…except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them

A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Jesus went home, and he taught in the synagogue and it was pretty impressive. But THEY knew his background. “That Mary woman, he’s her son. Yeah, we know about that family. carpenter He’s just a rough carpenter, sometimes picked up work framing houses—but I hear now he mostly just wanders around the countryside with those ‘disciples’ of his.  He’s better off just wandering out of here.”

Around home, they know all the down sides of people. When we know people from a long time back, we’re not so inclined to be polite about them, and we’re not so inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—because we think we know them. But with strangers, it’s different. Especially when someone appears successful, well-dressed, wealthy, powerful. Despite the fact that we really don’t know them, we want to think of them as perfect. And we want to imagine that the people we endorse are perfect—perfectly powerful, perfectly good-looking, no blemishes or doubtful aspects to their background, and certainly never disagreeing with us, or calling our behavior into question.

Jesus was a hometown boy, and the people remembered every little thing, every jealousy, every mistake, every disagreement. By the way—when we talk about Jesus being the incarnation of God, we tend to think that he didn’t make mistakes. I think that’s wrong. He was a human being, and there is no reason to think that, as a Palestinian kid, he did calculus and differential equations as a three-year-old. His perfection was in being the perfect manifestation of God’s love, and that did not mean that he was never annoying to his elders or contemporaries. So he came to his home town, and he preached in the synagogue. And at first, the listened and the insight touched them, it was extraordinary, but then they said, wait… we know this guy, he’s not so impressive…he’s not a great philosopher, he’s a carpenter.  And we know his family… you know, one of those families—in fact those brothers, James and Joses, I had some dealings with them…

Like the rest of us, the people of Nazareth were looking for something really big, and really impressive, and from sources that could not possibly be criticized. And you know what? Those sources don’t exist, because ever since Eve saw that apple and got into that conversation with the serpent, criticism and suspicion have been a big part of how people do business. So great acts of power… the people of Nazareth weren’t going to see those.

What did Jesus do?  It says, “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Jesus reached out and healed, and pretty much nobody noticed.  Because he was familiar, and not driving the newest car, or wearing the fanciest clothes, no one noticed that he reached out to the sick and healed them. No flashes of lightning or puffs of smoke, no fireworks like we saw last night, he just laid his hands on a few sick people and cured their disease.

The important things that God does are not fireworks. We come to God for salvation, but that word salvation, it does not mean dramatic rescues, or big rewards far away and a long time off, salvation means healing, salving, of our souls, our relationships, our bodies and our society. Sometimes, especially close to home, that healing comes without all the fanfare that we might want or expect. Jesus healed a few sick people, and that was all that was necessary. Then he sent out those twelve who were with him. Two by two they went with nothing.  Just themselves, no resources. And what did he tell them to do? “Whenever you enter the house stay there.” That’s all, stay there. Nothing big, nothing dramatic and nothing about what wonderful people the disciples were, or even how wonderful Jesus was. So they were there, they talked about the love of God and repentance. In the process here’s what the Gospel says happened, “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

Sometimes we think, “Oh, if I just lived in Bible times, or the times of the early church!” or “Oh, if there was just the opportunity to know what God is clearly calling me to do, and the chance to do it.” I’ve certainly thought that at times. But if we look at Jesus and his disciples, their life was much like our lives, and what they did, was what we do, they came together, talked about the love of God, prayed for the sick and anointed them with oil.

Friends we are living in Bible times. Events of the last few weeks in Charleston and elsewhere, show that our society has many demons to be cast out. God is the one who casts out demons, but we gather together and pray—like the disciples we may have no bread, no bag, no money in our belts—but God cures the sick and gives us life, not through drama, but through his presence.

St. Paul said this to the church at Corinth:

“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefor I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was.”

After the storm that was in last week’s lesson, Jesus and the disciples got back in the boat and crossed back to where they were before. Immediately, Jesus is back among the chaos of the crowds, and we have a story of two healings. Often these two are pulled apart and discussed individually, even by biblical scholars, but I think it’s important to look at them together.

One of the leaders of the church comes to Jesus and begs him to come heal his daughter. Jesus has compassion and goes along with this community leader—just as he is doing this, the other story interrupts. A woman, a part of this crowd—a woman who has suffered with a condition for a dozen years, which has ruined her life—she pushes through the crowd to get close to Jesus, the healer. The blood, the force of life, which has been flowing out of her, has made it so that she cannot be touched by a man. She pushes close to reach out to touch this man, the healer. He felt the force leave him and he turned to see her. “Daughter your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Jesus had compassion on this woman, who had been an outsider, who transgressed by touching him. He healed her, and commended her trust in God.

