Jesus took them up in his arms

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 4, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

holding childHe took the children in his arms and held them. He kept them safe, so they knew they were loved, and he blessed them. And not because they were cute; or that he liked the way that they played.

In the last couple of weeks the Gospel has been showing some of the bad sides of Jesus’ followers. And that can be uncomfortable because they resemble us, more in the ways that they are annoying and problematic than in any other way. It continues today. We’re in a new scene in the Gospel, they had walked to a new region. There was this controversy, which I’ll get back to, and then the disciples decided to be Jesus’ “handlers.” They knew how annoying little kids can be, wanting attention, making noise, looking out for what they want first. So the disciples decided to clean things up and push away those kids and their parents. Jesus would have none of it. He knew how annoying adults could be, wanting his time and attention for themselves, talking over others to get their opinions in first, manipulating everything for their own self-interest. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

The only thing that really distinguishes us adult disciples from these children is that we think that we are different, grown-up, and in charge. And Jesus holds us in his arms and blesses us. It is not our in-chargeness that he holds and blesses, it is that we are his children, whether well-behaved or not.

People like to always get an advantage, to show that they are just a little ahead of everyone else. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to outsmart God, or to at least trick themselves into believing that whatever scheme or privilege they want to hold onto is God’s eternal plan. So these Pharisees come up and ask Jesus about marriage and divorce. Almost always, these confrontations have an agenda, the debates at this time were about when it was legitimate for a man to divorce his wife. Sometimes it helps to translate the Greek words literally, it shows the frame of mind and assumptions that were going on: They asked Jesus when it was permitted for a man to dismiss a woman. There was no question about how a woman could get rid of a man, just how the guy could be justified in getting rid of a woman. The implication is that the woman might become a burden to a man, so how could he get rid of her? The various rabbis had different positions on this, and your answer to this question defined where you stood as a teacher in Israel. So Jesus said, “What did Moses say?” The Pharisee’s answer was a man could write out a certificate and divorce the woman—they were waiting for Jesus to explain what exactly that meant, when and how, and for what reason. This is important, of course, because a guy has to figure out how to do what he wants and remained justified, and it’s important for lawyers and scholars and pastors to work it out so he does these things and still feels good.

Jesus surprises them. He doesn’t explain how to make the law of Moses work. Instead he says that it’s a colossal fail. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Divorce in this culture was a convenience for men. For the women it was a financial and social disaster. Their livelihood and prospects were pretty much completely cut off. The teachings of the rabbis and the certificate of divorce were intended to control this somewhat, to make the men more accountable, and to give the women who had been sent out at least the theoretical chance to re-marry and recover. But Jesus turns to the men and says: conforming with this regulation does not justify you, you don’t get your financial advantage, or comfort or your new young wife through appealing to Moses. Jesus refers to the creation—that a man leaves his parents and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. A family is formed and it is not up to the arbitrary choice of a person to break that up. You can’t just make your choices holy by appealing to some provision in the law—that woman is part of you, not a possession to be discarded. But things do happen in this real world, divorces occur, families are torn apart and people are hurt. Because of our hardness of heart, provisions have to be made. Provisions are made for people to live. He took them up in his arms, and embraced them, laid his hands on them and blessed them.

Barely three months after a racist gunman claimed the lives of the martyrs of Charleston, we are mourning the deaths of innocents in Oregon. President Obama has said, about our famously lax gun laws: “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.” We are going to see the politicians and the NRA claim: it’s not the gun, it’s the person. But make no mistake about it and I am saying this as someone who grew up in the West where every family had guns: it’s the gun, guns everywhere for any idot to pick up. We need—as Christians—not to rationalize, not to justify, not to listen to professional handlers—but to ensure that the children will be safe and grow up to show us the kingdom of God.

The love of God and the grace of God is not so that we can be grown-up, dominant, have the upper hand or be rewarded for being the cleverest. We enter the Kingdom of God as a little child: loved, forgiven, given another chance. Loved; not encouraged in hurting other children, but in being cared for and learning to be a caring person. God gives his grace, and provisions for us to make it in this hard world filled with difficult choices, not to make it okay to harden our hearts, but to let us live, to experience becoming one flesh, one body in Christ. He embraces us and blesses us, not because we are the grown-ups, or the experts or the leaders, but because we are his children, partaking of his flesh, and being healed so that we can go out again into that world.



