiers or fleeing Israelites.

Here is the text:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

It’s still pretty miraculous but the imagery is less like a conjuror’s trick and more like a stormy night during a war. One little linguistic note—the term that gets translated as Red Sea, is more accurately rendered Sea of Reeds, and might refer to a swampy lake which existed until the Suez Canal was dug through that area. In any case, the wind blew all night and the Israelites walked across on the ground that was exposed. You may note that in the account of the Passover that was read last week, the Israelites were traveling extremely light and quickly. Dry ground for them was not measured by a hygrometer, but that it was firm enough to walk across. The Egyptians were armed heavily, their chariots the equivalent of a Bradley fighting vehicle, but with narrow iron tires. To accomplish their aims of overtaking the fleeing slaves and wiping them out with arrows and swords, they needed those vehicles, so they pursued across the mud flats in the dark.  They were panicked and weighed down by all their equipment, and it was too late to turn around and get to safety. They found themselves unable to achieve their goal of dominating or killing this group of foreigners who had been in their midst. Stuck in the mud, they died as the storm ended and the water returned to its normal place.

The Israelites, who were pretty ordinary people, by the way, as we find in looking at their history for the next forty years after this point and going forward… the Israelites were led by God across the sea to safety and freedom. Moses was their leader, but he didn’t look like Charlton Heston. In particular, he didn’t speak with the brash confidence of Charlton Heston.  Moses had some sort of speech impediment or perhaps severe shyness. He couldn’t speak much in public or argue in debates with the Egyptian leaders. He had to rely on his brother to do the talking for him. Moses had to rely on God’s guidance, the guidance of God’s love, not on his own brilliance or strength.

In following where God led, the Israelites had to travel light. You may remember last week’s reading from Exodus: at the Passover, as the Israelites were preparing to be brought out of the land of Egypt by the Lord, they were fully clothed, with sandals and walking staff and cooked their bread in haste, without leavening it, so that they would not be held back by all things that people usually convince themselves that they need.  They followed the Lord along with Moses, and led by the cloud, they crossed the Red Sea without getting bogged down in the mud.

In the Egyptians with their chariots, we see how people are often bogged down … with selfishness, violence … seeking to get the upper hand over others.  Last week, I gave a bit of a spoiler about today’s Gospel lesson. These lessons are always intertwining.  This King had a major audit of his books and the first slave he brings in, somehow owes him ten thousand talents.  I looked up what a talent was—it was a measure that was about a cubic foot, and when it is money, it is a talent of gold or maybe silver. 10,000 cubic feet, that’s a lot of silver.  That amount would have been enough to keep a legion in the field for several years in those days.  So Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole, but he’s deadly serious—this man, though he was forgiven a debt larger than anyone could conceive of repaying, immediately turned around and treated the first poor fool to come along with great brutality. Talk about stuck in the mud of his own violence and selfishness—perhaps that has something to do with how he got into such great debt in the first place.

God has given us another path. With Jesus, we can travel light by living in his compassion with his courage. In this world of ours, we can feel like we’re burdened with ten-thousand talents of debt—it’s tempting to try to hold on, focus on the loss of all that, figure out how to make our chariot run through the mud so that we can win. But in Jesus, we see something else, generosity, not winning; compassion not cruelty; sacrifice for the sake of others, not fear.

I have just recently arrived here at Calvary. But what I have experienced is a community of caring and mutual support, people who care deeply about their children and young people overall. We live in hope because Christ is alive—not burdened by fear of death, or the ghost of ten thousand talents, but traveling light. Our job together is to explore and discover who we are as Christ’s community here in Flemington and then to listen and watch for where God is leading us.  As they were led by the pillar of cloud and fire, we are led and protected by the cross of Christ, and we discern it in the love of God, in God’s generosity and peace.

