I know my own and my own know me

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

4th Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015

I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.

This Sunday in the church calendar, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We always read from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd.” Now, those of us who know only a little simple Greek might translate it as “I am the beautiful shepherd.” The Greek adjective means good in the sense of proper or ideal. One commentator translates it, “I am the model shepherd.”

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s not describing what someone might encounter if he or she met a real life shepherd.Shepherd He is describing what could be, what we might hope for, how it might be in the kingdom of God. The ideal shepherd; the shepherd in the imagination of those immersed in the Psalms and the writings in the Old Testament about David the shepherd king; the model shepherd lived a life entwined with the flock that he owned. His livelihood depended on them, and they depended on his protection and guidance, for they were defenseless against predators and couldn’t survive in the wilderness if separated from the flock and the shepherd. The model shepherd would know each of those sheep and keep track of every one.

Think about it—the sheep were the shepherd’s life. Without them there was no livelihood, no present, no future, no independence, no dignity. When you have something that important, it is worth sacrificing to keep. You contrast that with someone who is paid a few dollars a day to show up for a job, who has no promise of a future, no ownership and no real commitment to the sheep beyond the daily wage. The tradeoff for that person is very different. If there are big risks or serious sacrifices to be made, why would the hired person make them? Why not go out and find another job? Wolves are dangerous, and your own life is more important than somebody else’s sheep.

We needn’t be disapproving of the wage worker. Jesus is the model shepherd, and he goes further than any pretty good shepherd would do: he lays down his life for his sheep. Not just some sacrifice, or some risk—he actually lays down his life. When he says this, we know we are moving beyond actual sheep herding and remembering his crucifixion and resurrection.

The epistle lesson from First John starts like this: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The life of Christ leads us into our life IN Christ. The Model Shepherd tends his flock, but we are more than sheep, we are responsible to one another, we are responsible to love and live ethically FOR one another. John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” Of course, one answer to that is to not see the need, to look away or explain that it is someone else’s responsibility. Then, there is the kind of love where people are only talking about doing good, so that they can feel nice about it. That’s why it is important to remember that we are forgiven people, not necessarily people who are always perfectly loving or truly caring. There is one Model Shepherd, and it’s not me.

First John continues, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” No representation of ourselves as the Good Shepherds, no talk about how many sweet feelings we have about others, just reaching out to meet the real needs of others, seeking the healing and well-being of one another.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues: “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” It is difficult enough to love those who are in our own little flock, people who we know and are used to being with. But Jesus directs us beyond where we are comfortable. He lays down his life for us, that we can take some small risks for him. Jesus is shepherd of those who are beyond our doors, those who don’t agree with us and those who don’t fit in with whatever group we may be part of. The Good Shepherd invites us to his hospitality, that we can extend that hospitality to others, to those flocks in another fold. We abide in him, and he makes us one flock, with one shepherd.

From today’s Psalm:

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.

The Children of God

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God.

This Easter season, we are privileged to have most of the book of the Bible called First John read in our service. Last week it began, “we have seen with our own eyes, and touched with our hands, the Word of Life” and that Word of Life is our Advocate for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the whole world.

This week we move forward. It continues, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are.”Mother and child In this community, it is clear how important our children are to us: they are our treasure, our life, our future. The loving parent always wants what is best for those children, not that they always realize it; and the loving parent will make sacrifices for the sake of a good life for the children. And thus it says in today’s lesson, that we are indeed God’s children. God cares for us more than anything, and sacrifices for our life, and always wants only what is best for us. God’s love for his children is even more than our own love for our own children.

The lesson continues, “The reason that the World does not know us is that it did not know him.” What is John talking about when he refers to “the World?” The term comes up frequently in 1 John. In the section between the part that was read last week and what was read this morning comes this verse: “all that is in the world—the desire for the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.” The world is that realm of distraction from the love of God and toward things that we think will make us secure or happy.

Indeed, some who are particularly attached to the world believe that having enough: enough riches, or enough accomplishments or the admiration of others, will protect them, keep them safe in a way that they need neither the love of their earthly parents nor the love of God. Indeed there are those who immerse themselves in this world to protect themselves, to hide themselves from the love of the living God, our heavenly Father. They might be successful in building up power or wealth, but in keeping these for themselves, in holding on to the World, they end up hurting others of God’s children.