We tried to stop him, because he was not following us

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

September 27, 2015 18th Sunday after Pentecost

We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of last week’s gospel. And it’s not just the next scene—it’s part of the same message. Last week we heard about how the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus teaches them that being the greatest doesn’t matter at all, and he shows them a powerless and neglected child who is the real example of how to welcome God. It’s not about winning, it’s about serving and welcoming.

I can sort of hear the disciples trying to defend themselves: “But Jesus, there was this guy …  he was casting out demons. We told him to stop, because … because he wasn’t with us!”  Basically, Jesus says, “No.” Not only is it NOT the most powerful and prestigious person who is first in the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not brought by some winning team—even though it’s okay for some people in the Bronx to hope for the Yankees to win the playoffs and play the Mets in the World Series this year. There was this man that they didn’t know who was casting out demons. I have said at other times that I believe that there are indeed demonic forces abroad in this world—those forces of hurt and hate that nobody will take responsibility for. Everyone looks the other way and shakes their head and says, “That’s awful.”  But no one sees themselves in those awful things that happen, even though the suffering is human suffering caused by human society.  Casting out demons is essential work in healing this world. It is not easy work.

So this man in the Gospel reading was unknown to the disciples, a stranger, and they didn’t trust him—how could he be casting out demons in the name of Jesus? The disciples knew how special Jesus was, and they felt pretty special being his followers. John, one of the inner circle, says that he took it upon himself to put this guy in his place, after all, it was Peter and Andrew and James and John who were called by Jesus, not this exorcist.  John looked to his special relationship with Jesus and saw it as a reason to forbid the man from healing.

We live in a world much in need of healing. If God is to heal the conflict in our country and our world, it will take far more than our intelligence, or teaching, or effort or opinions. Salvation of this world will come from more than one team, or one set of interpretations. Prayer is powerful, it changes things and it heals.  But it is not just the prayers of one person that God uses, but of all of creation.

Let’s go back and remember the part of this reading that we heard last week, it’s right before this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” It is the care and healing of those who are powerless, neglected and ignored that Jesus cares about. He’s still holding the child when he says to the disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Gentle Jesus, talking to his friends and followers; not the Pharisees or his rivals. Being a Christian is not about being on the winning team, it is about being humble enough to serve. But when I say humble, I don’t mean looking down at your shoes and doing whatever those that are more confident, powerful or privileged say. Christian humility is having the confidence to stand for the gospel of service, of honest generosity in welcoming Him who came for us and gave his life for us on the cross.

0922-pope-francis-fiat-getty-4This week, Pope Francis has been in our country, indeed in our city. He has a very big and high-profile job. He does a pretty good job of it and he gets a lot of attention. Anybody in that job would get a lot of attention when traveling around the world, but that’s not important. What he is good at, is modeling Christian humility. On Thursday, he spoke to Congress and challenged them to “Heal the World’s Open Wounds” as the New York Times headline said.  To quote the Religion News Service description of the speech:




Francis carefully laid out a vision of political cooperation for the common good — one that highlighted economic injustice as a chief threat to family life, that stressed the moral imperative to care for the environment, that denounced profits “drenched in blood” from the arms industry and that forcefully argued for America to welcome, not reject, immigrants.

So, he spoke some words that needed to be said to those with legislative authority and power in this country and then he went and had lunch with some poor and homeless people. His job and his power are not what is important—what is important is that many can see what we mean by living a life of Christian humility in what the Pope has been doing. I say it this way, because he is not being a special hero, doing things that no one else can do—what Francis is doing is what we should all do: speak the truth humbly and confidently and serve those who this world regards as the least.

We follow Christ. And Jesus is not interested in who is in control—he is interested in the healing of this world. “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

What were you arguing about?

A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 20, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent…

They were silent.

