In his Time the Righteous shall Flourish

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Our Gospel story this morning is the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. People usually call this the story of the Three Kings. The problem is that, when you look at the story in the Bible, it’s clear that these guys are not kings. It says Magi, which definitely doesn’t mean king—it probably means something like astrologer, sage, or maybe astronomer. Maybe even magician or sorcerer. And another thing is that it doesn’t say how many there were. There were three gifts named, but there could have been two or twenty Magi in this group that appeared in Jerusalem.

But the really big thing is that the main character in this story is Herod, not the Magi, or Joseph, or even Jesus. Herod was the King of Judea, but he wasn’t descended either from David or any of the Hasmonean kings who had ruled Judea in the previous century. His father was Idumean, which meant that most of the Jewish population didn’t regard him as legitimately Jewish, let alone as a real king. But Herod was a brilliant politician—he managed to be an ally and supporter of both sides in the Roman civil war that resulted in the establishment of the Roman Empire. He maintained his rule and power through wily manipulation of political factions and the backing of the Roman military. He used people’s fears and suspicions of one another to neutralize their suspicion of him. He presented himself as an alternative to Roman domination, while using Roman power and occupation to maintain his own domination of this kingdom. It was a precarious balancing act, to maintain this power. Herod was suspicious that at any turn, someone might do something to overthrow him—and he was right. Tyrants are always insecure for good reason.

So these astronomers show up, sharing their observations and their interpretations of them. Of course, Herod was frightened. They were talking about a person with legitimate claims to his office. No matter what Herod or the Romans thought about his right to reign, an heir to David could greatly increase resistance to him and undermine the Romans’ plans. Herod plots. He secretly talks with the Magi, asks them to find this infant king for him.

Today’s lectionary reading ends with the Magi finding Jesus and his mother, giving their gifts and paying him homage. But the story in the Gospel continues. These are people whose job is interpreting dreams, and their dreams tell them not to trust this Herod guy. They leave Bethlehem by an alternate route. Joseph also has a dream, and heads south with the child and his mother. But the story continues:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Magi.

The evil and cruelty are easy enough to understand. This man had power and he wanted to keep it. Being cruel to powerless children was efficient for a ruler with no governing values except staying in power. It’s nothing new, people saw it back then, the Gospel of Matthew observed it and described it; we see it now.

The Gospel proclaims that that is NOT God’s way. The King in Bethlehem was not powerful but a helpless infant. The King in Bethlehem was not a raging narcissist, out for himself alone, but Jesus, living compassionately for others, protected by a loving and courageous mother. They were protected and brought to safety by her husband, a humble man, doing what he needed to do, and going where he needed to go for the well-being of his family. God protected that infant through those who listened to God, those who knew to follow where God was leading them.

Our world has dangerous and evil things in it, dangers and evil people, and the Bible never implies otherwise. In our lesson from Isaiah it says, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”  We experience these things, and that is why the stories in the Bible are so compelling. But the message is that God does rescue us from this evil. God uses the good and compassionate Joseph to rescue the infant Jesus; God prevails upon the consciences of those astrologers from Persia to listen to their suspicions of Herod and avoid him. God enlightens us to see the light of Jesus—who lives a life of pure compassion, pure integrity, pure love. God calls us to live lives of compassion, integrity and generosity for others for the sake of the well-being of this world, and not for selfish gain, or illusory power. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that doing so will be easy—that there will be no danger, or anger, or confusion. Following Jesus includes the fear and anger of people like Herod, or those who crucified Jesus. We are blessed because we can be generous, we can be compassionate, we can live life abundantly and not be overcome by that fearful selfishness that characterizes this world.

That company of Magi brought what they could. They gave the child gold, frankincense and myrrh, all the precious things they had. They rejoiced and we rejoice because that child, the new king, the different king has come into this world where we live. Jesus is here—his light shines in the Bronx.

And our psalm for today says:

Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King’s Son;

That he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice;

That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,

and the little hills bring righteousness.

