God is glorified in wiping away every tear

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“See, the home of God is among mortals.”

That’s a radical statement. After 2000 years of Christian theology and preaching we sometimes miss how radical it really is.  In the Roman Empire there were two standard views, one of the official pagan religion with its many gods, and another of philosophers and sophisticates, who basically believed that there was some sort of ultimate God, either beyond the pagan gods, or instead of them. The pagan gods made their home somewhere else, not among mortals, though they might capriciously come and mess with people from time to time. The God of the philosophers was consistently distant, detached from the world, the unmoved mover—engagement with humanity was unthinkable.

“I heard a voice saying, “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;…” In the ancient world, that would be a shocking statement, it would go against all their values for a god to be that humble. The holy city arrives and God dwells with his people, and his people are not just the elite: God’s people are everyone. Not only will God himself dwell with them, but he will wipe every tear from their eyes. From the eyes of those who suffer—and there is no denial of the reality of suffering.

There is no doubt that Christianity was very diverse from the earliest times. There are references in the earliest documents to wealthy individuals and to slaves being members on an equal footing. Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is about the incorporation of all the non-Jewish nations into the Body of Christ, even those who did not observe the practices that their Jewish sisters and brothers did.  Both of these things were frankly controversial, because of how uncomfortable they made many people, and the solutions that were worked out were not always as perfect as we might like to put forward in a story with a “happily ever after” ending. But the vision of the holy city with God tending to the tears and the healing of every person—humble or exalted—was something essential, something not to be sacrificed or compromised. It was a radical idea then. It is still a struggle.

It is in Jesus Christ that we know God who is now present with us. At the last supper, when our Eucharistic celebration was instituted, Jesus interpreted it by these words that are in today’s Gospel lesson: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The infinite, the almighty, the all powerful ever-living God had just washed his disciples’ feet. As hard as it is, “you should love one another.” Just like he loved us. With complete humility and openness. The lesson from the Acts of the Apostles and much of the epistles of St. Paul record the conflict between Christians, from very early on, in accepting one another—in accepting people from all nations among themselves. Loving one another fully is not easy and it’s not just a one-off thing. We can’t say: “I love you, now don’t bother me.”

Eichenberg Lord's SupperThe shocking thing in Christianity is that it is God that is humble, it is God that lives among us. And in dwelling with God, we learn to be his disciples, in love and service to one another—and to all of God’s children.

Jesus said this, at his last meal with his disciples: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” Unlike the world’s idea of exalted and distant God honored by wealth and power, the city of God is among the servants. God is present among us, and we know his power and glory in his being the servant of all.

Let’s read again what Peter said and the end of this lesson from the book of Acts: “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced.”

It is God who wipes away every tear. It is God who welcomes and serves every stranger in our midst.

A Great Multitude

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

MultitudeToday’s lesson from the book of Revelation presents a vision of the Kingdom of God, gathered in heavenly worship: a great multitude, more than anybody could possibly count—from every nation, all languages—every different kind of person you can imagine. All of them waving palm branches in victory and shouting out praises: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

The Lamb. That is, the one who was sacrificed for all, Jesus our Lord. The one who lived for us, the one who didn’t care whether he might suffer, or whether some might be angry that he paid more attention to those who were down or discouraged or needy…  Jesus lived—for us. Calmly, courageously, attentively, with affection. That is the Lamb that is described in the book of Revelation and throughout the Gospel of Christianity.

Amen! They all said. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen. We praise God for his unending mercy and love. God is merciful to us—not because we deserve or have earned it, but because … God is all loving and all merciful beyond any expectation or reason. It is not who people consider the best, but whom God calls: “A great multitude that not one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”

This passage refers to a “multitude,” but what does that mean? Is it all of humanity? Well, no. This multitude, these people, all have something in common.  An elder describes this way: “These are they that have come out of the great ordeal.”

That’s interesting because we might have thought that those coming out of the great ordeal refers to the small group of Christians who might have been hurt by the Romans in first century Christianity. But this is a great multitude, and they have all, all been through the great ordeal.  Without exception, those who come to know the joy of God have suffered…suffered the pain of loss, or of failure, or tragic things happening to loved ones. Or maybe the ordeal of being lost, not knowing whether you are loved by anyone, or of being cast out, disrespected and even despised.

The multitude around the heavenly throne, don’t wallow in the ordeal or in self-pity: “These are they who have come OUT of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Purified, washed and bleached and ironed because of the one who lived for us, full of selfless courage and compassion. We participate in the Lamb, living the life of selflessness and compassion, worshiping him night and day.

I once had the privilege of singing in a choir that performed Benjamin Britten’s cantata, “Rejoice in the Lamb.” The texts

were written by Christopher Smart, an English poet from the 1700s, who wrote them while he was locked in an insane asylum.  The music and the poetry are filled and overflowing with the joy of the goodness of God. It catches the spirit of those multitudes praising God night and day, particularly it’s last movement: “Hallelujah, Hallelu… Hallelujah from the heart of God … from the hand of the artist inimitable and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty. Hallelujah.” In singing it together with others, weaving many parts together, I felt lifted out of my own self-concern, for a moment, or a time of pure thankfulness.

They will hunger no more, and and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

God will wipe away every tear. The Lamb is our Shepherd. The Good Shepherd Jesus who we know—he will guide us out of every uncertainty and anxiety—indeed he will guide us out of any arrogance or hatred; wiping away the tears of sorrow and of suffering and leading us into the presence of God to join in the heavenly music of that multitude.

