Yesterday and today and forever

A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

That sentence is the culmination of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews is an anonymous discourse, written in the first century.  Of all the writings of the New Testament, its writing is the most literary and polished.  The more polished a piece of writing is, the more difficult it is to convey in translation. I realized this when I looked at the Greek to see what word was translated as “mutual love” in the first sentence: “Let mutual love continue.” There is nothing wrong with the translation that we have—it translates the words and sentences accurately.  But on first reading, it can appear that it’s just a list of good things to remember, not particularly connected with one another. But in Greek, these exhortations are tied together by related words that show us the progressive logic of the Christian life of love.

Let me render this in awkward English to illustrate: “Let brotherly/sisterly love continue, but don’t neglect love of strangers, for hidden in that, some have entertained angels. And remember the prisoners, as though suffering the mistreatment they receive along with them in your own bodies. (And speaking of being in one shared body) keep the marriage bed undefiled. Be not-silver-lovers but be content with what you have.”

This passage weaves together the different kinds of love and not-love that make up the everyday Christian life and experience. It starts with the familiar: the everyday experience of love of the sisters and brothers who we know well and care for. This kind of love isn’t less than other kinds—it’s pretty much the foundation.

But what’s being emphasized, is that Christian love doesn’t stop there. Christian love isn’t just for insiders. Even more important is the love of strangers, which is what that word “hospitality” really means—the stranger. Not the ones we know and have social obligations and relations with, but the wanderer on the road, the one we will never see again. By illustration the text alludes to Abraham, who received his greatest blessing—that is to say, the promise of his son and a legacy of a great nation—he received that blessing by stopping and welcoming three strangers on the road on a hot summer’s day.

But it is not just the strangers who we may encounter, but also those who are locked away and out of sight. This could refer to Christians, who like St. Paul found themselves imprisoned because their witness to the Gospel challenged those in power to seize people and lock them up. Or it might recognize that people were seized for arbitrary reasons and held in terrible conditions unless they had the wealth or influence to gain release. These distant people who we can’t see; we are one with them as well, as if we are one body with them as we are with Christ.

Next, there’s the reference to a shared experience in the body, the text circles back from the most distant and invisible of relationships, to the most intimate and familial— “Let the marriage bed be held in honor by all.” All this love of brothers and sisters and strangers and far-away prisoners does not reduce one’s obligation to those closest or change those obligations. No other kind of love exempts us from the basics of cherishing those in our own household and maintaining the integrity of those relationships. After this exhortation is another word that contains “love,” but in this case it has the prefix that means “not”—literally, a “not-lover of silver,” is what the readers are exhorted to be. The opposite of being one in flesh with another is to focus your love, your life and your future on dead metal, on cash.  Chasing money will not take care of insecurity or of anxiety about it.

This is a simple summary of the Christian life, but Hebrews continues: “God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ “  So, when this text says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever,” it is this simple Christian life of love that it is referring to, living in generosity, with care for others, near and far, and with responsibility to one another, not looking for shortcuts through greed or self-indulgence.

Weekday lunch at the Church of the Holy Apostles, NYC

Weekday lunch at the Church of the Holy Apostles, NYC

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus has occasion to observe some people in a situation which they probably thought was hospitality. But rather than love of stranger, or even brotherly love, the gathering was quite the opposite: everyone was jockeying for power and prestige, looking for the best seats, which indicate proximity to power and would command high regard. And the host was a big part of this—the guest list was compiled with an eye to enhancing his prestige in the community and perhaps even enhance his wealth. Lives more akin to silver-lovers than stranger-brother-sister-lovers. And Jesus—who is the same, yesterday, today and forever—he gives them advice: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.”

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. Amen

She stood up straight and began praising God

A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“She stood up straight and began praising God.”

It is a pleasure to join with you this morning here at St. James as your interim priest. What does that word “interim” mean?  I’ve been a priest for a long time, and expect to continue as one, pretty much permanently, so it’s not my being a priest that is interim. And St. James, Lincoln, has been a church for quite a while, and will continue as a vital congregation in the Body of Christ, long after I have left, so St. James is not an interim church. But together, we will be spending an interim season; a season of growth and discernment.  The job of a priest in an interim time is to help guide the congregation into the best possible spiritual state, so that all the decisions of the congregation will be to choose the best possible blessing that God has in store.