This was in the middle of crowds pressing around, all sorts of pressure and confusion. And the other story comes back. Jesus is standing there and people come from the house of the religious leader and say, “She’s dead. Let the teacher go away.” Practical, realistic, discouraged people, just giving up. Jesus looked at these fearful and discouraged people and said, “Do not fear, only believe.” They had seen a healer and now they believed that the chance for healing was lost. So they dismissed the healer. But Jesus would not accept their resignation and dismissal, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus knew far more about life than they knew about death. He got to the house, and they laughed at him. He said she was asleep, and they laughed at him, and Jesus said to them, “Please, just go outside for now.” He took the parents into the room and took the girl by the hand and said, “little girl, get up!” And she did. Jesus had compassion on the child, and on those parents of hers, those respectable leaders of the community, and he had compassion on that woman, the ruined outcast. All at the same time. He did not listen to those who were telling him “don’t bother, go away.” Jesus won’t listen to hopelessness, rather he has compassion for those who hurt, who are confused, who are fearful.

There were two healings on that day. Most people would have advised Jesus to pay attention to just one or the other, to choose, to choose the more worthy or the one with the greatest need or the one that agreed with them. Jesus would not do that, and as everybody started to advise him more, “he put them all outside.” We think we know about compassion and healing, but we don’t, not really—Jesus just tended to healing and being compassionate. Jesus just shakes his head and sends them outside—there are no limits on God’s love, in particular, not limits that we contrive.

People are often most hurt by the limits that others put on God’s love—usually, trying to defend their own claims on God or their own privilege they conclude that others should get out of the way—like that woman with the hemorrhage, she shouldn’t interrupt Jesus getting to the house to heal the important man’s little girl.

On Friday, two important things happened. In the morning, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision affirming marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Not too long after that, the President of the United States preached about grace at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed during a bible study in his church by a racist attacker. Is one more important than the other? Can God have compassion on only one group? In both cases, people have suffered long, with disapproval and dismissal by the dominant groups in our culture. It is common for people to lack understanding of the sincerity and humanity of groups that they are not part of. Marriage equality will not change attitudes or relationships over night. And President Obama said this about race:

obama“We don’t earn grace. We are all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway and we choose how to receive it. It is our decision how to honor it. None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, someone says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There is no shortcut. We don’t need more talk. None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires. There are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”

 

The violence of racism is not simply in shootings or lynchings, it is also in the constant denial of ordinary human respect, that goes unnoticed day by day among those in the dominant culture. Likewise, our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers suffer similar indignity—it caused many to hide, but not change, who they were. We are often tempted to seek comfort by denying Jesus’ compassion, but he won’t let us get away with it.

 

Is life possible when all we see is death? They laughed at Jesus. But he went upstairs, and took her hand and said, “Talitha cum” –“Little girl, get up!”

Two lay theologians write to the House of Bishops

J. David Belcher

J. David Belcher

J. David Belcher

and Shane R. Brinegar

Shane R. Brinegar

Shane R. Brinegar

were first year graduate students in the Th.D. program at the General Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2014. They have published the following letter to the House of Bishops, which is currently meeting at Salt Lake City in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

This letter should be seen in the context of a recent public relations campaign by the General Theological Seminary promoting the seminary in its current manifestation. These posts are mostly entitled: “General Voices: Why I stand with the General Theological Seminary.” They can be viewed at this link. The Seminary has been selective in which voices it presents on this news feed. For instance the sermon by Hershey Mallette at the commencement day eucharist is not included. Thus it is appropriate that the voice of these two General Theological Seminary students get wide circulation as these other posts have.

 

“A Truthful Blue Book Report on the State of The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church”

Dear Bishops of The Episcopal Church,

We write to you as former doctoral students at General Theological Seminary (GTS) who were forced to withdraw from our programs last fall because of the administration’s mishandled response to the recent crisis at the seminary. We are concerned about the disastrous toll this crisis has taken not only on particular persons’ livelihoods and vocations at GTS but also about the future of theological education and ultimately the future of the church. Our purpose, therefore, is to offer an honest theological and ethical perspective on theological education as it is rooted in the ministry of all the baptized and to call upon you to help lead the whole church into a much needed conversation about theological education’s important place in the mission and ministry of the whole body of Christ.

You recently received a communication from eight of the bishops who sit on the Board of Trustees of GTS. That letter expressed great anxiety that the church’s ministry, across all mainline denominations, is facing a rapidly changing world to which it must readily adapt. As the bishops put it, “The Episcopal Church is not the same church it was 100, 50 or even 10 years ago. Life has changed; our context for mission and ministry have changed [sic]. Systems must be more agile, adaptive and lean.” These bishops now call upon you to join them in solidarity by justifying their actions during this crisis on the basis of a decisive need for change.