He shall defend the needy among the people;

he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,

like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish;

there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

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The Only Son who has made Him known

A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

No one has ever seen God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the galaxies and the elements is too big, too complicated for anyone to comprehend. Some are brilliant at observing, thinking and reasoning; others have tremendously powerful religious experiences. Yet none of them can say in all honesty that they have seen God in God’s fullness—the finite human mind, and indeed all the minds in all ages put together, and all the computers and books that we might put together to help us, cannot hold, or comprehend God.

 

Human beings are but one small slice of God’s glorious creation.

Yet God loves this world and God loves human beings. And that love is also far more than we can comprehend. God loves us so much that from the beginning he chose to be among us. Jesus is what a human being is from God’s perspective—his love is genuine, his honesty is compassionate, he does not give in to the temptation to make his allies and benefactors comfortable at the expense of those who nobody cares about. God’s Word became flesh. In him, the unknowable God is made known.

Anyone who looks and listens can understand Jesus, his compassion, his calling people out when they represent themselves as being the holy or righteous ones while they are really just trying to get the advantage over others; his courage for the sake of others, especially the poor and the weak. When people don’t understand, it is because they wish not to understand that listening to Jesus might disrupt their strategy to be on top, or their desire to hold on to things or status. The stories, the images, the message, and the life of Jesus are not incomprehensible—all it takes is openness to the truth—he is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. What is incomprehensible, is the love of God, that God would do this—spend everything so that human creatures could know how to live humanly. The compassion of Jesus, is the compassion of God and the only way to be human is to live in God’s compassion.

To choose against compassion is to choose hate, and that will eat you up and destroy you. Some appear to think that merely using the word, “Jesus,” takes the place of listening to him; that piously calling themselves “Christian” means that compassion isn’t necessary; and that it is okay to trumpet their own righteousness while despising the poor and blaming those who suffer. There are Christians in our country who are happy to see children incarcerated in camps in Texas and New Mexico without even basic medical attention. When our Gospel says that Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not accept him,” it is referring to such people. We are called to receive him, not just in forms of words, but by internalizing God’s compassion, living truthfully and thus humbly, by being God’s children, not defending ourselves through hate of others, but in lives of generosity.

The Word became Flesh to give us life, abundant and joyful life, not destruction. It is not some manual of instructions that he brings, not a set of teachings or rules to memorize. It is the very life of Jesus, God come in the flesh, that shows us God’s compassion – how to live as compassionate human beings.

The Latin word for “becoming flesh” is Incarnation. And God’s becoming flesh and blood with us is so important that the Church celebrates the feast of the Incarnation for twelve days. Monday night, we had mass on Christmas Eve. Today is the sixth full day of that feast, the first Sunday of Christmas. We feast and celebrate. We call to mind that the power of Jesus’ love is in his entire life, even as a tiny baby. Today we celebrate and rejoice in his coming.

Let us bless the Lord and rejoice in his love for us. As it says in today’s psalm:

Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;

he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

Merry Christmas!

The Shepherds returned, Glorifying and Praising God

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“They were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…”

Tonight’s Gospel story places us in a world where many were right to be terrified. The Emperor Augustus was the first Roman emperor. The Romans had been around and expanding for a while, conquering other countries, but Augustus was the one who brought one-man rule and consolidated the world empire. He was the first who could decree that all the whole world should be enrolled and taxed. Augustus had a lot of power; for one thing, he had at his disposal the Roman army, which also served as the police force, and that army were never known for restraint and gentleness in enforcing imperial decrees. The early Roman Empire, when Augustus was consolidating his rule, was indeed a fearful time for most people. Everyone was being herded to their places of origin to facilitate efficient and organized registration. And so this man and his fiancé have to travel almost a hundred miles, mostly on foot. And she’s in the last stages of pregnancy. The whole thing sounds pretty frightening to me.

Yet, in Bethlehem, they found a place to stay. What it says here in the Gospel was that Mary wrapped the baby up warm and put him in a manger, because there wasn’t any space for them in the spare room. There’s no reference to a Motel 6 with no vacancy or even to a late medieval English country inn. Mostly people like Joseph and Mary found a place to stay with distant relatives or friends of friends if they traveled away from home. Hospitality was a duty in the ancient Near East and most honored it.