Attachment to the World is really fear. It is not a celebration of the good that we share in God’s creation. It is the opposite. Like the Israelites, who were given manna to eat for breakfast each day. Some decided that they would play it safe, just in case God didn’t keep his promise the next day. They kept the manna overnight, only to wake up and find that it had decayed into a mess filled with worms. So it is for those who think that the world will protect them, if they hang on to its prosperity and attractions hard enough. They hold on to their own power until it slips away and they miss out on the abundance of abiding in God.

This is not a matter of having a contest to see who can be most perfect, or who can give up power the most. God’s love calls us to a loving and forgiving life in him. When First John talks about righteousness, doing right and being without sin, it is about doing loving things, being people who forgive and love, being people who accept God’s love. It is not about talking about it, or even about having sweet or sad emotions about it. It is about caring for our neighbors, forgiving our friends, our enemies and even our families, and accepting God’s forgiveness of them and us.

“Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”

In the Gospel today Jesus came and appeared to the disciples and shared food with them—he ate fish with them. He said, “Peace be with you,” and then he explained to them that it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. It is written indelibly in the world, that the righteous one will necessarily suffer, and we live with him in his suffering, so that we may proclaim that resurrection. His peace is among us that we may live and share in the repentance and forgiveness of sins to all God’s people, to all the children of the Father.

He is among us, and we will see him, raised from the dead and living among us.

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

God will hold us all in his love

A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

April 12, 2015, The Second Sunday of Easter

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life…

Thus begins the First Epistle of John, written to the church in the region of the world that is now Turkey at around the same time that our Gospels were written. “We declare what was from the beginning…” What beginning does that refer to? It might refer to the organization of that particular church—as in, “here’s what we agreed upon at the start…;” it might mean what it does in the Gospel of John, “the Word was with God in the beginning, and without the Word, there was not anything made that was made…;” or the beginning could refer to the beginning of our new life, the resurrection of Christ: “what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands … the Word of Life.”

This sentence means all of these things. This week we have entered into Easter, the season of the resurrection of Christ. We can place that event at a moment in time—“we have seen with our eyes, we have looked at and touched with our hands…”—Jesus alive and with us; death defeated. But that resurrection, life conquering death, is implicit there at the beginning, before creation, the God that created the light is in his essence love, and that is the essence of life.

The reading from the Gospel today is the one that is read every year on the Sunday after Easter. Jesus suddenly appears in the locked room with the disciples, the room that was locked because of their fear. Jesus says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Thus, no longer are they to be locked up in their fear—they are to live the life that Jesus lives, sent by the Father. Sent why, for what? “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

There is another sentence that follows, and it contains a serious mistranslation, so serious that it should be explained. One of my teachers, an extraordinary biblical scholar and teacher of spirituality named Sandra Schneiders, gave a detailed lecture on this when I was in seminary. This Greek word, krateo, means “grasp,” “hold on to.” In my big Greek dictionary there is a long entry about krateo and hundreds of examples of its use follow. At the very end of the entry for krateo appears a different definition, that is, “retain,” but it gives only a single example: “retain their sins,” and it’s from this verse that we read today.

Sandra SchneidersSo my teacher did further research, and this is the only use of that sense of the word krateo in all of Greek literature. She was pretty skeptical, devoted Catholic nun that she is. Somehow those in authority in the church thought that it was a good idea that if they could forgive sins, they should also be able to keep sins from being forgiven. After all, that gives a lot of power to us priests, and you know that’s what we need, a little more power. But the sentence that Jesus said actually makes sense without making up new meanings for words. Jesus said to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you hold fast to anyone, they are held fast (in the custody of God).”

Immediately following is the example of Thomas. Thomas was not there. And Thomas knew that his friends could be sentimental crackpots sometimes. He listens to their story, complete with showing Jesus’ hands and his side and he says, “Yeah. Right.” “I won’t believe until I see his hands and his side, and touch him.” I have always loved Thomas. None of this “go along to get along” for him. His belief had to be real, he wasn’t there to kid around about stuff that people fantasized or hallucinated about. And the disciples disagreed, and they held Thomas fast. In the love of God, Thomas was held with them, he remained with them in the room. And a whole week later Jesus appeared. “Put your finger here and see my hands.”