Not so much different from that silence that a parent hears when the young kids are in that other room playing, and instead of the sounds of playing, there is … quiet. You know that there is something going on, and it is probably not good. You know, we love these kids and they are actually cute when they first start doing this, but it is the first sign of the loss of innocence—they are quiet because they know that they are doing something they shouldn’t.

So these disciples were silent, and not in some deep, meditative, tranquil way. They had been arguing, and they weren’t even arguing about being allowed to pick up the check for the others. They were arguing over who was the greatest. It doesn’t say the greatest what. Was it the best accountant? The best leader? The one who could hold his breath underwater the longest? The one who was the most generous and Christlike? It doesn’t actually matter. The world rewards the best leader. The Roman Empire rewarded the best leader. About a year ago, Paula and I went to Rome and we walked around the ruins of the palace of the Roman emperors—it was huge by any standards, Roman imperial palaceancient or modern, bigger than the residences of any of the wealthy and powerful today.  None of these disciples ever saw that palace, but they knew about palaces and how the Great men who owned them received deference from everyone, and had all sorts of privilege. So that’s one kind of kingdom, and if we’re coming into the Kingdom of God, it might be different, but it’s a pretty good model right? Especially if I get to be—not the king or the emperor—but maybe the Grand Duke or the Archbishop? I think that’s what they were arguing about. Who gets to be Jesus’ top assistant and maybe chief of staff, who gets the honor and the privilege in the Kingdom of God?

But when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they were silent. They knew, they could tell, that Jesus didn’t work that way.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Privilege and respect don’t even compute for Jesus. Be the servant, that’s what counts. There is nothing about following Jesus that involves achieving distinction, certainly not about power or privilege. It is about being who you are, not some status you aspire to.

The next step is Jesus bringing the child into the circle. I love little kids and so do a lot of us here. It’s a great joy to see them enjoy life, and learn, and develop and play. Kids are wonderful to have around. But I don’t think that’s what is going on in this particular passage. It is not the charm, or the affection, or even the promise of the little children that caused Jesus to bring this child into the circle of disciples. Everyone there knew that a child had no power or influence. The child did what it was told and its opinions didn’t count.  The disciples had been discussing who was the biggest and Jesus showed them someone entirely different. “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but God.” The privilege and the respect are for the powerless, those who are not respected. That argument—who’s the greatest, who’s the biggest, who’s the one who’s entitled to the most; that discussion and those whoevers are not even relevant to Jesus or the Kingdom of God. Who suffers? Who needs healing? Who has not been listened to? That is where the Kingdom is—that is whom Jesus welcomes.

One thing that I want to say here is one of those questions is really important, and we all over the Church just let it pass by, not just too often, but all the time: Who has not been listened to? The smart and the experienced think they can figure out everything, and so for years the Episcopal Church, and other churches, have been in decline.  We don’t actually listen to the opinions and the desires of our youth and our young adults. And it’s not so surprising that they drift away.  I am not going to oversimplify or solve these issues in one brief sermon, but we might be surprised by the Christianity that emerges from those who are younger, and are not interested in being the church like us.  I doubt that it will be what we think we already know. I doubt that the youth and young adults want to be pandered to, or that they want a Christianity that is easier or less challenging.

The challenge is Jesus. Jesus in the rest of this century, how do we listen to him?

Whoever welcomes one such as this, the last, the least, the most ignored, welcomes me, he says.  Welcoming God is welcoming those we want to ignore. That is the challenge for the church.

God guides us into a life of confident humility, and in thus welcoming God, we have the joy of the presence of Christ.


The tongue of a teacher … to sustain the weary with a word.

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

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2015

Then he began to teach them…

allan-rohan-crite-the-last-supperJesus is our teacher. It is from him that we learn the truth. But sometimes it’s hard to recognize the real Jesus in the midst of all the fantasies and images that people put forward about Jesus. People have always tried to understand Jesus by seeing him as in some ways similar to themselves. That’s why the picture of Jesus behind our altar looks more like the men who worshiped here when it was painted than it looks like any Palestinian Jewish peasant of two thousand years ago. That is a phenomenon that has good and bad consequences and is important to think about, but it is not what I’m talking about here. Jesus teaches us, but we skip over things we should hear and substitute things that we would rather hear.