But Palestinian houses were not that big, usually only a single room with an upstairs that resembled what we would call a sleeping loft that was used for various things, including entertaining guests. That room was full, maybe with other guests, maybe the stuff stored there made it too crowded for a woman to go through labor and delivery. At the far end of the main room of the house, away from where the family slept and ate, was where they brought in their animals for the night to be safe from thieves and predators. So there would be a manger there for fodder to keep the cattle occupied and quiet through the night. There’s no mention of the animals being there when Mary put Jesus into the feed bunk, we just fill that in with our imaginations. Maybe this night the animals were left outside with a guard, while this mother had her baby.

In this frightening world, Mary found a safe place for her baby. It wasn’t luxurious—it was a feed trough—but he was warm and loved and safe.

So then we have these shepherds. They are outside, protecting their animals through the night. They are not very high up the social ladder. They aren’t wealthy owners of large flocks—those people spent the night at home in bed. These are probably hired hands, barely getting by. Hired shepherds were regarded as low, vile, untrustworthy—the whole list of things that poor and disadvantaged groups always get called—that’s what you find in ancient descriptions of shepherds.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to these shepherds. And the literal text in Greek translates, “And they feared fear very big.” A lot of fear. And some of that is awe in the presence of the most holy, the Glory of God, but it’s the fear also of those in an insecure and dangerous situation faced by new and unknown power.

So the angel says to them, “Don’t fear.” The angel tells them to see what God is doing. Notice that if the angel just told them that a young, unmarried woman had just had a baby in town, in a place where cattle spend the night, it would have been pretty much no news, let alone good news, nothing different in this fearful chaotic world.  But …

“For see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The fearful shepherds heard the army of God’s angels singing and they went to Bethlehem. They saw that baby. That human being who we know was always living as a human being from God’s perspective, the perspective of love.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace …”

It is God’s doing and not ours. God loved Mary, the mother of that child, who loved him, cared for him, kept him safe and warm. The Source of Love knew he was loved as his mother held him there.

In a world filled with chaos and fear, the shepherds saw God’s glory right there. And the angel army sang, “Peace on earth” – not peace sometime else or somewhere else: Peace on this earth. Peace is the opposite of fear and chaos. We often think of peace as just the absence of war or violence, but that is not really it. Shalom in Hebrew and the concept of peace overall, signifies wholeness and health. Peace brings integrity of existence—the opposite of chaos and fear.

If you look at the news, the agents of chaos are abroad. It’s entirely understandable that people are afraid. The devils of chaos will do their worst and many will be terrified, but God has come among us, bringing peace even as a newborn infant. We worry about money and we worry about the church, but God’s angel army sings, “Peace on this earth to all people in God’s overwhelming mercy.” When we say, “Do not be afraid,” it is not because those agents of chaos aren’t out there, or that there aren’t bills due, and obligations to meet. The angels and the saints and the church, present, past and yet to come, say, “Do not fear,” because God is bringing peace among us, that is to say, God is bringing us together, binding us together as a whole in the integrity of Christ’s love.  Fear paralyzes us, but God’s peace makes it possible to live, to be courageous and to be generous in all aspects of our lives.

So the shepherds said what the angel had told them about the child and everyone was amazed. But for Mary, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

Let us also glorify God, for what he has done among us.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever.