 

Let’s join and say together once again our psalm for today:

 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul; and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

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

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

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

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

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

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

You restored my life

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

St. Luke’s Church, Haworth, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After they have eaten, Jesus talks to Peter. Three times, Jesus asks Peter: Do you love me? Each time, when Peter answers in the affirmative, Jesus replies: Take care of my sheep. Let’s not forget, it was only a few days ago that Peter had denied Jesus three times. Interesting—in the Greek, three different words are used for sheep and for tend. It’s not exactly a rhetorical repetition, rather it’s a variation. Maybe there are different kinds of sheep, that need different kinds of tending. Perhaps that’s true of people, too.

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

From our psalm today:
You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

 

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

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

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

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

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

“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; even those who pierced him…” We have life, not because we have made an agreement with earthly powers, so that they don’t take it away from us… we have life because God, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has given us the gift of life.  It is easy to fall into believing that the real world gives life by getting status or wealth, or working for somebody who has those things. I used to think, “Oh, I’ll be able to fix things, if I can just get to being an important enough leader…” Others think that large amounts of money will help them to fix things for themselves and their families. There’s nothing wrong with having money and there is nothing wrong with serving in an important position; but when we fall into focusing on those things; believing that achieving those things will give life, it is at that point that we start to compromise with the powers of death. Do you think that it’s rare for people to think, quietly, to themselves, “If I can just get a bit more advantage and others suffer just a little more, then I can achieve a lot of good for everybody?” Just a little manipulation of the truth, or a financial push or planting a bit of dishonest philosophy in public opinion to give an advantage to my organization, or my political party, or my company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have seen the Lord

A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Mary Magdalen went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”

Today is the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus. On this day, God has raised from the dead, the one that the powers of this world had killed, and he brings us life and freedom from death and oppression. Today he brings us into eternal life.

ResurrectionIf we are doubtful, confused, and muddled in this life and don’t know what to think, then we are in exactly the position of those first disciples, like Mary Magdalen, to whom Jesus first appeared. She saw Jesus, and she thought he was the groundskeeper. She was so pre-occupied with her own grief, that at first she couldn’t recognize that she was talking to her teacher, the Lord of Life.

When you read your Bible closely, and read the accounts of the resurrection, there is always confusion and doubt at first. It’s not because Jesus wasn’t actually there. The confusion, the doubt, the grief, the despair – those were all what the people to whom Jesus appeared were feeling. The Resurrection of Christ is here today but it takes conversion to see him. And when I say conversion, what I mean is giving up those things inside all of us—doubt, grief, despair, hatred—those powers of this world that grab hold of our spirit, and keep us from seeing the truth.

This morning we are baptizing Savannah. And I’m going to break off from my sermon for a minute to say this: This is my second Easter I have had the pleasure of worshipping with you as your priest. And the number of beautiful children I have been asked to baptize—and even more important, the way this congregation upholds their children and their young people—has been a true joy to witness.

Which is going to be the main point of the rest of my sermon. It’s no accident that we are baptizing Savannah on Easter. Her parents asked me when their daughter could be baptized, and I said, “On Easter.” I’m usually not that definite or directive, I can let a lot of rules slide when it seems helpful. But the church baptizes on Easter, because we are baptized into Christ’s resurrection. It’s not just a vending machine where you get the right credential. Together, we are converted into the Truth, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s open up our prayer books to page 302 and the pages that follow. I want us all to go through this together, because this is serious business. We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and her parents so that she can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for this child and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.

The rest of the baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair, we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.

If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.

If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through, that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart. The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us, and have life. To celebrate and rejoice in that gift of life.

In conclusion, I will share the end of a sermon that is over 1500 years old. It is attributed to John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople. His last name is a nickname that was given to him after he had been preaching for a while. It means, “Golden Mouth.”

Enter all of you therefore into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally all of you! The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the Feast of Faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let none lament their poverty, for the Universal Kingdom has been revealed.

Let none mourn their transgressions, for Pardon has dawned from the Tomb!

Let no one fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!

He that was taken  by Death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted of His Flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah proclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body, and face to face met God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?”

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and Life reigns!

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

For Christ being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages!

Annunciation on Good Friday

A homily on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus where he came from.

Today is March 25th. That is the day that the church normally celebrates the feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she was going to have a baby, and that baby was to be called the Son of the Most High. All the people who manage liturgical celebrations nowadays sternly inform us that Good Friday takes precedence so we have to put off the Annunciation until another free day when we can have a happy feast. However, there are some scholars that believe that the Annunciation was put on March 25th because there existed traditions in the ancient world that sages and prophets died on the date of their conception, and that some ancient scholars calculated that Jesus was crucified on March 25th.  Rather than go into the complexities and probabilities of that, let’s reflect for a moment on the Annunciation.  I said most of what follows when the text came up in Advent of 2014.

“Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” That’s a bold thing to say to a very young woman in this situation. That term “Angel”: the Greek word basically means Messenger. That message that Gabriel brought her, the message of God’s favor, God’s love—it takes some seeing. It did not relieve her from poverty, it did not make people think or say nice things about her. It certainly didn’t get her out of changing diapers and putting up with all the difficulties of child rearing. And if she could see forward, thirty years or so, and see what would happen to her Son…Pietahow much pain and grief does the favor of God cost?

But in that child was life. In him was hope. In him is the resurrection from the dead right in the middle of this too real life. How much did Mary know? She was young, no evidence of great education, but she knew quite clearly the situation she was in. So she listened to the angel. She heard him out. She even heard him speak about her older cousin Elizabeth: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” She knew, she heard, and she decided. And then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

When Mary went up into the hills and met Elizabeth she sang a song, which explains why she did that and what it means:

 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed;

the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.

God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel,

for he has remembered his promise of mercy.

The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.

 

This young woman was standing at the foot of the cross, with the disciple that Jesus loved—perhaps that means all of us, we are all beloved of Jesus. From the cross, he said to us: “Here is your mother.”

The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas to betray him

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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