Let’s pray once again our collect for today:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Not an ideal, but a divine community

A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

If you take today’s Gospel lesson by itself, in isolation, it looks like an outline of a dispute resolution manual for litigation in the church. It’s often approached that way, but I think that is a big mistake. This lesson is the middle of the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In this chapter, Jesus’ disciples ask him the question, “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” and he responds by pointing out the humility of a small child. Not only is the child a model for us all, but “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

This chapter is about God’s welcome and God’s mercy. Today’s lesson is sandwiched between the Parable of the Lost Sheep—where the shepherd leaves his flock to go search for the single missing sheep—and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—where the servant is pardoned of a great crime and a great debt but then turns around and brutally deals with another servant who owed him a small amount.

The context of today’s gospel is illustrations of God’s compassion and the life of compassion—of Jesus’ expectation of generosity of spirit and energy, and of the ugly consequences of selfishness and a lack of mercy. In case you’re not familiar with the story, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends thus: “ ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

So this passage is about life in the community of mercy and compassion. It’s about including the little ones who might be lost, overlooked or put to the side. When Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you…” he’s not giving instructions on how to find the sinners and put them to right; he’s not setting as a goal tossing out all the bad people who make life miserable—what Jesus is talking about here is living together in God’s mercy.

I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy, and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. There is no Christian who is not in need of compassion—from God, and from our sisters and our brothers.  Those who think their goal should be to be so perfect or self-sufficient as to not need compassion will find themselves frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and unhappy. And if there is someone who thinks they have no need of forgiveness or compassion, that is a very serious problem indeed, for them or anyone whose lives are affected by them.

So when Jesus says, “… go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” it’s not about identifying who is in the wrong, who is the sinner, who is the bad person. It is not about that at all, it is a matter of honesty among the sinners in God’s community, of communicating clearly about hurts and offenses taken. Sometimes that communication is hard or frightening, and it takes another—someone outside the relationship, someone to help communication or provide support when getting truth told is a daunting prospect.  This passage frankly acknowledges that there might be situations where relationships are so badly damaged and trust so ruptured that reconciliation won’t take place. It is clear that such things happened in the churches we know about from the New Testament and historically in every age. But Jesus is not looking for a community where there will be no disagreements or hurts. Quite the opposite, Jesus creates a community where there will be hurts and breaches of trust, and in his presence they will be healed. We are called to be the mercy of Christ and it takes real work to live that honestly and compassionately.

The lectionary chops the lessons in some odd ways sometimes, and today is one of them. Today’s lesson is followed by the parable of the Unmerciful Servant—one who asserted his rights in a brutal and uncompassionate way—a warning to those who would cleave to the values of this world rather than the mercy of God’s Kingdom. But the ending of todays’ lesson is interrupted.  Here’s how the section ends in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Again, Amen I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name. I am among them. Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

Then Jesus launches directly into the parable I just mentioned. It’s on good authority that we constantly misunderstand this lesson. St. Peter himself wants to limit the mercy in the community to a certain number of offenses before you’re tossed. Jesus’ response is basically to shake his head—No! Not just a number of times you can count—seventy-seven! (Some manuscripts actually say seventy times seven—perhaps he really meant seven to the seventieth power.) We are held fast in the community of God’s mercy. The realities of sins, missteps or offenses do not break the fabric of that divine community—we are blessed to live in the honesty of Christ’s mercy.  St. Paul says it this way in today’s epistle:

“You know what time it is, how it is now the time for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”

I’m very happy to join with all of you here at Calvary.  As we walk together in the light we will focus on Jesus and how he leads us into the compassion of God. Church is not about the priest, or program, or success. It is about our lives being incorporated into the mercy of God in the real world.

In your compassion, there is a lot to remember this week in that world: remember on the anniversary of September 11th, those who died sixteen years ago in the World Trade Center and those who still mourn them; remember also those in harm’s way at this time, including those suffering from the earthquake in Mexico, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, and those suffering from Hurricane Irma which is now passing through Florida. Trust in God, and hold God’s children in your hearts.