Jesus teaches us about the freedom of God, and about our freedom, about abundant life in the Kingdom of God.  The teaching of Jesus is not hard to understand, you don’t need to have a college degree, or some special magic glasses. Jesus tells us the Good News, and how we are to live so that it is good news for us, and it is not too high or too hard for any of us.  The thing is, the Kingdom of God is in this real world that God created. And this real world was good enough for Jesus and he teaches us and leads us into that Kingdom. And you don’t get there by cheating, by ignoring what Jesus is teaching and making up your own kingdom.

Jesus was walking with his disciples. The sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark just before this, was that Jesus fed the Four Thousand, then there was a controversy with the Pharisees who demanded a sign and a discussion with the disciples about the danger of the Pharisees and of Herod. Then Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus fed. He taught. He healed. Now he’s walking with his disciples and he asked them,  “Who do people say that I am?” There’s no trick and no secret here. The disciples knew the buzz about Jesus, and they answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets.” These were good people, known for telling the truth, for challenging people and leading them to God. This is what the disciples were hearing from all over, even Herod was afraid that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life. And then Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, the most outspoken leader of the group, spoke for them, “You are the Messiah.” For Peter and the rest, Jesus was more than a prophet—he was the anointed one of God, the one who was to lead Israel into the Kingdom of God.

But then … Jesus began to teach them. Jesus told them about the real world, about what would happen to this teacher and prophet.  This is how Jesus told the disciples about the Resurrection from the Dead. But they were working on a different story of who the Messiah was, and what Jesus was teaching was not what they were prepared to hear; Peter and the rest had already filled in the blanks with their own story. That story was magical and wishful thinking, not the real world that we live in. Of Course. If you are wishing for things, you don’t wish for suffering and rejection, certainly not for your beloved Teacher. Of course, you wish for God to make things fine and comfortable for everyone. But Jesus wasn’t wishing, he was teaching, and he was teaching about the real world. Peter thought that he had the power to protect Jesus. He did not. He thought that he had enough dedication and commitment to stay with Jesus and never reject him, and he thought that others would also stay with Jesus and not reject him. He was wrong. On both counts.

I have talked about suffering in other sermons. Certainly the question of suffering is here in this lesson, and it is real and important, but I want to talk about another piece of this.  Jesus was teaching about being engaged in the real world, in what actually happens. And in fact, he was not talking dismally and hopelessly; he was describing how you get to the resurrection of the dead. Peter wanted to skip the uncomfortable steps and it just got past him that in doing so he was also missing the resurrection. We live in a world where people usually want to skip over the uncomfortable, workaday steps of real world existence and go right to already having their goal, which is usually power, privilege and wealth, in one way or another. In that selfish skipping over reality, it is other people who get skipped over; it is generosity and caring that are lost. It is abundant life that this world loses in striving to be the top. Jesus brings abundant life, and he teaches it this way: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

We rejoice in the constant love of God. God has given us this real world, filled with abundant life, the opportunity live in generosity, in the midst of God’s love for his children.

Listen once again to a word from this morning’s lesson from the Prophet Isaiah:

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”

Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God.

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

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2015

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God; who made heaven and earth, the seas; and all that is in them; who keeps his promises for ever; Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.

On June 17, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot and killed by an attacker expressing reasons for the murders connected with race. The African Methodist Episcopal denomination has asked all churches in this country to join in a “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” The leadership of the national Episcopal Church and Bishop Dietsche have encouraged all parishes to participate, so I will focus on this issue in today’s sermon.

Most Episcopal churches have a predominantly white membership. I have spent most of my ministry in parishes, which, though they often sincerely expressed a desire to be more diverse and inclusive, were slightly more white in membership than the surrounding community. So being at this church has been a new experience for me and I hope I have learned something that may be relevant.