But before we talk about the possibilities for the work that God has put us here to do, let’s turn to our Gospel lesson.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in a congregation, teaching. In that congregation is a woman who has been crippled, bent

over and suffering, for eighteen years. Let’s pay particular attention to the text here. When we moderns see a description of a person who is suffering, we usually think of specific physical problems that we hope can be addressed by the wonders of modern medical science.  But what the text in the Gospel says is that the woman had a spirit that had crippled her. Injuries or disease are not actually mentioned. In the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out spirits as often as he teaches—perhaps more often. What are these spirits? They are not the horror movie creatures we think of, or the stuff of superstition. Spirits are not material, but they are very real. They are woven into our life to the point that we don’t even notice them.

God’s love is simple and God does not create malign spirits. Human love likewise should be simple, but human fear, hate, greed and many other manifestations of our lesser selves distort relationships. And it’s not just individuals—it’s the whole of communities and societies. Over time all of the negative things weave together and generate spirits.  Since so many people’s fears and desires are involved, these spirits are beyond the control of any single person, rather they influence people and groups in ways that the people involved usually don’t understand.
And we can see that in this Gospel story. Jesus calls the woman over, lays his hands on her, and she stands up straight and begins to praise God. God healed her, the spirit that weighed her down was gone. But right away, the manifestation of the spirit shows up again. A leader of the congregation is very upset at Jesus for healing this woman.  His reasons were actually bogus because pronouncing God’s blessing and touching another person are not prohibited on the Sabbath. But the man’s anger was real, and the argument was intense.

What’s happening here?

Psychologists and therapists use systems theory to talk about similar things that they see. Frequently, when a member of a family who has been ill or troubled in some way becomes well, someone else in the family becomes ill or begins to behave in inappropriate ways. The spirit that may manifest itself in an individual seeks to maintain itself and it affects the other people who are involved with the person who has undergone a change.

This woman stands up straight and is healthy. And the leader attacks Jesus—making this woman well changes things, this man’s comfort and control of the situation, perhaps his prestige—are all destabilized, all called into question. He probably thought he was just enforcing the rules. But it was his fears, and the fearfulness of the entire community—going back at least 18 years—that were speaking. It was definitely not the love of the God who had blessed Abraham and guided Moses through the wilderness.

How does Jesus respond to the man’s fear and anger? He didn’t criticize those fears, and accuse those affected by the spirit, or try to diagnose them and tell them what they should do; he healed the woman and helped her to stand upright.  He explains the law, in terms of the love of God. Everyone will lead their animals to life-giving water on the Sabbath, as Jesus led this woman to abundant life. It takes courage to be healed, and it also takes courage for a community to live with healing within it.

Spirits don’t quickly disappear, it takes honesty and acceptance, the courage perhaps to accept changes in one’s own position, to rejoice that others are loved and healed. Jesus came to heal us all—he paid the price for healing our spirits—and he rejoices with us, with that woman who stood up straight and with every healing of a person, or a relationship, or a community, or a world.

From what I have seen already in my short time here, St. James is a place that has gone forth offering courage, hope and healing for this congregation and for its community. This church has been enriched by the care and artistry of many in its past and those who are with us now. It’s a blessing in this town and this place, with the beautiful community garden serving our neighbors, a relationship with the high school choir, a blessing of the animals in the public square each year. St. James is a blessing to all who attend, in times of celebration and fellowship, and in times of grief, pain and sorrow. In my brief time here, I have become aware of the sincere concern and caring for members of the community who have suffered loss, or who are in pain, as well as rejoicing with them on happy occasions. In just over a week, members of this congregation will venture north to support Aidan Rontani and take part in his ordination as a priest. St. James is a welcoming community and my wife Paula and I certainly feel welcomed here.