Put on the Armor of Light

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life

This is the beginning of today’s collect for the First Sunday of Advent, that is to say, they are the first words of the Christian new year. The “works of darkness” enfold us. We live in a world that is filled with darkness—willful blindness, suspicion, corruption, and hatred. That darkness can affect us; make us reactive and suspicious; tempt us to hate and pay back evil with evil. In our Gospel for today, Jesus says:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

In such a time, the forces of darkness can cause damage to many things: the peace of society, safety for individuals, material well-being. But worse still is the spiritual damage of being caught up in that darkness, corruption, hatred, blindness.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Don’t give in to blindness, but see our redemption drawing near. Following Jesus gives us light in the darkness. In our Collect for today, we pray that God will give us grace—that’s grace, which is a gift from God’s mercy, not some strength of our own—grace to put on the armor of light—NOW in the time of this mortal life. The light of truth protects us and allows our spirits to be healthy, even in difficult times. In this real world, we can be of earthly use in addressing the problems around us, because we are protected by the armor of light. The darkness can weigh us down; make us depressed or unmotivated; cause us to be fearful and discouraged. Yet Jesus says: “Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down with [this] dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

It’s at this very time that Christ comes among us bringing our greatest hope and the opportunity for our greatest spiritual triumph. As the Collect says, “in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” It is in his humility of being a person just like us, but not captured by the darkness, which makes him the one who can be the final judge of all people. His compassion and mercy reveal the truth of all of us, including every way in which any of us might give in to those pervasive forces of darkness. He brings us the armor of light, so that we can live in freedom and joy.

That’s the reason why we begin that time of year that everybody calls the “Christmas Season” by talking about the final judgment and the coming of Christ as the judge of all.  It’s because we rejoice in that humble child, the one who is free and brings freedom in the midst of a world filled with the works of darkness. That baby wasn’t protected by an army or divine security patrol. He was protected by the love of a mother and a father who had no power, nor money, nor any more security for themselves than any of us. The judgement of God is here, now, in this time of our mortal life. It is God’s compassion for us and our life of growing into God’s compassion.

It’s been more than two years since I last preached here at Trinity. I have often thought of you, sometimes even mentioned you: your faithfulness, your challenges, your joy. When I read today’s Epistle lesson from Paul to the church at Thessalonika, I was struck by how I feel about this congregation:

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is God that leads us into hope and abundance. God shows us the way and keeps us safe with the armor of his light. With this new year in the church’s life, God calls Trinity Church to discern that way, what it is to follow Jesus and to be God’s joyful people.

From today’s lesson from Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Living in Good Faith

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Those devouring the homes of the widows and praying at great length for show, these shall receive condemnation in greater abundance.

The Gospel this morning picks up at the end of a series of dramatic encounters between Jesus and people who wanted to catch him out or trip him up. You may remember two weeks ago, Jesus healed the blind beggar, Bartimaeus who then followed him on the way to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What follows in the Gospel of Mark is an intense series of events, including Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple. That is followed by different groups of people, basically all people with notable ecclesiastical status approaching Jesus with loaded questions appropriate to their group: “By what authority do you do these things?” “Is it lawful to pay the poll tax to Caesar?” “Who would a woman be married to in the resurrection if she became the widow of seven brothers in sequence?” “What is the greatest commandment?”

You know these kind of questions, posing as sincere or curious, but really in bad faith, trying to manipulate a conversation to criticize or embarrass the person being asked the question. The questions aren’t questions, they are attacks. Jesus answered them with grace and compassion. And that is the context for the first part of today’s Gospel:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus is talking about this bad faith behavior. It’s not about costumes, or offices or what group or party people might belong to; Jesus is taking note of how these people manipulate their image as pious and respectable, solely for their own benefit without regard for the well-being of others. It describes plenty of people who regard their own religious practices and piety as deeper religion than caring for others—“they devour widows’ houses” without a thought that it has anything to do with their Christian faith. The depth of our prayer and the depth of our compassion are the same thing.

So Jesus talks about this widow. She puts two lepta into the treasury. They were just little wafers of copper, far smaller than a penny and not worth much even in a world of poor people with very little cash. As we come into stewardship season many sermons will be preached on this: some will talk about her giving of her substance, all that she had. Others will note that the lady got away with giving almost nothing, just those two tiny discs, so maybe they can too! Most people won’t say that aloud.