And indeed the administration of GTS has made widespread changes to the basic structures of GTS: a full tenured Faculty has been reduced almost completely to replaceable adjunct labor; an institution formerly premised on the basic baptismal notion of the collaboration of all members of the community has been transformed into an insulated hierarchy in which collaborative community has no place; the seminary now exempts itself from requirements for safe space, failing to provide basic structures of accountability for accusations of discrimination and harassment; students are now understood to be consumers, bishops and dioceses customers. Worse still, these bishops have failed to tell you the disastrous effect these changes have had on the basic building blocks of every institution: its people.

In their letter to you, the eight bishops made no mention of the great exodus of students these last few months; nothing of the fact that seven of the eight protesting Faculty are gone; nothing of the decimation of the only ThD program in an Episcopal seminary to which we are witnesses; nothing of the staggering loss of staff; nothing of the considerable financial and psychological cost their intransigence has exacted not only on students but also on their families and loved ones; nothing of the few, dejected, and considerably ill-formed MDiv, MA, and other students that remain. They know that the seminary’s substantial endowment has been egregiously mismanaged and that the incoming class of Fall 2014 was reduced by 30% by mid-semester.

Scholars, postulants for priesthood, deacons, lay theologians, spiritual directors, faculty members, and others—we all came to GTS because we discerned that this was a place committed to nurturing the flourishing of our baptismal vocations and our spiritual gifts. We believed our vocations for theological education belonged to the church and its ministry, not academia, and that GTS was the place to nourish those gifts. But the Dean and Board treated our vocations as commodities to be bought and sold. The seminary’s response to its crisis was dehumanizing to us, and it has maligned the baptismal dignity of persons involved: faculty members and students like us, as well as our spouses, partners, and children, our homes and our jobs.

Even now the seminary sends fundraising letters from current students who used to be our colleagues and other invested parties of faculty and alumni. Such responses are shortsighted, as are the “remaining faculty” whose silence allowed injustice to thrive, and the “replacement faculty” who have sought personal advancement at others’ expense. They are shortsighted and callous because they ignore the ways we, along with the Faculty, have become the collateral damage of “change,” treated as less than human, and how our families’ lives have been turned upside down. These appeals give no account of the children of faculty members and students who have been removed from their homes and their schools; how spouses and partners have lost friends, employment, and church homes; how basic spiritual discernment and even faith have been disrupted. They do not mention that some have been pushed out of the church, for good. As bishops of the church called to care for all members of Christ’s body, this should concern you greatly.

Thus, in the light of what change has meant for the real lives of people caught in the middle of this conflict, the attempt of these eight bishops to associate the crisis at GTS with an undeniable need for change, which all mainline churches are facing, is shameful in its cynicism and deceit. In no way have the actions of the Dean and Board of Trustees of GTS during this long crisis been truly concerned with the future of the church in the new mission field to which all baptized Christians are called. Rather, their actions represent the intransigence of obsolete structures operating at their very worst to bend the gospel of Jesus Christ to their own interests.

Indeed, while Dean Dunkle himself called for this same sort of change in his peculiar widely circulated letter to “the beloveds of God’s church in the world” (October 3, 2014) he also obliquely suggested that the Faculty represented “entrenched interests eager (and vocal) to return to the ‘way it used to be at General.’” By framing their letter in terms of the demand for change amidst a changing world, these eight bishops likewise intentionally cast the conflict at GTS as one between the visionary leadership of a forward-looking Dean and a recalcitrant, privileged Faculty. We can tell you, however, that this is an intentional and scandalous misrepresentation.

The vision the Faculty set forth in their Way of Wisdom declaration proposed widespread and comprehensive changes to the entire curriculum and mode of life at the seminary. Clearly the Faculty are not resistant to change; they were concerned, however, with the kind of change necessary to theological education and its place at GTS and in the wider church. Their bold and visionary declaration respected theological education as a basic gift that belongs to the ministry of all the baptized. In it, these Faculty also gave our own gifts a place, truly carving out a space for our voices and our particular ministries within the church. It is an expansive and inclusive vision. Contrast this with the administration’s diminutive vision of change—an insulated world for which GTS’s “Close,” with its wrought-iron gates, is a perfect metaphor—which is fixated on a leadership of exception and domination and workers as cheap, replaceable labor.

Misrepresenting the truth of the situation at GTS, as these eight bishops and other recent communications from the seminary have done, helps no one. It further empowers a floundering and aimless Dean and Board of Trustees, while specifically inhibiting the kind of true healing that is necessary at GTS. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents us from having the more pressing conversation about the real integrity of theological education within the mission of the church and its importance to our future. This is a conversation we as lay theologians are eager to engage in, and one to which the Faculty at GTS offered a comprehensive vision in their Way of Wisdom declaration. Unfortunately, that vision was largely silenced by the leadership of the seminary.

