Living in Good Faith

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

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

Go on your Way

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

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Christian Today

Being Christian in the World We’re in: Session 6

Over the past five weeks we’ve discussed Christian faith in History, in the Hebrew and Jewish Scriptures, in the New Testament, in Theology, in the Church and Sacraments. Today let’s talk about being Christian in the World We’re in.

The circumstances we’re in

We are nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Two thousand years ago, Jesus was a young adult. The two thousandth anniversary of his crucifixion will be in ten or fifteen years.

In 1968, when I was confirmed, the Episcopal Church had about 3.5 million members. At the most recent report for 2017, that figure is 1.7 million members. That’s about half as many total members, but while that three and a half million in 1968 was around 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, the current percentage is about one-half of one percent. The Episcopal Church keeps better statistics than other churches, but this is not a problem that is in any way unique to the Episcopal Church. Church membership and church attendance overall have been declining for the past fifty years and the fastest growing group is “the Nones” who are those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.

(more…)

The Church and the Sacraments

Being Christian in the World that we’re in: Session 5

 

The Church and the Creed at the time of the First Ecumenical Council

We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

In a country where many people grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, it’s understandable that people would think that this sentence from the Nicene Creed refers to that huge and venerable organization run by the Pope. However, while there was an important bishop in Rome when the Nicene Creed was adopted, he wasn’t at that council and the church wasn’t organized around the papacy at that time. The “one holy catholic Council of Niceaand apostolic church” meant something very specific to the 200 or 300 bishops who gathered in the imperial palace in the lakeside town of Nicea in 325 A.D. It referred to the faith and life in the churches they represented, a faith and life that had been passed down from the apostles of Jesus. Catholic means universal—those bishops who had come together from throughout the known world recognized the unity of a universal church with universal belief and common worship. The Roman emperor Constantine had called the meeting and was in charge of the meeting, but the one authority over that Church was Christ and not a single person or institution. (more…)

Jesus & Theology

Being Christian in the World We’re In

Session 4: Jesus & Theology

shema

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5

This passage from the book of Deuteronomy is the foundation of Christian and Jewish theology. It is known in Judaism by its first words in Hebrew: Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel.” It is what the people of God should hear and listen to. God is one, God alone, and loving God is what we are called to do.

In our Book of Common Prayer, the Rite One version of the Eucharist, and other older versions, quotes Jesus’ version of this in the beginning of the service: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” BCP p. 324 quoting Matthew 22:37-40 (more…)

The Christian Scriptures of the New Testament

Session 3: Being Christian In The World We’re In

 The earliest Christian Scriptures

For, among the very first things, I delivered to you what I had also received: that Christ died because of our sins, in accord with the scriptures, And that he was entombed, and that he was raised on the third day in accord with the scriptures, And that he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve. First Corinthians 15:3-5 (D.G. Hart translation)

This is the earliest preaching of the Christian church. St. Paul, who is the earliest writer in the New Testament is passing on the tradition which he received. Of all the layers of distinctively Christian scripture, it is the oldest. It says that 1) Jesus died for our sins 2) He was buried 3) God raised him on the third day. It emphasizes that the death and resurrection are in accord with scripture. 4) Jesus appeared to Peter and the Apostles. (more…)