The Lamb at the Center of the Throne will be their Shepherd

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Five years ago, Paula and I went to Italy. In Ravenna we saw churches that were over 1500 years old whose walls were covered with beautiful mosaics. One of the most memorable is a depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a young man with flowing hair, carrying a cross in his hand as a staff, surrounded by sheep, all looking to him for guidance and affection. It was quite moving, in part because it doesn’t look much like our modern, standard depictions of Jesus, and yet it is the same Jesus, our shepherd. The Good Shepherd was the most common image in early Christian art. There are even earlier examples than these mosaics from times when very few Christian artifacts were preserved. Early Christians recognized in Jesus, the characteristics that our psalm for today attributes to God:

He provides our needs; takes us to good places of nourishment and refreshment; guides us in the right paths; and when we are in danger and the presence of evil, he is with us comforting and protecting us; he welcomes us even when we are surrounded by trouble; he blesses us with goodness and mercy at all times.

The simple and steadfast goodness of Jesus was the day-to-day focus of the Christian community from its earliest days—just as it is now. In that mosaic, all six sheep have their heads turned in Jesus’ direction though they are in different parts of the picture, at different distances from him, and doing different things. Christ is their protector and guide in all things.

These images tell us something about God and about us, but they don’t limit God. If we turn to today’s reading from the Book of Revelation:

“A great multitude that no one could count, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd…”

Now, what we find is that God’s people are facing dramatic difficulties, just like we do today. But the peace and assurances of the 23rd Psalm are still in place as the passage in Revelations continues: “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Today on Mother’s Day, I realize how maternal that image is: God is a shepherd, but God is also our mother, holding the crying child, comforting her, and wiping away all those tears.  God nurtures us and sees to our growth into adulthood.

Of course, most us aren’t shepherds, and don’t know that much about shepherds work in real life. But most of us do know a bit about mothers. Some of us here, indeed, are mothers. And you know the challenge of that job: how it is difficult and never-ending, how sometimes it seems like you never get thanked. We can understand the depth and intimacy of God’s love for us by looking at the love of mothers, but it is a mistake to think that being a real mother or a good mother is at all like the infallible goodness of God, or of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who died on the cross for his flock. Every mother is a distinct human being, with strengths and with failings. Some give all they have and more, others act as mothers and nurturers for children that they have not borne and take on all the demands of the needs of children who have not yet grown into responsibility. Indeed, motherhood doesn’t end when kids reach eighteen or twenty-one years old. Ask my mom: she’s still dealing with kids who need to grow into adulthood sixty-five years later.

Not everyone has an idealized experience of their mother—some indeed suffer abuse, or inattention. Motherhood is a state that women are immersed in, ready or not—a frightening reality of nearly infinite responsibility. It is not in ideal performance that a person is a mother—it is in accepting and cherishing the life that enters into yours, it is in making do, aspiring to love as best you can, of looking for those children to thrive. Motherhood is possible only as grace, God’s merciful presence leading, healing, guiding into health and sustenance. No one manufactures perfect children, that’s not what it means to be a mother. No. It is living in God’s mercy with those little ones entrusted to you, offering their possibility and aspirations up to God. It is such a challenge to live for children that way, never knowing what turns their lives will take. We honor mothers today, not for efficient achievement, but for dwelling in the unpredictable community with kids who don’t realize what gifts they’ve been given, until so much time has passed.

Our human communities survive only through the grace of God. Our own inclinations and failings would break us apart, were it not for God’s continuing presence and comfort. The Lord is patient when our patience breaks down, the Lord is generous when we’re tired of giving, the Lord guides us to enough when we’re are at the end of our human abilities.

On this Mother’s Day, listen once again to the words of our Psalmist:

The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures

and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul

and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me,

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.




Feed my sheep

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.

Today we have the stories of two resurrection appearances. The resurrected Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus. He also appears to Peter and six others on the beach of the lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee. One thing these stories share in common is that, at first, no one recognized Jesus.

The story that was read first is usually called the Conversion of St. Paul. Which is interesting because it’s not actually a conversion story. Paul was a devout Jew before this event and he remained a devout and observant Jew for the rest of his life. Paul himself describes what happened, not as a conversion, but as an appearance of the resurrected Lord. In his First Letter to the Corinthians he says this:

[Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

In our lesson from Acts this morning, the form of the story is not so much that of a conversion. It’s more akin to the way prophets are called. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. Or Isaiah in the Temple when the prophet responded: “Here am I Lord. Send me.”