Our common calling in baptism carries specific ethical obligations. As we seek to be faithful to the mission of God in this world, we all vow in baptism to seek justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. In doing so, we align our lives with the most basic dictum of Israel’s Torah: God’s gratuitous creation of humanity in the image and likeness of the living God. In Genesis, that image is tied in a special way to our work, the charge we are given to tend and nurture the flourishing of creation and one another’s lives. What is often translated as our “having dominion” over creation really means we are to attend to the world’s needs, to sustain it and the lives of our fellow creatures. That labor is what God’s image in us is.

This is why Scripture speaks so passionately against the mistreatment and exploitation of laborers. When our work is most free, most vitally alive, then the image of God is most fully realized and creation itself flourishes. But the oppression, frustration, or exploitation of laborers and their work not only hinders life but assaults human dignity and, by extension, God’s good creation. Laborers share in God’s own creative labor. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that any attempt to connect the kind of change God wants for us to the exploitation and mistreatment of human labor is simply a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.

Sabbath is thus more than rest from labor; it is the celebration that reveals our sharing in God’s eternal delight in creating (Exod 31:15). We attend especially to the needs of the “poor” and “oppressed,” the “orphaned” and “widowed,” the “stranger” because they are the ones for whom we labor. They are the ones most likely to be forgotten or shut out from the dignified care of creation. Managers are commanded not to withhold wages until morning because to do so, as Leviticus says, is to “steal from” (“oppress,” “extort”) the laborer (Lev 19:13). Isaiah insists that religious practices are meaningless when coupled with the unjust treatment of workers (Isa 58:3). The New Testament is no different. James commands Christians not to extort wages because the cries of the worker goes immediately to God’s ears (Jas 5:4). Jesus comes announcing the light burden of those who bear his yoke. Indeed, the very biblical vision of salvation is summarized in the moment when shalom and justice (or fairness) kiss each other (Ps 85:10). In the economy of God’s work of salvation, no labor is truly for “buying” and “selling” but exists only for the proliferation of God’s shalom. Shalom is not simply “peace” (or the absence of conflict) but the active presence of restoration, renewal, righteousness, justice—the wholeness of relationship. Unfair and inequitable treatment of workers is a sin against God’s shalom, a violation of human dignity, and so of God’s creation.

All catholic Christian communities acknowledge the importance of this link between labor and the image of God, and so also the place of labor rights in social ethics. Vatican II’s Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), for example, declares: “Among the basic rights of [the human person] (personae humanae) is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people” (III.2.68), linking this basic right explicitly to the dignity of the image of God (I.12). Our own General Convention has passed numerous recent resolutions, echoing Gaudium et Spes (see, e.g., resolutions 2006-C008, 2006-A125, 2006-D047, 2009- D039, 2009-C083, 2009-D032, and especially 2012-D028). Indeed, our Book of Common Prayer clearly affirms that that our social obligations are inseparable from our daily life as baptized Christians.

If this is the guiding vision of Scripture, our Christian heritage, and our common baptismal vocation; if this is the vision that stands at the root of the basic ethical teaching of the Christian church; if this is what God wills for those who labor to proclaim salvation—how, may we ask, is it possible that the Christian men and women of General’s Board of Trustees, some of them bishops of the church, have treated us, other students and staff, and especially the protesting Faculty as they have?

It is this biblical ethics that the Board has most egregiously distorted in their treatment of the Faculty. Having sought respectfully and discreetly to correct the breakdown in their working relationship with the Dean, and under conditions that they found increasingly unbearable, the Faculty were ignored or rebuffed. Warning leaders on repeated occasions that the situation was reaching a breaking point, no action was taken. And when they finally acted in such a way that they could no longer be ignored, asking simply that the Board meet with them, they were summarily fired. That decision cannot plausibly be defended as consistent with Christian witness, theology, ethics, or the church’s mission. It is, by all scriptural accounts, a violation of the dignity of the image of God, pure and simple.

These facts are of special concern to us as doctoral students at GTS. Because we are lay theologians, the spiritual gifts bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit at baptism are for teaching and service to the church through theological education. This is our work as baptized members of Christ’s body. These gifts and that work belong in the church. It is the only place they can truly thrive. However, the actions of the seminary’s leadership this year have said to the whole church that these gifts are superfluous, expendable products to be bought and sold like commodities. They have turned away our deepest desires to serve Christ in the church and the world, and have left us to fend for ourselves.