But I think Jesus is less concerned with what went into the box than in observing the woman. A widow, it says. It was well-known in that time and place that widows were the most financially imperiled, with precious few possible sources of income, and vulnerable to being cheated or bullied out of whatever assets they may have inherited. Yet this woman maintained her dignity as a member of the community. She took part in the shared responsibility of the community. She gave of what she had. She was devout in the way she lived her life, though those around looked past her, if not down on her. She is contrasted with those who display their wealth, their piety and their smarts in trying to show up Jesus in the marketplace of teachings in the Temple precincts.

What Jesus taught, and what Christianity is, is not high-flown or complex. It’s about living in faith—good faith rather than bad faith. It is simple generosity rather than trying to trick people and show them up by appearing to be the most generous one, or the most religious one. Not that the goal is to wait to be pure before doing anything: if the widows keep their houses and the poor are fed, it’s a good thing in any case. But Jesus is unimpressed by any competition to be seen as the best—he’s impressed by the simple faith of the widow: living in God’s mercy, simply, humbly, generously; accepting God’s generosity and rejoicing in it.

This is my last Sunday at Calvary. Over the past 14 months we have walked the path of Jesus together. I have received much blessing from you, from your generosity and hospitality, your willingness to grow and change.  Calvary celebrates being a welcoming community, and as it lives that mission, there are more and more depths of God’s hospitality that we discover in our life together. As you move forward and Fr. Nathan joins you, you will discover more ways in which Calvary will be the welcoming community that God wants. What makes me most proud is that you are a community that will change and see the new opportunities God has in store—nothing that we have done together will be forgotten, but nothing will stay unchanged. Our life together is simple. We worship together, celebrate together, sing together, learn together. We have shared our stories with one another. Following Jesus is not a matter of learning every detail of everything he said or did. It is not about demonstrating that we have the most thoroughgoing practices of piety or engagement with every Christian practice that has ever been. Following Jesus is living out his compassion, of seeing when someone needs a cup of water and giving it to them, knowing when someone needs to be listened to just a little longer. Jesus’ compassion doesn’t just indulge peoples’ desires, it calls them to be more compassionate themselves and to grow away from self-indulgence and self-pity.  Jesus loved those people who he criticized just as much as those that he comforted. So, thank you for having compassion to me, and walking with me for this past year. You will continue to walk with Jesus in the years ahead.

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One hundred years ago today was the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. It’s the source of our Veterans’ Day. On that day, my grandfather was with the Fifth Marines in the Argonne Forest, the final campaign of the war. A few months before, he had been in the Battle of Belleau Wood, which is a defining moment in the modern Marine Corps. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, I asked him about the war, because I hadn’t heard anything about it from him. We talked for a while. He said, “It was terrible.” He told me about people he saw who were killed, about poison gas and losing his gas mask. He paid a significant personal price in that war. But the thing is, for him, and for most of the veterans that I have known, being in the military or being in a war, was not about being different, or part of a special group. It was about being part of us—about going home to Kansas, marrying and having twelve kids and building a farm and losing it in the dust bowl. And moving on. Raising the kids, being part of a functioning society where people could prosper and grow together. I know that for my grandfather, Armistice Day was about the end of war and the chance to build peace. So thank you to those who are veterans, for your service, particularly for your service in helping to build peace.

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It takes great courage to be simple and to follow Jesus. It’s easier to go along and to pretend to be better than we are. Yet we can be builders of peace, just like that old widow with her two tiny copper coins.

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life; Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I saw the holy city coming down from the sky from God

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Today we are observing the Feast of All Saints. It’s one of the most important feasts on the Christian calendar.  Officially it happens on November 1, but since people don’t get that day off to come to church, we are celebrating it today.  Of course, Halloween is the Eve of All Saints, so the day before All Saints people prepare for the Feast by imaginatively envisioning all that is scary or evil or demonic, ridiculing those things—purging them through acts of ridicule or perhaps experiencing the terror of what evil could be. Mostly nowadays people just have fun, they don’t take the demonic seriously.

I’ve spoken before about the demonic forces that Jesus casts out—not the caricatures we play with on Halloween—but the ways in which human fears, selfishness and anger take on dangerous and independent forms because people avoid facing them and push them off onto others. People often project the danger and evil onto others, like, for instance immigrants or Jews, when the real demon comes from their own fearfulness and anger, which is then projected onto someone else or some generalized force.