St. James is blessed, but St. James will continue to be blessed by God. Together we will discover that blessing.

As we follow Jesus together, there will be healing and change—perhaps mild, and not as dramatic as the story in the Gospel today, or perhaps surprising. But Jesus will heal our spirits. This is how the Gospel lesson today ends: “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Let us pray, once again the collect for today:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with your and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania Farewell Sermon

A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.

I have been with you for nearly two years, and today is my last Sunday preaching here at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania. Together we have experienced the love of God here in this place. What I have experienced is a community that is welcoming, that takes hospitality seriously, where respect of one another is practiced and not taken for granted. God’s mercy is known here. We have grieved together and rejoiced together.

But the thing is, it is not about this group of people and it is not about this preacher. It is about God’s overwhelming love in Jesus Christ. In him, the love of God is much bigger, more consistent and more true than anything that we can attribute to ourselves.  Jesus walks in the real world that we walk in. And when we find joy in him, it is because he always knows and takes into account our difficulties and our sorrows. His Resurrection from the dead does not involve any denial of death or suffering—it is precisely in living freely, even to the point of being killed, that God’s action in raising him from the dead makes sense. Christian hope is founded in the realities of life that people face each day.

I was reflecting on my time here with someone, and I told them that my time here at Trinity has been for healing and encouragement. That healing and encouragement goes both ways, I have been healed and encouraged here at least as much as anyone in the congregation. The time just before my first Sunday here was among the most difficult and hurtful time in my life.  My anger at that time could have eaten up my spirit. But God guided me, through the kind invitation of Paula Roberts, to a church that had need of healing. I had to look to the Gospel each week and find God’s words of healing for this congregation. The Gospel for that first Sunday was the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

In mourning together the loss of Father Newman and soon after, Keith Warren, we were all comforted and healed. Healing is a process—a process of a body returning to health over time. It takes more than a Sunday or a few weeks. We carry the memories of the good that those men brought to us, as well as all the other saints of God who have served in this community. We are healed, not because we forget, but because we remember how God’s love is manifested in those people and how their love continues to be carried in this community. And I have been healed in sharing in this community and sharing and hearing God’s love in the Gospel of Jesus.

We are healed, and we are encouraged. Encouraged by a community that maintains itself, by our children who are nurtured in the Gospel, who lead us forward as the church of the twenty-first century. If you listen closely to him, Jesus is always talking about the real world that we experience with all its difficulties, not some pretend place. Jesus offers the mercy of God, and that is a hope that won’t let us down—there’s nothing pretend in Christian hope. It is Jesus that has done this. It is in God’s mercy that we have encouragement.

My role here has been primarily one of healing and encouragement. And I believe that is primarily what Trinity Church has needed these past two years. Going forward, Trinity Church will continue to celebrate the gifts that God has bestowed, but it will look forward to new things, to growth and challenge. Pieces of that future can be seen—the internship program that will take up residence in the rectory is not the least among these. The foundations are the same, the grace and mercy of God, the hospitality and love of the community, the traditions of worship and outreach to the neighborhood. We incorporate all the good that God has done for us into a new future that has many possibilities. My wife, Paula, and I are very sad to leave our Trinity family, but we are also going into new communities where we hope to bring the love and hope we experienced here to continue living the gospel in another place.

This brings me to today’s Gospel lesson. Somebody tells Jesus that he should get involved in a family dispute over money. Jesus says, “Who made me a judge and arbiter over you?”  Now the Nicene creed says about Jesus, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…” but this family money dispute? Not so much.

Then Jesus tells a story. This rich man has so much wealth that he has run out of any place to put the wealth he has coming in—and he can’t think of anything to do with that wealth but build bigger storage facilities. And he turns around and the only conversation partner that he can find is his own soul, so he says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” This is a description of greed. It describes how this man’s greed has cut him off and put him in a place of despair, even at the moment that he thought he had it made. God said, “And, the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” For there was no one else in this man’s picture of the future, just this stuff—and even his barns were destroyed at the end of the story.