So here are we are, on the road to Damascus. There’s a flash, overwhelming light, Saul falls from his donkey. And a voice says: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Saul’s response? “Who ARE you Lord?” Now, commentators have singled this passage out as a very strange thing. Saul knows he is being called—but he doesn’t know that Jesus is doing the calling. Put another way: he knows he is being called, but he does not see.

Why doesn’t he see Jesus? Well, there is that blinding flash from heaven, but I think the key is the very beginning of the lesson: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Saul’s anger, his hatred, so overcame him—he was already not seeing—he was not seeing at whom he was angry, just the self-righteousness of his anger. And Jesus says to him, “Why do you persecute ME.” The ones that Saul persecuted were members of the church. He had nothing to do with Jesus’ persecution before his death, but what Jesus said to him was it didn’t matter. In persecuting the church, Saul was persecuting Jesus. Saul was blinded, and helpless and he was guided into the community that he had been persecuting for support and healing. And he was healed, and when he was able to see, he could see that in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, he was called to proclaim him, even beyond his own Jewish nation and to bring the news of what God has done in Jesus to all the nations.

The other resurrection appearance is the last chapter of the Gospel of John.  Some time after the first resurrection appearances of Jesus, seven of Jesus’ long-time disciples are back in Galilee, at that lake where Jesus had first called them away from their jobs as fishermen. And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” We don’t know why they were there or what they were doing, but I think they were discouraged and lost. They didn’t know what to do—so they just defaulted back to their old ways. What happened next was that these professional fishermen were out in the dark and couldn’t find any fish, despite their skill and years of experience.

Jesus appears on the beach, but in their discouragement and confusion they don’t recognize him. Jesus asks them about their catch, and gives them a little advice. All of a sudden, their net is filled and Peter recognizes Jesus—and then Peter puts on his clothes and goes in for a swim—go figure. On the beach, there’s a charcoal fire, not unlike the charcoal fire that was in the High Priest’s courtyard, where the slaves and soldiers were warming themselves when Peter denied Jesus. And Jesus is barbecuing fish.

For me, this scene always brings back a wonderful memory from my childhood. I was fishing with my family off the Oregon coast early one summer morning. As dawn broke, we all caught our limit and we drove back to my uncle’s house in Portland, where we barbecued our catch. There is nothing quite like Pacific salmon caught just a few hours ago cooked over coals. That’s how I imagine the disciples responded to this wonderful breakfast after their long night at sea. But as to Jesus? They sort of recognized him and they sort of didn’t. The Gospel says: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”

Why aren’t the disciples seeing Jesus? Because they had yet to give up their despair and confusion, just like Saul needed to surrender his anger and hate. They needed to change.

Jesus then talks with Peter. This, in a particular way, is the call of Peter: First Jesus focused Peter on his love, then–“Feed my sheep. Amen. Amen. When you were younger, you could go where you chose, but when you are older, others will lead you, even where you don’t want to go.” Peter is responsible for loving Jesus in his body, the church—and the consequences of that love are much like they were for Jesus. Peter is called to lead those sheep into the love of Jesus—to love as Jesus loved us, courageously, generously, compassionately.

When Peter and Paul finally see the risen Lord, they are changed. But they aren’t changed in who they are in their essential beings. The change is that they are called to serve; to reach out; to proclaim the life of the risen Christ in a world where there is too much death, hate, anger and fear. Christ comes to us as we are, however that may be. He calls Christians out of their fear, or anger, or confusion, or complacency. Jesus gives his life, so that we may give. He appears to us to call us forward to be transformed to tend and to heal one another.

From our psalm today:

You have turned my wailing into dancing;

you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;

O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

Every Eye will See Him

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs!

Easter continues. The disciples were gathered in a locked room for fear… And the risen Jesus just appeared in the midst of them. Christ is not just risen because the occasion is cheery and the flowers are blooming.

Christ appears and the wounds of his crucifixion are real.  In the real world, the powers of death are very real indeed. The powers of hate and intimidation have their effects. But God has raised Christ from the dead and that changes the meaning of all of these things.