In her recent Commencement Address at GTS, the Presiding Bishop praised this leadership, saying that sometimes we need “reckless” leaders to make the changes necessary for our survival in the future. Dear bishops, the kind of change enacted by the Dean, Board, and these eight bishops, including the Presiding Bishop, requires us all to be willing publicly to embrace the violation of the most basic dignity of human life as revealed to us in Scripture, to build a future for our church that explicitly refuses to participate in God’s own way of working and creating. It is a church in which our gifts have no place; where we are expendable and our labor is exploited; where, instead of being integral members of the Body of Christ, we are all of us reduced to numbers in an accounting ledger, customers and consumers only. Such a future is opposed to all that we are as The Episcopal Church. It is opposed to the ethical orientation of our common baptism. It is opposed to Scripture and God’s will for the church’s mission in the world.

Here, we commend to you once again the faculty’s Way of Wisdom declaration as a true, biblical vision of change. They claim that truly transformative change in theological education will actively reconnect with the life of the church in order to recover its purpose within the mission and ministry of all the baptized. It will reject the false separation of spiritual life from theological reflection because it has distorted the purpose of teaching in the Church’s life and damaged the formation of laypersons, priests, and bishops. It will promote collaborative work across the whole church to promote an integration of theological education with the mission and ministry of the whole church, an extension of our baptismal mission in the world.

Baptismal life is in fact our most basic vocation as Christians. Martin Luther said that baptism, though it only happens once, is a reality we never get beyond, but is a daily “dying and rising” with Christ. The Spirit richly bestows distinct gifts on the whole church in the baptisms of each one of us. Those who receive gifts for theological education fulfill their baptismal calling in their labor of service to the whole church. The church has no other mission than to deepen and expand the ministry these gifts support. Not even ordination transcends our basic baptismal calling, but only deepens it. In this water-bath of rebirth, we all set our faces with Jesus toward Jerusalem, marked with his cross forever. And marked as his own, we are never free to commend any system that impugns this basic baptismal vocation. We are not free to define “value” in any other terms.

Two paths stand before us: one paved by the labor of all the baptized, the other by those who claim power and use it to perpetuate outdated systems that rule our world. What kind of future our church will have depends on the kind of change we now enact. For we have much to give the church that is built up by our common baptismal labor; indeed, we will give the whole of our lives and all that we are. If the future of the church lies with the vision of change offered by the Dean, the eight bishops, and the Board of GTS, then our work, our lives, our families, our wellbeing, they are all as expendable as these eight brave faulty members. We pray you will choose the way of wisdom.

With urgency and in the Peace of Christ,

J. David Belcher and Shane R. Brinegar

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

A Sermon for Father’s Day, June 24, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

When I was little, I went out for a fishing trip with my father, my uncle and three cousins, in my Dad’s small boat. The lake we were on is a large, local reservoir, probably about one quarter the size of the Sea of Galilee. The sky was perfectly clear blue that afternoon, but while we were out on the lake, way over to the southwest a little tiny dark gray spot appeared.  Out there in the desert, you don’t get long lasting, heavy rainstorms, but when a thunderstorm hits, it is violent. So, while we were paying attention to our fishing, and with the adults trying to keep us kids from falling out of the boat, we were surprised by a sudden, dark sky and the crack of thunder. As the wind rose and the waves got big, my father was just barely able to get the boat’s motor started. He pointed the boat straight at the closest point of land, just about the furthest point on the shore from where we had put the boat in.  The boat hit the shore still going its maximum speed and immediately filled with water.

Dad and some other stranded boaters built a big fire and we got dried out and eventually got back home safely.  Though I really wasn’t old enough to appreciate the situation fully, it’s very scary to be out there on the water in a storm.  Not to mention dangerous.  The disciples out on the Sea of Galilee didn’t even have a 35 horsepower Evinrude motor to push them toward shore in that storm. They were experienced enough to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.  And there was Jesus, asleep in the bow of the boat.

When I first started thinking about this sermon, I thought I would have some fun talking about sleepy Jesus and Father’s Day. Then I woke up on Thursday morning and looked at the news. Nine people in Charleston, South Carolina—murdered. Why? Well, they were studying the Bible and praying.  And they were members of an African Methodist Episcopal congregation that has stood up, and spoken up, for the dignity and rights of African Americans for over two hundred years.