Truth be told, I see nothing of this greed and disconnection here at Trinity. But this sentence contains a warning to all of us: “Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  It’s possible to set our sights on being complacent; to keep things the same; to focus on what has fed us in the past rather than to look to the new nourishment of the future. When God gave the Israelites manna in the desert, some tried to save extra for the next day, but it rotted overnight and was filled with maggots. But each day, God provided them with enough to sustain them: Give us this day our daily bread.

So let us take a moment and remember over these last two years where we have experienced Jesus love and presence in our community…,

a gift that can’t be stored in a barn, but can be held, remembered, and relived in our hearts…

And as we remember these gifts we can imagine sharing them with the people we encounter…

As we part and go our separate ways, we carry forward in our hearts the gifts that God has given us together: our time of spiritual nourishment and healing, the life of encouragement and the courage to face life’s struggles within the hope of the resurrection. I know that I will carry in my heart the blessing of being with you and receiving healing grace from you and through you. I look forward to being encouraged by your love to preach the Gospel with confidence in a new context. I believe that in God’s love, Trinity will continue to thrive, because the love of Jesus has been shared here for healing and encouragement by all his saints—past, and present and will continue to be shared by the many more to come.

Why Trump?

This is a good analysis from a cognitive scientist who has been paying attention. He refuses to write something short. If you read the first 1000 words of this and stop, you will think that Trump is inevitable (or you’ll just be mad). However, he is saying some important true things, things which winning candidates know and do without his analysis. This is very important, if the Democratic party continues to complain about Trump and regard it as enough to point out his absurdities, the election will go just as it did for Jeb Bush.
Here are two helpful sentences.
“Reporters and commentators are supposed to stick to what is conscious and with literal meaning. But most real political discourse makes use of unconscious thought, which shapes conscious thought via unconscious framing and commonplace conceptual metaphors. It is crucial, for the history of the country and the world, as well as the planet, that all of this be made public.”
“.. start with values, not policies and facts and numbers. Say what you believe, but haven’t been saying”

George Lakoff

 By George Lakoff

         Donald Trump is winning Republican presidential primaries at such a great rate that he seems likely to become the next Republican presidential nominee and perhaps the next president. Democrats have little understanding of why he is winning — and winning handily, and even many Republicans don’t see him as a Republican and are trying to stop him, but don’t know how. There are various theories: People are angry and he speaks to their anger. People don’t think much of Congress and want a non-politician. Both may be true. But why? What are the details? And Why Trump?

Many people are mystified. He seems to have come out of nowhere. His positions on issues don’t fit a common mold.

He likes Planned Parenthood, Social Security, and Medicare, which are not standard Republican positions. Republicans hate eminent domain (the taking of private property by the government) and…

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Teach us to pray

A sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

Today’s gospel lesson features the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has been the characteristic prayer of Christians since the very beginning. Early Christian writings say that every Christian should say it three times a day—before Morning Prayer and Evensong were invented, the Lord’s prayer was the daily Christian liturgy. The Lord’s Prayer exists in a few slightly varying forms in ancient documents, and the form we have today in the Gospel of Luke is the simplest and shortest. This can help us to understand the longer version of the prayer that we sing every Sunday and which we hold in our memory.

The spirituality of Jesus and the followers of Jesus are quickly outlined: Simple reverence for God—Father, hallowed be your name; Your kingdom come—the Kingdom of God among us, life in the Commonwealth of God is the most distinctive part of the teaching of Jesus. I’m often puzzled when people suggest using this prayer as non-sectarian and appropriate for groups that are largely non-Christian. There is nothing more Christian than to pray for the Kingdom of God to come.

The Kingdom of God is very different from the Kingdom of this world. It is not about power; it is not about intimidation or fear. It is not about one group gathering all the power and wealth it can to itself at the expense of others. You see the Kingdom in Jesus healing the sick from disease and from being oppressed by those demons that distort the lives of individuals and society. You see the Kingdom in Jesus, the servant of all, who encourages everyone to be neighbors to one another.  You see the Kingdom in him as he faced those powers of the world and was killed by them and yet was raised by God from the dead.  In saying, “Your kingdom come,” we pray for the resurrection of the dead in Jesus Christ.