“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” … even those who pierced him…  We have life, not because we have made an agreement with earthly powers, so that they don’t take it away from us. We have life because God, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, has given us the gift of life.  It is easy to fall into believing that the real world gives us life when we obtain status or wealth, or if we work for somebody who has those things. I used to think, “Oh, I’ll be able to fix things, if I can just get to being an important enough leader…” Others think that large amounts of money will help them to fix things for themselves and their families. There’s nothing wrong with having money and there is nothing wrong with serving in an important position; but when we focus just on those things, when we believe that achieving those things will give us life, it’s at that point that we start to compromise with the powers of death. Sometimes people try to justify getting more advantage by thinking it will somehow be good for everyone. They think: This is just a small manipulation of the truth, or I’m just trying to gain an advantage for my organization, or my political party, or my company. This isn’t unusual at all—and in our national politics one of the parties has pushed this to the point of being a cynical parody of itself.

The Way of Death is seductive, it masquerades as the way of the Real World. But it is not. The real world is the Way of Life. The Resurrection of Jesus binds us together, we have the life of generosity extended and received, of community where we are bound together in good times and in difficult times, with people that we like, and especially, with people that we don’t get along with, yet they are part of us. The Resurrection shows that life is not dependent on compromise with death—God gives us life in love, not in outwitting others and maneuvering to the top.

The crucifixion and the resurrection confirm that what Jesus’ opponents said and did was real. They could kill him and defeat any worldly plans that he or his friends might have had. The way of death is powerful, but it does not give life.

Jesus’ friends had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. They did not know what to do. Despite the lock and the barred door, he came to them. “Peace be with you. I send you into the world just as I myself have been sent.” He sends us forth in life, to bring life and to give life. The forces of death are there, but God will defeat them. In Christ, God has defeated them. Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven—sinners though they have been, imperfect and fearful as they might be.  And whoever you hold fast, they are held fast—it does not matter if they aren’t with the program, or if they are fearful or angry or compromising with the world. You hold them fast and they are part of you. (A few years ago, I preached a whole sermon on why I translate this sentence this way. It’s a mistranslation and a misunderstanding to think that Jesus’ disciples are retaining the sins of others—it’s their brothers and sisters themselves that they are holding fast).

St. Thomas in India

This Gospel includes the story of Faithful Thomas. Not Doubting Thomas. While his friends were locked up and afraid, Thomas was out. Somewhere, away, doing we know not what. And he came back and he had not been there when Jesus brought peace and his spirit to his fearful friends. They could not make him understand, and they disagreed. But they held him fast with them. He was their brother and they remained with him and he with them. They shared in receiving the power of life, though they did not understand. And, a week later Jesus appeared. Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus brings life to Thomas, and as the Gospel lesson ends, it says, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

We rejoice in life, in the freedom that God gives us and the opportunity to be bound together in his love. As our lesson from Revelation says:

“Jesus Christ [is] the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”

An Idle Tale?

A sermon for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Today is the day of the Resurrection. We celebrate that God has raised Jesus, the Lord of Life, from the dead. In Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated, and it is established that the real truth and essence of this world is life—life eternal and life present.

We live in a world where many focus on death. Some even believe that death is the real and final reality, while others use the threat or fear of death to gain power and use it over others. The Gospel is not happy talk or wishful thinking. Every account of Jesus’ resurrection includes a portion like this, where Jesus’ followers are confused, doubtful, and depressed.

Christ is risen and those apostles were depressed!

The women told them…

And these guys in charge just—didn’t believe them.

“You know women … they just tell idle tales. Us men are serious, we’re busy being depressed and discouraged.”

But God had raised Jesus from the dead. Peter… he was confused enough about the whole thing that he went to check out the tomb… and there, where the body had been laid were the cloths that Jesus had been wrapped in, but no body was in them. It hadn’t been unwrapped and taken someplace else—it was just not there.

In our church, it’s possible to be discouraged and depressed. It’s possible to think that things aren’t as good as they used to be. We see sacred spaces catch fire and burn down—the great Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France or small historically black churches attacked by an arsonist in Louisiana—and we grieve, but not only grieve but start to tell ourselves a story of decay and defeat—you hear things about “decline of Western Civilization” or some such.

However, as much as we may grieve losses or face difficulties, the truth is NOT that death is winning and everything is falling apart. The truth is that all things are transitory, but the love of God remains forever. Death may do its worst, but Christ is risen from the dead. Here in this church, Christ is alive. I have experienced Christ’s healing love here. I’m willing to bet, so have some of you. Think and remember. … … Think of a time you have experienced God’s love in this place. Think of who has been here. Maybe someone in need of compassion or healing. Perhaps someone who listened to your story, or shared a prayer or music with you.  Think of all the children in this place: They will be the leaders of the church and the Christians of the rest of this century.  Yes. Death is a real thing, but in Jesus, God has defeated death and brought eternal life. There is no longer time to fear or to moan and feel sorry for ourselves. God has given us the priceless gift…his Son who brings us life, right here, the shining reality in the midst of all those other realities.