I would like to say that that is unthinkable. I would like to say that it is not possible. I would like to say that I know why Jesus was asleep in the front of that boat. But I can’t.  Yes, maybe the kid is crazy. So his father gave him the money for a .45 automatic for his birthday.  I would like to say that racism is a thing of the past, but all the evidence is to the contrary. About seven years ago, this country elected a black president.  Many of us saw it as a sign of hope and change in this country. Yet since then, the voices and actions of racial hatred have become increasingly overt. Responding to the possibility of the loss of white racial dominance, hatred has come to the fore. I wish I didn’t see it. I wish it was so distant that I could say that it was only a few out on the edges, who none of us really ever run into. But that would mean that I would have to say that I don’t know the people I grew up with. People who believe that they have to preserve a “way of life,” and that way of life includes lots of guns and mostly people who look the same as they did when I grew up out there in Idaho.

“Jesus, why are you asleep? Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

We are afraid, much as the disciples were. And we grieve. And we fear for the future, for our children and grandchildren.  This is a country where civil discourse has broken down. People respond to concerns about insecurity with selfishness, and to worries about violence with terrorism. This must stop. This country must change.

On this Father’s Day, I remember my own father, who died 10 years ago this month. For him, being a father was about loving and enjoying children and giving them a model of dignity and respect. When there was any sort of emergency or crisis, his first response was to protect the children—even though some people might not recognize that was what he was doing when he was focusing on getting that cranky outboard motor to start in that thunderstorm.

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney (1973-2015) Senior Pastor, Mother Emanuel AME Church,  Charleston, SC State Senator, South Carolina 45th District

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney (1973-2015)
Senior Pastor, Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
State Senator, South Carolina 45th District

Likewise, the witness of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina has always been to foster the dignity, respect and well being of the African-American community in South Carolina.  The Reverend Clementa Pinckney and his companions were not the first members of that congregation who suffered and died, witnessing for the Gospel and the dignity of every human being. He was a father to two daughters, as well as serving and caring for Mother Emanuel AME Church. His ministry included being a state senator, because there is much work to be done in that state for legislation to protect the dignity and safety of all people. On this Father’s Day, let us remember that it is the vocation of fathers, as well as all of the rest of us, to have the courage to do the right thing, to stand up to protect those who are vulnerable, particularly when we have reason to be afraid ourselves.

The way of Jesus is always the way of the cross, even when it doesn’t fit with our liturgical calendar. Sometimes it looks like he is asleep in the bow of the boat when we want him, need him, to be awake. In the turmoil and storm of our emotions, he says, “Peace! Be still.” There is much left to do, and it requires faith, calm, and resolve.

From today’s psalm:

They beheld the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.

Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose which tossed high the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths; their hearts melted   because of their peril.

They reeled and staged like drunkards and were at their wits end.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them from their distress.

He stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.

Then were they glad because of the calm, and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children.

 

The seed would sprout and grow

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 14, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

This parable from our Gospel lesson is only one sentence long, but it contains a lot. The Kingdom of God—that is our relationship with God. It necessarily includes our relationships with everyone and everything else. The whole of the Gospel and our experience as Christians can be seen as an attempt to understand, explain, and live the Kingdom of God.

In this first parable in our lesson Jesus makes it both very easy and very challenging for us. The Kingdom of God is easy because this person just throws out some seed and it sprouts. This may seem over-simple, and perhaps it is. But life is always a gift, we don’t make it, it appears, often despite us. And the Kingdom of God—the web of love—is purely God’s grace, the product of God’s love, not the efforts of anyone. The farmer puts out the seed and life emerges from it, we do not know how, and learning and studying biology doesn’t solve the riddle, it just leads us deeper into the mystery of the emergence of life.

Anyone who has farmed or gardened knows that there is a lot of work involved in growing things and taking advantage of the good things that sprout. Cultivating the soil, making sure there is water enough but not too much, finding places to plant that have the right amount of sunlight, removing unwanted weeds. Yet any farmer knows, you also have to wait, and you just don’t know.

When I was a little kid, I wanted to grow a garden. So my parents found a little place over by the fence at the edge of our yard and helped me dig it up so there was soft soil there, and we went and picked out some seeds. I had to settle for radish seeds and lettuce seeds, because other vegetables would take too long to grow for my level of patience, or would take more space or special preparation to grow the vegetables. (I think they steered me away from zucchini because they didn’t want to deal with a superabundance of squash, but maybe I just didn’t like to eat it.) I remember going out every day to check my little garden. It was frustrating and a little frightening to go out every day, maybe two or three times a day, to see if anything was growing. SeedlingsThat amount of attention makes it seem like forever before those first two little leaflets appear suddenly one morning, poking out of the ground. No matter what we do, or what we come to know, the growth of our food and the sustenance of life is a gift and a mystery.