The resurrection is not about what the disciples thought and felt; it is not about what we think and feel. The resurrection is Jesus coming to his people for the sake of his love of the world. It is his welcome and love. His presence here for us, and for all of his people. He stretches out his arms on the cross to embrace the entire world, and to hold them fast. He gives the Holy Spirit to his community to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and to hold his people tight in his love.

The reading from the epistle today ends: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

The whole world. God calls us to bring his forgiveness, his peace that drives out fear, to the entire world. Embrace all those that love you, and those who don’t. We start here, and then we are sent. In the openness of Christ, bring his love out into our world.

God will hold us all in his love.

Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee

A sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.

On this Easter Day, this Feast of Feasts, we join with Christians throughout the world to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We live with Jesus and we learn from Jesus and this last week we follow along and reflect on how he came to die. On Friday he died, as real a death as could be died. As devastating a loss as any of us could ever lose. Those women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome were devastated, and they mourned. As early as they could get out after the Sabbath, when you never went that far from your home, these women carried spices to care for the body, to mourn and attend to their lost Jesus.

Lots of us read and hear a lot, and we think the disciples should have known that Jesus was going to rise from the dead, that somehow, predictions were there in a way that made sense. But NOBODY expected the resurrection. Not of Jesus, not on that day. They were talking—“how are we going to get in there? that stone is too big…” Then they looked and the stone was already gone and there was this guy there… and it was all too much for them. But what did he say? That man dressed in white?

“He is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Jesus said that to Peter and the others on the Mount of Olives right after the last supper, but nobody understood it. Why Galilee? That was quite a distance away, and it wasn’t an important place. But at the beginning of the Gospel, after his baptism and John the Baptizer was arrested, that’s where Jesus went to proclaim the Good news, to say, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” With his resurrection, that begins again with his disciples.

All of Lent this year we have been preparing for our baptism. With each passing week, we follow with Jesus and learn more about what it is to be baptized into him. Yesterday, I read quickly through the entire Gospel of Mark. It is about the Son of God telling that Good News, healing the sick and casting out evil spirits. And from the beginning there was controversy, and it becomes more intense until the last week when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and the controversy reached its critical peak and he was arrested. So that is where Jesus is leading his disciples, back to Galilee, to preach the Good News again, to heal again and to continue to face controversy. The Resurrection of Christ does not mean that life is over, it means that life continues.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of God has come near, repent…” And the most common response is, “Repent? No, that seems a little harsh, these problems aren’t really mine, it is someone else’s responsibility to change.” But Jesus’ love is too real to accept that. Jesus’ love holds people accountable for who they really are. Our bishop summarized this well recently, when he said, “pastoral care happens when compassion and accountability are held in tension.” We know that as Jesus guides us in the way of truth, he helps us to face risk and overcome our fear.

Trinity Youth Group

Trinity Morrisania Youth Group Choir

A few weeks ago Chenize Tonge asked me about when we could baptize her baby, Jael O’Donaghue. I told her that the main time that the church baptizes anyone is on Easter Sunday. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s resurrection, when we go through Lent, we are preparing for baptism. Jael is a little baby. She has a beautiful smile, but she cannot yet talk. How then can we baptize this child into the death and resurrection of Jesus? It is because we are never simply individuals out on our own—our faith in God is supported and encouraged by one another. None of us has faith on our own, it is not an achievement. Faith is the gift of being upheld in the Spirit when we are not strong enough or smart enough or mature enough to follow God rightly. Our faith is built in the love and encouragement of God’s people, and each of us continues to grow each day in Wisdom through the encouragement of Christ’s body, his beloved community, the church. Thus if you are eighty years old, or twenty-five years old or four months old you continue to grow each day into the love and stature of Christ. There is nothing sentimental or unrealistic about this. We know that in the church we run into sinners every day, deeply in need of Christ’s redemption, people still being formed and perhaps even hurting others. The good news is those people are accepted and are a part of Christ’s body, otherwise we would have no one at all, least of all myself.