And it is in that vision of that Kingdom of God that we pray the next sentence: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Bread Nourished. Each day.  In God’s commonwealth there is enough. Enough to share, but not enough to grab and keep for ourselves. Life with Jesus is simple, it is an ordinary experience of peace. In his prayer, what we request is the basics of real life, not the fantasies of what we might want, or the violence of what we might take.

The way that the next petition is phrased is somewhat ironic—it points up something we want to ignore: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  This is a dangerous prayer—by entering into it, you end up giving up all claims you have to what others owe you. Of course, God’s forgiveness of our sins is much larger than that, but still, it’s a pretty audacious prayer.  It’s costly to be Jesus’ disciple. The bounty of God’s overwhelming love, forgiveness and free grace flows to us all, in pure generosity. In the Kingdom of Christ, we live from God’s generosity and we live in God’s generosity, and it only costs us …. Everything. It costs us our fears and our selfishness. It costs us our self-righteousness and judgement. It costs us our smugness and our complacency.

And that’s why the prayer ends— “Save us from the time of trial.” The trial is the temptation to turn our backs on the Kingdom of Peace and accept the world of violence, fear and anger, as we see just about every time we turn to the national news recently. The time of trial when the only way forward for everyone seems to be to hold on to the despair of anger and to give up on the hope of forgiveness. Save us from the time of trial when the way to Jesus’ resurrection seems totally blocked by that stone sealing the tomb, and those soldiers blocking the way.

The Gospel lesson continues, and Jesus continues to teach about prayer. Usually the experts observe that these stories are about persistence in prayer. That’s true. But I think Jesus is also playing with us a bit. He taught his disciples and us this simple prayer of the Kingdom. But how often do we get bogged down in being all religious about that? “Oh yes. We must be grateful and generous and forgiving.” “Oh yes, we are the faithful disciples.” “Oh yes, we never give in to the temptation to be fearful.” So Jesus tells a story about his followers and their friends and neighbors who are probably also Jesus’ followers. One goes to the other and asks for a cup of sugar or something, because guests were coming. And Jesus tells it like it actually happens (or the way that people sometimes feel)—that friend says, “No, go away! You’re always bothering me and I don’t feel like helping you out!” In this real world, people don’t always cooperate, not everything goes smoothly and not everyone is nice. Jesus is teasing us. It is not because you are perfect, or because you feel good that you are part of the Kingdom of God, it is because you are God’s child. And look! What’s in my hand? Is it an egg for you to eat? Or is it a scorpion to sting and hurt you? It’s possible to think of people who might play that trick, but not a loving parent, not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, not in the Kingdom of God, the Commonwealth of Peace. Jesus’ stories tease us out of that fearfulness and anger that are that trial that can tempt us. He forgives us and directs us to our daily bread.

The ancient Didache, or Teaching, of the Twelve Apostles, instructs us to pray this prayer three times a day. Before we come forward and share in the heavenly bread of the Eucharist (our Great Thanksgiving), Let’s pray in the words that our Lord taught us:

 

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.

Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

By the Oaks of Mamre

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

OaksThat image reminds me of home, out in the arid West in the middle of summer. Cloudless days like that are quiet and hot.  But they can be quite pleasant, even without air conditioning, as long as you stay in the shade, out of the direct heat of the sun. So, in the middle of that hot day, Abraham was sitting in the shade at the entrance of his tent. That’s a meditative time, it’s not a time of day when you do much work. Chores are for the morning and early evening.

It’s unusual to see travelers out walking in the heat of the day. When Abraham saw the three men standing out there on the road, it was an event.  He suddenly sprang into action, he begged the men to stop and rest, and to receive hospitality. He ordered a feast prepared.