So often we expect that gift, and we want to claim that gift from God, that we forget about the waiting. In this little parable, it says, the person “would scatter the seed on the ground and would sleep and rise, night and day…” Not just overnight, but night and day, and again—just like me and my radishes—poking around, trying to find one big enough to harvest and have my trophy. The Kingdom of God is coming; indeed it is here, yet it doesn’t emerge on our timetable, or for our personal convenience. Our relationships with others and with God emerge, the shape of our individual lives, and the shape of our life together emerge in ways that we could never predict. God’s love is here—but in the shape that God gives to it and on God’s timetable.

The Kingdom of God is a gift to us all, and it is easy, even for the simplest and most humble; but it is also a challenge, especially to those of us who are not so humble or simple. Jesus says that his Kingdom is scattered on the ground, and it grows even though we don’t understand how. How often do we decide, “I know how to do this better…” or, “I understand this, and this is how things have to come out?” It’s one thing to make plans, to choose the appropriate seed, plant at the right time, till the soil according to good and established practices, but it is yet another to think that we have the outcome under our control.

As engaged as we are, with one another—in our life at work, with the members of our families, or in shaping our church—the outcomes are always uncertain and not under our control. This is difficult, because we want to use our gifts, our intelligence, and our hard work to make things come out right. Indeed, the hard work and commitment of Christian people does make things come out right—it’s just that the way things come out is not under our control—and the shape of the plant that sprouts and grows may be completely unlike what we thought we planted.

Thy kingdom come.

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

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

 

My brother and sister and mother

A sermon for the Second Sunday after  Pentecost, June 7, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place early in Jesus’ public ministry. Controversy already surrounded him, because he cast out demons, he kept company with sinners, and he healed people on the Sabbath. These things challenged the established religious authorities, and made those who were in power uncomfortable—Jesus was not under their control and he appealed to many poor and ordinary people. As Jesus cured people and set them free from their demons, these authorities came up with the idea that he was a trickster, who was himself a demon or serving the purposes of demons. Thus they sought to deflect any focus on their own shortcomings, or indeed the ways in which they cooperated with the evil forces in their world—the occupying Roman armies, the wealthy exploiting and oppressing the poor—by tagging Jesus with being the servant of Beelzebul or Satan.

Jesus and his disciples had gone to the mountains to get away from the crowds, to reflect and to get organized. As soon as they got back home, the crowds were back, pressing on them so close that they couldn’t even sit down to eat. The scene is pretty chaotic. It is like many such scenes in our own lives, where elements are scrambled together, we don’t experience them in a simple sequence, and the interpretations of what happens bump up against one another.

There are two separate but interrelated strands to today’s story—one the strand where the scribes from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of casting out spirits by means of an evil spirit, and the other where Jesus’ relatives come and try to take him away and calm things down. Families who love a person look out for their welfare and aren’t afraid to express their concerns. Of course, in some cases they might be influenced by things that others are saying, even by others who don’t have their family member’s best interest at heart. And looking at what was happening with Jesus, wouldn’t it be reasonable for his relatives to think, “If he keeps this up, he might get himself crucified?”

But the scribes came down from Jerusalem to accuse Jesus of being allied with the bad spirits. This is the controversy that wraps around everything in this story. Jesus response is to the scribes, not to the family—he’s talking about by what spirit he does what he does. He casts out demons and heals the sick by the Holy Spirit. He brings the forgiveness of everyone’s sins by the Holy Spirit. The Lord comes like a thief in the night and ties up Satan by the Holy Spirit, and sets free those who have been the slaves of the evil spirits.

In Jesus, the Holy Spirit bursts out into the world, bringing healing and hope. Manipulating the rules and crushing the truth in order to stop the movement of the Holy Spirit are what Jesus is referring to when he says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

There is lots of speculation about what the “Sin against the Holy Spirit” is, but it is not really such a mystery—the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is opposition to the life and forgiveness that Jesus brings. We should not think of this as mechanical or a one time thing—being opposed to eternal life is eternal death, seeking to undermine God’s little ones, and deny them the mercy that Jesus brings, separates one from that very mercy, the source of our life.

And we should be careful not to confuse our own ideas with the movement of the Holy Spirit. People say: I feel great, so this must be the Holy Spirit. And if someone disagrees with me about what’s making me feel great, then they must be against the Holy Spirit. This is not what Jesus is referring to. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the self-giving of God, there is nothing self-indulgent or selfish in it. The spirit of Jesus is all generosity and welcome—forgiveness for sinners and rest for the weary. When we live in the Holy Spirit, it is not about how good things are for us, but how welcoming God is for others.