Racism … is actually difficult to recognize when you are its beneficiary. I’m serious, and I only really came to appreciate that fact as I experienced seeing the same human dynamic in other people in an entirely un-related area over the past year. As I grew up, everyone expected me to do well in school and to be successful in a career.  I learned that we all had rights and, that in a free country, we could exercise those rights without fear. I became used to being respected and trusted, given the opportunity to speak my mind and the benefit of the doubt if I didn’t get things quite right. I was aware that that was not the experience of everyone, in particular persons of color, but it was a little hard to grasp why or how this came to be. About a year ago, a group of us quietly spoke the truth about some serious concerns, fully expecting to be taken seriously and brought into a conversation to solve the problems. I won’t go into the specifics, but I suddenly experienced not being trusted, having my motives and interpretations of facts dismissed, and being cast out from all influence and receiving no respect. This was happening at the same time that our country’s attention was focused on the much more important, literally life-and-death events in Ferguson, Missouri. I realized that what I experienced in being not respected or trusted, in a really limited and temporary way, was analogous to the lifelong experience of millions in our country: chronically not trusted, nor given respect as a matter of course, experiencing one sort of demeaning treatment or other and having the benefit of the doubt given to those who demeaned them. The difference was that I was dealing with a contained set of people and interests, but for millions, indeed for our country as a whole, these problems are defined by race.

It is easy enough to see violence, and bad words, and over-the-top racist nastiness. For Episcopalians, that generally happens far away and outside of our social group.  We can safely be outraged, condemn bad language and bad actions, even pass resolutions or send money, then pat ourselves on the back, go back to business as usual, and everything stays the same. But what is difficult is to really see racism. One author helpfully labels it, PWS – Polite White Supremacy.  Episcopalians are far too polite for Crass White Supremacy, when you think of the Polite version…

Oh, no. We are far too good and Christian for that… It would be rude to imply that any of our brothers and sisters in Christ ever profited from slavery.  Oh, well maybe historically, but … still we need to be courteous and polite.

To be fair, most people’s lives are a struggle. Comparing miseries doesn’t help, most people experience their own difficulty and that is bad enough. They have a hard time imagining how they would get by and be able to properly take care of their children, or get to the point that they could have children, if anything of significance was taken away from them. And most people try to be good and try to find a way to see themselves and their families and friends as fundamentally good, that’s how people survive.

The problem, put simply, is that the legacy of chattel slavery is indigestible for white Americans. I’m convinced that the concept of race as we have inherited it really developed from the need to rationalize and make morally okay, the practice of keeping people of African ancestry in permanent bondage. That had evolved into a perception of economic necessity, so the rationale became that these people were enslaved because their race made it appropriate or even necessary for them to be slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, but its legacy in racism continues.

It is difficult to see how an ordinary guy whose family never owned a plantation or who doesn’t have a family fortune going back to the slave trade profits from racism. Believe me, it’s hard for that guy. But the benefit of unacknowledged privilege, of easier access to pathways to success, to safety and education that can be taken for granted—that is real. The problem is, that even with those benefits things are not always easy and when you think about change. … Change is good, change the bad things, but the problem is, well… change. Change knocks our security free from its anchor, it might endanger things that are important to us, we might lose what we don’t want to give up, and if you press this too far, the story of how we are good people might need to be changed.

So the problem with race and the Episcopal Church is that on the one hand we can’t afford to treat one category of people differently than another—as our lesson from James this morning says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ?” Yet it will require much change, not just in a few rules but in our relationships and expectations of one another, changes that have implications for the finances of the church and where the administrative energy of the church might go. And yet, I don’t know if you have been around to many of the churches in the Diocese of New York, but most of them are hurting financially, and even the wealthiest churches are not as well off as they once were, with fewer parishioners and smaller budgets. There is no, no-cost solution to racism, even the energy to pay attention to how we treat one another is hard to come by.

What I want is for is for those of us who are privileged to listen to what people who suffer from racism have to say. It will be only through careful listening and working hard to change our attitudes and our behavior that we ever have a hope of ending the evil that is racism. It’s a long process; perhaps our grandchildren will be able to explain to their grandchildren how hard the process was. And, let us pray that those babies will have a hard time understanding that.