Both Halloween and All Saints are exercises in holy imagination. In appreciating real things by imagining them in more vivid and concrete images. When we talk about saints, we usually think of famous people or great heroes—people with inspiring stories whose lives can be examples of how Christians can be. Many people think of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of poverty to show Christians the freedom that comes in living for others. Many think of him as being all about loving animals. He did love animals, but much of what he did with animals was to teach people to rejoice in their simplicity and to emulate the birds and creatures in their free response to God’s love and beauty.  A couple of weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonized St. Oscar Romero who was Archbishop of El Salvador. He lived his ministry as bishop in advocating for the well-being of the poor of his country who were oppressed by a ruthless and exploitative military regime. He was shot and killed at the end of his sermon at a eucharist in memory of a woman, the mother of a newspaper editor; a woman who had in her own ways reached out for the good of the poor,  and who had been killed a year before.

People like Francis and Oscar have big stories and dramatic lives that we think about. Sometimes these spark our imagination of how we can live, but often we develop caricatures of what saints are that are no more accurate or useful than our caricatures of demons on Halloween.

We might have heroes in our lives, but that is not what saints are. Saints are the Holy People of God. And when I say, the Holy People of God, I mean You. Being a saint is not about living a life of punctilious perfection or of winning the race of being the most generous, good and nice person who anybody ever saw. Being a saint is being truly yourself, truly the person that God created you to be. The most important characteristic of a saint is being someone who has received God’s mercy—that would be all of us. So if we are afraid, or angry, or selfish, we don’t have to deny that—we accept that we are these and other things that are much in need of God’s mercy and we offer them to God.  In God’s mercy, we are not crippled by our sins, nor do we project them into demons, but we know that we are loved and that we can love in return.

The reading from Revelation introduces the image of the heavenly city, the perfected Jerusalem descending from the sky.  It is the imagination of our future with God: “The home of God is among mortals…he will dwell with them and they will be his…”  Two years ago, I led a Bible study group on the entire book of Revelation. It’s quite a wild ride—from ecstatic throngs praising God in the courts of heaven to the horrors of war, famine and disease—reflecting a world as chaotic and dangerous as our own. Some of the images in the book of Revelation are far scarier than anyone could think up for Halloween. The image of the Heavenly Jerusalem emerges in that context of fearfulness and demonic oppression in the Roman Empire.

God knows the realities we experience, and also the fantasies and fears that arise as people respond to difficulty and uncertainty. The final truth is that the home of God is with us. And when I say final, I don’t mean, far away, after everything is done with, God will take care of us. What I mean is that the truth is, in the midst of confusion, fear, anger—the real truth is God’s presence, wiping away every tear, giving mercy to all his children, to all his Holy People, to all his Saints.

This is what is important about saints. The temptation is to be buffeted about and give in to all those things out there that confuse and frighten us, but we can renounce them. In a few minutes we will re-affirm our baptismal vows and renounce those things. The stories of saints allow us to imagine life when evil has been renounced. Our imagination of the heavenly city is one story, but there are thousands of stories, millions of them.

We have those saints among us—those who visit people who are lonely or ill; those who welcome strangers; those who faithfully adorn our worship spaces with little or no thanks; those who diligently work to improve our facilities and maintain our physical plant. In more than a year here at Calvary I have encountered many saints and their work. Works of mercy—of giving mercy and receiving mercy.  Take a moment to think of the past year… how has God dwelt among us? Who has done a small act of kindness or been generous in a way that you might not have noticed before? How has it been possible for you to be welcoming, generous, merciful?

I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked among God’s saints in this place and I anticipate that you will grow in your sainthood in the coming years.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Go on your Way

A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 28, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

Bartimaeus sat by the road in Jericho where it took off toward Jerusalem.  People tolerated him. They let him sit there. He was blind and not of any use to anyone, so he sat there and they would give him tips from time to time, which was all he had to survive on. They tolerated him, and sort of felt good when they gave him alms.