I am a realist. I’m pretty pragmatic. And I’ve lived a few years and watched what passes for management and leadership in this world of ours. There is nothing hard-headed or realistic about cynicism or selfishness. People may use negativity and fear, and gain some sort of relative success by scaring other people and lording it over them, but they don’t build anything that has permanent value or live in real abundant life. A realistic approach to this world requires the courage to hear the truth and live in compassion. A successful life is not one of fantasies fulfilled and self-indulgence; success is life in the Resurrection from the Dead in Jesus Christ. Realistically, we see the love of God in our children; our sisters and brothers. Realistically, we know that joy in life comes from a generous life of compassion, giving credit to God who has not abandoned us.

In our lesson from First Corinthians, St. Paul says,

“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.”

We know Jesus, and the hard fact is: he is alive. The cynics, the power mongers, and the fearful are wrong—Jesus’ courage in compassion, his truthfulness despite the powerful, his generosity in his entire life have been vindicated. Our fearfulness and selfishness may distract us and make it look like death is the human fate, but in Jesus’ resurrection, we see true humanity, the humanity that God has created in us, the image of God in which we can live.

It is here and now that we live in this hope, not in some nostalgic past time or fantasy future. You know that God is here, and you know that because God loves you. It is in this real world that Christ is risen. It is in this world that we rejoice with the joyful and have compassion with those who suffer. Here in this place. At Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania—of Morrisania, since it was first a village in the heights above New York City; of Morrisania, when some urged the congregation to move to better-off neighborhoods; of Morrisania, when the city wanted to take the land for its own purposes. Trinity stayed here in Morrisania, joyfully and courageously serving and providing spiritual guidance, through boom and bust in the fortunes of its neighborhood. The resurrection of Christ has been proclaimed here all that time and it continues.

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” God says in the prophet Isaiah, “for I am about create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” God rejoices in you and creates hope right here, right now. God is building this place and we have received the benefit. The hope is of new creation, based on the love of God that we know here.  For Christ is risen from the dead! We live in his life, we are his body and his compassion in this place. Death no longer is the victor, Christ is alive and with him, so are we.


Alleluia. Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Slanderer had already put it into the heart of Judas

A homily for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.

The literal translation of the word “the devil” in that sentence is “the slanderer.” That is, one who distorts the truth to hurt someone else. It is understood as the power of evil, a demon—maybe the king of all demons. But we should remember that evil is not something that existed before the world. It is not an equal power competing with God. Evil is not something that was created by God. Evil is something that people do.

So what is this “devil,” this demon, this—perhaps—prince of demons? The best way that I can understand the demonic is that it is human evil that no human being is taking responsibility for. I have talked about racism in this context.  But it happens a lot and in many human ways—it goes back to the Garden of Eden when the first people hid from God because they knew that they had disobeyed…when he was caught, the man immediately started blaming the woman. Human beings ever since have been like that—trying to make themselves more comfortable, or safe—often at the expense of others.

When people do that in a direct way—like the way Judas planned to betray Jesus—they are seen as bad people. Some even revel in that role! But most don’t want to be the bad person. So they find ways to rationalize when they are trying to take advantage of others. They tell themselves: This is OK. I am not hurting him or her directly—I am just taking care of myself. I have to protect my job from those immigrants. I need to protect my neighborhood from people whose looks or culture make me suspicious or uncomfortable. Over time, this kind of evil becomes disassociated from specific acts and develops a volition of its own. It becomes powerful enough that it’s demonic and we are witnessing its presence among us even in modern times.

Jesus entered Jerusalem and he preached the truth. It was that simple—the truth. But that aroused fear among the people, particularly their leaders, and particularly the religious leaders were fearful because they had much to lose. Shortly after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, Caiaphus the high priest said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” That fear, itself, was the power of death, it was the power of the Slanderer, the Devil.  And that Devil had entered Judas, and Jesus knew it. But Jesus was not afraid, rather it was the time to teach his disciples about the resurrection from death.

He wrapped a towel around himself and he took on the role of the least respected servant, the one who washed the guests’ feet.  No Peter, it’s not about a new baptism, a liturgical thing, or giving of honors—it’s about being the humblest of servants. Servants are among those who typically catch the brunt of the actions of the Slanderer—if those who have the power to push away discomfort, anger, nastiness, fear and guilt manage to avoid it, where does it end up? With people who don’t have any real-world power.

So Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. He took on himself all the disrespect that servants get.

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

The work of the Devil, the work of the Slanderer, breaks down the respect between people. And it leads to death. We see how disrespect has multiplied in our national political and cultural life over the past three years… and how it leads to more suffering and death. The resurrection from the dead is the breaking of this power of death, and it builds respect among those who have been alienated by this death. Yet the manipulations of the Slanderer can only be undone by giving up fear, ceasing to cling to comfort and privilege, and becoming a servant.    The Lord’s Supper, our great feast of Thanksgiving (to translate that word, Eucharist) is living in this resurrection, in the servanthood of Christ. Our Gospel today says this: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” And then: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The suffering of Christ during Holy Week is very real; suffering in this world is very real, today at least as much as at any time. The devil that entered the heart of Judas is abroad in this world. The love that we are commanded to is not the power of nice people being nice and everything being OK. The resurrection is only by the power of God, the love of God, in the servanthood of Jesus Christ. The powers of the world do have power. But in Him, God is glorified.

The Stones would Shout

A Homily for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“If these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

In Lent we travel with Jesus along his path toward Jerusalem, the path to his resurrection. Today he has reached Jerusalem, and this week is about what happened in Jerusalem—that is to say, what it takes to understand and live in Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus has come to Jerusalem, to Bethany, to the home of his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And he gets a colt and has it draped in garments and starts a procession into the city. There was nothing ambiguous about this in the ancient world: a solemn procession with the leader on horseback, greeted by crowds was how conquering kings entered a city. Now, Jesus was on a little donkey—that turned the values of the Roman Empire upside down, but the meaning was clear: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people said that, and it disturbed the religious leaders. “Shut them up, Jesus!”

And Jesus replied that the stones…

Remember at Jesus’ baptism—right before it—John the Baptist said that God could raise up the Children of Abraham from the stones? Jesus replied that those stones would cry out if the people were silent. The Kingdom of God was entering Jerusalem—Jesus was bringing the resurrection from the dead into the city. The time had come to acclaim God’s presence with joy.

But the leaders were scared. They had made deals with the ruling powers, and those didn’t take into account the Kingdom of God. Deals to be safe, it kept the forms of religion, and it kept the living God out of it.

Thus commences Holy Week and the final teaching of Jesus. Almost a quarter of the Gospel follows the entry into Jerusalem as Jesus teaches in and near the temple. He has a quiet meal with his disciples, and they learn about his gift of himself, his body and blood. The power of the resurrection in the life of being servants to one another.

And then…

We have just gone through it…

What happened? Rodger assigned to me the role of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. What happened with him? He had all the power. Legions of Roman soldiers to enforce any order. Pilate talks to Jesus and what does he perceive? Truth, gentleness, courage, hope. Not a violent revolutionary or a robber. Pilate was a politician and a bureaucrat—he did not want to get involved with the squabbles of these local people—he had no respect for any of them. He tried to pass the buck—the local politician in charge of Jesus’ home region happened to be in town, maybe he would take responsibility? Well…no… Pilate thinks that maybe he can have Jesus whipped, like you do with slaves and others that don’t matter, and just let him go—let the matter drop. But somehow it doesn’t work, the pressure keeps up, there isn’t any way that Pilate can get out of this without consequences. And above all, Pilate did not want to have consequences—he would rather let truth and hope die. He would judge that there had been a crime and pass out the death penalty for it just to avoid the pressure. Just to serve his time and get back to Rome with honor and reward.

Everyone wants to get by without consequences. So the consequences came to rest on Jesus. He was executed on a cross. The people were silent, those that did not taunt him, or call for his death.

And the stone—which the builders rejected—has become the chief cornerstone. The path for the resurrection of Jesus went directly through this rejection—through the rejection of responsibility by every one of us. It is only by the gift of God, the mercy of God that our hearts can be full enough to walk with him in his path of service, and responsibility, and respect. Because there are consequences of living in the truth, consequences for all of us. The freedom of the resurrection is dear, its price is high—and not just for Jesus.

God’s love for us calls us forward, toward the resurrection life: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This week, we walk together with Jesus on his way.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

Let us Eat and Celebrate

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called you son.