Graft in our hearts the love of your name

A sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

I intentionally skipped over the gospel lesson last week because it is only the introduction to this week’s gospel. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples to reflect on who he is, what his significance is. They talked for a while about what other people thought Jesus was, who he resembled and so forth, and then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter was the one who responded and he said what his experience had led him to believe: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!” Peter was perceptive and correct. He knew that Jesus, the man that he knew, in his life and his teaching and his actions was bringing the healing compassion of God into the world. And this insight was so important that it was the foundation of the church, the assembly of the forgiven, so Jesus gave him his name: Rock—Petros is simply the Greek word meaning rock.

Why is this important to know for our Gospel reading today? Because there’s a dramatic moment in today’s reading when Paul responds to Jesus telling him he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, by saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” and then Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Jesus just called Peter his rock and now he’s calling him Satan? What, indeed, is going on here?

Today’s reading has to do with the real love and compassion of God. It’s not what we like to think of as truth and compassion – something that doesn’t disturb our comfortable lives, our routines, our safety. That’s what Jesus was going to encounter in Jerusalem – people who were comfortable living untruthful and self-serving lives, believing they were entitled to their comfort.  And Jesus knew what the result would be of speaking to them of God’s truth and compassion. Someone once said to me in another context, “if you poke a narcissistic system, all you will get back is rage.” Jesus was realistic, far more realistic than so-called realists who counsel avoiding the truth if it creates difficulties.

Like the rest of us, Peter had grown up surrounded by that kind of realism and he reacted in just the same way. He took his friend aside. He had been Jesus’ friend for a long time and Jesus had just told Peter that he was the foundation of his church that was to come. So Peter reacted like any friend steeped in the realism of the world would have, he took Jesus to task.

“Get behind me Satan!”

Peter was responding from the position of the demons of this world—those forces that push for untruth and avoidance of responsibility; those forces that easily accept the suffering of others to avoid the discomfort of encountering the truth. It’s easy to think of such things as “smart” or “grown-up” when what they are is cowardly and what they do is build up evil consequences. Given enough time those evil consequences will be detached from the people who caused them to the point that the evil appears to come out of nowhere. In other words, demons are created. Those people who caused Jesus’ suffering weren’t especially evil, they were ordinary, worldly leaders, urbanely sophisticated, with good connections. They were regarded as having prudent judgement. They arranged to have our healer and Lord killed.

Jesus didn’t so much take this personally; he wasn’t worried about himself. Jesus was concerned to bring the love of God, the mercy of God, the compassion of God to all people, including those he had to face in Jerusalem. After setting Peter straight about what is wisdom and what is demonic, Jesus began to teach all his disciples. I think we can read it to include us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The love that Jesus lived is not limited or unique to him. The depth of truth and compassion that took him to Jerusalem also guides his followers, and the consequence of following Jesus may well be painful, it may indeed involve loss. Certainly in Christian history, it has even involved the literal loss of life. To be sure, when I talk about deep truthfulness, I am not talking about delivering facts in a way calculated to hurt our competitors or enemies, or even “inadvertently” saying things out of resentment or anger that might be true, but are not compassionate. Living in the compassion of Christ involves the courage to be truthful, even to ourselves about our own lack of compassion (sometimes that’s known as confession).

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Abundance of life involves the boldness to live for others and being serious enough to continue that when it is not easy—putting the priority on one’s own life is the surest way to end up wandering in dissatisfaction and misery—we see it daily: the voracious need for affirmation and adulation among the most selfish and entitled; who already have the most. Surely they are losing their lives.

It is a challenge living, as we do, in a context of great wealth, where we and our children hear over and over again from people around us, that the basis of value is in having things and money. Those things are not life, that money is not value. Value is in human caring, caring that extends beyond ourselves, that rejoices in abundant happiness of others. Jesus says it right here: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” Take up your cross, and follow him. Do not be afraid. You will be surprised at the abundance of joy, when you give away your fear, and your anxiety about what you might keep.

Let us pray again in the words of our collect for today:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.