Why? There is nothing in the text to imply that there was anything unusual about these men beyond being strangers walking on the road in the middle of a hot day. Ordinary travelers. Abraham gave to those strangers the same welcome that he would give to any stranger, the hospitality due to an honored guest. Of course Abraham was in a slightly different context than we are in—there weren’t subways carrying five and a half million passengers per day at the Oaks of Mamre in those days as there are now in New York City. But still…

In offering hospitality to these strangers, these people whose background Abraham did not know, Abraham encountered God.  And this was no small thing, no private feel-good occurrence. You see, what we read in the Book of Genesis today is the first half of a longer passage that is pivotal in all of biblical history, in understanding God’s relationship to Israel.  This is the story where the promise of the creation of that people is made. Today’s lesson ends: “Your wife Sarah shall have a son.” That son was Isaac, who was the father of Israel. As it says just a few verses later, “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him…” In their old age, and the old age of his wife Sarah, when she was 90-years-old, they became parents, and established a people who were God’s people.  And all this because they extended hospitality to three strangers—people who they did not know.

I peeked at how the story continues—Abraham and Israel were blessed because they extended hospitality—and the whole world was blessed in them, but in the next verses Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, specifically because they violated hospitality. Abraham’s nephew Lot extended hospitality to God’s messengers, and the angry crowd gathered, and as he confronted them to protect his guests the crowd said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”

Hospitality is the opposite of the anger that groups feel against those who are different.  It is the opposite of racism. It is the opposite of festering anger that erupts in violence. Hospitality is the opposite of terrorism.  Abraham blesses the strangers by attending to their needs. The Samaritan in the story last week blessed the injured stranger by caring for his needs, taking him to a place of healing. They themselves are blessed, not by something they receive back, certainly not immediately, but they are blessed by encountering the love of God in the ability to give hospitality.

It’s not always easy or peaceful or obvious. Sometimes our worry and our busyness gets in the way of recognizing that encounter with God, even while it is happening. In today’s Gospel lesson, which is really a short extension of the story we heard last week, where Jesus tells the lawyer the story about the compassionate Samaritan, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. She is extending hospitality to him. And she really is welcoming the Son of God, the prophet of the Most High, into her home. Hospitality is about attending to the needs of the guest. (Once the stranger enters your home, they are no longer a stranger, but a guest). Particularly in this section of the Gospel of Luke, after the Transfiguration where he is blessed along with the great prophets Moses and Elijah, Jesus is a prophet, single-mindedly on his journey to Jerusalem.

What do you need to do for a prophet? Listen to him. That’s the one and most important thing: listen to the message. So Mary is listening to the prophet, who is the guest. Martha was working very hard, doing all the things to prepare for what guests usually want and need. And Martha sort of loses it. She goes to the guest and complains.  There is nothing in this short passage arguing against hard work, or implying that the hard work of hospitality is not a good thing, or that the contemplative life is better than the active life, or that Mary is better than Martha. Martha is the main host, and her job in extending hospitality is to attend to the needs of her guest. And we should note, the way this scene is depicted, there isn’t a crowd of disciples or others, in fact, Jesus is the only guest mentioned. Martha made the standard assumptions that anyone would make: bake fresh cakes, find the good dishes, get the foot-washing bowl… And like many of us she focused on the tasks without looking up at the guest.

But what did he want? The prophet wanted to be heard. I don’t hear rebuke in his words to Martha, I hear tenderness—“Martha, you are distracted by many things, but there is ONE thing that I want, to be heard.” Martha and Mary together extended hospitality to Jesus, and in that they were blessed by his presence and by his words. Sometimes we can get so worked up about what we think we should be doing or what should be happening that we forget to see the blessing that we have received and are receiving, even now.

As Christians we are called together to live a life blessed in thanksgiving and the opportunity to extend hospitality. In welcoming those strangers, Abraham and Sarah encountered God, and were blessed throughout all generations.