At every baptism we re-affirm our own baptismal covenant. We take it upon ourselves to make these promises with and for Jael. We renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces and evil powers in this world. That’s not just referring to some guy with horns and a tail. Spiritual forces are all those things that nobody takes responsibility for: fear and hatred, or unjust profit or privilege that are “just the way things are.” Things that lead to hurt and disrespect between people, yet those who benefit blame others, or “the system.” As Christians, we renounce those things; which means that we take responsibility for our part in them and we strive to reduce the levels of hatred, fear and disrespect in this world. We live together in grace that we cannot earn, but nonetheless we receive, in Him who breaks the power of fear, hatred and death. We live together in grace for the sake of one another, but especially for the young Christians who will be serving Christ late in the twenty-first century, and especially for Jael, who we baptize today.
Christ is free, he has broken the bonds of sin and death. And in that freedom he calls on us to be free to serve and to love all of his people.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen.

You will never wash my feet

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

What’s going on with this foot washing?

Slavery was prevalent in the Roman Empire. The economy depended on it. Its existence was hardly ever questioned, since people are not inclined to question things that look necessary for the economy to function. Wealthy households had slaves, and a characteristic duty of a slave was to wash the feet of guests whose feet were dirty from walking dusty roads in sandals. It didn’t require intentional humiliation for it to be a demeaning job. In more humble households where there were no servants, the task was given to the women.

Washing of the feet was associated with the people who were held in the least esteem. Men were used to simply dismissing those who washed the feet. Nicer men would nicely dismiss the slaves or the women, nastier men would be more rude, but all in all those who washed feet were meant to get out of the way and be dismissed from further thought.

Peter always shows up in the Gospels as a normal guy. He’s like the rest of us. When we’re being really pious, we pretend like we’re different, but mostly we know that we are faking it when we do that. Peter was not a nasty guy, but he was also not particularly refined, neither was he someone who covered up his thoughts and feelings. He was not excessively pious about Jesus. Jesus was his friend. This friend was the person he esteemed more than anyone in the world. This friend was his teacher and leader, and the person that Peter believed the world should take more seriously than anyone else. And that Friend stood up and got ready to wash feet—how could he? To give up all that esteem and take the role of someone to be dismissed: a woman or a slave? And in this season of Passover when we remember our people’s liberation from slaver? Ridiculous. In such bad taste. Giving up a serious role to become a nothing–You will never wash my feet!

You see, nowadays you would have a hard time finding people who would actually say that, though you might often encounter people who readily dismiss others and count them as nothing, as not worthy of respect or attention. But in the scripture, Peter is always there to say it out loud and then to learn from Jesus’ teaching. It was powerful, because right there, Jesus was becoming one of those who was dismissed—how can we be of any account if we are those who are dismissed? Don’t we have to act like we’re important?

Foot WashingJesus kept on washing the feet. James, John, Andrew, Peter … Judas. Jesus was the least, and in that he was their teacher and Lord. The servants, and even the women were of equal importance and dignity as those who sat at the table. Jesus was not a teacher who brought his students knowledge or skill that would give them power or wealth. He said to them: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” No one should be dismissed, ignored, disregarded. All are important, and our self-importance is the one thing that won’t make it into the Kingdom.

The term “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday, come from the Latin word that we get the word “mandate” from, it means commandment. In this Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us one commandment, a “New Commandment”, but really the only commandment: “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Love. Love. Love. It can be so simplistic and meaningless, can’t it? But in his washing the feet of the disciples Jesus is very specific: who do they dismiss? Who do we dismiss? Most of us have, at one time or another been dismissed by others. Like Peter, the temptation is to try to get into a position where we can do the dismissing, where we are in control or in power. But Jesus shows us God’s grace, God’s costly grace, where the power of God lifts us up in our humility and gives us the greatest dignity in the privilege of washing one another’s feet, knowing every person is important.

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Good Friday, April 3, 2015

Three Hour Service from Noon until 3 pm

The service combined the Good Friday Liturgy with an extended expository reflection on Isaiah 52-53, Stations of the Cross, 10 hymns and the reading of the Passion. The following homily was preached after the Passion. It is one that was preached at Holy Apostles in New York City in 2013 and at Trinity Ossining in 2014.

 

“It is finished.” What is finished? We might be tempted to pass over these last words–Jesus has been through a lot. So have we–all through the journey of Lent there are references to Jesus’ cross or his crucifixion, and then this week the story is told at least two different ways. It is draining to go through this execution–and there are so many ways, in the mass of the detail of Jesus’ suffering, that we can miss the point—

One way is to abstract from Jesus’ real life and reduce the crucifixion to a theological principle. One way this has been done is to assert that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy the debt owed to God for all the sins and crimes of humanity, other times I run into preachers and theologians who are at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ suffering was the most or the worst possible—but in both cases, Jesus suffering and death becomes symbolic and detached from his actual life and in fact, from ours.