Most people are familiar with the story that Jesus told in today’s Gospel lesson. At least most people are familiar with the title that is usually used for it: “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” However, I think it’s important to notice that this is really a story about a family—there are three main characters, the prodigal son, his older brother, and his father.  When Jesus told parables, he wasn’t telling allegories where each character in the story is just a symbol for something else. The parables are stories about familiar things that illustrate something real, characteristics of our universe that are spiritually important to attend to. So…the most powerful male figure in the parables aren’t stand-ins for God, they are men whose lives and decisions are as complex as anyone else’s. That will be important to remember later in this sermon.

The son who takes his inheritance and squanders it is a good illustration of repentance. He does some things that are foolish and selfish and comes to a point that he realizes that he has done wrong, that the consequences of the way he has been living are terrible. He decides to change and then he goes and apologizes to his father and asks forgiveness.  In this story, the father pre-empts the end of the apology because he is rejoicing and welcoming back the son he has never stopped loving—even when he was lost to him. But in repentance the apology precedes any forgiveness and only after that does reconciliation follow.

This younger son does not look good in any reading of the first part of the story. But people often leap to the conclusion that everything that he does is outrageous and purely bad. People love to be outraged and to find others to condemn— “At least nothing I’ve done is that bad, I can justify everything I’ve done…mostly.” But as I read the story in Greek, it doesn’t necessarily read like he’s such a villain. It says that he wanted the father to give him his share of the family business. It doesn’t really mention an inheritance. So the young man wanted to set out on his own, develop new business ventures in a far-away land of opportunity.  The story says that when he got there, he scattered his wealth around.  In retrospect, we can conclude that he didn’t act shrewdly because he wasn’t a success. But one of the things people do in building up their business is to spread the wealth around, ingratiating themselves to a lot of people who might be helpful. He didn’t plan on the famine. Lots of people don’t plan for reverses in the economy that could cause their business to fail.

I’m only defending this young man to show that he is more normal than most people think, what he did is similar to things we see happen or even do ourselves, fairly frequently.  Clearly, he wasn’t wise in handling his finances. He wasted the money his father gave him, he was the big spender, partying, rather than investing in his business. When the crops failed and prices went up, he had no way to get by and he had to take a degrading job that didn’t even provide enough to live. It’s a picture of a failure of a young person, due largely to his own arrogance.

If we condemned and threw away every person who ever had this kind of failure, much of humanity would be in the garbage heap. As I mentioned, the father didn’t reject his son, but continued to love him. Part of the truth of this parable is that this is what parents do—they continue to love their children even when they disappoint them.

The elder brother was not so happy. He resented that the capital had been taken out of the business, his own responsibilities had been made greater, and his father had not recognized his efforts or his loyalty. This is why I don’t think the father represents God in this parable. Truth to tell, this family situation had been difficult even before the younger son left. The father is not a bad guy here, but he had not made either son adequately aware of his love throughout this story: He didn’t show gratitude for the elder son’s work and somehow he failed to give the younger son a place in the household where he could be happy and fulfilled. The father is an ordinary person, and not an omniscient, omnipotent, all-benevolent God.

We are ordinary people. In our families and our churches, we are often pre-occupied with our own problems, and it’s hard for us to think about the needs of everyone involved. We’re often tempted to throw up our hands and say: “I’ve done everything, I can!” Everything, perhaps, but listen to what the person really needs. The Prodigal Son asked for his share of the family business. It was what he believed he wanted, but was it what he really needed? What I think he really needed required harder work from his father than just handing over the money. The father needed to recognize both his sons’ contributions, taking their ideas and efforts seriously—real partnership and recognition of their needs and aspirations.

When people leave the church, it is seldom because of problems with belief, even when that’s what they say. People leave because they don’t trust the community with their questions or their needs. People leave because their experience has been that they have not been taken seriously or their deepest values have been dismissed or discounted. This is an issue for the entire church in our time, in our country, and elsewhere. Our inclination is to look for fault, either in those who are here or those who aren’t.

But that’s not God’s approach, it’s not what Jesus is saying. We are welcomed with God’s open arms, we are celebrated, and we join in a feast, not because of what we do, but because we are loved. And God’s children who we don’t see this morning? God welcomes them where they are and invites them to the feast. Notice here that I say God welcomes them to the Feast—not to filling the role we want them to take, or to do the work, or make the contributions we think they should make. We are all welcomed by God’s mercy. We are here because of God’s mercy—all of our lives’ journeys lead us to the love of God, as we are valued in our own precious story. We are invited to listen and care for one another; for those we encounter and know in our lives—those people of such value, that we treasure even when they are far away.

You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble

you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;

shout for joy, all who are true of heart.