Let us pray once again our Collect for today:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Go and do likewise

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

Two Sundays ago, our lectionary Gospel readings set out with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Today’s lesson directly continues in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The journey started in Jesus’ home district of Galilee, in the far north of Palestine to Jerusalem, in the southern part of Palestine. A large part of the journey is through the district of Samaria. That roughly overlaps where the northern Kingdom of Israel was before the Assyrians overran it and then the Babylonians invaded and took many from the southern Kingdom of Judah into exile. In that district of Samaria was a large number of towns populated by Samaritans. The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true followers of Moses—they observed the laws of the Five Books of Moses and offered sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim, which they believed was the place that God had appointed, not Jerusalem. The Jews, including those who were the majority in Galilee as well as those from Judea, regarded the temple in Jerusalem as The Holy Place. The Jews believed that the Samaritans had intermarried with idolaters, that their worship was polluted, and that they were generally a people not to be trusted. These two groups did not have an amicable relationship. In fact, they got along better with the gentiles with whom they shared no common traditions, than they did with each other.

When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, he sent messengers out and a Samaritan town rejected them. Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John, whose nickname was the “Sons of Thunder” came to Jesus and suggested that they should call for God to rain down fire on that village. That epitomized the relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans.

In our reading today, a lawyer stands up, and in this case, he’s a man trained in the interpretation of Jewish law. It’s clear from the way the text is written that his questions are meant to test Jesus and put him in a difficult place, to make him say things that would not be popular with the crowds.  So when he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he’s not looking for an answer, but a debate.   Jesus agrees with him, “Do this and you will live.” There is no difference in the essential core of the spiritual life and the Jewish law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

But now the lawyer wants to pin Jesus down, “And who is my neighbor?”

He was looking for Jesus to draw for him the boundaries of the righteous and the unrighteous.

When Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t give guidance on how to decide who your neighbor is.  Do you see that? He doesn’t give a narrow or a broad definition. He doesn’t say one group is neighbors and another is not. He doesn’t say that some might become neighbors in such and such a way.  He doesn’t say, you’ll know they are neighbors by their love of you. He does not even say that everyone is your neighbor.

Jesus tells a story about how to BE a neighbor. Not to figure out who to treat like a neighbor, just how to be one. And in this situation, at this time, Jesus chose to tell this Jewish lawyer about a Samaritan who behaved like a neighbor. The man who was beaten by robbers was clearly Jewish, like Jesus and the lawyer, and the two other characters in the story were clergy—a priest and a Levite. The religious people in this world may think that being religious makes them much more neighborly, but that isn’t the case. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus chose as his illustration of who could be a neighbor, a person that all of his hearers, not just this lawyer, but also his own disciples, especially James and John, regarded with disrespect and anger. When Jesus described the Samaritan, when he saw the man injured by the road, Jesus said that he was moved by compassion—the Greek root of the word implies that he felt the man’s pain and need from deep in his insides.

Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Who acted like a neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy.” There was no other possible answer to Jesus’ question.  Jesus refused to respond to the question of who your neighbor is. Instead he said, “Go and do likewise.” This was not necessarily good politics, but it was what Jesus meant.

This week—I’m not sure what to say.  The shooting of Alton Sterling and of Philando Castile by police officers. Shootings that would not have happened to white men. Then Thursday night, the massacre of police officers in Dallas, Texas Dallas Police Shootingwho were conscientiously doing their job of keeping a peaceful protest safe.  Anger and fear reacting in violence.  We are in a country where everybody seems to shout—“NOT MY NEIGHBOR!” And even those who are quiet, quietly see others as the transgressors, the untrustworthy, the scary— “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But it was one of those transgressors, one of those Samaritans, who was deeply moved by compassion. Who saw the humanity of the wounded man, who put himself on the line for the sake of his healing.

It’s easy enough to see how people habitually do not treat one another as neighbors. It’s easy enough to see the disastrous results of that.  What is not easy to see is how to unravel the violence, the hate, and the simple self-pity of those who allow violence to flourish. I don’t know what to say.

But it was obvious, even to his hostile questioner, when Jesus asked, “Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who into the hands of the robbers?”  It was the one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Let us pray our Psalm for today, once more. Psalm 25:1-9 in the insert.

To you, O Lord, I life up my soul, My God, I put my trust in you:

Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O Lord.

and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me,

for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,

For they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;

Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

Gracious and upright is the Lord;

Therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right

And teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness

To those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.