But there was this guy passing through town, a pretty big deal, a healer and preacher and there was a big group following him. And Bartimaeus cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is not normal.  “Son of David” was a messianic title, not a normal way to honor a person—and no one there had ever heard anything about Joseph or Mary having any descent from the royal family of Israel. Bartimaeus was a beggar because he was blind, now was he also crazy? And he shouted, and they tried to stop him—this was embarrassing.  “Son of David, have mercy on me!” and Jesus stopped.

Jesus had been called extravagant things before. Demon-possessed people said he was the Son of God, and he told them to be silent. But when he heard Bartimaeus, he said, “Call him here.”  Of course, all the people who had been disrespecting the beggar changed their tune and started scrambling around to look helpful.

And Jesus calls him over and he jumps up and goes to him and Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Interestingly, that’s the same question Jesus asked last week. But he was talking to James and John, two of Jesus’ inner circle, and Jesus doesn’t give them what they ask, because they asked for the preferred places, at Jesus’ right and left hands. In this case, he asks Bartimaeus, “What do YOU want?” and Bartimaeus answers, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

Realize, languages don’t always match up. The translation we have read today says, “I want to see again.” Indeed, the Greek means that—one word is translated, “see again.”  But the same word is also used to mean, “look up,” as in “Jesus looked up into heaven” when he was blessing the loaves and fishes. This man wanted to see, and it certainly can be understood straightforwardly, that he was tired of being blind and sitting there by the road. Who wouldn’t be? But let’s look at what happens next. Jesus had called Bartimaeus, right? And when Bartimaeus asks to see, Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you—Go.” And where does Bartimaeus go? Does he go home, or back to his family, or looking for a job? He follows Jesus on the way.

We don’t pick this up from the lectionary, but the very next story in the Gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Bartimaeus followed Jesus from Jericho to Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives. Holy Week, Jesus’ final week and his journey to the cross, began with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Before that, the only person in the Gospel of Mark to address Jesus as the Son of David, was the blind beggar, Bartimaeus.

He was a man of no account, and blind. Yet he had the vision to see Jesus, the Messiah. The courage to speak it aloud, when everyone around him wanted it kept quiet. The love of God that Jesus brings is costly, and it is not always comfortable. Jesus transforms this world, not by handing out and blessing power, but by healing his servants.  Following Jesus on the way is not a lark, but a life of love and sacrifice. I doubt that Bartimaeus had a really clear idea of what the Son of David would be. We know that he never had seen Jesus when he first said it—he was blind when he said, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” The vision of our way forward is not clear, it is not easy, and it is not accomplished by keeping things the way they were.

“Go. Your faith has made you well.” Go where? The blind man could see that he should follow Jesus down the road, but where do we go, each of us? Or the lot of us, together as a parish?  Last week, it was announced that the Rev. Nathan Ritter will be joining Calvary as its new priest in charge on November 25. Over the past year, we have walked together and listened together. We’ve listened to one another and to Jesus. We’ve joined Jesus on the road, and sometimes the way forward has seemed as obscure as it did for Bartimaeus before he heard that Jesus was approaching. But together we see Jesus in one another, in the opportunity to welcome new life, the opportunity to welcome Fr. Nathan. Jesus says, “Go your way,” and like Bartimaeus we can take that as the opportunity to follow Jesus on his way.

The difference between the blind man whose request was granted this week, and the two disciples of the inner circle whose request was not granted last week, is that those two disciples, at that moment, were asking to be put above others—expressing their anxiety for their own security in competition with others; while Bartimaeus asked simply to see. He expressed his deepest and most real need, and it was both to physically see and to see the way of God, the Kingdom of God, the road of servanthood.  The one that nobody thought should have any privilege or even any rights cried out to Jesus for mercy. It didn’t matter what those with influence thought or said, Jesus gave him mercy, real mercy, real life. Jesus has mercy for each of us, real mercy, for our deepest hurts and our deepest needs. Where do we go? Jesus asks us. When we are healed, we follow him on the way of servanthood.

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what your promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for and ever. Amen.