Racism is a process of denial. Denial makes everything slippery, everything is hard to change—you just get yessed to death and nothing changes. The Episcopal Church extends denial beyond questions of race into most corners of its life. Perhaps if we can be forthright in speaking with one another on issues related to race, we can also be forthright about priorities about mission, about providing ministry for our churches, about the responsibility of laity and about how the ministry of all baptized people can be effective in this world. The Gospel challenges us all to change, to be more welcoming, to live in the overwhelming grace of God and to not keep it to ourselves. The Gospel challenges Trinity Church to change as much as any other, and that can be frightening—yet no more frightening than the alternative—to become rigid and blind, and cease to be.

We are called by God to be his people. Listen to these words from our lesson from Isaiah:

Succor Creek Canyon springSay to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert, the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.


Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God.



Poets, not hearers who deceive themselves

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

14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 30, 2015

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.

We live in a world where people attribute everything to God, or nothing to God. As if every random thing that happens has been planned out and dictated by God, or, on the other hand that God isn’t there at all, or God is relevant to nothing. Our epistle lesson this morning, from the letter of James, says something quite different.

child and gift“Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift” is from God. It doesn’t say, “all the stuff we get or want” is from God, it says, “Every generous act of giving…” We detect God, we perceive God, and we understand God in the generosity of people. There is a famous passage in the First letter of John, describing God: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.” We see God in others when we see that un-self conscious generosity that puts the needs of others first. I know the presence of God in my life, when I have the gift of being able to give for others without looking to my own gain.

People like to turn it around and make someone else responsible for their troubles and if no one else is convenient then it’s all God’s fault. God is the giver of perfect gifts, the God of love, but it so easy to quickly defend ourselves and to blame.

The letter of James continues: “My beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” How often do people get this backwards and become quick to speak and slow to listen? That’s particularly the case when we’re defending ourselves and trying to tag somebody else with being ungenerous or unkind, quick to win the argument. That quickness to speak goes along with a slowness in listening, and in that slowness, we miss the generosity of God.

Attend! Be quick to focus and listen to the living, the most generous, the most perfect God. But that is just the beginning of this passage. It is not enough to just hear good things, and listen to the right answers. It is not enough even to memorize the right answers. Copying out answers from the Bible, or from Dr. Phil, or Oprah or anyplace else will do you no good. Here is how the passage from James continues: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” It is not enough to just know the right rhetoric. It is when the Word of Life becomes the fabric of your life and governs your way of doing things that it makes a difference.

When I was looking at the Greek of this lesson, I noticed a little detail. That word, “doers” is not a very common or graceful word in English. It’s a good enough translation. In Greek, the word is  ποιητης [poietes] which means a person who does something, but it is also the same word that is used in Greek for a poet–ποιητης [poietes] is the origin of our word poet. A poet takes language and a story and does something with them and does something new that makes more sense and conveys more truth than was there before—at least, that’s what a good poet does. Living the Christian life is much like being a poet: in our lives, we receive the gifts of God, we hear, we listen—any artist spends much time absorbing the world around her. But that is crafted by the artist into something new, something is done so that a new and true gift is made for the world.

I noticed the next sentence in this lesson for the very first time when I was preparing this sermon. It says, “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” That image in the mirror, that image that comes from looking at ourselves, doesn’t really reveal the truth about ourselves. Self-absorption does not make the poet. It is the integration of the whole of reality, of getting beyond ourselves, that we become doers of the word, poets with our lives. The text continues, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” That doing is the poetry of our lives, and that perfect law is the generosity of God that manifests in the generous lovingness of people. That blessing in our lives is the doing of God’s generosity in lives of thanksgiving.

Please listen once again to our psalm for today:

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?

            who may abide upon your holy hill?

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right.

            who speaks the truth from his heart.

There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend;

            he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.

In his sight the wicked is rejected,

            but he honors those who fear the Lord.

He has sworn to do no wrong

            and he does not take back his word.

He does not give his money in hope of gain,

            nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things

            shall never be overthrown.