At the other pole, it is common to focus on our own emotional response, and all the details of Jesus’ suffering to the point where we are overwhelmed. There is a great danger in this—when faced with such enormity of suffering, human beings lose their perspective, and either fall into despair or disavow their own place in this—“Who is responsible for doing this injustice to this good man?” How often in Christian history have people asked that question and then answered it with… “The Jews”? And it’s not any better to ask the same question and answer it with “the Romans”, or “the military industrial complex” or “the Tea Party.”

The life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels is, above all, a real life of a real person. The authenticity of his humanity shows us who God is. The way in which he lived his life reveals to us what we can be. If we say that he is sinless or perfect, it is not a perfection that makes Jesus distant or unapproachable…it is not in trivialities that Jesus is perfect, but in his life of love. We see it in the joyful teacher, the host who gives bread to the crowds on the mountainside, the obedient Son who supplies gallons upon gallons of wine for the wedding guests. We see his love in the courage to heal people when he wasn’t supposed to, for loving people who everyone knew were sinners.

And he led his disciples, inexorably, and against their better judgment, to Jerusalem. In that sacred city, all that was significant of humanity was gathered: pilgrims and people celebrating the feast, imperial bureaucrats and soldiers to enforce empire, religious officials trying and hoping to keep everything from falling apart, and religious zealots and nationalist insurrectionists trying to blow everything up. Jesus came to them in Jerusalem, as he comes to us in the Bronx, to love them. And what we see, in a concentrated way, is what people usually do: they are fearful, greedy, some scheme and find ways to assert power over others, others avoid doing what they know is right because it will be difficult. They are all concerned for themselves, afraid to give, because they might lose something. Each person plays a part, whether priest, or soldier or disciple or bureaucrat—and Jesus, the real, living, loving Jesus—is put on the cross.

Looking down, he sees there a disciple whom he loved, and his mother. And he says “there is your mother” and “there is your son.” Look, and love. Attend not to your own hardship, but love and care for one another. Jesus had no power to stop all the ugliness and violence of the turn that human reality had taken on that day, but he looked with love on those people and reminded those who could hear to get outside of their own concerns and to take care of one another.

After this, … Jesus knew that all was now finished. When Jesus had received the wine, he said. “It is finished.”

It was completed, this life of abundance and love. All aspects of humanity had been faced, and loved and blessed. Even this ugly death he blessed and embraced. For three days it could not be known that that the ugliness and fear and cowardice and hate of Jesus friends and enemies alike had been redeemed and transformed by this Life.

His life was really complete, facing and incorporating that universal human reality that we avoid: his death. Three days in the tomb. Yet we are here, the church is here, because God in Jesus did not let death be the final word or the defeat of that life—the generous, hospitable, and all loving life of Jesus encompassed and incorporated all that human confusion and evil could muster, and brought forth a new creation. But the resurrection … that’s the story for Sunday morning.

Crucify him!

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

Crucify him!

Crucifixion is hard to take.

And not just for Jesus. It is painful to hear, to attend to the details, to speak the words in the account of the Passion. We can’t stay with it very long, the pain is too much. We have to look away.

So we do look away. In the height of our devotion, like Peter, we may say or think, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” And we believe that. We are faithful and we won’t desert Jesus. And the problem is, we believe that. We believe that and we try to explain to ourselves how we don’t desert Jesus. And we look on the crucifixion story, and say to ourselves, how could people do that to such a good man, blameless and loving at all times? We cannot conceive how we might ever participate in such a thing. What’s wrong with those people? No one today would do such a thing, at least not any good, law-abiding, religious people.

We feel that, but we know that it is not true. There are examples of people who thought or think of themselves as good, law-abiding, and even religious people, people who call on the name of Jesus, and weep at the story of his crucifixion, who have hurt and killed other human beings, simply because of fear and anxiety about the loss of control and privilege. A few years ago I listened to a lecture at the General Theological Seminary by a theologian named James Hal Cone. He was a guest lecturer in a distinguished lecture series, and his thoughts were later incorporated into his book, entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It was a long and deep reflection, which incorporated description and reflection on Billie Holiday’s rendition of the song, “Strange Fruit.”

 Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Dr. Cone says this:

Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.