ECW TeaSo Jesus’ family came, and they were worried for him. It is only when we understand the true bonds of family that we can appreciate how difficult this situation was for them. This son and brother is being accused of all sorts of things, and it’s clear that he is doing things that they, his sisters and brothers and mother, would never have done. Is he crazy? Possessed? Let’s go get him and take care of him. That is the love of families. Yet he remains inside the house. Not because he did not love his family, not because he was having such a great time partying—remember it said that he couldn’t even sit down and eat with his friends. He was there to give of himself, to welcome, forgive, and to heal. That’s hard enough for any of us to understand, even family. He gives himself and includes all in his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Thus Jesus casts out the unclean spirits by the Holy Spirit. And as Paul says in his letter to the church at Corinth which was read this morning: “Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

 

Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the feast of the name of this congregation, our patronal festival, if you will. But the Trinity is not a traditional patron saint, the Trinity is the Christian understanding of the nature of God. So what is that? The Trinity is often explained in such confusing ways that we can be left with the impression that it is only to be understood by high flown theologians, and perhaps it is only relevant to them. This could not be further from the truth. The understanding of the Holy Trinity is only for the humble—the confusion comes when we try to control the infinite God by subtle and crafty explanations. There is nothing more relevant to everyday people than the God who creates and rules over all, who is also present among us, suffering with us and guiding us in his love among us.

The foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity is the faith of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is one God, and only the one true God is worthy of worship. This has always been the Christian affirmation—we worship the one God, the God of truth. It is not a matter of anything goes, whatever opinion anybody has, or whatever godlike thing they want to follow this week. We are all accountable to the one God, the God of truth.

And yet, no one has ever seen God; no one controls God or prescribes to the all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God what God may or may not do. The God of truth is beyond our self-interested descriptions of God.

So we find Isaiah in the temple, probably quite a young person, about 2,750 years ago. He had a vision: six-winged seraphs and smoke filling the temple. He was afraid, and rightly so: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The unseen God, the creator of all, has appeared to him—the holiness of God might well destroy him. The holiness of God is not to be trifled with, God is not to be described according what human beings think would be good, for those notions almost always emerge from human selfishness—“I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Our lesson from this morning comes from the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. One thing to note is that the books of the prophets aren’t presented in a linear fashion. The first five chapters actually happen after the time when the sixth chapter takes place—after Uzziah, the King of Judah had died.

Uzziah was king for a long time, perhaps half a century or so, and during that time there was relative stability in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. After his death, many things happened—about 20 years later the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and a century of wars followed, ending in the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile of much of the population of the southern kingdom of Judah. What is described in the first five chapters of Isaiah is the social injustice in Israel following Uzziah’s death, the lack of accountability of its leaders.

There are recurring phrases from the first five chapters: “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” Or: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you…!” The prophet speaks the oracles of God, condemning these abuses of power and wealth.  The prophet of truth speaks these words of the true God, the false prophets would do what they could to make the wealthy and powerful more comfortable. Isaiah is aware of himself, his own inclination to participate in the sinful, self-serving speech that is characteristic of human beings: “I live among a people of unclean lips.”

What I am trying to put forward here is a humble doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not that we are somehow better because of the Trinity—that our belief automatically means that we are free from all the inclinations to be unjust that Isaiah is railing against. What it means is that we are humbly, before God, confessing Christ.

There is one God, the God of truth and justice. You shall not bow down to idols or make up other kinds of supernatural justifications for what you want.

How do we know that one God? With Isaiah, there is a pretty striking image: one of the Seraphs takes tongs and picks up a burning coal from the altar. ThuribleAs if Mr. Emmanuel reached into the thurible and pulled out a piece of the charcoal that burns the incense and brought those tongs up to the altar rail where you are kneeling. Fortunately, Malcolm Emmanuel is not a seraph and God does not choose today to call us by touching our lips with the live coal like he did with Isaiah. We receive something else at the altar rail.

Christians have always affirmed that there is one god, the True God, who was from the beginning, before all things. But Christians also know God in the person of Jesus the Christ, who lived among us as the truth. The distinction between Jesus and every other human being is not something magic, but that rather than being a man of unclean lips, seeking to twist the truth to serve himself, Jesus was God’s love for us. This was not just the appearance of God walking on earth, but God whose love made him as close to us and as vulnerable as any human being. He lived in love and healed the sick, and the uncleanness and selfishness of human beings caused him to be killed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is how we Christians try to make sense of our experience of the God of Truth, so distant and so close, so powerful and so vulnerable. It is not that we are smarter, or have philosophically more powerful arguments than non-Christians, it is not that our explanations end all discussion or argument. We teach and we believe that the God of Love has come among us, and that is the reality that we have to talk about. God touched Isaiah with a burning coal, he touches us with the real presence of Jesus Christ. His love is among us is the Holy Spirit. Even among those of us who know that we are people of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips, the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth, the Truth of the God of Love.

As St. Paul says in today’s lesson from his letter to the church at Rome: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”