Lord, to whom can we go?

A sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Lord, to whom can we go?

Today is the fifth Sunday in a row that the Gospel lesson is from the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Starting with the feeding of the 5000, Jesus explained the he is the Bread of Life and in him, and by partaking in his body, we abide in God and God in us. Some may hear this as bland, or everyday Christian piety. But when Jesus said it, it was anything but bland. It was a huge controversy, and at the end of the lesson all those disciples and all those thousands of people who came to hear Jesus preach and received bread on the hillside were upset and went way. Jesus was alone with the twelve, no one else would stay, and he asked Peter, “Do you also wish to go away?”

The gospel is a challenge, not a joyride. When we say Jesus is the Bread of Life, that doesn’t imply the cake and cookies and sumptuous meals and everything we think we want. The Bread of Life is the fundamental nourishment of our spirit, the food to get us through the difficult journey, but it does not promise power, it just gives us Jesus, and those people who had been hanging around realized that Jesus was on the way to the cross, and he wasn’t going to make their lives any easier, or make them more powerful, or even get rid of the Romans for them.

They left, and Jesus asked that question of Peter. Peter’s answer really struck me this week. I think it is my answer too: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

It was a discouraging time for both Peter and Jesus. What may have looked like success was all gone. We can’t assume that Peter wasn’t interested in success—that he didn’t want to have a successful group, even an organization. But they were all gone. In particular, all those who were there as joiners of successful groups had just walked off. The situation forced Peter to consider why he was there and what he was doing. All the organizational and institutional reasons had disappeared. The idea of a movement that would somehow restore Israel—perhaps as a purer, more loving religion with people helping one another more, or perhaps as a political movement that would get rid of the occupying Romans and restore justice—was gone. I don’t know exactly what had been in Peter’s mind in the previous days or weeks or months. But on that day, he said, “To whom can we go?” Where else or what else makes any sense, or has any truth?

The story of Jesus is not one of triumph. And as much as we would often like it to be, being his church isn’t a matter of triumph or success. I have been reading a book recently, entitled “Church Refugees.” In it, a sociologist named Joshua Packard interviewed people from a growing category of Christians, who are sometimes referred to as “the Dones.” These are people who have been active in their churches but stop. They are “done with church.” Interestingly, in this research, this group of people did not leave because they were challenged by the Gospel, or because they lost their faith in God; rather they left because characteristics of the church became barriers to their following God and growing spiritually. Judgementalism in congregations and preoccupation with structures rather than service often led to breakdown of spiritual community, at least in the experience of these people. It happens increasingly among people whose experience in many congregations is enough to make them “done with church” altogether. They find themselves alone, with Peter’s question, “To whom then, can we go?”

Peter says these words to Jesus, and he continues, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When Peter says this, it is not when he is leading the church or defining doctrine. Peter says this when both he and Jesus are basically “done.” The people had come, and they wanted many of the things that they saw, but when they came to see the truth, that Jesus was talking about transforming of their spirit, not about giving them security, power and bread in excess in this world, they went away. Peter and the others in that small group of twelve saw the truth as well, and they knew they could not be part of that large group walking away. They saw the truth and they had no place else to go.

YonkersJesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The spirit takes us out of concern for ourselves and puts us in a life of generosity. The flesh that Jesus mentions is a preoccupation with our own wellbeing that blocks us from living in generosity. This happens in churches and other organizations as well as in individuals. The community that is fearful and preoccupied with its own existence, its own material needs, its own desire for the security of the flesh becomes unable to be generous in the spirit. At that point, it is not surprising that some faithful Christians become “done with church.”

Before I came to Trinity last Fall, I was very nearly “done with church.” What I found was a community that loved and respected Christ and loved one another. The temptation is always there to be afraid, to turn inward for fear of losing the flesh and substance of the church. But in any of these cases, we are in the same place as Peter and the twelve. “To whom can we go?” The answer is: to him who we know is the Holy One of God.

Here is what Jesus said:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father

So whoever eats me will live because of me. …

The one who eats this bread will live forever.”