Dr. Cone speaks with much more authority and experience about the wounds of racial violence than I do. But it is clear, that if lynching, per se is not as fashionable as it once was, violence against people, and even killing, purely based on race persists in our country. Short of physical violence, discrimination, distrust, and the violation of the dignity of people persists and even increases today. Christians must clearly and continually see and know this passion of Christ that is so hard to look at. We cannot afford to stand by and let injustice happen to anyone at all.
It is incumbent on every person to take responsibility for cherishing life. It is our responsibility to follow Jesus, and to stay with him on his way to the Cross. This stuff with Peter makes it clear that being religious, or even being Jesus’ best friend, does not give us a free pass. It is a great temptation to assume that our religiousness or good-will make us more aware, or more merciful, and that we don’t need to worry about the consequences of our actions or our attitudes. St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility. Mercifully grant that we may walk in this way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2015

Amen, Amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a singleWheat2grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This Lent we have been attending to the way in which it is preparation for baptism. On the first Sunday of Lent, the scripture was the story of Noah and the ark—the covenant with Noah binding together the water of creation, the water of the flood and the water of baptism. The second Sunday’s Gospel was about Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: our call to baptism is Jesus’ call to follow the way of God and not the way of human fear. The third Sunday of Lent we joined with the Catechumens preparing in depth for their baptism by reading the Ten Commandments and focusing on the reverence for the Living God, reverence where we follow with Jesus beyond the safe ways that people develop to simulate reverence while hiding from God.

Last week, on the fourth Sunday of Lent we remembered that our baptism is entirely a matter of the overwhelming mercy of God that: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The sovereign God lives and chooses to have mercy on this whole world, inviting even us to eternal life in Baptism.

Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we begin Holy Week next week with Palm Sunday. At the end of that week, on Easter Sunday we will baptize Jael join in affirming our own baptism. Today’s Gospel sums up our journey of preparation for our baptism: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen. Amen. I tell you unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

In Christian faith, there is an intimate connection between death and living, between glorification and humility. The metaphor which Jesus uses here is about life. Jesus’ glorification is not in his suffering, but in bringing us life. Life is not something that is stationary, it is not something that we can hold on to, put in a box; hoard because we might want it someday. That would be that single grain of wheat, left on a shelf, like a useless, dead pebble. Life is to be lived. If we listen to Jesus and watch what he did, life is not just to be lived, life is something to be spent, to be invested. The investment in life is not for ourselves, however, it is to be given for the life of the world, for those who need, who want, who suffer. Jesus spent his life without fear of death, and he lived his life until he died, as do we all.

About a month ago, I was asked to preach on this same text at General Theological Seminary. It was the feast of Janani Luwum, the Archbishop of Uganda who was killed by Idi Amin in 1977. This is a particularly memorable event for me because I was in seminary at the time and I had a classmate who was a priest from Uganda. Janani Luwum was someone who spent his life as a follower of Christ. This is an excerpt from that sermon.

In February 1977, unidentified people stormed into Luwum’s house searched it, and produced weapons they claimed they had found there. Christian leaders were rounded up and accused of plotting to kill Amin. Eventually most of them were released, but not Janani Luwum. As his colleagues left, he said to one of them, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.”

That’s pretty matter of fact. We needn’t assume that Archbishop Luwum was not anxious or did not feel fear of what he was about to go through. But he knew this text: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He was not afraid to accept the reality that resulted from his choices. And he had been choosing, in his entire life as a Christian and as a priest, to be forthright for the good of others.

We think of martyrs as having dramatic lives, or at least dramatic deaths. We think of them as superheroes of the faith. But they are just people, who live Christian life day by day. It takes courage to tell the truth and it takes courage to be accountable for your decisions. There is always a cost. Sometimes Christians live in dramatic situations, and the cost they pay is dramatic. I am quite confident, that living or dead, Janani Luwum would regard nothing as a greater compliment than to have it said of him that he was a Christian. He was a grain of wheat that fell to the earth and died, but has borne much fruit.

We live now into our own baptism. We bear fruit, perhaps not in such dramatic ways, but with equal significance. In two weeks, we baptize an infant. We live the Christian life for her, and for others, young and old who need the love of Jesus. We are invited to participate in the glorification of Christ.

Accept his invitation to the feast, the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. Have good courage and rejoice in the Lord always.